Planning a Midwest national park road trip

Planning a Midwest National Park Road Trip

In just a few weeks we’ll be starting out on another #parkchasing adventure. This time we’re embarking on a Midwest national park road trip. It promises to be a full week of national parks, monuments, historical places and a good chance for us to experience some of the ‘flyover’ parks that often get missed among the likes of Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Some trip highlights we’re looking forward to:

  • 5 states and about 1,800 miles on the road
  • Crossing off 10 new national park units on our #parkchasing list
  • Visiting our first national battlefield
  • Hiking the famous Sunset Trail in Hot Springs National Park
  • Our first trip to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis
  • Checking off the Arkansas State Capitol and Clinton Presidential Library off our travel bucket lists.

Today we’re sharing our Midwest National Park Road Trip Itinerary. It includes our stops, hiking plans, and a little bit about the history of some of National Park Service units we’re stopping at. We hope it helps you plan an upcoming trip or inspires you to consider a #parkchasing adventure of your own!

Our Midwest National Park Road Trip

Day One – Minneapolis-St. Paul to Des Moines

On Day One, we’ll be leaving our base camp in St. Paul, Minnesota to head south on historic I-35. Although we’ve already our local parks of Mississippi River National Recreation Area and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, if you’re considering this route for your own travel plans, you’ll want to spend a few days in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Same with visiting the National Parks in Iowa. There are some hidden gems of the National Park Service here.

National Parks Units Along the Way:

Day Two – Fort Scott National Historic Site & George Washington Carver National Monument

Beginning Day Two on I-35 again. This time we’ll be traveling through Kansas City BBQ territory en route to southern Missouri. Here we’ll make two stops: Fort Scott National Historic Site and George Washington Carver National Monument.

Visitor's Center at Fort Scott NHS
Fort Scott National Historic Site – Visitor’s Center

Fort Scott National Historic Site will be one of two forts on our Midwest National Park Road Trip. Located in Fort Scott, Kansas, the site marks the home of an early pioneer military outpost from the 1840’s expansion of the United States. Today, visitors can tour restored fort buildings and learn about the experience of Native Americans and early European settlers in the area.

George Washington Carver National Monument - one of the national parks in St. Louis

About 1.5 hours drive southeast from the Fort, we’ll next visit George Washington Carver National Monument. Located in Diamond, Missouri the site honors the birthplace of George Washington Carver, one of American history’s most prominent scientists and inventors. Park visitors can hike to the archeological site believed to be the cabin where Carver was born, as well as explore the museum and exhibits documenting his life, inventions, and his legacy among enslaved African Americans.

National Park Units Along the Way:

Our Midwest National Park Road Trip

Day Three – Pea Ridge to Hot Springs National Park

On Day Three we’ll leave Missouri and Kansas for “The Natural State” of Arkansas. Our first stop in the morning will also be the first military park we’ve visited in the National Park Service. As of the start of our trip in 2020, there are 11 National Battlefields, nine National Military Parks, four National Battlefield Parks, and one National Battlefield Site in the National Park Service. Among those designations, the NPS does not distinguish a difference in terms of their preservation or management policies.

Pea Ridge Entrance Sign

Located in Garfield Arkansas, Pea Ridge National Military Park commemorates an 1862 site were more than 23,000 soldiers fought in the Civil War Battle of Pea Ridge. We plan to use the stop to take the 7-mile scenic driving route through the battlefield’s historic markers and stretch our road trip weary legs on some of the hiking trails.

Fort Smith National Historic Site
Fort Smith National Historic Site

After our stop at Pea Ridge, we’re heading south again to our second historic fort. Fort Smith National Historic Site in Fort Smith, Arkansas is one of several historical markers in the National Park Service commemorating the Trail of Tears. Visitors can tour the restored fort buildings, read about the Trail of Tears, and walk along the historic riverfront area along the Arkansas River.

From Fort Smith, we’re turning east towards our first national park of our Midwest National Park Road Trip – Hot Springs National Park. It’ll serve as our base camp for exploring the rest of Arkansas’ national parks.

National Park Units Along the Way:

Day Four & Five – Hot Springs Hiking & President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home NHS

The next few days we’ll be spending in and around Hot Springs National Park. Many of our readers recommended different hiking trails, activities, and sites in Hot Springs. Of course, taking a dip in the world-famous hot springs made the list as well.

