Sandhill Coffee’s Guide to Road Tripping Throughout the Midwest
- Erica Zazo -
Instead of jumping on a post-quarantine plane ride or waiting in crowded National Park entrance lines, this summer, you might consider escaping the city for a drive across the Midwest.
In every corner of the region, road trippers can have their pick of outdoorsy adventures, bustling breweries, one-of-a-kind coffee shops, and local pit-stops. Whether it’s venturing up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across Wisconsin to the Mississippi River, or down through cornfields to Indiana, the Midwest is full of interesting outdoorsy spots.
Here’s the Sandhill Coffee guide to the best (aka our favorite) Midwest road trips:
6 hours, 20 minutes (North)
Marquette is the perfect road trip destination for beer drinkers, outdoor enthusiasts, and small-town lovers. Although the trek from Chicago, up through Wisconsin and into the Upper Peninsula is a long one – it’s well worth it.
Breweries, hikes, coffee shops, and multi-season sport adventures are what Marquette is known for. The town’s dense selection of food, drink, and entertainment won’t leave any road tripper regretting the long-haul.
Hikers flock year-round to Sugar Loaf Mountain, a short but steep hike up to a 360-degree overlook across Lake Superior and neighboring forests. Downtown, Blackrocks Brewery, a local favorite, and Barrel & Beam, a saison-pouring and supper club-inspired taproom, have some of the best beers in the state. For foodies, make sure you don’t miss Velodrome for coffee, the Marquette Food Co-op for a quick lunch, or Steinhaus for an authentic German dinner.
3 hours, 45 minutes (South)
Located in the rolling hills of southern Indiana, Bloomington is definitely off-the-beaten-path – an ideal road trip spot if you’re looking to escape from the bustle of downtown Chicago. Bloomington boasts wide-open spaces, offers solitude in the outdoors, and has plenty of adventures to pick from.
Home to the 200-acre Hoosier National Forest and Monroe Lake (Indiana’s largest), Bloomington attracts cyclists, campers, fishers, foragers, birders, and even those who’d like to meditate with Tibetan monks. Some of our favorite hikes and outdoor escapes near Bloomington include:
- Lower Cascades Park (Bloomington’s oldest park)
- B-Line Trail (3.1-mile urban bike path)
- McCormick's Creek State Park (200+ campsites)
- Hardin Ridge Recreation Area (1,000+ acres to explore)
For an even more amazing road trip, consider timing your escape to Bloomington during the sandhill crane migration. Thousands of birds pass through the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area on their trips between northern and southern states, and local experts say early fall is the best time to watch.
Ludington and Pentwater, Michigan
3 hours, 50 minutes (East)
Beach-town hop along the west coast of Michigan? Count us in. Especially if you’re wanting to stop at artsy, brewery-filled towns along the way.
Our West-Michigan favorites include Pentwater and Ludington, which are both known for their small-town charm and endless options of breweries, restaurants, and outdoor excursions.
In Pentwater, a quaint, little town that doesn’t get too much foot traffic, you can chill out in the sun at North Beach or stay active with a kayaking trip on the Pentwater River.Pentwater River Outfitters rents kayaks and runs shuttles or drop your own boat in near Monroe Road near the Pentwater River Bridge.
Pentwater has all the essentials: from food and drink to music and shopping. Locals love beer from The Antler, scarfing down The Bear Burger from Brown Bear, listening to live jazz at Gull Landing, or enjoying local produce at Cottage Garden Cafe.
In Ludington, road trippers take advantage of great fishing, great camping, and great food and drink. Because the Pere Marquette Rivers dumps right into Lake Michigan downtown, the fishing where the river meets Lake Michigan doesn’t get much better than this.
After a long day outside, our picks include a stop into The Mitten Bar or Starving Artist Brewing for some local beer and Chuck Wagon Pizza or Jamesport (try the cheese bread) for food. Or if you an afternoon need a pick-me-up, check out Red Rooster Coffee House a family-run cafe right downtown.
Follow-up a weekend downtown with a few days exploring the outdoors at Ludington State Park. The 5,300-acre sand dune and forest-filled park sits nestled between the shores of Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake. It’s full of trails for hiking and biking (8 fully-marked trails to be exact) and a must-see at the park is the Big Sable Point Lighthouse – an especially prime spot to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan.
Wisconsin’s Great River Road National Scenic Byway
3 hours, 30 minutes (West)
You know what pairs well with an ice-cold lager and crispy cheese curds? An epic Wisconsin road trip along the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.
One of the best you can take across the state follows the Mississippi River – from Potosi to Prescott, WI along Wisconsin State Highway 35. Along the 250-mile route, you’ll pass through 33 historic river towns. Each brings their own modern-day twist to the historic and cultural influences of the Native Dakota, Chippewa, and Hopewell tribes to the French, German and Swiss settlers that called (and still call) this region home.
As you head North along the byway, don’t miss out on these outdoorsy stops along the way:
- La Crosse, WI – Spend the afternoon birding and hiking at Rush Creek Natural Area, a two-mile-long stretch of prairies atop limestone bluffs on the Mississippi River. Relax and watch for bald eagles and red-shouldered hawks from the prairie or take a rugged, 2-mile hike at Sugar Creek Bluff along the single-track path that leads to a towering lookout over the river. You’ll pass through dry “goat prairies” (known for their steep, rocky terrain), trek through a dry-mesic forest, and alongside Sugar Creek, a Class 2 trout stream. Cool off after at City Brewing, home of the World's Largest Six Pack.
- Fountain City, WI – Get lost and unwind in the labyrinths, chapels, and gardens at Kinstone, a 30-acre haven of wildlife near Fountain City. The 4th-generation garden and farmland is home to an array of megalithic structures – and just might be the most tranquil and magical stop along the byway.
- Pepin and Stockholm, WI – Wild turkey and deer will greet you in the rolling farmlands surrounding the small village of Stockholm. During spring, pull off at Five-Mile Bluff Prairie State Natural Area and hike the 3-mile Five-Mile Bluff Prairie Trail through flowering bird's-foot violet and white and purple prairie-clovers. In the fall, take in the autumn color from Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area and check out the spectacular view of Lake Pepin. And in the winter, get some holiday shopping done at the Purple Turtle Artisan Collective in downtown Stockholm.
This post was written by Erica Zazo, a Chicago-based freelance outdoor + travel writer. Follow her adventures and connect online: @onecurioustrvlr on Instagram