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How to Have the Ultimate Upper Midwest Road Trip

From the steely grey depths of Lake Superior to the imposing granite escarpments of the Black Hills, there’s no place where America’s wide-open spaces are better showcased than across the upper Midwest.

Milwaukee is your launching pad to the north, where you’ll set a course due west for an urban adventure in the Twin Cities. Up next, you’ll follow in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark along the Missouri River to the canyons and prairies of Badlands National Park. And finally, there’s frontier history, Native American culture, and Rocky Mountain adventure on tap in the Black Hills before your return to big city life in Denver.

A 10-day road trip across Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Colorado takes the road less traveled across some of the most remote and unique landscapes in the United States.

Day 1 & 2: Milwaukee to Pictured Rocks

Distance: 300 miles

Starting in historic Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you’ll skirt the western edge of Lake Michigan’s crystal blue waters on your way to Munising, the gateway to Michigan’s famed Upper Peninsula. Rent kayaks for a water view of the sandstone cliffs, rocky beaches, and waterfalls of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, or choose a hike along the 100-mile trail system. Take the half-hour ferry ride to Grand Island for more hiking and mountain biking, or stay longer in the area to travel across Lake Superior by ferry or seaplane from Houghton to the rugged solitude of Isle Royale National Park.

Closest KOA: Munising / Pictured Rocks KOA

Relax in the heated pool at the Munising / Pictured Rocks KOA, just minutes from South Bay on Lake Superior. The campground has loads of Pull-Thru RV Sites, Tent Sites, and cabins.

Day 3: Pictured Rocks to St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

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Joshua Mayer

Distance: 280 miles

Hop on M-28 west through tiny UP towns like Watersmeet and Ironwood to your next stop in the Hayward Lakes area of northern Wisconsin. More than 200 miles of river trails make for endless kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding on the pristine St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Paddle the class I-II whitewater of the Upper St. Croix or the class I riffles of the lower section. Tube the calm Namekagon River for a more relaxing half-day float trip.

Closest KOA: Hayward KOA Holiday®

A destination in itself, the Hayward KOA Holiday® has a heated pool, bike rentals, mini golf, two playgrounds, themed weekends, movie nights, and a dog park.

Day 4: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway to Minneapolis-St. Paul

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Michael Hicks

Distance: 170 miles

Break camp early to hit Minneapolis in time for some epic cycling on the city’s 200 miles of bike trails. Explore the urban landscape on the 5.5-mile Midtown Greenway and the 15-mile Chain of Lakes Trail, or you can tackle the 50-mile Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway for some serious distance. Off-road cyclists can shred miles of singletrack at Theodore Wirth and Brownie Lake Parks.

Closest KOA: Minneapolis Southwest KOA Holiday®

Despite its rural location, the Minneapolis Southwest KOA Holiday® is close to downtown, with an indoor heated swimming pool, mini golf, and two playgrounds.

Day 5: Minneapolis-St. Paul to Lewis and Clark Lake

Distance: 280 miles

Take off on US-169 south to cross state lines once again on your way to the first capital of the Dakota Territory. You’re back on the water in Yankton, just west of Sioux City, where you can cruise the chalkstone bluffs of Lewis & Clark Lake or kayak and SUP the calm waters of Lake Yankton. Paddle the free-flowing Missouri River right through the town’s historic riverfront, or bike along the river on Yankton’s 30-mile trail network that connects the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area with downtown.

Closest KOA: Yankton / Missouri River KOA Journey®

Right on the Missouri River, the Yankton / Missouri River KOA Journey® is just six miles from Lewis & Clark Lake, with a heated pool, playground, and everything from Tent Sites to Deluxe Cabins.

Day 6: Lewis and Clark Lake to Badlands National Park

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Chris Collins

Distance: 270 miles

Head west on I-90 into the stark landscape of Badlands National Park. Stop in the visitor center for a full appreciation of the rich fossil remains that illustrate the region’s fascinating geologic timeline. Moderate hiking trails like Door Trail, Window Trail, and Saddle Pass lead to iconic views, while the 2.4-mile round trip on Notch Trail and 10-mile Castle Trail go deeper into the backcountry. Stay after sunset for the ranger-led Night Sky Program under a canopy of stars.

Closest KOA: Badlands / White River KOA Holiday®

Reserve a cabin or RV, tent, or teepee site at Badlands / White River KOA Holiday®, just four miles from Badlands National Park on the White River.

Day 7 & 8: Badlands National Park to the Black Hills

Distance: 90 miles

You’ll need a full two days to explore everything South Dakota’s Black Hills have to offer. Start out strolling the Presidential Trail at Mount Rushmore, where ranger programs and a self-guided audio tour provide historical context. The Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Heritage Village, also on the trail, describes the Native American history of the area. Continue on SD-244 for a stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial before heading to Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park to climb the four-mile trail to the summit tower on 7,244-foot Black Elk Peak.

On your second day, head to the prairies and subterranean tunnels of Wind Cave National Park. The fifth longest cave in the world, Wind Cave is made up of 147.7 miles of mapped passages and some of the most extensive spider web-like boxwork rock formations in the world. Easy, moderate, and strenuous cave tours up to 1.5 hours long travel the upper and middle levels of the cave, with candlelight tours and a four-hour wild cave tour (complete with hard hat and knee pads) for thrill-seekers. There’s even a driving tour along the park’s main road and through the geologic timeline behind the cave’s formation.

Above ground, there are 30 miles of hiking trails through grasslands and ponderosa pine forest, where you’re likely to see songbirds, bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, and herds of elk.

Closest KOA: Custer / Mount Rushmore / Black Hills KOA Holiday®

You’re less than 25 miles from all five of the area’s major attractions at the Custer / Mount Rushmore / Black Hills KOA Holiday®.

Day 9: Black Hills to Fort Collins5WxdpDG3BKKeiW2EAiC4qk

Austin Hess

Distance: 280 miles

Arrive in the Colorado college town of Fort Collins in time for a late afternoon visit to Horsetooth Reservoir, a favorite hangout for locals working on easy to challenging bouldering problems in Rotary Park. Whether you’re a spectator or climber, you’ll enjoy all the action against the scenic backdrop of shimmering lakes and sunset-tinted rocks.

Closest KOA: Fort Collins North / Wellington KOA Journey

Explore the Front Range of the Rockies and Old Town Fort Collins from the Fort Collins North / Wellington KOA Journey®, with a lake for paddle boating, mini golf, a snack bar, and a dog park.

Day 10: Fort Collins to Denver

Distance: 100 miles

Rise early and head across US-34 to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead for a 1.6-mile moderate climb to thundering Albert Falls. If there’s time, continue climbing to peaceful Loch Vale and your turn-around point, the towering Timberline Falls at mile 4.

Now it’s time to make your way back towards Denver for a relaxing evening by the campfire before your trip officially ends.

Closest KOA: Denver West / Central City KOA Holiday®

The Denver West / Central City KOA Holiday® offers all-you-can-eat pancakes on weekends as well as evening pizza and wings delivery right to your campsite.

Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with Kampgrounds of America.

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