Great Hikes in the Midwest

The Midwest is certainly not famous for long trails or epic mountain hikes. For example, here in my home state of Ohio, the highest point is 1,550-foot Campbell Hill, which can be scaled via sidewalk. However, there are plenty of beautiful hiking options across the Midwest just the same. Here are a few of the best hikes in the Midwest.

Day Hikes

Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

Nestled in southeastern Ohio, Hocking Hills State Park consists of over 2,300 acres of spectacular gorges, waterfalls, and recess caves. Various trails totaling 26 miles allow day hikers to choose an easy or more strenuous trip.

The deep gorges are unlike most of the state and have protected remnant populations of hemlock and Canada yew that flourished there 10,000 years ago during a much cooler time. Camping and cabins are available in the park. The area is extremely popular, so avoiding summer weekend afternoons and other high-use times allow for a more natural experience.

My personal favorite hike is from Old Man’s Cave through the gorge to Cedar Falls, then returning on the Gorge Overlook Trail, about six miles total. For those needing more room, the park is adjacent to 9,200 acre Hocking State Forest.

Hocking Hills State Park can be reached from either US Route 33 or Ohio Route 56 southeast of Columbus.

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
13-Mile Trail Network

Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Canyons, waterfalls, and tall bluffs are not what most people expect when hiking the “flatland” of the Midwest, but that’s exactly what day hikers find at 2,600-acre Starved Rock State Park. Thirteen miles of trails wander through 18 canyons and to spectacular overlooks of the Illinois River.

Legend has it that in 1769 a group Ottawa, seeking revenge for the killing of their chief, Pontiac, attacked a group of Illiniwek camping along the Illinois River. In an attempt to escape, the Illiniwek climbed the high butte above the river, but were trapped there by the Ottawa. The standoff continued until the Illiniwek on the butte starved, thus the reason for the park’s name. There’s now a lodge/restaurant located on a nearby bluff so starvation, or even hunger, is no longer an issue.

Starved Rock is the most popular state park in Illinois, so keep that in mind when picking a time to visit. The views are worth the crowds, though. The park is west of Chicago. Take I-80 W to I-39 S (Exit 79A) to IL 71 E. You’ll go right by the entrance.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana
50-Mile Trail Network

Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Located at the far northwest corner of Indiana along the shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is comprised of 15 separate parcels of land with a total of around 15,000 acres. These individual plots host a wide variety of habitats and an even wider variety of day hike options. Perhaps the hardest part of hiking here is deciding which of the 14 trail systems (totaling 50 miles) to tackle first.

Habitats you can visit include hardwood forests, oak savannas, riparian corridors, prairie, wetland and, of course, dunes and beaches. Between the lake and the variety of environments, the park draws a large variety of birds, despite being in an otherwise urban/industrial area.

Indiana Dunes is located between Gary and Michigan City, IN, with Route 12 passing near most of the parcels.

Overnight and Weekend Hikes

Zaleski State Forest Backpack Trail, Ohio
Ten- to 29-Mile Loops

Looking for a weekend campout that’s easy on logistics or perhaps a trail for that first overnight backpacking trip? Well, you have found it at 28,000+ acre Zaleski State Forest. Various loops can be configured to result in hikes of ten, 16, 18, 23 or 29 miles. The terrain is rolling, but not extreme and nearly always in forest. The trail itself is well maintained and (almost) too well marked. I’m still looking for an old photo that showed six blazes at once. A couple overlooks and small recess caves add to the interest.

A permit is required to camp, but they are free and self-issued at the trailhead. There are three camp areas, with each having several separate tent sites. Each camp area includes a latrine and a cistern. (The drinking water is trucked in.)

Zaleski was the site of some of my earliest backpacking and a great place to learn those first lessons. (Such as you don’t need six pounds of trail mix for a two-day trip.) The trail is located between Chillicothe and Athens. Take US Route 50 to State Route 278 north.

Charles Deam Wilderness, Indiana
37-Mile Trail Network

Overlooking Lake Monroe

Encompassing nearly 13,000 acres in south central Indiana, The Deam Wilderness (Indiana’s only designated wilderness) is located within Hoosier National Forest and boasts 37 miles of trails. It also touches Lake Monroe, the largest man-made body of water within the state.

The Hickory Ridge Fire Tower, at 110 feet tall, gives some impressive views of the area. Terrill Ridge Trail leads to some excellent campsites near a pond, and the Peninsula Trail provides some striking overlooks of Lake Monroe. At the end of the peninsula are some great lakefront campsites as well.

