December 3, 2018

Beautiful State Parks To Visit In 2019

State parks sometimes get overshadowed by national parks, but it’s time they got their chance in the spotlight. They’re more affordable, usually less crowded and full of beautiful vistas. State parks are pretty much all we have in Nebraska (OK, there are a couple national forest lands and the Lewis & Clark National Trail headquarters, but still…). However, our visits to state parks when traveling have been highlights of our trips – especially our trip to South Dakota.  

I asked travel bloggers to share their favorites, and my friends, they did not disappoint. Here are some of their favorites you need to visit in 2019, starting with Midwest state parks.

10+ state parks to visit in 2019 + tips on hikes, best views and hidden gems. #tips #parks #hiking

Midwestern State Parks

Matthiessen State Park

Where: Oglesby, Ill.

Why: This park nestled in farmland unexpectedly has beautiful areas with deep canyons cut by streams, plus a few waterfalls, including Lake Falls.

Tip: Jai from Midwest Bliss pointed out that the Upper Dells is, by far, the most scenic and easily accessible trail area where you will be able to view most of the falls and vegetation.

Pere Marquette State Park

The view from McAdams Peak at Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois.
Photo courtesy Melissa Schwartz/A Little Time and a Keyboard

Where: Grafton, Ill.

Why: Pere Marquette State Park is known for bald eagle nesting in the winter. There is horseback riding, fishing, hiking and geocaching the rest of the year. Try the hike to McAdams Peak for beautiful views.

Tip: Melissa from A Little Time and a Keyboard mentioned one thing I haven’t encountered at any other state park: This one has a winery in the lodge. 

Stone State Park

Where: Sioux City, Iowa

Why: Considered an “urban wildlife sanctuary,” Stone State Park is found in the Loess Hills Scenic Byway. Mountain biking, hiking, fishing and camping are popular here. 

Tip: The trails at this park have a lot of hills, some quite steep, so Lindsay at Siouxland Families recommends sturdy hiking boots for good traction, and keeping toddlers in a carrier. “For a flatter walk, try parking at the Pammel Valley shelter and walking along the lake a bit. It’s not a very long hike, but it’s beautiful and the terrain is easy enough for most kids and many people with limited mobility.”

Falls of the Ohio State Park

The fossil beds at Falls of the Ohio State Park in Indiana. Photo courtesy Melissa Schwartz/A Little Time and a Keyboard

Where: Clarksville, Ind.

Why: The park is situated along the Ohio River where you can view the exposed Devonian fossil bed. While you can’t collect fossils there, it’s pretty  neat to see. See close-up photos of some of the fossil beds on Melissa’s post at A Little Time and a Keyboard.

Tip: If you really want a fossil, the gift shop has some you can purchase.

Turkey Run State Park

A bridge at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. Photo courtesy Lindsay Williams/Let Me Give You Some Advice 

Where: Marshall, Ind.

Why: Turkey Run State Park is one of Indiana’s most popular state parks for good reason. Families can hike to a waterfall, canoe, horseback ride, and swim.

Tip: Lindsay from Let Me Give You Some Advice said the staff at the nature center can clue you in to which trails are best for your ability, as some can be rugged. “We hiked Trail 3 which is moderate in places and very rugged in others including three wooden ladders and some rocky walls to navigate. Good shoes (that are OK to get muddy) are a must. Plus, you’ll need to see if there’s been high water recently since much of the trail follows a creek bed.”

Mackinac Island State Park

View of Mackinac Island marina from Fort Mackinac
Soaking up the view of Mackinac Island while at Fort Mackinac located in Mackinac Island State Part.

Where: Mackinac Island, Mich.

Why: Mackinac Island State Park is a mix of trails and the historic Fort Mackinac. Once a military outpost and a national park, Fort Mackinac now is a park to tour, watch demonstrations and take in gorgeous views of Mackinac Island. One of its draws is that its located on a car-free island.

Tip: Each day, there is a ceremonial cannon shot that one guest can fire. It’s an additional fee to do it, and you must be older than 12, but it’s quite the experience! I tried it, and my kids helped prep the cannon. Read about our experience in this post about Fort Mackinac at Mackinac Island State Park.

Silver Lake State Park

Where: Mears, Mich.

Why: This park has stunning sand dunes sandwiched between Silver Lake and Lake Michigan. One fun way to explore the park is by dune buggy, which you can rent there.

