5 of the Best National Parks That Aren’t “National Parks” in the Upper Midwest

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If you’re overlooking NPS units in favor of only national parks, trust us, you’re missing out.

While the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) manages 59 National Parks, the NPS also maintains 354 other sites that are collectively called “national parks.” These remaining lowercase parks comprise of everything from a room in Philadelphia (Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial) to 1,542,776 acres of desert (Mojave National Preserve), and hundreds of other designations diverse in both attributes and titles.

While some of those sites sound like you’d expect (the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site is a house), others, like White Sands National Monument and its 143,000 acres of crystal white sand dunes, are a little less obvious. Helping expose people to these 354 lesser-known sites is one of the goals of my three-year world record road trip to all 413 U.S. National Park Service sites (big N and little n parks all included) in an effort to explore and share all of America’s natural wonders.

After crisscrossing the Upper Midwest in the first few months of my journey, I’ve selected five of my favorite national parks in the region to add to your bucket list.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Word on the street is that this NPS site is lobbying to be converted to a National Park. This re-designation is commonplace in the park system (take Acadia National Park for example), but Indiana Dunes certainly has footing to stand on—at least very sandy footing.

These 15 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan’s southern tip make Chicago and all its urbanity feel like a far-off world, even as its skyline looms in the distance. It’s that proximity that makes Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore so special. Unlike most natural wonders that are multiple-hour drives from major population centers, residents of the greater Chicago area can take public transportation and reach the site within an hour.

Once there, the miles of bike trails, recreational options like kiteboarding or surfing, and the hiking of seemingly endless dunes, means you can fill an entire weekend with activities inside the park’s 15,000 acres. And with $18-a-night camping available inside the park’s borders, it’s an affordable getaway as well.

[Top Hike] Right next door to the national lakeshore, Trail 9 in Indiana Dunes State Park leads you through 3.6 miles of forest, dunes, and dramatic views of Lake Michigan.

Grand Portage National Monument

Tucked all the way in the northeastern tip of Minnesota, you’ve either got to weave across roads in the dense Superior National Forest, or drive 145 miles from Duluth to access Grand Portage. However, trust me, the park is worth the journey. If you're coming from the West, you can include a stop at Voyageurs National Park en route, and if you're headed up from Duluth, the three hours along Lake Superior’s coast are a transformative experience that will leave you mesmerized by the iron-rich hills hugging the water.

Once at the Monument, there are two trails that provide stunning views of an old French fur trading post and the bay that made the location so attractive. The Mount Rose Trail provides a quick, 30-minute paved hike for anyone who wants a simple view of the fort and bay. But for those who are a little more adventurous, the Grand Portage Bay Overlook hike provides not only a bay view, but a mountaintop, 360-degree vista of Lake Superior, Superior National Forest, and Canada’s Pigeon River Provincial Park.

Another benefit to Grand Portage is that it’s one of two ports for passenger boats to Isle Royale National Park. So whether as a bonus park to Isle Royale or Voyageurs, or a trip of its own merit, Grand Portage National Monument makes the cut.

[Top Hike] One and a half hours on the Grand Portage Bay Overlook hike leads you to a crumbling lookout tower and some of the best lake and forest views in northern Minnesota.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Top on that list for any kayak enthusiast is Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Unlike its sister lakeshore parks, this one provides the opportunity to get up close and personal with the rocky carvings formed by the power of waves. That proximity allows for a number of chances to kayak under arches that will leave you amazed by their height.

In the winter, thousands of icicles frame the Mainland Sea Ice Caves (closed for the 2016 season) and many of the trails are open to snowshoers.

[Top Hike] The Lakeshore features the less-traveled trail via Meyers Beach. There, explore the lake ridge from the cliffs above.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

If you're after colorful cliffs and big-wave lakes, this Lakeshore is your Disneyworld.

You can see this park’s namesake rocks from the mainland—and from the water. Pictured Rocks Cruises offers multiple boats throughout the day, but after experiencing both a daytime and evening cruise, I'd say the Sunset Cruise is the most photo-friendly option.

In colder months, see the sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, and Lake Superior from the shore via hikes and snowshoeing trails. Walk through forests and see the coldest and deepest of the Great Lakes from many angles.

[Top Hike] The 10.8-mile-long trail Chapel Basin crosses a river and leads you to more than one beach where you'll see the streaked, colorful sandstone cliffs made up of a rainbow of minerals.

Below Miners Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Seven image panorama.

A photo posted by Andrew Flees (@andrewfleesphoto) on

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

What makes Northern Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes so magnificent is that, unlike many other parks that offer only a handful of stunning vistas, this one features more than I could ever write about in one article. Whether taking in the easily-drivable views of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, discovering a shipwreck on South Manitou Island, catching a sunset at Pyramid Point, or even hiking an unmarked trail, you will continually be awed by one view after another as you contemplate why this, and the other national parks on this list, haven’t been given more love.

[Top Hike] Experience miles of dunes with lakeside views as you climb up and down the most popular trail in the park. Dunes Trail is the place to get a little sandy and see what makes Sleeping Bear Dunes one of my favorite parks in the Midwest.

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