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Check these Midwest adventures off your bucket list

One of Silver Dollar City’s 7 roller coasters, the high-flying Wildfire features a 15-story vertical drop and 5 inversions. Photo courtesy Silver Dollar City

The lazy, hazy days of summer stretch out before us, lulling us with their golden promises of fun in the sun and warm-weather adventures. But before we know it, the leaves will be changing colors. Summer always slips by too quickly.

To make the most of these sunny days, plan some outings rather than waiting for inspiration to strike. Start with these bucket list ideas for places across the Midwest that are worth the time and effort. The eclectic mix includes road trips, outdoor recreation, and historic luxury—with a hearty dose of water. Consider adding some of these items to your own summer vacation to-do list.

The Great River Road

Southwest Illinois

The riverfront seen from Great River Road

The scenic Great River Road in southwest Illinois passes between limestone bluffs and views of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Photo courtesy Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau of Southwest Illinois

The Great River Road roams along the mighty Mississippi River for approximately 3,000 miles through 10 states.

A proper tour of the route, which is a trip through history as well as a scenic drive, could fill weeks. If you only have a few days, start just north of St. Louis and focus on the 33-mile section in southwest Illinois from Hartford to Pere Marquette State Park. This portion overlaps the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.

Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower

Enjoy a stunning perspective from atop the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower. Photo courtesy Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau of Southwest Illinois

About 2 miles south of Hartford, get a bird’s-eye view of the area from the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, which overlooks where the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River. Ride the elevators up and take in the remarkable perspective from 50, 100, and 150 feet. Adults, $6.50.

As you head north, don’t miss historic Elsah; the entire village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nineteenth-century houses line narrow streets in this town that was voted the most scenic spot in Illinois several years ago.

Farther north, you’ll come to Pere Marquette State Park, where the Civilian Conservation Corps built a beautiful stone-and-log lodge in the 1930s. After walking the trails through lush forests and rugged hills, dig in to some of the lodge’s famous fried chicken.

You may also like: 10 scenic byways you absolutely should drive

Indiana Dunes National Park

Porter, Indiana

Sunset at Indiana Dunes National Park

Follow 50 miles of trails through Indiana Dunes National Park’s shifting sand dunes, woodlands, wetlands, and prairies. Photo by Rafi Wilkinson

Indiana likely isn’t top of mind when people think of sand, but maybe it should be. Hugging the southern tip of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park preserves a wealth of rugged dunes and beaches. With more than 1,100 native plant species, the 15,000-acre park is also one of the country’s most biologically rich pockets.

Headquartered in Porter, the long and narrow park stretches from Gary north to Michigan City. Fifty miles of trails offer hiking, horseback riding, and cycling opportunities as well as world-class bird-watching. From building sandcastles to exploring peaceful forests and tranquil wetlands, activities in the park provide experiences that appeal to all ages. $25 per vehicle; $15 for those walking or bicycling into the park.

You may also like: Explore Indiana Dunes: One of America’s newest national parks

French Lick Resort

French Lick, Indiana

West Baden Springs Hotel

Rising up out of southern Indiana forestland, West Baden Springs Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Aaron/

It’s a sight to behold: The huge dome and 4 Moorish towers of West Baden Springs Hotel rise up out of the southern Indiana woods like a fairy-tale structure come to life. As stunning as the outside of this magnificent building is, it pales compared to the interior. Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World when it was constructed in 1902, the 200-foot-diameter atrium was the largest free-span dome in the world at that time.

Once a thriving health resort where people came to “take the waters,” West Baden Springs experienced hard times during the Great Depression. It changed owners a few times, fell into disrepair, and was rescued in the mid 1990s by Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit organization that saves historic buildings. The Cook Group  bought the property after that and renovated both West Baden and its sister hotel, French Lick Springs, just a mile down the road.

The West Baden Springs Hotel atrium

The massive atrium at West Baden Springs Hotel was once called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Photo courtesy Visit Indiana

Since 2006, the hotels have been united as French Lick Resort. Stay overnight to fully appreciate these grandes dames, both of which offer elegant spas, or stop in for a tour or a meal.

Nearby you can visit wineries; hop aboard a scenic train ride through Hoosier National Forest; spend a day on the water at Patoka Lake; go underground in Marengo Cave; or see elephants, giraffes, grizzly bears, and more at Wilstem Wildlife Park. Simply lounging on a chaise and staring up at the magnificent West Baden atrium dome, however, is a delightful way to pass the time.

