The Midwest's Most Interesting Landmarks

Badlands National Park in South Dakota is by far one of the top places to see in the Midwest
Badlands National Park in South Dakota is by far one of the top places to see in the Midwest | © Robert Garrigus / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Alexia Wulff
25 September 2020

The Midwest, known as America’s heartland, comprises 12 US states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Although the Midwest doesn’t spend much time in the spotlight, it’s home to dramatic landscapes, national monuments and unique man-made creations. From Mount Rushmore to Willis Tower, here are the 15 most interesting landmarks in the Midwest.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

Historical Landmark
Map View
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
© Jez Campbell / Alamy Stock Photo
Mount Rushmore is one of the most famous national memorials in the US. It consists of a 60ft-high (18m) sculpture carved into the Black Hills mountain range in South Dakota, featuring the faces of four former American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Mount Rushmore was constructed by a team of 400 sculptors between 1927 and 1941, on the basis of a plan devised in the 1920s to draw tourists to the South Dakota area. It worked: nearly three million people visit this historic site every year.

Chimney Rock, Nebraska

Hiking Trail, Natural Feature, Park
Map View
Nebraska’s Chimney Rock served as a marker along the Oregon, California and Mormon wagon routes in the mid-19th century. Now officially a historic national monument, it is a testament to thousands of years of erosion in the North Platte Valley, composed of layers of volcanic ash and million-year-old clay rising 4,228ft (1,289m) above the ground (including spire). To learn about the history of the Overland Trails and the significance of Chimney Rock, head to the visitor center near the town of Bayard.

Atmosphere:

Family Friendly, Kid Friendly

Gateway Arch, Missouri

Building
Map View
View of the St Louis skyline from across the Mississippi River with the Gateway Arch framing the Old Courthouse, St Louis, Missouri, USA
© Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
The Gateway Arch in St Louis reigns supreme as the tallest manmade monument in the United States, at 630ft (192m) high. Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, the stainless steel structure was completed in 1965, celebrating the accomplishments of early westward pioneers and St Louis’s role as the “gateway to the West.” The Gateway Arch sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River – a location chosen to help revive the riverfront – and houses a museum, as well as a tram that takes you to the top.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Park
Map View
Badlands National Park, an awe-inspiring geological wonder once home to the rhino and the saber-toothed cat, is the largest expanse of grasslands in the US, covering nearly a quarter-million acres of wilderness. The Badlands draw in visitors from all over the world, who come to admire the protected wildlife, striking spires and pinnacles and rich fossil beds bursting with 65 million years of geological history. The park is home to animals such as bison, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep, as well as nearly 400 different species of plants and 70 different kinds of butterfly.

The Mackinac Bridge, Michigan

Bridge
Map View
The Mackinac Bridge, a 5mi-long (8km) suspension bridge connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the fifth-longest suspension bridge in the world. Built to withstand severe wind conditions, the Mackinac Bridge boasts a remarkable design, and on windy days, drivers can feel the movement of the bridge, gently swaying 200ft (61m) over the Straits of Mackinac. Head here at dusk for memorable sunset views and bridge lights glistening over the water.

Como Park Conservatory, Minnesota

Zoo
Map View
SUNKEN GARDEN ROOM IN THE MARJORIE MCNEELY CONSERVATORY; COMO PARK; ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA.  SPRING DISPLAY.  U.S.A.
© GREG RYAN / Alamy Stock Photo
Como Park Conservatory, also known as the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, is a half-acre of gardens and art galleries located on the grounds of the Como Park Zoo in Saint Paul. Key features include a Bonsai Gallery, a butterfly garden, a Japanese Garden, a Palm Dome filled with over 150 species of palm trees, a tropical garden featuring plants and animals from Central and South America, along with an array of grasses, flowers and trees. Head to the Sunken Garden for breathtaking views of the glass greenhouse brimming with colorful flowers and lush foliage.

Cave of the Mounds, Wisconsin

Map View
Cave of the Mounds, a striking limestone cavern in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, is a million-year-old geological marvel. It’s lined with striking mineral formations called speleothems, including soda straws, flowstones, curtains, lily pads, Oolites and Helictites, exhibited in a brilliant array of colors from red and brown to blue and gray. A National Natural Landmark, the Cave of the Mounds is formed from limestone over 480 million years old, and with guided tours available every day, guests can get an up-close experience of Wisconsin‘s geological history.

