Looking for some summer or fall road trip inspirations? The Growler has you covered with these Heartland destinations.
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West on I-94: Lake Sakakawea State Park near Pick City, North Dakota
Stretching 178 miles in length from Williston, North Dakota, to the Garrison Dam near Pick City, North Dakota, Lake Sakakawea is a top recreation destination for those traveling to the Peace Garden State. It’s the nation’s third largest reservoir with a surface area of over 368,000 acres and a depth of 180 feet, and reportedly boasts more shoreline than the entire state of California. Lake Sakakawea State Park, located midway between Minot and Bismarck, just off U.S. Route 83, offers easy access with a full service marina with 74 slips for vessels ranging from 24 to 72 feet in length.
Fishing is a top draw at Lake Sakakawea. The lake is open year-round and attracts anglers seeking out North Dakota’s state fish the Northern pike along with Smallmouth Bass, prehistoric Paddlefish, Chinook Salmon, Saugers, and highly the prized Walleye. The massive, endangered pallid sturgeon—often referred to as a “dinosaur” for both its appearance and age—can also be found here. In addition to fishing, visitors can enjoy camping, birding, boating, and swimming, in addition to hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing along the North Country National Scenic Trail, which reaches its terminus at the park. Tours of Garrison Dam, the fifth largest earthen dam in the world, are offered by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.
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West on I-90: Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota
Located some 200 miles west of the South Dakota’s capital of Pierre, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park is a Black Hills gem. Designated as South Dakota’s first state park in 1919, Custer State Park ranks as the largest in the state and boasts an impressive array of activities for visitors. Rock climbers and sightseers can head toward “the Needles”—famed eroded granite pillars—which can be reached by taking the scenic Needles Highway to the west of the new, open-year-round Custer State Park Visitor Center. Wildlife enthusiasts can see one of North America’s largest bison herds, numbering over 1,300 bison, roaming across the park on a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, or watch the annual fall bison roundup, where cowboys and cowgirls work the herd as part of critical wildlife management. In addition to North America’s largest land mammal, visitors can try to catch sight of mountain lions, mountain goats, prairie dogs, elk, river otters, bighorn sheep, and feral burros, to name a few of the park’s residents.
In addition to wildlife, other park draws include the historic Gordon Stockade, President Calvin Coolidge’s “Summer White House” at historic State Game Lodge, and the cabin known as “the Badger Hole” near Legion Lake that was once home to South Dakota’s first poet laureate, Charles Badger Clark. The Mount Coolidge Fire Tower, a Civil Conservation Corp project built out of stone in the late 1930s in the highest point in the park (6,023 feet), is open to the public while still being in active use. Custer State Park is also centrally located for those wishing to travel to Mount Rushmore (20 miles to the north), Wind Cave National Park (which borders Custer State Park to the south), Jewel Cave National Monument (25 miles to the west) or the highest natural point in South Dakota and its stone lookout tower at Black Elk Peak (20 miles to the northwest).
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North on Minnesota State Highway 95: Interstate Park
The world’s deepest pothole, rock climbing, bouldering, paddling on a National Scenic River, towering cliffs, and camping, all just an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities? That’s what you’ll find at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls. Located on the banks of the St. Croix River, the park is unique in the fact that both the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources manage their respective sides of the river as their own Interstate State Park. The Minnesota Interstate Park is located just off of State Highway 95 in a narrow 298-acre slice, and is the second-oldest state park in Minnesota. Designated on April 25, 1895, it has consistently been one of the most visited state parks in the Minnesota system.
One of the main draws of the park is its iconic basalt cliffs, known as the St. Croix Dalles, that tower above the St. Croix River. Made from lava flowage millions of years ago, the cliffs show the geologic history of the area with at least seven layers of lava deposits visible upon the rock face. Look closely enough and you may even be able to spot “The Old Man of the Dalles” peering out across the river. The cliffs offer ideal opportunities for climbers and boulderers of all skill levels (and bearing the proper equipment). Records reveal that people lived in the area as long as 5,000 years ago. More recently, on June 13, 1886, what is perhaps the world’s largest log jam occured, when an estimated 120 to 150 million board feet of logs jammed the river for two miles up from the Dalles. While exploring, keep an eye out for the 400-some potholes created from powerful glacial waters scattered across the park, including the world’s deepest pothole, the “Bottomless Pit,” measuring in at just under 60 feet deep and over 12 feet wide. The park is open year-round, but is famed for its fall colors, which explode in September into October.
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North on Wisconsin Highway 35: Pattison State Park
A short journey south of Superior, Wisconsin, on State Highway 35 is Pattison State Park, home to the highest waterfall in Wisconsin and a great place to start a Wisconsin Northwoods adventure. Big Manitou Falls, the 165-foot waterfall situated on the Black River, ranks as one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Wisconsin,” according to Travel Wisconsin. Two miles downstream from Big Manitou Falls and reachable by hiking trails is the 31-foot waterfall known as Little Manitou Falls. The two falls and the entire park would not exist if it was not for the efforts of the park’s namesake and protector Martin Pattison. Pattison was a lumberjack turned miner who made a fortune in the iron ore business across Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1917, Pattinson learned that plans were being made to build a power dam across the Black River that would result in the destruction of Big and Little Manitou Falls. That same year, Pattison secretly purchased 660 acres along the Black River and then donated this land to the public in 1918 to allow for the creation of a state park and the preservation of the fourth tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Visitors today can hike, swim, camp, fish, and enjoy winter activities at the park. For those interested in learning more about Martin Pattison’s life and legacy, visit his family home and museum, Fairlawn Mansion, in nearby Superior, Wisconsin.
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South on U.S. 52: Backbone State Park
Those looking for an adventure to the south should head to Backbone State Park in northeast Iowa. Located along the Maquoketa River as it makes its towards the mighty Mississippi and dedicated in 1920, Backbone State Park is the oldest state park in Iowa and owes its namesake to the steep limestone ridge known as the “Devil’s Backbone” that divides the park. The dolomite limestone cliffs along the Backbone Trail are popular with climbers and feature cliffs of up to 80 feet in height. Visitors have multiple options when it comes to lodging, with campsites available as well as reservable modern cabins along the river replete with heating and air conditioning. Trout fishing is excellent in the cold clear springs that run throughout the park and visitors can also enjoy canoeing, swimming, hiking, and even caving in the park. In addition, the Iowa Civilian Conservation Corps Museum is located near the west entrance of the park and is dedicated to the work performed by the CCC across Iowa’s state park system in the the 1930s.