Some call it the American heartland, some call it flyover country — but we call it a bold, beautiful, culturally rich, astoundingly diverse landscape full of hidden gems. Indeed, the middle of the country has some of the most stunning sights you could ever want to include on your Instagram feed and national parks worthy of any bucket list.
Defining the “American heartland” isn’t exactly easy, nor is it an exact science. Its most basic definition is “states that don’t touch an ocean,” but it can include more specific parameters, such as a blue-collar work ethic and a traditionally conservative populace. For the purposes of our list, we were liberal with the term. We included the traditional “heartland” states Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming but also expanded our definition to include Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota. While those four states get a little more love than their center-of-the-country comrades, they’re still often overlooked in favor of coastal giants like New York, California, and Florida.
No matter how you define the American heartland, there are destinations that everyone should visit in their lifetime. Yes, there are obvious giants like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, but there are numerous stunning parks, notable museums, and unique weekend trips that are must-dos.
If you want to see some truly breathtaking rock formations, Badlands National Park in South Dakota is a bucket list destination. About 60 miles east of Rapid City, the main attraction at this 244,000-acre park is yhe Badlands Wall, a 100-mile stretch of stunning cliffs with numerous hiking trails. In the Badlands, one can also see some of the best views of the night sky, camp at one of two campgrounds, and see hundreds of prairie dogs up close.
Branson, Missouri, is a charming town with endless amounts of wholesome family entertainment. Thrillseekers can go to Silver Dollar City to ride the brand-new Time Traveler rollercoaster or see one of the best Christmas light displays in America during the holiday season. Branson also has numerous dinner shows, including a Dolly Parton-themed attraction and the Showboat Branson Belle dinner cruise and family-friendly museums like the World's Largest Toy Museum and the Hollywood Wax Museum.
If you want to see one of the largest migrations of shorebirds in North America, then the Kansas wetlands known as Cheyenne Bottoms is your spot. Roughly 600,000 birds come through this area each spring and 200,000 each autumn, making this a supreme destination for birdwatching. If you find yourself with some extra time, travel 120 miles southwest to Wichita for some chocolate at Cocoa Dolce Artisan Chocolates.
What heartland bucket list would be complete without heading to Chicago? We recommend eating your way through the Windy City by grabbing some deep-dish pizza from Pequod's and a Chicago-style hot dog with its signature poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, white onion, sweet pickle relish, sport peppers, tomatoes, kosher dill pickle spear, and celery salt from Superdawg. In between bites, be sure to see the sights like Millennium Park, the Navy Pier, the Skydeck, and Chicago’s numerous museums.
Glacier National Park is far and away the most scenic destination in its state. It contains over 130 lakes, 1,000 species of plants, and hundreds of species of animals in addition to two stunning mountain ranges in its million acres. A visit to this Montana spot sooner rather than later is recommended; its famous glaciers are fast disappearing thanks to climate change.
The High Trestle Trail takes up the space of what used to be a railway track, running from Ankeny to Woodward in Iowa. The highlight of this 25-mile trail is its bridge, which is half a mile long and 13 stories high. Not only does this structure give you a great view of the Des Moines River Valley, but it’s an incredible sight itself. The decorative structures spaced throughout the length of the bridge are meant to emulate the view one would have looking through a mine shaft (as the area has many mining shafts that were historically worked on by immigrants), and their lighting makes for a stunning scene at night.
Everyone loves a zoo, and the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska, is one of the best in the country. At this massive zoo, you can visit the African grasslands, a rainforest, and the ocean all in one day. Yes, this zoo features 160 acres of plants, animals, and unique habitats and has the largest indoor rainforest, largest indoor desert, and largest aquarium at a zoo in North America. Even though you’re smack dab in the middle of America, it feels like you’re literally anywhere else, and it’s truly spectacular.
Nestled in the southeastern part of the state, Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park is home to Instagrammable spots such as waterfalls, cliffs, caves, and rock formations. A weekend here will not only consist of breathtaking hikes and cool views of Old Man’s Cave and Ash Falls, but it’s also a premium camping destination, with numerous outdoor campgrounds and cabins available. Hocking Hills is also just a short trip away from historic Nelsonville, Ohio, which boasts a scenic railway and opera house.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the most famous for its namesake race the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Brickyard 400, and both of those major sporting events are something you have to experience to truly understand their magnitude. Beyond those races, during the holiday season, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has the best Christmas light display in Indiana, during which visitors can drive right on the track just like racecar drivers (except at a reasonable 10 miles per hour).
This massive reservoir in Missouri features several state parks, including the Lake of the Ozarks State Park and the Ha Ha Tonka State Park, where outdoor lovers can enjoy boating, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. If you’re not quite the outdoors type, a massive distillery (fittingly named the Ozark Distillery) makes and sells different kinds of whiskey, vodka, and moonshine, so enjoy a spirit and go on a distillery tour. This destination is smack dab in the middle of a triangle between St. Louis, Springfield, and Kansas City, so be sure to get some barbecue while you're in the state.
The reservoir of Lake Powell lies on the Colorado River, right on the border of Utah and Arizona. One could say this area is Mars-like with its red rocks and outrageously blue-green water. In fact, Lake Powell is so extraterrestrial in appearance that it’s been the shooting location for 45 films and television shows, including Gravity, Doctor Who, and Planet of the Apes. Beyond visiting movie sets, Lake Powell is a great place for water sports and hiking, and visitors can also visit the nearby Rainbow Bridge, the world’s highest natural bridge.