You may also like: Snuggle into these cozy lodges for a warm winter getaway


Southwest Missouri

A quartet of musicians with various string instruments

The lineup of popular performers at Silver Dollar City includes the Homestead Pickers. Photo courtesy Silver Dollar City

You might have been here before, but it’s worth going again because Branson continues to add new attractions and offers activities to suit every member of your family. True to its roots as a fishing destination, Branson welcomes anglers for trout and other species in Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake. And the town’s long history as a live-music mecca is still its calling card. But there is so much more to see and do, from outdoor recreation to indoor entertainment.

Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-style theme park built atop Marvel Cave, is a favorite destination. From the Blues & BBQ Festival in the spring to the new Summer Celebration featuring daredevil entertainment by Nik Wallenda's Zirkus show, festivals fill the park with live music and special foods all year long.

Like Branson, Silver Dollar City regularly adds new attractions; for 2023, the expanded Heartland Home Furnishings will showcase the use of authentic late-1880s equipment like lathes and saws. It’s an important part of the park’s culture and helps preserve its Home of American Craftsmanship title. And don’t forget the more than 40 rides; 100 resident craftspeople; 18 restaurants; 60 shops; and a host of popular performers.

Family of 3 watching as a shark swims by in an aquarium

Get up close with sharks and a host of colorful fish in the Aquarium at the Boardwalk’s Journey Through the Waters Tunnel. Photo courtesy Branson Convention & Visitors Bureau

Other additions to the Branson lineup include the Aquarium at the BoardwalkPink Jeep tours and off-road adventures; and Beyond the Lens!, an interactive adventure that features FlyRide, an immersive experience that will make you feel like you’re soaring above the United States.

Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area alongside Lake Taneycomo is well worth seeking out, offering great views on hikes through 140 acres of rugged country.

You may also like: On an Ozarks road trip, discover amazing landscapes and mountain folkways

Lake of the Ozarks

Central Missouri

A woman riding a Jet Ski on the Lake of the Ozarks

A watery playground, the Lake of the Ozarks offers all manner of watersports, boating, fishing, and more. Photo courtesy

In Missouri, when people talk about going to “The Lake,” they mean the Lake of the Ozarks, one of the nation’s largest man-made lakes. With a surface area of more than 59,000 acres and 1,100 miles of shoreline, this lake is a giant playground, offering boating, fishing, water sports, and beaches.

Although the lake itself is the main attraction, you’ll also find plenty to do and see off the water. Two stunning state parks—Lake of the Ozarks and Ha Ha Tonka—attract visitors for camping, hiking, fishing, birding, and more. Restaurants, lodgings of all types, shopping, award-winning golf courses, wineries, distilleries, museums, 4 show caves, and other diversions abound.

Malted Monkey ropes course

The thrilling new Malted Monkey ropes course is built above a restaurant and milkshake bar. Photo courtesy

Some of the newer attractions include the Adrenaline Zipline Company in Camdenton, the area’s first zip-line canopy tour, and the Malted Monkey outdoor ropes course, with 3 levels and 45 obstacles, on the historic Bagnell Dam Strip.

Missouri is known as the Cave State, and one of those caves has taken on a new personality as the Cave Bar & Grill on the lake’s Big Niangua arm; the dining destination has 2 swimming pools and a sand beach.

You may also like: 10 top state parks for hiking, fishing, kayaking, camping, and more

Rocky Falls

Eminence, Missouri

Woman admiring Rocky Falls from the shore

Scenic year-round, Rocky Falls attracts swimmers in the summer to cool off in the pool at its base. Photo courtesy

The Ozark National Scenic Riverways area is the crown jewel of the Missouri Ozarks, and a visit here can be the crowning experience of your summer, too. This national park protects the free-flowing Current and Jacks Fork rivers, 2 of the region’s best float streams. Fishing, canoeing, and kayaking are top activities in the river park, but hiking, camping, horseback riding, and birding aren’t far behind. There’s so much to explore, with springs, mills, miles of trails, and scenic vistas around every turn.

For a summer swim to remember, try the pool at the base of Rocky Falls. Located on Rocky Creek, a tributary of the Current, Rocky Falls is arguably one of the state’s prettiest places and a popular swimming hole. Be sure to pack a lunch because the spot is relatively remote.

While in the Rocky Falls area, take time to drive through Peck Ranch Conservation Area to see the elk herd. Early morning and right before dark are the best times to watch the elk grazing in open glades. You might also see some of the famous wild horses of Shannon County; one herd is often found near Klepzig Mill along Highway NN.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a writer from Gerald, Missouri.

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