The wilderness is located south of Bloomington, IN. Take Route 446 to Tower Ridge Road to multiple trailheads. There are no fees or permits required to camp there.

Lakeshore Trail, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
42 Miles

Grand Portal Point

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Stretching 42 miles along the south shore of Lake Superior, the Lakeshore Trail features incredible overlooks, sandy beaches, waterfalls, lighthouses, and plenty of camping. The distance is also shared with the North Country Trail, which continues a bit further in each direction (approximately 4,600 miles total).

Hiking is moderate with some climbs between bluffs overlooking the lake down to stretches near the water itself. There are 11 backcountry “campgrounds” along the way that can be reserved through recreation.gov. Most camp areas have community fire rings, bear-proof lockers, and water from either streams or that big nearby lake. Bring a water filter. There are shuttle services available for those wanting to hike the entire distance one way.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located on the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, between the communities of Munising (west) and Grand Marais (east). Alger County Road H-58 provides access throughout the Lakeshore.

Longer Backpacking Trails

The Ozark Trail, Missouri
230 Miles

Photo courtesy of the Ozark Trail Association

A thru-hike of the Ozark Trail is 230 miles, meandering through the St. Francois Mountains of southeast Missouri. Overall, the hiking is moderate with drops into and climbs out of numerous valleys. Elevation changes are generally well under 1,000 feet but enough for some great views. Count on wet stream crossings on a regular basis as well.

Water is not generally an issue, though plan on filtering all sources. Resupply is off trail though several hotels along the route will offer shuttles to those that rent a room. In addition, shuttles are available for the length of the trail so only one vehicle is required.

The northernmost trailhead is reached by heading west from St Louis on I-44 to south on Highway H past Leasburg.

The Superior Trail, Minnesota
255 Miles

Photo courtesy of the Superior Hiking Trail Association.

The Superior Hiking Trail runs 255 miles, generally along a ridge above the north shore of Lake Superior. The linear route travels nearly to the Canadian border from Duluth. The trail actually continues 41 additional miles south through the city toward the Wisconsin border. However, as no backcountry camping is allowed through this stretch, it is not considered to be part of a traditional thru-hike.

Not surprisingly, the main highlight of the trail is the nearby presence of the big lake the Ojibwa people (and Gordon Lightfoot) called Gitchi Gami (Big Water). Stunning views of the water are common. Numerous streams and rivers flow into the lake and the path is often situated to provide a view of a spectacular waterfall as the flow drops off the ridge down to the lake.

The trail itself doesn’t have huge climbs. The lake sits at around 600 feet above sea level and the high point on the trail is a bit over 1,200 feet higher. Consider the trail to be moderate to challenging though. Hiking is rarely on flat ground, with steep elevation changes between river valleys and ridgetop.

There are no permits or fees to hike the trail. Campers are required to stay at one of 93 established backcountry campsites. Each site offers multiple tent pads, a fire ring, and a latrine. Typically, a water source is nearby.

The southern terminus for a traditional thru-hike is the Martin Road trailhead. From I-35, take 21st Ave. East Exit #258. Turn left on 21st Ave. E. and go 0.7 miles up hill. Turn right on Woodland Ave. and go 1.2 miles. Turn right on Snively Rd. and go 1.0 miles to intersection with Jean Duluth Rd. Continue straight on Jean Duluth Rd. and go 1.9 miles. Turn left on Martin Rd. and go 1.2 miles to trailhead parking lot on left. Two shuttle companies are in the area for those wanting a one-way hike.

The Buckeye Trail, Ohio
1,440 Miles

Despite long portions being road walks or paved trail, there is still nature to be seen

The Buckeye Trail is an interesting animal. I put it in this best hikes in the Midwest list due to its sheer length while staying within one state. It wanders 1,444 miles all over the state of Ohio in a big loop that also has a couple of smaller loops and spurs included. In one spot or another, the trail shares tread with most of the trails in the state I’ve ever hiked. If you want to thru-hike a trail that few others have completed, this could be your trail. If you want a thru-hike that includes hundreds of miles of road walks and significant stretches with no camping options, this could also be your trail.

There are a lot of good options for section hikes, however. The pathway travels through Ohio’s only national forest, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 18 state parks, five state forests, four wildlife areas, eight Ohio Historical Society properties, six Watershed Conservancy lands and 18 county or Metropark lands. Whatever length and challenge level of a hike you are looking for, chances are you can find it on the Buckeye Trail.