Pronounced “MAK-i-naw,” Michigan’s Mackinac Island may be best known for its island-wide motor vehicle ban. If you want to traverse this island, you’re going to have to go by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage. On Mackinac Island, you can either have an outdoor adventure by biking, hiking, horse-riding, or boating or spend a night at the Grand Hotel for a more luxurious experience. Mackinac Island is also distinctively known for having some of the best fudge in the United States, so be sure to pick up some chocolate treats before you leave.
The Ice Caves of the Apostle Islands are definitely an elusive sight. Visitors can only travel across frozen Lake Superior to the mainland sea caves during particularly cold winters when conditions are just right. But when those conditions are right, they’ll see dazzling ice formations that are almost too beautiful to be real. There are literally waterfalls frozen in place. During warmer months, Wisconsin's Apostle Islands has boating, fishing, camping, hunting, and hiking, so if you’re not one for winter, you can still have a great trip.
The Mall of America isn’t just another supermall. It’s 4,870,000 square feet of shopping, dining, and entertainment. This Bloomington, Minnesota, travel destination even has its own indoor theme park, Nickelodeon Universe, with five rollercoasters and 20 other family-friendly attractions. No visit here would be complete without a shopping excursion to the Crayola Experience Store or the Midwestern-themed store Minnesot-Ah.
The Maroon Bells are actually two mountain peaks in the Colorado Elks, Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Hike up the Crater Lake Trail near Aspen to this gorgeous spot, where the peaks lie just a third of a mile apart from each other. It often looks like a painting, but this area is very much real and the perfect place for a hike, weekend of camping, and sightseeing.
Thirty miles south of Dubuque, Iowa, Maquoketa Caves State Park has some of the lushest forest you could ever ask for and plenty of caves to explore. As one could expect, this 111-acre park has plenty of hiking trails, with over six miles to walk through. Take your time in this expansive state park and relax with a picnic and a night of camping.
Mesa Verde is the most iconic landmark in Colorado, so it’s a must-do for anyone exploring the American heartland. This state park is best known for its well-preserved ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, built between the sixth and twelfth centuries, and especially for the immense Cliff Palace. Nestled in the southwest corner of Colorado, also home to 5,000 known archaeological sites, meaning there’s plenty of history to explore as you hike your way through the “Works of Man.”
Mount Rushmore may be one of the world’s most iconic landmarks that locals hate, but that means fewer people will be there to get in your way as you explore! Over two million tourists flock to the site every year to see the enormous stone faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, which were carved into the granite formation in the Black Hills beginning in 1925. So if you’re on a patriotic road trip across America, stop by here.
There are a lot of reasons to visit Cleveland, including some of the best eats in Ohio, but be sure to stop by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Here you can learn about the history of rock and roll music with exhibits about the history of popular music and rock radio (which got its start in Cleveland), and see glamorous costumes and stage props from all eras of music. This pyramidal monument located in the heart of Cleveland is an icon for residents and visitors alike and a must-visit museum.
St. Louis is a seriously underrated city and is worth visiting next time you’re near Missouri. Of course, you need to take a snapshot at the Gateway Arch, but did you know you can also go inside this 630-foot monument? It’s a must-do. St. Louis is also home to some of the best beer in the world. Of course, it’s worthwhile to go on a tour of the historic Anheuser-Busch Brewery, but don’t forget to indulge in some craft beers, too, such as Side Project Brewery, which makes the best beer in the state.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park isn’t just a scenic park, it's also an important piece of American history. Located 130 miled west of Bismark, badlands of North Dakota was the place where Roosevelt first fell in love with the rugged, outdoorsy lifestyle possible in America. It inspired him to become a lifelong naturalist, leading to the creation of the United States Forest Service, five national parks, and 150 national forests. Honor ol' TR by camping and hiking your way through this stunning landscape.
Located in southern Idaho, Thousand Springs State Park is home to one of the most stunning sights in the country — Niagara Spring, which features multiple waterfalls bursting out from the walls of a canyon. But that isn’t the only spectacular site at this state park. This park actually contains three other separate areas: Billingsley Creek, where you can spend the day fishing and horse riding; Malad Gorge, where you can picnic and spot a section of the Oregon Trail; and Ritter Island, where there are ample opportunities for bird watching.
Far up in northwestern Nebraska, Toadstool Geologic Park is named for the interesting toadstool-like rock formations that characterize its landscape. Often referred to as the “badlands of Nebraska,” this park has a mile-long loop trail for you to walk through and enjoy the scenery and the area’s fossils, which lie along the trail. Toadstool Geological Park is also open for camping at the incredibly reasonable fee of $5 per night.
Who doesn’t love a good road trip? The Wisconsin Great River Road is a built-in trip with 250 miles of road along the Mississippi River. As you stop along the 33 historic and charming towns along the road, you can stop by numerous museums, vineyards, biking trails, and boat tours.
The world’s first national park is also the most famous, and it’s a must-see destination in the American heartland. This expansive park has a great diversity of animals and plants, including over 60 different mammals and 300 species of birds. Indeed, Yellowstone is a prime spot for anyone interested in the beauty of nature; it houses over 1,350 vascular plant species. Known for its geysers and hot springs, Yellowstone is also home to half the world’s geothermal features, including the famous “Old Faithful.” There’s a reason why it’s one of the 101 best weekend getaways in America.
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