Tip: Kylie from Between England and Iowa rented a dune buggy while in Silver Lake State Park and offered several tips for safe driving. One the best pieces of advice she had was “Don’t drive through water in a rental. It may look like a shallow puddle from a distance but I saw a buggy that was almost up to the ‘windows’ in the middle of the water, having to be towed out by another vehicle…engines and sand don’t mix.”

Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park

Hidden Falls in Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park in Minnesota. Photo courtesy Kristie Probst/World is Wide

Where: Nerstrand, Minn.

Why: Visit Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park in the spring to find a unique species of lily found in only three Minnesota counties, the Minnesota Dwarf Trout Lily.  The park is also home to Hidden Falls, a waterfall along on Prairie Creek.

Tip: There are some hills, but according to Kristie at World is Wide, most trails are low-key hikes. To feel like you have the park to yourself arrive early. Her family started their hike at around 9 a.m., and by the time they returned to their vehicle, the parking lot was full.

Niobrara State Park

The view of the river from a cabin at Niobrara State Park. Photo courtesy LeAnna Brown/Well Traveled Nebrakan

Where: Niobrara, Neb.

Why: Niobrara State Park cabins offer some of the best views ever of the winding Niobrara River, and according to LeAnna at The Well-Traveled Nebraskan, the camping sites were some of the best she’d ever seen.

Tip: The park offers horseback riding and has a swimming pool, but most unique is its seasonal Buffalo Cookouts. Eat a buffalo burger dinner and enjoy entertainment from ranging from poets to storytellers to singers. Reservations are required.

Hocking Hills State Park

Where: Logan, Ohio

Why: Hocking Hills State Park is a popular destination for traveling families because of its natural rock formations and numerous waterfalls. Plus, Conkles Hollow is a sight to see in the winter, according to Leah at Yoder Toter Blog. She described how dramatic it gets, with walls of the gorge being filled with ice formations. “On one winter visit, my little ones thought we had taken off to Elsa’s land in Frozen.”

Tip: According to Leah, the easiest trail for kids to hike is the paved Gorge Trail at Ash Cave. The trail ends at the large cave recess, in an area that’s full of sand and rocks. Basically, it’s a giant sandbox, so you may want to bring digging supplies and trucks for small kids to play.

Mohican State Park

Where: Loudonville, Ohio

Why: Many people visit Mohican State Park for the views from the Clear Fork Gorge Overlook. The park is popular for fishing, hiking, and when the weather’s right, tubing down Clear Fork River.

Tip: Two trails recommended by Tonya at Travel Inspired Living are the Big Lyons Falls Trail and Pleasant Hill Trail. The Pleasant Hill Trail is an easy one-miler.

Custer State Park

Where: Custer, S.D.

Why: This is one of the nation’s largest state parks, with 71,000 acres of lakes, including my favorite, Sylvan Lake, as well as pastures, pine forests, historic sites, and granite rock formations. Plus, this park has the picturesque Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, voted as one of the 10 Most Outstanding Byways in America. The Dang Travelers have a great list of reasons why Custer State Park should be on your radar.

Tip: You want to take one of those photos of Mount Rushmore through one of the tunnels in Custer State Park? You’ll want to drive Iron Mountain, the 18-mile road between SD 36 and SD 244. You have three chances (ie. three tunnels that frame the monument).

State Parks Beyond The Midwest

I have travel friends around the U.S. who’ve visited some memorable state park. Here are a few of their recommendations for parks outside the Midwest, including New York, New Mexico and North Carolina.

Wekiwa Springs State Park

There were quite a few people swimming in the spring water at Wekiwa Springs State Park. Entrance is $2 per canoe.

Where: Longwood, Fla.

Why: This beautiful state park is near Orlando, making it a great day trip for those visiting theme parks. There is a swimming area, if you dare (we paddled by a small alligator). 

Tip: You can rent, canoes kayaks or standup paddleboards. Read about our experience canoeing with Wekiva Island.

Letchworth State Park 

The view of two waterfalls at Letchworth State Park in New York. Photo courtesy Ann Smith/Ann’s Entitled Life

Where: Castile, N.Y.

Why: Letchworth State Park is along the Genesee River, and features scenic cliffs and three waterfalls (one is 107 feet high). Fall is a particularly stunning time to visit this 14,427-acre park.