Trail Report: The John Muir Trail

Summary

Length: 211 miles
Location: The trail runs from Yosemite National Park to the peak of Mt Whitney
Trail Type: Shuttle
Scenery: Postcard views of the Sierra Nevada with beautiful streams, lakes and significant wildlife

Trail Overview

Cathedral Peak

(This article first appeared in thetrek.co) 

Named after the first President of the Sierra Club, the “JMT” winds from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, through three National Parks and two Wilderness Areas before ending at the top of Mt Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. Sharing 170 miles with the PCT, the path is well constructed with grades that can be handled by mules. However, that does not mean it’s an easy stroll. It crosses eight passes near or over 11,000 feet including Forrester Pass, the highest point on the entire PCT.

Huge vistas, beautiful mountain lakes, plentiful wildlife and a taste of wilderness travel place the JMT on many people’s hiking bucket list. With good reason; the stark beauty of the Sierra Nevada is hard to beat anywhere in the world.

Terrain

Nevada Falls and some really old granite

One hundred million year old granite uplifted into mountains and shaped by glaciers results in some incredible sights, and also a trail that is challenging. While located and graded very well, nothing changes the fact that there are tremendous elevation changes. The vast majority of hikers begin at the northern terminus, (Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park) which sits at 4,000 feet. Twelve miles later, hikers are already near 10,000 feet.

If that first climb doesn’t leave you breathless, the scenery will. Iconic views such as Nevada Falls and Half Dome are just the start of a daily parade of incredible vistas. The climbs and drops, along with accompanying views, continue along the length of the trail.

The most difficult climb is saved for the end however. From a “low” point of 10,700 feet, the trail begins the assault on the southern terminus of the trail, Mt Whitney’s peak. Over 7 miles the path climbs nearly 5,000 feet through broken granite. The fact that there is only about 60% of the oxygen available at sea level doesn’t help either. The effort is worth it though. You’ve finished the trail and are at 14,505 feet, the highest point in the continental US. Take some time to enjoy the views and your accomplishment.

Although you are done with the trail at this point, there’s no shuttle standing by. There’s still a bit of hiking to do. The closest road (Whitney Portal) is 10 miles and 6,600 vertical feet away.

Getting There

Most thru-hikers hike from North to South. The northern terminus is at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley inside Yosemite National Park. From the San Francisco/San Jose area, CA-120 East get you close enough to follow the signs to the park. In addition, there are public transportation options  to the park and free bus service throughout the park. There is also public transportation between Yosemite and Lone Pine, the town closest to Mt Whitney.

Why hike this trail

Think about all those inspirational quotes from John Muir. Most of them were written about this very area. There are “take your breath away” vistas on a daily basis. The iconic views are just one of many reasons to hike this classic trail though.

The distance (211 miles, plus another 10 to get to a paved road) is short enough to be doable for most hikers with a two week vacation, but is packed with challenges and wilderness experiences. The last 150+ miles are nowhere near a road.

With the entire trail within a national park or wilderness area, wildlife is plentiful. The change in elevation brings a variety of both flora and fauna to experience. I saw a variety of wildlife but was struck by the large predators that roam this complete ecosystem. Bear, bobcat and coyote shared the spotlight with deer, marmot, pika and more. Not seen by me, but in the park are beaver, bighorn sheep and mountain lion.

Climate and Weather

Normally pleasant, but not always

John Muir called the Sierra’s the “gentle wilderness” and summer/early fall weather lives up to that name; being typically sunny and dry. There is all that pesky winter snow to consider however. Depending on the year, snow can remain deep on the higher passes into July. That snowmelt can also mean difficult stream crossings and plenty of mosquitoes through early summer. The best time to hike is generally July through September with my personal preference towards the September end. This period is typically dry and pleasant, though thunderstorms and/or snow at higher elevations can happen at any time.

I hiked the trail beginning just after Labor Day. Most hiking was done in shorts and a t-shirt but I was glad to have brought a hat and gloves for one snowy pass. I used a 20 degree bag and needed all the insulation on a couple higher camps.

Camping

Note the bear canister

With the number of hikers restricted by the permit process, there is no issue finding a spot to camp. I used both the JMT Pocket Atlas (Blackwoods Press) and the Guthook phone app and either reliably showed where camping options were located. There were sometimes other campers in the areas, but I never felt crowded.

