Most prospective travelers think of the cold and rugged when they think of the North. In reality, the Northern United States holds a diverse set of geographic features that provide multi-faceted natural scenery on any vacation or road trip. From the Great Lakes to the Great Plains, a variety of land and waterscapes, along with many charming towns, fill the Northern United States.
Medora, North Dakota
Medora is the hub of natural beauty in North Dakota. The town's 121 people live nestled beside Theodore Roosevelt National Park: over 70,000 acres of rugged badlands filled with prairie-grazing wildlife like bison and elk. There are wide open plains and low rocky peaks with sandstone and caprocks making unique geological formations. Find the best exploration information at the National Parks' South Unit in the middle of town.
The Badlands Lookout is the top-rated trail close to town. And there are family activities as well: the Sully Creek State Park has stables for scenic horseriding, the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site is a standing relic of 19th-century settlement, and Medora Campground along the Little Missouri River has refurbished prairie wagons for a comfortable and authentic experience.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Lake Geneva is a historic resort town known in the past for its stunning views and calm water and today for its Gilded Age Mansions, like the Black Point Estate and Gardens. You can catch both from local trails like the Lake Geneva Shore Path, which passes below Main Street with large estates to one side and the calm Lake Geneva to the other.
The path ends at the Lake Geneva Public Beach, spacious, calm, and sandy. Further along is Big Foot Beach State Park, where kayaking and canoeing are highlighted by colorful and expansive sunsets. High above the lake, the surrounding mountain ranges make a formidable wintertime destination at the Grand Geneva Mountain Top Ski and Adventure Center. Plus, Grand Geneva doubles as a resort and spa.
The scenic town of Decorah, Iowa, is filled with springs, cliffs, waterfalls, and caves. The Upper Iowa River splits the town in two: on one side is downtown Water Street, highlighted by the Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School, and on the other is suburban natural beauty. Dunning's Spring Park is famous for its rolling 200-foot waterfall and the foot trails that coincide with it, complete with small stone walking bridges and wooden stairs; the most popular trail is River Head Trail Head.
The Decorah Community Prarie is a stunning natural landscape with open fields of wildflowers, low-lying rivers, and tall treelines. Phelps Park has everything from mansions to natural trails to stone gazebos to scenic lookouts. Keep in mind: the ample local greenscape is particularly stunning in the fall season when the yellow and red leaves accent the cliffs and rolling water.
In the geographic middle of the Cleveland-Detroit-Toledo triangle on Lake Erie is a small island village named Put-in-Bay. Despite only 0.63 square miles in size, Put-in-Bay's stunning beauty is distinguished by two state islands and two nature preserves. Oak Point State Park is a small picnic-style green space overlooking DeRivera Park's immaculate Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial and the extensive marina of the Crew's Nest.
South Bass Island State Park is a complete refuge of white-rock cliffs, tall trees, and stone beaches on the lake. On the other side of the island, Scheeff East Point Nature Preserve (and the Massie Cliffside Preserve) are havens for explorers. Aside from well-kept coastal trails, the shallow bays allow for relaxing beach walks in moderate lake water with magnificent natural skylines.
Grand Marais, Minnesota
Grand Marais is bordered on one side by Lake Superior and on the other by the Superior National Forest. There are only 1,337 people in the town — enough for the established Grand Marais Campground and Marina and the Grand Marais Lighthouse, and the popular Artist's Point lookout, but not enough for bright city lights and bustling noise.
The small town size only builds on the serenity of the surrounding natural features on the Pincushion Mountain Trail System, comprising multiple trails of varying difficulty and natural features. The wilderness can also be experienced by car: the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway passes lakes, scenic viewpoints, and trails of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Marquette was once recognized as a mining town — a landing spot with massive docks for giant ore freighters. Today, Marquette is more recognized for its coastal beauty on Lake Superior. Incoming ships are met by the uniquely-red Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, and soon pass the historic Lower Harbor Ore Dock, complemented by the greenery of the Ellwood A. Mattson Lower Harbor Park.
Visitors not interested in the mining and shipbuilding history of the downtown area can follow the coastline to find the windy sands of Clark Lambros Beach Park and then continue to the star attraction of Presque Isle Park. This peninsula of dense treelines and rocky coastline is filled with popular trails and picnic tables with Superior views. And, the Black Rocks is one of the best swimming spot in Michigan.
Westport faces the Atlantic Ocean water of the Long Island Sound and is split down the middle by the Saugatuck River. The town's coastline is sweeping beaches and tall green grass. There is the Compo Beach, popular for families playing volleyball or enjoying the sun; the Burying Hill Beach, a winding seaway of shallow water on the rocky ocean with birdwatching and strolling trials; and there's Sherwood Beach, a long stretch of sand for relaxing, swimming, and walking.
Visitors should walk through Sherwood Island State Park, specifically the inlet of Sherwood Millpond surrounding Chiller Island, where there are still tide pools, quaint coastal houses, and wooden boardwalks.
Nauvoo, Illinois, was established as a faith-based community of the Latter-day Saints along the Mississippi River that splits Illinois from Iowa. The pretty town is a natural wilderness dotted with beautiful, modest houses. The Hiram and Sarah Granger Kimball House is a prime example, and the Nauvoo Visitors Center and Historic District are fabulous blends of greenery and red brick.
The most iconic structure is the stunning marble Nauvoo Illinois Temple, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Beautiful natural scenery is all around the town, most notably in the tall trees of the Pioneer Saints Cemetary and the State Park that surrounds Horton Lake.
Along the Ohio River that divides Kentucky and Indiana is the small town of Madison, one of the oldest-founded towns in the state. The town's downtown area is a uniquely natural setting, explorable by the Heritage Trail that follows the river past the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site and down to the City Campground, where tenting spots overlook the Milton-Madison Bridge. Yet, the real Madison, Indiana attraction is the 1,519 acres of Clifty Falls State Park. Inside, there are beautiful trails like Trail #1 that follow through unique rock formations and waterfalls like Clifty Falls, Hoffman Falls, and Tunnel Falls. The falls are particularly dramatic in spring and winter when they are gleaming, frozen displays or full gushes of springtime beginnings.
Wide rivers, tall trees, and sweeping plains in the Northern United States make for dramatic landscapes that have attracted visitors for decades. Road trippers can move from big cities like Chicago and Detroit and reach unique towns — like the historic religious community of Nauvoo, Illinois, and the relics of mining history on Lake Superior's Marquette, or natural features like the rocky trails of Grand Marais, Michigan and the sweeping wild pastures of Decorah, Iowa — all within a comfortable distance. There is a lot to do, see, and explore in the Northern United States.