4 National Parks in the Midwest to Visit by RV

Apr 1, 2022 | Travel & Destinations

4 National Parks in the Midwest to Visit by RV

As national parks become more popular than ever, these four remain a bit quieter—though no less spectacular—for travelers who want to avoid the crowds.

By Becky Strauss

Photo: Robert Annis

Don’t overlook the middle of the country when it comes time to plan your national park getaway—often, you’ll find the parks located here are quieter than their marquee counterparts out west, and you won’t have to fight crowds for campsites and spots on ranger-led tours. And while you may not see Old Faithful erupt, or Half Dome at sunrise, you’ll still be awed by the natural beauty just outside your door. 

These four parks offer plenty of amenities and activities for all types of RV travelers.

Indiana Dunes National Park

Rolling sand dunes worthy of the Pacific Coast await in Northeastern Indiana. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore became a national park in 2019 and now features more than 15,000 acres of natural landscape, including its namesake dunes. Bird lovers won’t want to miss the annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, held each May to coincide with huge numbers of migrating birds. 

Boardwalk steps down a dune at Indiana Dunes National Park
Boardwalk steps down a dune at Indiana Dunes National Park.

Highlights

With all those sandy dunes, planning at least one shore day is a must. Fifteen miles of beaches await within the park, offering plenty to do—or not do if you just want to relax in the sun. There are eight separate beaches, open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., that feature potable water and parking. West Beach offers showers and lifeguards from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend through the Monday after Labor Day. Use caution when swimming as the lake bottom has holes and drop-offs, and rip currents do occur. 

Indiana Dunes is also a prime birder’s destination. Even if you’re not here during the festival, you don’t want to be caught without your binoculars. More than 350 species live in or migrate through the area, occupying every habitat, including the beaches, dunes, wetlands, and prairies. Spring and fall migration seasons are spectacular, and it’s possible to see thousands of sandhill cranes in a single fall day or spot over 100 hawks circling over the dunes in the spring. Other common birds include warblers, herons, woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and more.

There are 14 hiking trail systems within the park, encompassing a wide variety of habitats. The most popular is the Dune Succession Trail at West Beach, which leads to the top of a high dune and highlights the four stages of dune development. The trail offers a spectacular view across the lake all the way to downtown Chicago on a clear day, but your quads will pay for it—even though the trail is only about a mile long, it’s strenuous, and includes 270 stairs. If you’re not feeling the climb, the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Trail features a wheelchair-accessible path that highlights the lakeshore, dunes ecology, and riverfront habitats in the park.

Getting There by RV

Interstate 94 runs east to west along the entire southern border of the lakeshore. There are lots of signs along the interstate letting you know when to exit and pick up Highway 12, also called Dunes Highway, which runs parallel to the interstate, but closer to the lakeshore. Stay on Highway 12 past Burns Harbor and you’ll see the park. Various sections of the road are two-lane, four-lane, and urbanized roads through Michigan City.

Where to Stay

Dunewood Campground is the only campground within the park, and it features two loops with a total of 66 campsites (53 are drive-in). There are no electric or water hookups, but there are on-site restrooms with hot and cold showers, as well as a convenience store and gas station. Most sites are packed gravel, and some feature fire rings. 

The more modern Indiana Dunes State Park Campground is located just off of Dunes Highway and is one of the area’s most popular campgrounds, so reserve early. There are 134 sites with full electrical hookups, picnic tables, and grills.


Cuyahoga Valley National Park 

The Cuyahoga Valley stretches between the two metropolitan areas—Cleveland and Akron, Ohio—and surrounds the Cuyahoga River as it winds its way toward Lake Erie. Ever since achieving international notoriety in 1969 for catching fire due to immense levels of pollution, the Cuyahoga River has steadily been recuperating. The area became a national recreation area in 1974 and achieved national park status in 2000, protecting more than 50 square miles of this lush landscape as Cuyahoga Valley National Park. There are abundant forests, gorges, wetlands, and waterfalls to explore, including 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River. 

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Stone arch bridge over a river in a national park
The Cuyahoga River and stone arch bridge.