Tip: to the upper Falls can be a bit dicey, but worth it, according to Ann at Ann’s Entitled Life.

Pilot Mountain State Park

Unique rock formation at Pilot Mountain State Park in Pinnacle, North Carolina. Photo courtesy Katie Daughtrey/Living The Katie Way.

Where: Pinnacle, N.C.

Why: The views and challenging hikes

Tip: Mountain Trail is a serious climb, according to Katie at Living The Katie Way. It’s good to hike if you want the challenge, but she shared this good tip: Pilot Mountain State Park actually has the best access for non-hikers to a summit. “If you want, you can drive practically the whole way to the top and just walk around the Big Pinnacle and hit the overlooks from the top of Little Pinnacle.” 

Oliver Lee State Park

The view from the Dog Canyon Trail at Oliver Lee State Park in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Photo courtesy Hillary Midgley/RVing With Midgley

Where: Alamogordo, N.M.

Why: Gorgeous dessert views and challenging hikes, plus Oliver Lee State Park puts you near White Sands National Monument, Three Rivers Petroglyph Recreation Site, International Space Hall of Fame, and Pistachioland. 

Tip: Hillary at RV Like Midgley stayed six days at Oliver Lee State Park and wrote about her experience hiking the challenging 6-mile Dog Canyon Trail. “It was definitely one of the more challenging trails I’ve been on – with all the rock climbing and elevation gain. It took us about 3 hours to make it to the end, which was the remains of a small cabin at the end of the canyon. You could feel the temperature drop as we ascended into the canyon and we even found ice by the small spring. Then it took us another hour and 45 minutes to climb back down. It was challenging, but the views were spectacular!”

Travel bloggers share their favorite state parks to visit in the U.S., and include tips on hikes, best views and hidden gems. #tips #parks #hiking

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August 27, 2018

Outdoor Adventures In Decorah

I wanted a weekend getaway this summer that included being active and seeing beautiful scenery. And I needed it to be drivable from Omaha. My choice? Decorah, a small town in northeastern Iowa tucked in the Driftless Area of the Midwest. 

Disclosure: My stay was hosted by Visit Decorah and I partnered with Karst Adventures for the outdoor excursions. All opinions, thoughts and typos are my own.

When I started planning my weekend to Decorah in northeast Iowa, I had two things on my agenda to see: Dunning’s Springs and the Upper Iowa River, which I had seen included on a National Geographic list of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America. After seeing it on that list, how could I not go there?

While it’s quite easy to have a family-friendly getaway to Decorah, this time around, it was a kid-free, girls weekend for me. To make the most of having just 48 hours in Decorah, I partnered with Amber from Karst Adventures to guide my group through a bike ride and moonlight float down the river.

Dunning’s Springs

I’m a sucker for a good waterfall on vacation. This 200-foot waterfall is right in downtown Decorah in Dunning’s Spring Park, and so easy to get to. There is parking available, but you can do as we did, too, and simply bike to it. 

Waterfall at Dunning's Spring Park in Decorah, Iowa
My friend Amy and I climbed up the waterfall at Dunning’s Springs Park in Decorah, Iowa. 

Wear decent climbing shoes if you’re going to attempt to go up the waterfall. The water is cold and we saw children playing in the stream.

There are stairs, making an easy route to get to the top of the falls. The park has trails, including mountain bike trails. This was just a quick stop for us, so we didn’t explore beyond the waterfall.

Bridge near waterfall at Dunning's Spring Park in Decorah, Iowa
The arch stone bridge at Dunning’s Springs Park was made without any mortar.

While you’re there, check out the stone arch bridge. It was designed to be similar to one that was there more than 100 years ago, and the interesting thing is that no mortar was used to build it.

Biking the Trout Run Trail

Our group consisted of three women of varying abilities, and none of us had experience on mountain bikes, so the awesome mountain bike trails in Decorah were out of the question. We opted for tackling Trout Run Trail, a paved loop of about 10 miles that rides along the Upper Iowa River through cornfields, and past the fish hatchery and bald eagle nest.

Bike rider on Trout Run Trail in Decorah
This is what bike riding in Iowa is all about. It was beautiful riding along the Trout Run Trail in Decorah.

With Amber as our guide, we learned about the terrain the Driftless Area is known for, including the fascinating algific talus slope in the limestone walls where we could feel a cold breeze coming from the rock.

