Camping, hiking, backpacking suggestions for a beginner in the Midwest?
February 12, 2009 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Summer isn't THAT far off . . . already trying to come up with camping/hiking spots in the Midwest for once it gets warm. Help! Looking for specific recommendations for spots in the IL/IA/WI area, plus whatever other random camping and backpacking tips you want to throw my way. Bonus points for places I can bring my dog, although I don't mind leaving her with my parents for a week either.

Having never gone camping as a kid, I only recently discovered how fun it is. I tried to expand my tent-camping experience in the the Illinois/Iowa area last summer but had a hard time figuring out the best places to go. Some of the places I went to were OK, some were kind of boring. Now summer is approaching again (ok, yes I know it's February but I'm desperate.) And I want to start planning for all the awesome places I'm going to go this summer.

I really like the idea of packing/traveling light, so I think I'd like to eventually pick up backpacking too, but I'm not sure I can afford to buy gear for that this year. I was thinking maybe if I found some good spots for tent camping, I could start building up my endurance/ experience on day-long hikes. (Up until now, my camping experience has mainly centered around being drunk around a campfire.) Don't get me wrong, that's also fun, but I want to get back into nature! I want to see some beautiful places but I'm feeling unsatisfied by what I've found through googling and National Park websites. I have a hard time getting a feel for what places are really like, so I'd like to have YOUR recommendations! I'm particularly looking in the Illinois/Wisconsin/Iowa area, but if there's something amazing a little further out, I'm game too. (Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri?) I have been searching some old AskMe's and found some cool stuff already such as the Dark Sky Finder and Pepsi Can Stove. Any other random helpful suggestions like this are more than welcome. I found this thread on backpacking really helpful. The pepsi can stove is a good example of something I can test-drive while tent camping, and then I'll be more confident once I start attempting actual backpacking trips.

Thanks in advance, Mefites. I'm so excited about this, I've literally been having recurring dreams about camping since about December.
posted by lblair to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I was a regular and avid backpacker through my 20's when I lived in Utah and Lake Tahoe, California. Then I moved to Iowa to go to graduate school. I spent the next couple of years hunting high and low for the best places to go in the midwest. Here's what I learned:

1 - By far the best real backpacking in the Midwest is in Minnesota. In fact, there are trails in MN that compete with any trail you'll find out west. Great camping. Great backpacking. Tons and tons of water. Excellent wildlife. They have it all. Here's a link to some of the best stuff in the state. You can go for a few miles, or a few weeks. It's up to you. Also, anything up by the boundary waters is world class.

2 - The other state that I can comment on with some authority is Iowa. Iowa is not a strong state for camping or backpacking or hiking. That's just the fact. You are going to have a hard time really "getting back to nature" in Iowa. But, there are some really nice places, and if you're just looking for tent camping, you can have a nice weekend in some of the state parks. My favorites are Backbone and McGregor Pikes Peak.

3 - If you are really looking for a good time, though, and you really want to see some amazing nature you should plan at least one trip out of the Midwest. The closest place that has truly amazing, world class, mountains is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Good luck to you.
posted by crapples at 6:58 PM on February 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: If you are really looking for a good time, though, and you really want to see some amazing nature you should plan at least one trip out of the Midwest.

You are right . . . I know it's hard to find good stuff out here :-)

My budget is sadly tight this year though, so I'm hoping to make the most of what's nearby to get my feet wet before branching out to better (and more expensive) excursions. Also, I am pretty out of shape. I need to get used to hiking on wussy Iowa trails before I hit the mountains :-) or else I'd die.

I'm actually hoping to move out of this region in a couple years, but . . . until then. I know that there must be at least a few hidden gems in the area? I hope so anyway.
posted by lblair at 7:18 PM on February 12, 2009

Hey another Midwesterner here, hopefully I can offer some suggestions.