Willis Tower, Illinois

Building
Map View
Chicago’s Willis Tower became the tallest building in the world upon completion in 1973, taking the title from New York’s World Trade Centre. Despite now having slipped to 23rd in the rankings, it’s still home to the highest observation platform in the United States – the Skydeck, located on the 103rd floor at an elevation of 1,353ft (412m). Glass boxes extend 4ft (1m) over the edge of the building – meaning that there’s nothing between your feet and the ground except a transparent floor.

Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan

Natural Feature
Map View
Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore located along the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Image shot 05/2008. Exact date unknown.
© David R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
One of Michigan’s most spectacular natural landmarks is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located a 40-minute drive west of Traverse City. Here, the shoreline of Lake Michigan is dominated by sand dunes formed by glaciers thousands of years ago, the tallest of which stand 450ft (137m) above sea level. Soak up their beauty on the Dune Climb, a 3.5mi (6km) path that leads to the lakeshore, or by biking along the Bear Heritage Trail. The Philip A. Hart Visitor Center is located in the town of Empire.

Enchanted Highway, North Dakota

Architectural Landmark
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AJD57342, Regent, ND, North Dakota, The Enchanted Highway, World's Largest Scrap Metal Sculptures, Pheasants on the Prairie. Image shot 2006. Exact date unknown.
© Andre Jenny / Alamy Stock Photo
One of North Dakota’s most bizarre must-sees is the Enchanted Highway, a 32mi (51km) stretch of road between Gladstone and Regent. It’s lined by towering metal sculptures designed and built by former headmaster Gary Greff, who started work on the collection in 1989. Perhaps the most remarkable of these gigantic artworks is Geese in Flight, located at exit 72 of Interstate 94 and named the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture by the Guinness Book of Records in 2002. Other key Greff pieces include Grasshoppers in the Field and Deer Crossing.

Northern Lights, Minnesota and Michigan

Natural Feature
Map View
Visitors to Minnesota and Michigan throughout winter and spring might be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights (aurora borealis), a natural phenomenon more often connected with Iceland or Norway. One of the best spots is Cook Country in Minnesota, especially from Oberg Mountain in the Superior National Forest, where you can see the lights illuminate Lake Superior. You could also head to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to see the lights from the port town of Marquette or the Keweenaw Peninsula, located 115mi (185km) to the north.

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Park
Map View
Located a 90-minute drive southwest from Chicago, Starved Rock State Park is one of Illinois’ most beautiful areas. Its key draw is 18 dramatic canyons, carved by glacial meltwater over the millennia and hemmed in by vertical, moss-covered cliffs. There are 13mi (21km) of trails within the park to hike or bike, which provide access to 14 gushing waterfalls (some of which freeze in mid-motion during winter), natural springs and overlooks with knee-weakening views. Starved Rock is also a popular spot for hunting, fishing and camping.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ohio

Museum
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Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is housed in an angular, glass-covered building designed by Chinese-born American architect IP Pei. It opened in 1995 to celebrate the role of prominent musicians and explore rock’s cultural, political and historical significance. Exhibits are spread over six floors and include instruments, stage props and costumes used by artists such as Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie, as well as album art, posters and photographs. Rock stars are only eligible for induction into the Hall once 25 years have passed since their first release.

The Great Lakes

Natural Feature
Map View
Aerial view of Navy Pier and Lake Michigan.
© Serhii Chrucky / Alamy Stock Photo
Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario collectively form the awesome geographical region known as the Great Lakes. Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota all boast shorelines on these vast lakes, which together account for 21 percent of the planet’s freshwater. Recreational activities in the area center on watersports and include everything from cruising and fishing to swimming and diving. Explore the landscapes by walking on the 300mi-long (483km) Lake Superior Hiking Trail or driving on the Great Lakes Scenic Tour, which connects all the lakes as well as the St Lawrence River.

Amish villages

Hiking Trail
Map View

Amish villages are a hallmark of the Midwestern states, especially Ohio (in the Adams, Geauga, Holmes, Hardin, Wayne and Tuscarawas counties) and Indiana (in the Elkhart, Middlebury, Goshen, Bristol, Shipshewana, Nappanee and Wakarusa counties). The best way to explore these regions – and to learn about a way of life that hasn’t changed for centuries – is to drive along Indiana’s Heritage Trail, a 90mi (145km) loop scattered with Amish-run bed and breakfasts, restaurants and shops. Drive it during fall, when the Midwest scenery is at its most beautiful.

Additional reporting by Mark Nayler

These recommendations were updated on September 25, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.