Highlights

There are more than 125 miles of hiking trails within the park, ranging from nearly flat to challenging, hilly paths. The Towpath Trail runs through the heart of the park and is by far the most popular. It follows the historic route of the Ohio and Erie Canal, where visitors can walk, hike, jog, or bike along the same path that mules walked to tow canal boats. The trail is open 24 hours and is level and hard-packed, making it accessible for bikes, wheelchairs, and strollers. There are lots of access points for the 20-mile-long trail, but parking lots can fill early, especially in the summer. From May through October, you can bike one way and return by train using the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s Explorer service.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is another can’t-miss feature of the park. Though it’s not run by the National Park Service (NPS), the train’s National Park Scenic excursion travels the length of Cuyahoga Valley along the river and takes about 2.5 hours round-trip. Trains run from January through May, and you can board at three separate stations along the way. There are different seating options, but for the best view, book a seat in the dome car, which features fully windowed sides and ceilings for the best view of the park.

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One of the best vantage points in the park is on the Cuyahoga River itself, but those who wish to canoe or kayak on the river must bring their own equipment, as there are no rental kiosks within the park, and the NPS doesn’t maintain the river for recreational use. That said, the Cuyahoga River Water Trail offers a wealth of information about various water routes in the area. The section that flows through the park is covered by Map 4 and highlights four water access points within Cuyahoga Valley.

Getting There by RV

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located by interstates and highways for easy access. The park is minutes off Interstate 77, and Interstate 80 cuts through the northern section of the park. For a scenic drive running the length of the park, hop onto Riverview Road in Brecksville, Ohio, in the north or Botzum, Ohio, in the south. The two-lane highway stretches for nearly 20 miles and offers plenty of spots to pull over. 

Where to Stay

There’s no RV camping within Cuyahoga Valley, but there are several options nearby. Twelve miles east is Woodside Lake Park, an RV park that offers tons of amenities. There are 250 RV sites, both pull-through and back-in, which can accommodate trailers up to 45 feet long. All sites include water, sewer, and 30- or 50-amp hookups. There’s a lake, sand volleyball, horseshoes, basketball, a game room, and WiFi. 

For a quieter experience, there are several state park campgrounds nearby, including Punderson.


Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, differs from many other national parks in that it highlights not only beautiful natural surroundings, but also—and more prominently—cultural heritage. 

People, starting with the Native Americans who called the area home before the arrival of white settlers, have been visiting the hot springs to bathe for hundreds of years. By 1901, the area’s springs were walled up and covered, and Victorian bath houses gave way to brick and stucco structures. Lamar Bathhouse opened in 1923, 2 years after the area achieved national park status in 1921. By the 1960s, visits to the bathhouses had declined so precipitously that all but one closed by 1985. Today, nearly all the bathhouse buildings have been renovated and adapted for modern visitors.

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Aerial view of bathhouses in Arkansas
A view of Bathhouse Row from above. | Photo: Mitch Smith

Highlights

The eight buildings that make up Bathhouse Row were constructed between 1892 and 1923. Those, along with an area called the Grand Promenade, were designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1987. 

Touring Bathhouse Row is a must during a visit to the national park. Start at the Fordyce Bathhouse, the largest bathhouse on the row. It was built in 1915 and now houses the park’s visitor center and a museum. There’s a self-guided tour option, or you can take a seasonal, ranger-led tour. 

Next, choose a bathhouse and partake—two of the bathhouses, the Buckstaff and Quapaw, still offer services. Opened in 1912, the Buckstaff is the only facility that’s never fully closed. The Quapaw was built in 1922, and both offer spa services, including mineral baths, aromatherapy baths, and massages. 

Once you’re sufficiently relaxed, head over to the smallest of the bathhouses, Superior Bathhouse, built in 1916. Today, it houses the only brewery inside a U.S. national park, and the only brewery that uses thermal spring water to brew beer. If your spa bath wasn’t sufficient, the brewery’s “beer bath” allows you to sample all 18 beers on tap.

Also take time to appreciate the lovely natural surroundings in Hot Springs. There are 26 miles of hiking trails within the park, located in two areas. The Hot Springs and North Mountain trails are easily accessible behind the Fordyce Bathhouse and from the Gulpha Gorge Campground. The West Mountain Trails are a little quieter and offer the potential to see wildlife. The Sunset Trail, at 10 miles one-way or a 15- to 17-mile loop, is the longest in the park and completes a circuit near the park boundary. 

If you’d rather see the park by tow vehicle, six scenic overlooks offer lovely vantage points. The Hot Springs Mountain Scenic Drive was built as a carriage road in the 1880s, but beware of the switchbacks.