Last summer we went to the Superior Lakeshore and Apostle Islands in Northern WI. They were gorgeous, incredible, fantastic. Getting to the islands is a little challenging -- there is a boat that will take you to some of the islands and you can camp overnight, otherwise we camped at the Town of Russel Campground right on Lake Superior. Here's a link to some campgrounds, apparently the National Park Service does not have any camping on the mainland, it is all privately owned (but it was a really nice campground, and located right next to a boat launch and ranger station.) You can also kayak to the islands, although we opted to do a day trip through an outfitter. You can also do multi-day trips through outfitters, and they are pretty reasonably priced (especially if you do not want to purchase a bunch of equipment, and they provide meals, etc) Living Adventures was the outfitter we went through, highly recommended. Here's my photos from the trip and an Ask thread from me with suggestions from other Mefites.

Also, I don't know exactly where in the Midwest you are located, but Western South Dakota and the Badlands/Black Hills is another really gorgeous area you may want to consider. If you are in Iowa/Illinois, it may be worth it just to drive to Colorado if you are going to drive that far, but as a new camper/hiker, the Black Hills are a little less intimidating than the altitudes and 14,000 foot peaks of Colorado. (Not that I would discourage you from going to Colorado, ever :P) I grew up vacationing in the Black Hills and there are a ton of really accessible day hikes, and great camping opportunities. Memail me if you want more information, I have some novel-length emails with Black Hills info that I've sent to friends that I can forward you.

Ok those are my two big suggestions for now. I have lots more little excursions in my brain, but these are two of my mostest favorite places in the Midwest :)
posted by sararah at 7:39 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Starved Rock in Illinois is a really beautiful place to spend some time.
Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest (southern Illinois) is great for backpacking. There are campgrounds close by for backpackers.
Turkey Run State Park in Indiana offers hiking and camping.
posted by Sailormom at 7:46 PM on February 12, 2009

A note on training: I went on my first backpacking trip (also first serious hiking trip) at the age of 16 after growing up a fat geek in eastern SD. I trained just in my neighborhood for that hike, and did pretty well considering (5 days in the wilderness @ 7-10 miles per day) I borrowed a pack from a family friend, and loaded it up with school books, strapped on the pack and my hiking boots, and just walked around the neighborhood for 45-60 minutes every day. I used to subscribe to Backpacker magazine and they had some training plans specifically geared towards flatlanders like us.

Also check out sites like Steep and Cheap, Campmor, and REI Outlet for some good deals on hiking/camping gear. Although I wouldn't recommend buying boots from from the web (definitely better that you try those on in person) you may be able to find a good deal on a cheap day pack or some other gear to start you out. (I would also probably try on an internal frame multi-day pack in person) Also, what part of Iowa are you in? I know students, faculty/staff and Alumni association members can rent camping gear from the Iowa State University Recreation Services. So that might be something to consider if you don't want to buy stuff right away and you are affiliated or know someone that is affiliated with ISU. (Link to ISU Rec Services) ISU Rec Services also has a gear sale each spring, so keep on the look out for that if you know anyone in Ames or personally live in the area. I've been slowly accumulating camping gear for the last 8 years, and every year I make a "big purchase," like last year it was new hiking boots. So it is definitely a process, and see if you can fit one quality big ticket item into your budget this year and beg/borrow/dumpster dive for the rest until you can afford it. I'm usually pretty generous about loaning out my camping gear to trusted friends.

If you are in central Iowa there are some decent-ish hiking trails at Ledges State Park near Boon and at the Iowa Arboretum near Luther. They both have some good hills, so if anything, strap your hiking boots on and do some hill intervals to get your legs in shape once the weather warms up. If you're closer to the Mississippi or Missouri rivers, I imagine there is some good hiking along the bluffs.

I will shut up now. Apparently I too am excited for summer. :)
posted by sararah at 8:03 PM on February 12, 2009

Pike's Peak State Park in Iowa. GREAT views, and close to some neat attractions like the Effigy Mounds monument.

posted by cosmicbandito at 8:03 PM on February 12, 2009

Eau Claire Dells in Wisconsin.
posted by at 8:20 PM on February 12, 2009

Don't forget Michigan!
posted by Cold Lurkey at 10:01 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yellow River State Forest is near Pike's Peak and Effigy Mounds, as well. It has the best backpacking in Iowa. However, if you want a really top-notch trip, head North to the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:18 PM on February 12, 2009

I grew up in Minnesota, but have since moved to the West Coast and backpacked my way all over the western half of the U.S. I have never backpacked anywhere I loved even nearly as much as I loved Isle Royale. It's maybe a bit farther away than you're looking for, but it is so, so worth it.

