Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest

This is part two of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US. Many of the states I have not been to yet are in the midwest part of the US, but I’ll do my best to present what I think are the “best” choices here. In case you’re not sure, the Midwest states are Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota.

Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, midwest only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.

1). For city-lovers and foodies:  Chicago, Illinois. Chicago is such a fun city with something for everyone. There are great museums including two of my favorites, the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Skydeck, The Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park, and many tours including boat tours. Chicago is famous for their insanely huge pizzas and “Chicago style” hot dogs, both of which you have to try when you visit, but there are also many other fantastic restaurants in the city. I don’t personally recommend going to Chicago during the winter months, which are known to get quite frigid. Public transportation and walking are the best ways to get around Chicago, as is the case in most big cities in the United States.

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Field Museum in Chicago- I love this place!

If you want to tack on another 2 or 3 days, take a rental car out of the city and drive up to Lake Geneva or Milwaukee, both in Wisconsin, and both are about 1 1/2 hour’s drive from Chicago. I’ve been to both places during the summer months and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Milwaukee (I also enjoyed Lake Geneva of course). Fifty miles southeast of Chicago lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the adjacent Indiana Dunes State Park where you’ll find woodlands, wetlands and some sand dunes rising 200 feet high along 15 miles of beaches on Lake Michigan’s southern shores.

2). For the nature-lover:  South Dakota. Choose Rapid City, South Dakota as your home base and take day trips from here. Thirty miles from Rapid City is Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. Once you’ve had your fill of walking around the memorial and toured the Lincoln Borglum Museum, drive 15 miles for your next stop, Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest in-progress sculpture carving, as well as the longest ongoing, having begun in 1948. When the sculpture is complete it will not only feature the Oglala Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse but also his horse and will be 27 feet taller than Mount Rushmore.

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Mount Rushmore

For your next day trip, drive an hour south to visit Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you go to Jewel Cave first and end with Wind Cave, the drive back to Rapid City is more direct. I highly recommend making reservations for a tour online ahead of time at both places or you may get there only to be disappointed the tour you really wanted to do is booked for the day. Although Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on Earth, you definitely want to go to both caves because they are very different experiences.

Custer State Park, about 45 minutes south of Rapid City, is the largest state park in South Dakota. The park is full of approximately 1,300 bison, bighorn sheep, burros, prairie dogs, and mule deer. Drive the scenic Wildlife Loop Road through the park but also get out and explore the park’s trails. On your way back to Rapid City, take Needles Highway (SD-87). This National Scenic Byway is gorgeous and you’ll see the famous Needles Eye Tunnel. Stop and look around at the panoramic views, and then find the trailhead for the Cathedral Spires Trail. It’s only 1.6 miles long but offers some incredible views.

About an hour from Rapid City is one of my favorite places in South Dakota, Badlands National Park. This national park is 244,000 acres and has one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen. In addition to buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds that you’ll see in the park, fossil hunting is allowed as long as you leave everything where you found it, and there are of course many trails you can explore.

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Badlands National Park

If you want to see a Wild West town, Deadwood is a fun place and is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City. You can go to the Black Hills Mining Museum, Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills, tour the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and go to the 1876 Dinner Theater. You can also find a casino, breweries and wineries, and many types of tours.

3). For a relaxing vacation on the water:  Traverse City, Michigan. Although you’re going to fly into Detroit, Michigan, you’re going to pick up a rental car and drive north up to Traverse City, about 4 hours away. You can of course fly to Traverse City but it will be much cheaper to fly directly into Detroit. If you take a bus or combination of bus and train, it will take more than double the transport time so by all means rent a car if at all possible. Traverse City is a lovely area on the shores of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay full of wineries, many recreational areas and trails, and quaint shops and restaurants. The National Cherry Festival is held in early July and is full of all things cherry-related. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is only about 40 minutes away and is a beautiful area and a fun and unique way to spend the day.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes

You could spend 3 or 4 days in Traverse City before driving north about 2 1/2 hours to Mackinac Island to spend the rest of your time. Interstate I-75 brings you to the ferry docks of both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Access to Mackinac Island can be made from both of these cities. Mackinac Island is serviced from both of these cities by two ferry companies: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry. You can bike around the island, explore Fort Mackinac and Fort Holmes, take a boat tour, rent a kayak, play golf, or just relax and take in the scenery. Both Traverse City and Mackinac Island are laid-back, relaxing places with beautiful water views.

Those are my top midwest destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

My Top 10 Favorite Places in the United States and Why I Love Them

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my favorite places I’ve been to. At first I wasn’t going to separate out places in the United States from international places, but then I thought there’s no way I could limit them to just ten places. Most of my travels within the United States have been planned with the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.  So far I’ve been to 43 states and have ran a half marathon in 40 states.

So here goes, my choice for number 10:  Glacier National Park in Montana. My family and I went here after my half marathon in Missoula. I thought Missoula was beautiful but GNP was even more beautiful.  We hiked many trails and especially loved hiking trails around Lake McDonald. I also enjoyed just driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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Number 9:  Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This was another place where my family and I went after I ran a half marathon, only this time in Boulder, undoubtedly one of the hardest races I’ve ever ran because of the high elevation. We drove to RMNP from Boulder and were blown away by the mountains and scenery. Boulder is at the base of the really big mountains such as those in RMNP. Even though we went there in June, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground at the highest elevations. The park’s tallest mountain, Long’s Peak is stunning with an elevation of 14,259. Similar to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana, the drive along Trail Ridge Road is beautiful.

