As the temps steadily rise, many Chicago families enter summer vacation planning mode. And for some, visiting a national park tops the agenda. While there are currently no national parks in Illinois, we have quite a few that are road-trip worthy or day-tripping material. National Parks Week is April 17-25 this year, making it a convenient time to make a plan to knock at least one of these off your bucket list. Scroll through our list for ideas. . . you may even find a few surprises!
Cuyahoga Valley - Ohio
There's not as much hype surrounding Cuyahoga Valley National Park as some of the big-name national parks, but its location between Cleveland and Akron makes it a midwestern favorite. You can drive a scenic byway, snap photos on a covered bridge, trail hike or mountain bike, kayak the river or canoe in a lake. Thomas the Train-obsessed kids will love a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
Airbnb Nearby: You'll find this gem of a cabin five minutes away from the park and, as a bonus, it backs up to a 450-acre nature preserve. There are games, books and WiFi. And, it's pet-friendly!
Gateway Arch - Missouri
It might surprise you to hear that Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a designated National Park, but that it is! Gateway Arch National Park was designated as a national park in 2018 and consists of the iconic steel arch that's synonymous with St. Louis, a 91-acre park along the Mississippi River, the Old Courthouse and the 140,000-square-foot museum at the Gateway Arch.
Airbnb Nearby: Combine urban exploration with the peace and tranquility of nature with The Stone Cottage. Built in 1840 from locally quarried limestone and walls that are 2-feet thick, it's a testament to the quality of that era's craftsmanship. It's a bit of a hike from downtown St. Louis, but the river views, wildlife watching from the front porch and access to excellent local restaurants make it a must-stay.
Great Smoky Mountains - North Carolina & Tennessee
You haven't lived until you've had your ears pop driving the winding roads of the Great Smoky Mountains. It holds the title for America's most visited national park and is world-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the indescribable beauty of its ancient mountains and the perceptible influence of Southern Appalachian mountain culture.
Airbnb Nearby: This cozy cabin in Pigeon Forge is a stones-throw to everything! Explore the quaint towns, hit the Smoky Mountain hiking trails, or hang at the cabin and enjoy amazing views, a hot tub, card games and even an Xbox for the kids in the loft!
Another great option is this amenities-packed cabin with lots of outdoor space for kids to play, a game room with a pool table and foosball, and the most adorable hidden "cubs den" for kids to snuggle in at night.
Indiana Dunes - Indiana
Sometimes you just want to feel the sand in your toes! And, Indiana Dunes National Park delivers with its 15 miles stretching the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Head there for the day to simply fly a kite, or make it a longer trip to hike the 50 miles of rugged dunes, wetlands, prairies, rivers and forests. Some of the dunes reach as high as 125 feet and at some points, you can still catch a glimpse of the Chicago skyline.
Airbnb Nearby: While not officially a cottage, the decor of this sweet spot has the same cozy feel and is just five minutes from the beach, 20 munites away from the park and there's a playground across the street.
If you have multiple families bunking together, this newly built beauty has a game room, fire pit and a screened porch that overlooks Lake Kai.
Mammoth Cave - Kentucky
The natural beauty of Kentucky is a sight to behold, for sure. Mammoth Cave is located in central Kentucky and has the largest known cave system in the world. The 84 miles of hiking trails offer options for all levels of hikers and there are a variety of tours available to take a peek at the caves (and its bats).
Airbnb Nearby: Kentucky is known for its stunning farmland So, a stay at a farm is an absolute must! This working dairy farm sits just 30 miles away from the park! There are toys and books for the kids, 350 acres to explore, cheese in the fridge for sampling, locally made soaps for bathtime, and livestock to meet.
Featured photo: Indiana Dunes, David Mark via Pixabay