National Parks and Midwest Road Trips
Adventurer & Photographer
National Parks and the Midwestern Route
Start / End
Chicago, Illinois – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Hot Springs, Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns
At least 14
Spring through Fall
We recommend at least two weeks to encompass all of the possible offerings that are suggested for midwest road trips. A lot of distance is covered here, so it would be ideal to spend a couple of days in, say, Big Bend, after driving many hours to and from there. (Of course, the drives themselves are uniquely impressive, so it won’t feel long at all! The journey is the destination, as they say.) Only a few of the drives are relatively short, around 3 hours or so. But, as you go through Texas, many drives will take up a good part of your day, so plan accordingly. (These longer drives could be broken up into segments, too, but there may be few decent stopping points in the more desolate regions.) The weather through this drive is variable depending on the season. In the summer, it will be quite hot everywhere, muggy in Chicago and dry in Big Bend. In the autumn, it will be much more pleasant in the south, but it could definitely snow in Chicago towards the end of the season. The majority of this trip could be done any time of year, but possible heavy snow November through February can make driving in the upper Midwest a bit treacherous. Follow the forecasts accordingly.
ARRIVAL IN CHICAGO
After flying into Chicago O’Hare International Airport, you’ll rent your car and have the city at your fingertips. Chicago is a world-class city, though one that is somewhat peripheral due to its location away from the coasts. This perhaps makes the city even better, though, as Chicago has retained much of its local culture and history over the centuries. There is enough to do in Chicago that one could easily spend a week sightseeing there, but if you only are dedicating a couple days to the city, you can easily concentrate your time on the key attractions. As the city is fairly spread out, you could pick a neighborhood to concentrate on – like the famous Loop, or the less traveled Pilsen, Ukrainian Village, Logan Square and Wicker Park – or ping pong around the city by public transit to see Cloud Gate and Millennium Park, the Magnificent Mile, the Field Museum, Garfield Park Conservatory and other deservedly known places. There is a lot to explore in Chicago and anywhere you go will be worthwhile.
INTO THE BLUEGRASS STATE AND KENTUCKY
When you’re ready to leave Chicago, you will head south, through Indiana and into Kentucky, the lovely Bluegrass State. A recommended stopping point is Louisville, the largest city in the state and one that has plenty of shopping, eating and sightseeing to offer travelers. For history buffs, there are a lot of monuments and museums to discover in the city, one of the oldest west of the Appalachian Mountains. For culture hounds, there is a thriving local music scene and a few great art museums. If you happen to be in town during the Kentucky Derby in May, that may be your best bet on getting a taste of one of the most longstanding traditions in the state.
DESCENDING INTO MAMMOTH CAVE
A couple of hours south of Louisville is one of the more stunning geological features in the United States, the massive underground chambers of Mammoth Caves. This is the longest known cave system on the planet and is designated as a World Heritage Site and an international Biosphere Reserve. In other words, prepare to be blown away. There are 405 total miles of surveyed passageways at Mammoth Cave and the system goes as deep as 379 feet beneath the ground. It might be best to take a guided ranger tour, as there is a lot of significant historical and geological information that you can’t obtain on your own.
There is a fair amount of distance between Mammoth Caves and your next park destination at Hot Springs National Park, but luckily you pass through two of Tennessee’s great major cities. Nashville and Memphis each have a lot to offer to travelers, but you can choose which one you’d like to break up your drive to Arkansas. In Nashville, you can take in the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and everything else related to this form of American traditional music. On the other hand, in Memphis you can go to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, visit the famous Sun Studios and, perhaps most importantly, eat some of the country’s best barbeque. Either way, plan on spending the night in Memphis so that you get a full day in Hot Springs after the next drive.
HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK
Adjacent to and within the town of the same name, Hot Springs National Park is the oldest park maintained by the National Park Service and was initially designated as a federally protected area before the national park system was established. It is also one of the most conveniently located national parks, as portions run through downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. There are 26 miles of trails around the park and a few places to take the kind of traditional hot spring bath that has been attracting visitors to the site for thousands of years.