Driftless Area, in case you were wondering, is a region in the upper Midwest, that had glaciers. 

Guide from Karst Adventures in Decorah, Iowa
Amber started Karst Adventures in the summer of 2018. She was our guide both on the Trout Run Trail and, later that night, on the Upper Iowa River.

She was a good motivator for us, warning us of lengthy inclines and how to handle the switchbacks in the cornfields. And, she knew where exactly to look for the famous bald eagles nest in Decorah.

Feeding fish at the fish hatchery in Decorah, Iowa
Feeding the fish at the Decorah Fish Hatchery. This place is a hit would be a hit with my kids.

With pit stops to rest, and one to feed fish at the hatchery, our ride took up nearly the four hours of our rental.

Where to get your bikes: Amber met us at Decorah Bicycles, where we rented hybrid bikes for a four-hour span. In case you’re wondering, there are also mountain bikes and kids bikes available there.

The entire Trout Run Trail may be too difficult for young children, especially with some of the hills. They were a little grueling for us. If you do want to try it with kids, you can do an out-and-back from the bicycle shop to the fish hatchery. It’s flat (and you can look for the bald eagles nest while you’re out there).

Panoramic of the stream at the fish hatchery in Decorah, Iowa
A fisherman at a stream by the Decorah fish hatchery.

The location of Decorah Bicycles is convenient. It’s near the Trout Run Trail, first of all. But, it’s also a short ride from the waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park. If you’re comfortable riding on the street, it’s easy to tack on a visit to the falls before getting on to the trail.

And conveniently, it’s near both The Whippy Dip and Pulpit Rock Brewing Co., so if you’re craving ice cream or beer after your ride, you’re covered.

Related post: Get dining suggestions for Decorah here.

Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. is within walking distance of Decorah Bicycles, where we rented our bikes for the trail ride.

Kayaking the Upper Iowa River

If you don’t have a guide like Amber, it’s a good idea to check the water levels of the river before setting out on the Upper Iowa River. There are outfitters to rent kayaks, canoes or tubes. We got our kayaks from Off The Driftless.

Bonfire by the Upper Iowa River
We took a break during our moonlight float to snack and sit around a fire. Photo courtesy Vidar Skrede

We were fortunate enough to be in Decorah on a gorgeous full moon-lit night, so we had made plans to have a moonlight kayak float with our guide Amber, who runs Karst Adventures. The three of us in my group, again, had varying levels of kayaking abilities. We had all kayaked at least once, so we had that going for us. But it had been years for a few of us. If you’re going to do one of these nighttime floats, it’s pretty important to not be completely new to it.

Moonlight kayaking on the Upper Iowa River
We kayaked down the Upper Iowa River on a full moon in August. It was both peaceful and unsettling, especially when the fog rolled in. Photo courtesy Vidar Skrede

Our group was picked up from Off The Driftless and shuttled to a launching point. After a quick refresher on steering and getting into a kayak, we were off. To be honest, it was both unsettling and incredibly peaceful. Visibility was low, especially with the fog. 

It was an adventure, though, and engaged the senses. We were on high alert for anything in the water. We could hear beaver tails slapping the water, watch blue herons flutter away, and muse over the gang of geese walking in the water. The fog helped disguise us so animals weren’t so skittish. 

Moonlight kayaking on the Upper Iowa River
Fog and a full moon over the Upper Iowa River. Photo courtesy Vidar Skrede

My friends and I were unfamiliar with this river, so I would’ve appreciated having Amber as a guide in the daytime, but she was absolutely essential at night. The river was low in August, so we followed her to avoid shallow waters and fallen trees. 

When I return with my family, I’ll be reaching out to Amber to help customize an outdoorsy itinerary. Her work has largely focused on introducing women and children to outdoor pursuits and skill building. 

Kayaking, biking, and climbing a waterfall in Decorah, Iowa - Here's how to have an active getaway in eastern Iowa #thisisiowa #outdoors #adventure

Plan a trip to Decorah

Read about our experience staying at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Decorah, as well as all the great places we dined at in town. Norwegian Christmas desserts? We tried them. Wood fire on a farm? We went there. Here are my tips on where to stay and where to eat in Decorah 

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Kayaking the Upper Iowa River, biking, and climbing a waterfall in Decorah, Iowa - Here's how to have an active getaway in eastern Iowa around the Driftless Area #thisisiowa #outdoors #adventure