Bring a tent. There are no shelters and with long stretches at high elevation, there will be times when there’ll be no trees to hang a hammock from. Bearbagging your food is not good enough. Bring or rent a bear canister.

Water Sources

Deer in a reflective mood along Lyell Fork

One of the beauties of the JMT is all the lakes and streams along the way. Despite hiking late in the season, and during a drought, water was never an issue. The guides mentioned above both listed water options and I never carried over 2 liters. While much of the water appears crystal clear at high elevations, I filtered all my water. It just seems like cheap insurance to  avoid marmot poo.

Resupply Options

Resupply options are interesting, to say the least. They start easy and get progressively more difficult as you travel north to south. Twenty miles in, there is a post office at Tuolumne Meadows. At sixty one miles, Red’s Meadow Resort is just off the trail. They will hold packages for a fee and also have a grocery on site.

At around 90 miles, the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) is an option. It is either a 7+ mile hike off the JMT or a shorter hike and a boat ride. Take the boat. They hold packages for a fee, have a small grocery and with a restaurant, laundry and hotel, provide a nice spot to spend the night. This was my last resupply stop. It took a bit of work to fit 130 miles worth of food into my bear canister, but by standing on the lid, I made it happen.

At 110 miles, Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) is another resupply option. They offer overnight accommodations and will hold a resupply, but I did not use them for a few reasons. For 2018, their cost to hold a resupply bucket is $80. The charge to stay in their tent cabins is $170/person/night. Despite the costs, they were actually booked solid when I was in the area. In addition, they closed for the season on the day after I planned to be passing through, too close for comfort. Everything at MTR must be hauled in well beyond any roads so I understand the prices. It doesn’t mean I have to pay them however.

Someone ordered a very expensive resupply

Beyond MTR the options get difficult or significantly more expensive. There are either long walks down side trails or rendezvous with a pack animal at a premium price.

Permits

Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is just scoring a permit. If you want to start in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. By the end of the day, you will find out if you were successful. You probably were not. Apparently, there is such demand that well over 90% of all applications are denied. One hiker I met on the trail had been denied 22 times before she received a permit to start at Happy Isles Trailhead.
The National Park Service is in a difficult position. They have a legal duty to protect the wilderness from overuse and want to provide access to a true wilderness for those that do receive a permit. Based on my hike, the existing quota system seemed to result in a quality experience. While I was not always alone, the trail was not crowded and I always found a good spot to camp. That does not makes getting the permit any easier, however. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible.
BTW –The permit comes with a special bag to carry in case the need arises on Mt Whitney itself. Apparently the mountain is a “no poop zone.” I don’t know if there’s much of a learning curve to using the bag, but thankfully I didn’t have to find out.

Closing Thoughts

McClure Meadow, Evolution Creek

If there was ever a “bucket list” trail, this is it. It is hard to imagine jaw dropping views, numerous wildlife sightings, a complete thru-hike and reaching the high point of the lower 48 states, all in one 200+ mile package, but here it is.

All this hiking goodness does come at a cost though. Permit aggravations, carrying the weight of a bear canister over big climbs and through thin air just add to the satisfaction you’ll feel at the finish though. Is the JMT worth the trouble? You bet it is.

Start planning your hike waaay in advance by going to the National Park Services website. My JMT Pocket Atlas is one of “Erik the Black’s Ultralight Trail Guides. The Guthook phone app will be in your App Store. If you’re interested in what my hike was like, along with hikes of the Colorado Trail and Long Trail; there’s a book about it.

Not sure whether to hike this trail? Perhaps a few quotes from John Muir himself will help you decide.

The coniferous forests of the Yosemite Park, and of the Sierra in general, surpass all others of their kind in America, or indeed the world, not only in the size and beauty of the trees, but in the number of species assembled together, and the grandeur of the mountains they are growing on

All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit – the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean

The mountains are calling and I must go.

And my personal favorite: Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

View from the top of Whitney

Walking in Circles wins Multiple Awards from Outdoor Writers of Ohio

At their 79th Annual Awards Banquet on May 5, the Outdoor Writers of Ohio presented two awards to the book, Walking in Circles: Backpacking the Tahoe Rim Trail. The book was named, “Outstanding Media Achievement” and a selection of photos from the piece received 1st Place as “Best Series of Photographs.”

A glimpse of the photos came be seen here. The book itself is available on Amazon in either a paperback or digital format.