National parks have always ranked high on family travel lists; yet the pandemic has increased our emphasis on exploring the outdoors. While you may have dreamed of visiting Yellowstone or Yosemite, did you know that there are several national parks within driving distance of Chicago? Here are a few that you can get to in a day – including a brand-new national park – and a couple that you could even make a day trip.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, Southern West Virginia
- Distance: 9 hours from Chicago
The country’s newest national park, this is the first national park in the ruggedly beautiful state. Shake off those cooped up feelings with a visit to Adventures on the Gorge, one of the best adventure resorts in the country, adjacent to the national park. Stay in one of the private cabins with a hot tub and kitchen, or rough it at a campsite. Spend your days zip lining, braving it across the world’s highest Bridge Walk, rappelling, mountain biking, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, hiking and more.
Kids ages 4 and up won’t forget their trek across the aerial obstacle course. Make it super memorable with a MoonTrek visit, when the course is aglow with thousands of lights at night. Traverse across a 24-inch-wide catwalk beneath the New River Gorge Bridge 850 feet above the New River for stories you’re sure to tell for years to come.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
- Distance: 8.5 hours from Chicago
The nation’s most visited national park showcases ancient mountains with awe-inspiring hiking opportunities, adorable cabins galore, and possible black bear sightings, too! Southern Appalachian mountain culture, abundant flora and fauna, waterfalls and log bridges beckon you to explore. Through May 30, young hikers can enjoy the Storybook Trail, where a Smoky-themed book comes to life via trail-side activities on the 1-mile Cosby Nature Trail.
Nearby Pigeon Forge boasts loads of family fun for those seeking more than nature expeditions. Visit The Island in Pigeon Forge for a spin around The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel or any of their countless family-friendly rides. Take off in the world’s first zipline coaster or marvel at the strengthen and skill demonstrated in the lumberjack show at Lumberjack Feud. While you’re there, don’t miss Dollywood, the renowned theme park, which features family-friendly shows, rides, an outdoor water park and lip-smacking Southern food. You can go rafting in the Smokies, too!
Mammoth Cave, South Central Kentucky
- Distance: 6 hours from Chicago
The world’s longest underground cave system is just south of Louisville. Not only can you spelunk the limestone labyrinth, but also hike 53,000 acres of rolling hills, river valleys and lush forests. Make sure to book cave tours in advance. Read Journey to the Bottomless Pit, a book about enslaved guide Stephen Bishop, before your visit. See if you can spot tiny bats inside the underworld, which rangers call “fuzzy chicken nuggets.” Stay at the rustic cabins inside the park for easy access to the trails.
Numerous family-friendly activities surround Mammoth Cave National Park. At Dinosaur World, you can dig for fossils or excavate gems. At Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo, you can feed kangaroos. Visit nearby Bowling Green for a tour of the National Corvette Museum, where you can view the sinkhole that swallowed eight Corvettes in 2014, then scoop up some cheese fondue and gourmet burgers at Gerard’s 1907 Tavern. Also, Chaney’s Dairy Barn is great for fun on the farm and homemade ice cream.
- Distance from Chicago: 5 hours from Chicago
This outdoor oasis near Cleveland moved into the top 10 most visited national parks in 2020, to the 7th spot. The park consists of 33,000 acres of leafy trees, grassy valleys, cascading waterfalls and historic farms. Spend your time hiking, biking and viewing wildlife. The 60-foot Brandywine Falls is a showstopper. Rent bikes from Century Cycles and pedal the historic Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Hop aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for a 2.5-hour roundtrip ride. Kids with national parks passports will be delighted to have the conductor stamp theirs.
Families often stay in Independence, which is close to the park. Drive over to Cleveland for the Great Lakes Science Center, an excellent, interactive science museum. Melt Bar & Grilled is a cool place to grab a gooey, gourmet grilled cheese. An hour and a half from the national park, you can sleep in the treetops at The Mohicans Treehouses.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Northwest Indiana
- Distance from Chicago: 1 hour from Chicago
Some of the most challenging hiking terrain in the Midwest exists here. While climbing towering sand dunes can make your heart pound and your legs quiver, the views of blue Lake Michigan below are exceptionally rewarding. Cowles Bog is a favorite trail to wander past black oak savannas, swamps, marshes, ponds and dunes to the sandy beach.
Tackle the 3 Dunes Challenge at nearby Indiana Dunes State Park. It’s fun and relatively fast, but be warned, it goes up over 500 vertical feet across three sand dunes.
Don’t miss Albanese Candy Factory in Merrillville for road trip treats. This candy store boasts the World’s Best Gummies, but the sheer variety of nostalgic candies are worth the attention.
If you’re spending the weekend or longer, stay in nearby New Buffalo, Mich. Rent a beach house and grab some grub at The Stray Dog Bar & Grill. Stop by Oinks Ice Cream for a cone of Michigan Pothole. Kids can play on the playground as you watch the sun say goodnight.
Voyageurs National Park, Northern Minnesota
- Distance from Chicago: 9.5 hours from Chicago
One of the quietest national parks in the U.S., this gem is a must-see for adventurous voyagers who love starry skies and water. One-third of the park is water, so rent your own houseboat to explore in a secluded setting. Plus, most houseboats come with their own water slide. Score!
At this newly certified Dark Sky Park, you’ll be wowed by meteor showers and the chance to see the other-worldly hues of the Northern Lights. You can hike the forests, kayak and canoe the islands and rivers.
Camp on the beach in your own private cove. Swim, paddle and watch wildlife like eagles, moose and beavers. Stop by the Historic Kettle Falls Hotel & Dam, one of the few places where you can look south into Canada.
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