Depending on the weather, our hiking plans in Hot Springs include portions of the Sunset Trail and the Goat Rock Trail. At 10 miles one way, Sunset Trail is the longest and one of the most difficult in the park. It creates a loop around nearly the entire park though, giving visitors a good sample of the terrain and geothermal features in Hot Springs. The 2.2 mile Goat Rock Trail is much shorter, but one of the more popular out-and-back routes in the park.

Also on our list for our stay in Hot Springs is a day trip to Hope, Arkansas. It’s the location of President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site. (Try saying that mouthful, three times fast!!) About 90 minutes from Hot Springs, we’ll spend a few hours there touring the museum and birthplace home before heading back to the campground.

National Park Units Along the Way:

  • Hot Springs National Park – Arkansas
  • President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site – Arkansas

Day Six – Little Rock Central High School & Arkansas State Capitol

The next morning we’ll depart Hot Springs early to head to the Arkansas State Capitol. Along with our #parkchasing list, we’re also working towards touring all the United States State Capitol buildings. The Arkansas State Capitol building was completed in 1915 and sits in the heart of downtown Little Rock.

After touring the capitol building, it’s on to Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. The site preserves the historic legacy of The Little Rock Nine and school integration in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. The only National Park Service unit located in an operating high school, it’s required to book tours well in advance here.

We’re ending the afternoon at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Although not a National Park Service unit, we always enjoy adding the libraries into our #parkchasing road trips!

Day Seven – Ozark National Scenic Riverway

After Little Rock, our route will turn north again back to Minnesota. We still have plans for a few more national parks stops on the way home though. On Day 7 we’ll make our way back into Missouri for a stop at Ozark National Scenic Riverway. One of the first national park units to protect a river, Ozark NSR and the adjacent Mark Twain National Forest is well-known as some of the most scenic parts of Missouri. Many people recognize it as one of the America the Beautiful Quarter Series, issued in 2017.

Options for our stay in Ozark NSR include hiking and seeing some of the park’s many waterfalls. Our March visit likely won’t work for canoeing or paddling though. Those happen to be the most popular activities in the park.

Day Eight – Ulysses S. Grant NHS & Gateway Arch National Park

When we reach day eight, we’ll have two stops left on our Midwest national park road trip. Both bring us to the heart of St. Louis, Missouri.

In the morning we’ll tour the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. The site preserves White Haven, the iconic green family home where Grant and his wife Julia lived leading up to his time as the 18th President of the United States. In 2016, we also visited Grant’s Tomb in New York City. We’re looking forward to learning more about the earlier life of one of our most influential presidents.

The afternoon brings us to our final stop on the road trip, Gateway Arch National Park. Ever since the Gateway Arch obtained National Park status in 2018, we’ve been excited to visit. The newly opened museum, tram to the top of the Arch, and a ranger-led tour are all on our list for the stop.

Planning a Midwest national park road trip

Do you have ideas for a Midwest National Park Road Trip? Anything on this itinerary we’re missing? Leave us a comment or drop us a DM on Facebook or Instagram. We’d love to hear from you about your own #parkchasing trips!



Greg & Amy
Chasing a visit to all 400+ units in the NPS
Current Count: 130/423
Next Stop: @hawaiivolcanoes


9 thoughts on “Planning a Midwest National Park Road Trip”

  1. Sounds like an awesome trip! I look forward to reading your follow up posts / experiences in these places. We are midwesterners too (out of Ohio), but there are quite a few of the National Parks in the midwest that we haven’t gotten to explore yet (including most of the units that you are visiting). I loved the time that we spent in Hot Springs. Enjoy it and safe travels!

  2. Pingback: Visit All The National Parks in Missouri - Park Chasers

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  6. Can wait till Midwest trip 2! Out of Ohio so I’m looking forward to you experiencing my hometown area’s two NPS units. Dayton aviation trail and Charles young/buffalo soldiers. It’s not officially NPS but the National Museum of the US Air Force is also a great stop! 4 massive hangers and a silo with many great aircraft, from the Memphis belle to multiple presidential aircraft to experimental aircraft. They also sometimes have a cancelation stamp. Then hopewell mound are just a short drive away and cuyahoga NP is about 3 hours away from Dayton with more sprinkle throughout!

    1. These are great suggestions Sam! Dayton Aviation was on our top list prior to COVID, looking forward to hopefully going back to traveling more in 2021 to get out that direction!

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