ONWARDS TO TEXAS
You will next head into Texas, the Lone Star State, for a few days. The first of these stops will be the charming town of Fort Worth, part of the larger DFW (Dallas – Fort Worth) metropolitan area, one of the most populated urban regions in the South. Though Dallas is the largest of these cities, Fort Worth has a lot of charm to offer to visitors. The city has renowned art museums, fantastic modern architecture and an array of wonderful dining and shopping opportunities.
THE COOLEST TOWN IN TEXAS
Your next stop, a few hours south, is the hip town of Austin, the state capital and the home to the flagship campus of the University of Texas. Like Portland, San Francisco and Brooklyn, Austin is usually considered to be one of the epicenters for the youth of America these days. Yet with nearly a million people within its borders, Austin has enough for everyone: a booming music scene, cheap and tasty food, lots of unique shopping and cultural opportunities, and a unique local vibe around every corner.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
You have a long drive of several hours to reach your next destination, the spectacular landscapes of Big Bend National Park. In a sense, this is one of the best ways to experience the magnitude of Texas, as you will drive through hundreds of miles of flat desert expanse to reach the park, which is nestled along the border with Mexico. This park is especially ssignificant as it is the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States. The park – which sprawls over 800,000 acres – is host to more than 1200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles and 75 species of mammals. Backpacking, horseback riding, birdwatching and fishing are all popular within this desert paradise. Plan on spending at least a couple of days in Big Bend to take it all in.
REFRESH IN MARFA
To get a dose of high culture in an unexpected place, head a couple of hours north to Marfa, a tiny West Texas town that has become a cultural mecca in recent years. What was for decades a sleepy old military town became a mark on the art-world’s map when minimalist sculptor Donald Judd bought numerous buildings in Marfa to turn into studio and living spaces in the 1970s. Today, though still quite rural, the town is host to many world-famous art institutions like the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation and the Lannan Foundation, as well as a handful of smaller galleries and shops. The town has retained its mid-century looks over the years and many Hollywood movies are filmed here to evoke that time. There are, surprisingly, a few stellar places to eat in this middle-of-nowhere locale.
CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK
Your next stop is amazing Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a few hours north of Marfa. Like your earlier trip to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, the geology of Carlsbad Caverns is truly astounding. Though there are a handful of aboveground hiking trails, the cave itself is the real reason to visit. Home to countless stalagmites, stalactites and other geological wonders at every turn, Carlsbad Caverns also has a large 4,000-foot-long and 255-foot-high chamber (“The Big Room”), making it the fifth largest in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world. Plan on spending a full afternoon here.
BACK TO TEXAS
Right on the border with Mexico is the bustling city of El Paso, home to the largest bi-lingual workforce in the Western Hemisphere and frequently voted the safest city in the United States. It is home to a major university, numerous cultural activities and, as it’s along the flowing Rio Grande, many potential outdoors opportunities. Many locals say that no visit to El Paso is complete without first taking a ride on the Wyler Aerial Tramway to get a full panorama of the city below. If you decide to take a trip into Old Mexico, here are some things you need to know.
ON TO NEW MEXICO
The penultimate leg of this trip will take you north into New Mexico, passing through Las Cruces and Silver City on the way to Albuquerque. First, in Las Cruces, check out the fantastic Zuhl Museum and, if you happen to be there on a Saturday, check out the renowned Farmers & Craft Market. Next, head north to the town of Truth and Consequences and pay a visit Spaceport America, “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport […] designed to make space travel as accessible to all as air travel is today”. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the possible future. Take a small detour west and plan on spending the night in Silver City, a small former mining town that is now home to a thriving arts scene.
THE DUKE CITY
Your weeks of road tripping down the center of the United States will end in Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico and one of the cultural and economic centers of the southwest. One could easily spend a couple of days in Albuquerque and the surrounding environs, so, as this is the end of your drive, it’s up to you how much time you’d like to devote there. The Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande provide outdoor adventures to those that want them and the large student population from University of New Mexico draws a good amount of culture into the city. If you happen to be in town in October, a must see event is the International Balloon Festival, the world’s largest gathering of hot-air balloons.