The Superior Hiking Trail is amazing, but there is little that can beat taking a boat twenty miles out into Lake Superior, and then spending your days without seeing so much as a bicycle. Listening to wolves howl at night is nice, too.
posted by adiabat at 1:34 AM on February 13, 2009

I would recommend the Washington Island Campground at (surprise) Washington Island (Door County, WI). It was very dog-friendly, the main lodge has free wifi (!!), the town is charming and unassuming. You can hike around the shoreline, you can take a ferry to Rock Island State Park and hike there (actually you can camp there as well). Washington Island is also very bikable. My husband loves sea kayaking in that area, if you're into that.

I'm not much of a camper and Washington Island made for a very easy transition. It's remote, but it's not.

Anyway, get out of the Midwest. Denver or Rapid City are each a long day's drive from Des Moines (dunno where you are), and there is plenty of hiking to be had near both. If you can drive two days, get thee to Montana.
posted by desjardins at 7:13 AM on February 13, 2009

Response by poster: I will shut up now. Apparently I too am excited for summer. :)

Amen . . . thats exactly how I feel.

Thanks so much everyone- I am so excited to start looking into all these places and making plans!

I actually don't mind driving long distances, but my car's kind of an old POS and I'd be nervous to take it so far. If I go with my boyfriend we can take his car, but he gets kinda crabby on long car rides :-) Plus he can only get so many days in a row off work- I don't think we could do a trip longer than 4-5 days anytime this year. However, I will keep in mind ALL these suggestions. I won't always have a POS car and no money, and I'm hoping that this interest I have now will develop into a lifelong hobby/pursuit. I would eventually like to visit places all over the US, hell, all over the world. But, one step at a time :-)
posted by lblair at 8:06 AM on February 13, 2009

If you go as far as Kentucky (not far across the Ohio border) go to Red River Gorge.
posted by salvia at 11:02 AM on February 13, 2009

If you are in WI, desjardins has it right. Rock Island is a great campgrounds -- very isolated and right on the lake. The only rel issue is that the isolation is time consuming, you will have to take a car ferry to Washington Island, drive across the island and take another ferry (pedestrian only) to Rock Island. Repeat to get back. If you are not interested in that sort of transportation time, Newport Park is almost as nice and is on the mainland.

On the other hand, if transportation is not a problem, the best camping in the midwest is in Michigan. Isle Royale National Park is located on a large island in the middle of Lake Superior and is absolutely breathtaking. Look it up, but I will mention two things: wolf packs and moose.
posted by rtimmel at 12:03 PM on February 13, 2009

Response by poster: Ummm . . . wolves won't try to eat me, right? I probably shouldn't bring my little dog. :-)

I'm down for some moose though. Meese? (Just kidding.)
posted by lblair at 12:23 PM on February 13, 2009

From what I understand, the wolves are not a problem, they are wary of people and at best (and it is the best) you will hear them howling to each other in the distance. What they warn you about are the moose -- they are huge and while fairly docile, they are wild animals.
posted by rtimmel at 1:26 PM on February 13, 2009

Don't forget Michigan!

Seriously! Copper Harbor is AWESOME.
posted by at 6:33 PM on February 13, 2009

Yeah, it is definitely the moose you have to worry about on Isle Royale, though the rangers give you a briefing about what to do if you happen to run into one. If you're very, very lucky, you'll hear the wolves, but you will definitely not be lucky enough to see them.

The other great thing about Isle Royale is that there are no bears, so you don't have to hang a bear bag every night — a few feet off the ground keeps the critters out of your food.
posted by adiabat at 5:31 PM on February 15, 2009

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