5 Ecotourism Gems of the Midwest
The region’s parks and nature trails appeal to groups seeking a light vacation footprint.
One of the fastest-growing trends in travel, ecotourism emphasizes trips to natural environments and animal watching. With its expansive prairies and forests, the Upper Mississippi River Valley has steadily become one of the nation’s most popular regions for ecotourism. National parks, protected wetlands and extensive caves can all be found in the Midwest states surrounding the river, and the parks offer prime locations for birdwatchers and fishers. Here are five sites that showcase the beauty of the area and offer plenty of activities and resources for ecotourists.
1. St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
St. Croix Fall, Wisconsin
Located an hour northeast of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, this expansive park covers over 92,000 acres of Wisconsin and Minnesota wilderness. A major tributary of the Mississippi, the St. Croix River is surrounded by land once used by French voyageurs when the area was known as the Northwest Territory. Your group can visit archeological sites where Fox and Ojibwe tribal tools are unearthed, and hike through the woods that once made this a timber capital of the world. However, your group will want to spend most of its time on the water.
For 200 miles, the St. Croix is surrounded by campsites and landing ideal for multi-day excursions. Rangers can augment your float trip with wildlife-spotting tips, and while canoeing or boating you can see deer, wolves, bobcats and 244 species of birds. The river is recognized as one of the best bass-fishing waterways in the world, and your group can also catch plentiful pike, catfish and sturgeon. For more information, visit nps.gov/sacn/index.htm.
2. Effigy Mounds National Monument
Fourteen hundred years ago, the Effigy Moundbuilder culture created massive earthen mounds shaped like birds and bison. While the tribe has long disappeared, the mounds remain historic sites and are well-preserved monuments of ancient American spirituality. Home to over 200 mounds, Effigy Mounds National Monument is a wonderful sight for your group to combine hiking and history. Scenic paths wind along the Yellow River and marshland, where your group can spot egrets and snapping turtles that can weigh up to 40 pounds.
The northern half of the park includes scenic outcroppings with stunning views of the Mississippi River and surrounding forest. From the Hanging Rock you can locate the roving groups of white-tailed deer, and the Twin Views outcropping offers views of the oak, maple and shagbark that surround the river’s edge. Rangers are available to guide your group through the mound areas and explain their symbolism. (nps.gov/efmo)
3. Maquoketa Caves State Park
Discovered by settlers in the 1830s, this is the most extensive cave system in the state, with immense stalagmites and chimneys in its many passaheways. The surrounding park is part of the Driftless Area untouched by the last Ice Age, and the unique erosion that took place has left the park with lush forests and creeks unusual for Iowa. Thirteen caves are available for public tours, and they range in size from massive (the subterranean Dancehall Cave is over 1,000 feet long) to the cramped (Dugout Cave and Hernando’s Hideway are only accessible by crawling).
Other park Highlights include the Natural Bridge, a 50-foot stone archway, and Balanced Rock, a 17-ton oblong boulder with a tiny base. Boardwalks and lighting are available for easy access, and rangers are on hand to explain the caves’ limestone structures and former Native American visitors. Twenty-nine campsites can accommodate large groups, while the interpretative center offers exhibits on the ancient pottery found in the caves. (iowadnr.gov/places-to-go/state-parks-rec-areas)
4. Audubon Center at Riverlands
West Alton, Missouri
One of America’s most acclaimed nature centers, this complex lies near the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers north of St. Louis. Over 300 species of songbirds and waterfowl migrate through this wetland habitat. Your group can view eagles, meadowlarks and herons in warmer months, while in winter watch migrating trumpeter swans with eight-foot wingspans.
A variety of programs hosted by conservationists and expert bird spotters can supply your group with the roper binoculars and field guides before venturing into the 3,700 acres of marshland, and they can even accompany you to point out the best observation points. The garden at the Audubon Center features plans and grasses native to the region and attractive to mating bird species. Beautiful cardinal flowers and wild bergamont surround the center, and your group can learn about invasive grass species and efforts to preserve the natural landscape. (riverlands.audubon.org)
5. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Sand Bay, Wisconsin
This cluster of 21 islands and the 12 miles of shoreline on Wisconsin’s Lake Superior coast have attracted birdwatchers and campers for decades. Guided ferry tours can bring your group on a day trip to many of the park’s islands, which provide stunning views of the beaches and boreal forest. Unique to the area are sea caves, amazing cliff towers sculpted over millions of years from ancient sandstone river deposits.
In winter months, your group can venture onto the frozen lake to view these incredible structures up close, and guides can explain what the landscape looked like during the latest ice age. Those interested in nature should head to the park’s breaches, a rare mating ground for regional birds such as piping plovers and herring gulls, while red foxes, white-tailed deer and beavers can be found inland in the park’s protected hemlock groves. For overnight trips, many of the park’s islands have campsites designed for large groups, and rangers are available with cold-weather camping tips. (nps.gov/apis)
With many other national and state parks available to the public, the Midwest has seemingly endless options for ecotourists. Campsites, nature trails and friendly Midwestern guides all ensure low-cost trips to the region are memorable and welcoming, and the animals and natural wonders your group will encounter are sure to draw you back for a return visit.