Getting There by RV

The closest major highway is Interstate 30, just east of the town of Hot Springs. If you’re coming from the north, exit on Highway 70 and head west for 25 miles. If you’re coming from the south, exit on Highway 270 and head west for 18 miles. Both roads are mostly two-lane and easily navigable with an RV.

Where to Stay

Gulpha Gorge Campground is the only RV campground within the park. All sites offer full hookups for 30- and 50-amp electric, water, and sewer connections. Sites are not pull-through. Each campsite features a picnic table, grill, and water. There are bathrooms on-site, but no showers. 

The Hot Springs National Park KOA Holiday is another solid choice, with back-in and pull-through sites, electrical hookups, and tons of amenities, including WiFi, a pool, and a dog park. 


Mammoth Cave National Park 

Much more than just a cave—though it’s immense and jaw-droppingly impressive—Mammoth Cave National Park in rural Kentucky is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as an International Biosphere Reserve. It’s the world’s longest-known cave system, encompassing more than 405 mapped miles. 

This vast subterranean maze was formed as water slowly dissolved carbonate rocks dating from the Mississippian era, between 358.9 and 298.9 million years ago, creating tunnels, sinkholes, and underground rivers. Because of the microclimate created by the cave, it’s also home to a diverse array of animal and plant life. Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941, and now encompasses more than 52,000 acres of wilderness.

Park ranger in cave at national park
A park ranger stands in Chief City, one of the largest cave rooms. | Photo: NPS / Jackie Wheet

Highlights

The highlight of any visit to Mammoth Cave is one of 12 customized, guided tours, depending on your interest, time, and level of physical ability. If you’re fit and up for a bit of a challenge, the Domes & Dripstones Tour begins in a sinkhole and ends in an area known as Frozen Niagara, also the subject of a dedicated tour. You’ll ascend and descend hundreds of stairs on this 2-hour, 0.75-mile tour, but the payoff is a spectacular view of the caves’ many stalactites and stalagmites. If you’re not up for quite so much climbing, the Frozen Niagara Tour features 12 steps and visits one of the most famous sections of the cave. 

One of the coolest ways to see the cave is by lantern light—the Violet City Lantern Tour is conducted completely by lantern light. You’ll wander through huge tunnels and traverse stairs and steep hills, so this tour is best for those with a keen interest and strong quads.

The park is exciting above-ground too, offering 18 miles of easily accessible trails on the south side of the Green River. There are about 7 more miles of trails near the visitor center, featuring river views, sinkholes, springs, ridgetops, and historic cemeteries. Join a ranger-led hike to get the most out of the experience, as these knowledgeable guides will point out flora and fauna along the way. The Heritage Trail Walk is only half a mile long, and features historical stories of the cave, including that of enslaved guide Stephen Bishop, whose gravesite you’ll also visit on the tour.

Between the Green and Nolin Rivers, there are nearly 30 miles of potential paddling within Mammoth Cave National Park. There are three river access points reachable by car within the park, and several canoe and kayak operators that offer daily rentals, as well as overnight paddles. The most popular route is Dennison Ferry to Green River Ferry, which runs for 8 miles and takes 3 to 4 hours. This easy paddle features a cave entrance and several islands where you can take a break or stop for a picnic lunch. All tour companies shuttle you to the starting point, help you get situated in the water, and pick you up at the exit point to return to your vehicle.  

Getting There by RV

Interstate 65 runs to the east of the park, and the exit for the national park is aptly named Cave City. Cave tours and most visitor services are located south of the Green River, which bisects the park, and the easiest access point is via Highway 70, just off of the interstate. The road becomes Mammoth Cave Parkway as it enters the park, and takes you straight to the visitor center.

Where to Stay

Two of the park’s three developed campgrounds offer RV sites. Mammoth Cave Campground, located near the visitor center, offers more than 100 campsites, though none feature electrical hookups. Maple Springs Campground, located on the park’s north side, offers secluded sites, ideal for larger groups. Of the eight sites at the campground, two offer electric and water hookups. 

Cave Country RV Campground is located about 10 miles outside the park and features all of the modern conveniences. All sites are pull-through with full hookups, water, sewer, cable TV, WiFi, picnic tables, and fire pits. 

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Becky Strauss

Becky is an experienced travel writer and editor. She's been all over the world, both on her own and for publications such as ScubaDiverLife.com, Sport Diver, Caribbean Travel and Life, and Rough Guides guidebook series.

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