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Number 8:  Badlands National Park in South Dakota (notice a trend here?). We went here after one of my favorite half marathons, in Spearfish, SD. On this trip we also went to Mount Rushmore but I found the Badlands to be much more beautiful. I absolutely loved the different colored rock formations, the Buttes, and spires. We spotted some big horn sheep, bison, and tons of prairie dogs.

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Number 7: San Juan Islands in Washington. I absolutely loved Seattle, but I loved the San Juan Islands, and the ferry ride there even more than Seattle. We went to Friday Harbour and stayed in a cabin overlooking a beautiful field where deer liked to graze in the mornings and at dusk. I ran a half marathon here, which turned out to be a pretty small but scenic race. We toured a lavender farm and spent a lot of time in the retail section smelling all of the lavender-infused products and tasting the tea. My daughter wanted to buy one of everything.  The lavender tea was delicious. We also went whale-watching just off the coast and saw a bunch of orcas and dolphins. My daughter even got to steer the boat during our tour! Hiking in Lime Kiln State Park was also a highlight of our time on the island.

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Number 6:  Charleston, South Carolina. I wrote a couple of posts about Charleston last summer, so it should be no surprise to see it on my list here. I love so much about this city from the beaches to the architecture to the food. I could go on and on about the food alone. I’ve never had a bad meal here, ever. I’ve been going to Charleston for vacations many times over the years and it just seems to get better every time. There’s so much history here if you’re a history buff you’ll love all of the museums and walking tours. I find Charleston to be the quintessential southern city full of charm, friendly people, and some of the best food you’ll ever eat.

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Number 5:  Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah (can you tell I’m a big fan of national parks?). We went here earlier this year in late winter and I found it to be truly magical. I don’t use that word lightly either. Also, I hate winter. I moved south to get away from the cold weather as an adult. However, the snow on the hoodoos was beautiful and I had so much fun hiking the trails at Bryce Canyon while it was snowing. It snowed off and on but was never a blizzard or anything crazy. The light snowfall just added to the experience and made it even more special. Even though I loved Zion National Park, I loved Bryce Canyon even more, which surprised me, honestly. Plan your next vacation there with the help of my previous posts and this website.

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Number 4:  Acadia National Park in Maine. Before I went to Maine, I had heard great things about the state and hoped that it would live up to the hype. Maine did not disappoint. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined and the food was every bit as good as you hear it is. We dined on fresh lobster and other fresh fish dishes including clam chowder and had some incredible meals on our trip to Maine. A highlight of the trip was hiking in Acadia National Park and I was glad we had allotted a few days here. We also discovered popovers at Jordan Pond House and that was a real treat. And yes, I also ran a half marathon here.

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Number 3:  Kona, Hawaii. I first went to Hawaii many years ago and ran a half marathon in Kona, which turned out to be my second state for half marathons, even though I didn’t have the goal then of one in every state. I just thought it would be fun (it was) and cool to run along a portion of the same course as the Ironman triathlon. Kona is what I think of when I think of Hawaii:  black sandy beaches, volcanos, palm trees, and incredible snorkeling. Not surprisingly I loved Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was like nowhere else in the world and walking through the Thurston Lava Tube was very cool. When I later went back to Kona many years after that first trip, it was every bit as great as I remembered. I’ve since then wanted to go back again but haven’t made it (yet!).

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Number 2:  San Francisco, California. I left my heart in San Francisco. Just kidding. I think that famous song does strike a chord with many people, however. San Francisco is such a fun and vibrant city it’s no surprise it’s become the most expensive city to live in the United States. Where there’s demand, prices will go up accordingly. While I have no desire to live in San Francisco, I love to visit there. In fact, when I was planning my family’s trip to New Zealand, I was happy to include a day-long layover in San Francisco both before and after our flights to New Zealand. I’m always looking for an excuse to go back. Why do I love San Francisco? Well, it’s hard to describe, honestly. There’s so much to do here and the area is beautiful especially around the water. I just love the Golden Gate Bridge and had a blast on the multiple boat tours I took that went around and under the bridge. I love the crazy hilly streets and architecture. The food is great, even the super-touristy chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Speaking of touristy, I even love the wharf area despite how crowded it can get.

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Number 1:  San Diego, California. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember how many posts I wrote about San Diego. In fact, some of you were probably sick of hearing me go on about the city. It’s absolutely stunning, though. You hear about places being called “breathtaking” all the time and I feel that term is completely over-used but I will say San Diego was honestly breathtaking to me. When I first saw Sunset Cliffs, I was speechless, took a second to get my breath, then looked at my daughter (who also had the same reaction), and just said, “Wow!” It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There’s also so much to do in San Diego, from hiking, to the touristy but still interesting Old Town, the world famous zoo, many museums, parks, and shopping. There are several places where you can get some fantastic tacos and Liberty Public Market has some delicious local fresh food and other unique things for sale. Coronado Beach with its golden-flecked sand and the iconic Hotel del Coronado is my favorite beach in the area. I could go on and on about San Diego. I guess I left my heart in San Diego.

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What are some of your favorite places in the United States? Does anyone else love these places as much as I do?