6 Scenic Midwest Road Trips for Outdoorsy Families

Go beyond the usual tourist traps and embrace the Great Outdoors with these Midwest road trip adventures for families.
family on Midwest vacation building a sandcastle on the beach
Photo: VisitLakeGeneva.com

If you live in the middle of the country, taking Midwest road trips are a great way to stretch your family vacation budget by sticking close to your home state while still spending time together someplace new. More than just a rite of passage, family road trips are all about the journey. And for outdoorsy families, they’re also an affordable way to discover new hiking trails, lakes, and waterfalls together.

Midwest Road Trips for Families Who Love the Great Outdoors

To explore the best scenic byways in the Midwest with your kids, start with these six Midwest road trip ideas and weekend getaways that go beyond the usual tourist spots like Branson, Chicago, and Mount Rushmore.

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1. Hocking Hills, Ohio

Old Mans Cave Upper Falls in Hocking Hills (Photo: Explore Hocking Hills)
Kids love the hike to Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills (Photo: Explore Hocking Hills)

About an hour southeast of Columbus, the rolling terrain and awe-inspiring hiking trails of Hocking Hills State Park and Hocking Hills State Forest await family road-trippers. This is one of the best Midwest road trips if you’re looking for trickling waterfalls, Black Hand Sandstone bluffs, recess caves, and so much eye candy that your kids might forget all about their screens—for a little while, at least. Hocking Hills is green and gorgeous over spring break and summer vacation, while the fall vacation period bursts with burgundy and gold and winter vacations are a frozen wonderland.

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A Midwest road trip to Hocking Hills is all about family time and outdoor adventures surrounded by natural beauty. There are options for zip lining, canoeing, horseback riding, and river tubing. At High Rock Adventures eco-tours, thrill-seekers can squeeze through tight rock formations and cross narrow bridges. My family’s favorite hike is to Old Man’s Cave, where you can cross a stone bridge, view Devil’s Bathtub tiered waterfall, pass gorges, and also learn about the hermit that made the cave his home in the early 1800s.

Cabins, lodges, and unique Hocking Hills accommodations are sprinkled throughout the area. The Hocking Hills Caboose guest cottage is a great place to cap off a day of driving across the Midwest.

2. Galena, Illinois

In the rolling hills of northwest Illinois sits historic Galena, a small town about 2.5 hours from Chicago where more than 85 percent of the buildings are listed on the National Historic Register. An easy day trip from the Windy City, here you can tour the home of the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Or, if you love to swing a club, head to Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa for its four different golf courses. Chestnut Mountain Resort is a perennial family favorite, with an alpine slide, zip line, Segway tours, and skiing.

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One of the most unusual activities you can enjoy on this Midwest road trip is trekking with goats. Curious goats wander alongside you on an hour-long amble through Hoof It Goat Treks’ wooded property. The cutest part is watching the goats forage amongst the trees and then trot to catch up with the group.

You can also hike the many trails in Galena or at nearby Mississippi Palisades State Park, along the Mississippi River. Canoeing, kayaking, and paddle boarding are fun ways to get out on the water. Electric fat tire biking is a fun way to ride the hilly terrain.

3. Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

Rediscover why lake life is the best life at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. This dragon-shaped body of water is home to a bounty of recreational activities, waterfront restaurants, and a freshly renovated resort. Boating, fishing, golfing, and paddle boarding are popular family activities.

Tee up for some golf on The 9 Hole or sink a put at any of the 13 golf courses in the area. Go spelunking at Bridal Cave (where couples in the 1800s used to crawl into it to get married, and which today remains one of the best places to explore with your sweetie on any Midwest road trip). Kids can mine for gems while you await your tour. Ha Ha Tonka State Park can be enjoyed by nature enthusiasts, history buffs, and storybook revelers alike as you explore castle ruins from the early 20th century.

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The area’s fabulous outdoor water park, called Big Surf, is a great way to spend a hot summer day cooling off. I’ve never heard a higher-pitched scream come out of my husband’s mouth than when he whipped down three-story tall Zambezi Falls. I went to the top twice and couldn’t do it, so that’s a testament to his bravery. Our kids loved the flume slides and the wave pool.

Revamped in 2019, Margaritaville Lake Resort is the perfect place for families to relax. The resort has an outstanding list of amenities, like a marina with watercraft rentals, an indoor water park, horse stable, mini golf, bowling, several outdoor pools, and an arcade.

4. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Family on a Midwest vacation walking down a dock with treats
You can rent a pontoon boat to explore Lake Geneva (Photo: VisitLakeGeneva.com)

Year-round family fun awaits in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, one of the best Midwest road trip ideas for families. Kids love Timber Ridge Lodge and Waterpark while parents appreciate the fantastic brunches, spa, and golf at Grand Geneva Resort and Spa.

Alpacas, camels, and emus wander the drive-thru wildlife preserve at Safari Lake Geneva, coming up to your car to say hello and munch on a snack. Purchase a bucket of grain and feed them from the safety of your car window. The animals’ hijinks are sure to crack up your crew.

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Splash into summer by renting a boat from the numerous marinas around town. Our family’s favorite pontoon rental was from Lake Lawn Resort. The boat was in wonderful condition and our kids had a blast tubing all afternoon.

You can explore the spectacular Ice Castles in winter, with tubular tunnels you can climb through, icy slides, and LED lights to illuminate your path. And if you have a family of skiers (even beginners), head to The Mountain Top Ski Resort for 20 downhill trails designed with even the smallest skiers in mind.

5. Fort Wayne, Indiana

Affordable urban outdoor adventures abound in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose Promenade Park is an award-winning riverfront destination worthy of any Midwest road trip. Kids can hop across rocks in the Kids’ Canal or glide down a giant slide at the playground. Take a stroll on the Treetop Canopy Trail or hunt for murals on the public art trail. Ping pong, foosball, and cornhole tables are available for you to get your game on. Rent a kayak and paddle the three rivers of Fort Wayne or simply swing on a porch swing (possibly with a brew in hand from the beer garden).

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Fort Wayne’s boutique hotel The Bradley features the designs of Vera Bradley co-founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard in its modern fabrics and craft cocktails. Fort Wayne is the home and corporate headquarters of Vera Bradley, and if you have a hankering for some of her handbags or luggage the Vera Bradley Outlet boasts a annual sale each spring.

Families will enjoy the shopping and dining at The Landing in Fort Wayne. Farm-to-table restaurant Tolon is a tour de force for your tastebuds. Young baseball fans will also enjoy a TinCaps minor league baseball game, where the mascot is a nod to Johnny Appleseed, who spent his final years in Fort Wayne.

6. Traverse City, Michigan

Wineries such as Black Star Farms in Traverse City are actively working to appeal to families (Photo: Traverse City Tourism)
Wineries such as Black Star Farms in Traverse City are actively working to appeal to families (Photo: Traverse City Tourism)

Life is a bowl of cherries in Traverse City, Michigan, where the sweet crimson fruit is king and the outdoors are a playground ripe for exploring. The area’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a Midwest road trip destination not to be missed (especially in the springtime). The giant sweeping sand mountains offer an enjoyable workout as you run, climb, and slide to the powerful payoff of deep blue Lake Michigan views.

The National Cherry Festival is held each July. Even if you can’t make it, you can still taste cherries all over town in salads, burgers, and baked goods. Top cherry picks include the chocolate cherry turtle treats from Cherry Republic and the cherry crumb pie from the Grand Traverse Pie Company. Craft brews and regional wines are also big in Traverse City.

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You can bike, hike, fish, swim, and sail the summer days away. Located on the 45th Parallel, Traverse City’s mid-summer days feel especially long and bright, offering even more sunny hours for outside fun. In winter, you can downhill ski or snowboard at Crystal Mountain or Shanty Creek Resort.

Stay at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, a sprawling resort with three golf courses, a private beach club, and an indoor water park. Unwind in the rejuvenating spa and dine with dreamy panoramic views of the Grand Traverse Bay at the exceptional Aerie Restaurant and Lounge.

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Cortney Fries
Cortney Fries is a seasoned travel journalist, with her writing and expertise appearing in Redbook, MSN, Parents, FamilyVacationist, Family Vacation Critic, Chicago Parent, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and several AAA magazines. Exploring the outdoors, learning, and trying new things are her favorite activities, best accompanied by family and friends. When she’s not hiking, sleeping in an ice hotel, or soaking up different cultures, she can be found cooking and creating with her husband and two children in the Chicago area.