5 Most Extreme Outdoor Activities to do in the Midwest

Climbing in Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner

This article is a part of The Growler’s Outdoor Guide. Find more tips for outdoor adventure and dining here

Thrill-seeking has become a traveling sport, with adrenaline junkies posting online from states out west and far-flung destinations across the world. While those places look incredible, why go through the hassle and expense of travel when all the heart-pounding outdoor adventure anyone could ever want can be found right here in the Midwest?

Here are five activities for risk-taking residents looking to enjoy the beauty and challenges available a little closer to home.

1. Rock Climbing At Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

Mt. Rushmore isn’t just for awkward family vacations and Nicolas Cage movies anymore. The four fathers boast four different climbing styles. Traditional, top rope, sport, and boulder climbing routes are all found near the national monument, with the sharp granite fissures and craggy cliff faces offering top-level climbing and difficult routes for even the most experienced climber. 

But these aren’t just one-trick presidents. According to themountainproject.com, there are 744 climbs in the area. Plus, with names like “Garfield’s Forgiven Affair,” “Smear Campaign,” and “Wife Sentence,” the entertainment continues beyond the routes up the rock face. 

2. Mountain Biking In Duluth, Minnesota

Around the world, there are only six destinations currently certified as gold level by the International Mountain Biking Association, and Duluth, Minnesota, is one of them. 

From routes that are kid-friendly to tracks that would make even the most hardcore rider sweat, Duluth has it all—even a trail with a lift for riders. During the winter months, join the scores of fat-bikers ripping around the skeleton trees when most folks are inside reading a book. 

Over 40 miles of single-track, dedicated mountain biking trails festoon the lakeside city. The crowning jewel for any level of rider is the Duluth Traverse (DT). Running from the easternmost edge of town to the westernmost, the trail takes riders through every variety of terrain and features 105 miles of total trail connected with mountain biking specific segments. With alternative segments for those who want more of a challenge, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure ride for all.

3. Sandboarding At Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Michigan

Have you ever been snowboarding and asked the age-old question on the lift ride back up the hill, “What if snow was warm?”

At Silver Lake Sand Dunes, it’s not snow, but it’s the next best thing. Towering hundred-foot dunes make for ideal runs leading right up to the lake. Riders rip down the sandy slopes, carving side-winding patterns across the alpine desert.  

Rental shops close to the trailhead make equipment access easy if you don’t have a sandboard on hand. Make sure to wax the bottom of the board: the more wax on the board, the more intense your ride will be. If you are willing to exchange a face full of snow for the risk of getting sand in places you didn’t even think possible, Silver Lake is for you.

4. Winter Surfing At Stoney Point, Minnesota

Yep. Winter surfing. 

Conditions have to be just right for the jade winter waters of Superior to produce suitable waves, but when she does, surfers come from far and wide to ride them. Indeed, a feature in Surfer magazine called the waves at Stoney Point, located about 10 miles north of Duluth, “just as good as any found in the ocean.” Riders have to deal with the cold, dodge ice boulders, and navigate through blinding snow, all while wearing neoprene so thick it could stop a bullet. 

If you choose to brave the sub-zero temps (and potential frostbite), bring your hand-warmers and A-game and get ready to hang negative-10 with these winter warriors.

5. Wild Caving At Jewel Cave, South Dakota

Wild caving is the truest expression of exploration. Find yourself crawling through spaces so tight even cats would look sideways at them, only to pop out in mammoth underground caverns. 

“Spelunking” isn’t for the faint of heart. Blackness darker than night, often no set paths, and long stretches of crawling or wriggling make this a physically and mentally exhausting task. If that doesn’t sound extreme enough for you, try doing it in the third-largest cave in the world: Jewel Cave. 

Jewel Cave has more than 200 miles of mapped and surveyed passages—twisting labyrinths shrouded in absolute darkness. Experience almost a mile of them on a guided wild caving tour, which weaves through rare formations and is definitely not for the claustrophobic. Some of the passageways in Jewel Cave are so narrow climbers are required to be in good physical condition and successfully fit through a 24-by-8.5-inch crawl space before being approved to go inside the cave. That’s like turning a standard carry-on suitcase on its side and trying to crawl through a space that big, roughly. Spelunk at your own risk.