The Midwest Is Full of Good Backpacking. Yes, Really.

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It seems like all the best backpacking is on the west coast or in the Rockies, but I live in the Midwest. Am I in the wrong region for someone who loves to spend several nights on the trail at a time? —Feeling Flat(land)

Dear Flat(land),

I understand your dilemma. I lived in Missouri for five years after growing up an hour from the PCT and 90 minutes from California’s San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountain ranges. After I moved, I thought I was accepting a “lesser version” of my favorite pastime. Luckily, I was wrong. Just because the hiking options and trail culture are less obvious in the Midwest doesn’t mean they’re not there. I have wonderful memories from five years of backcountry hikes in the Show-Me State. Missouri’s no secret haven, though: No matter where you live in the Midwest, you are within driving distance from rugged, secluded trails for miles and miles. 

Here are some trails that you could backpack, from an overnighter to a multi-week thru-hike. 

Knobstone Trail, Indiana

At 58 miles, this is the longest and most rugged footpath in the state. This trail follows the Knobstone Escarpment, which after narrow, steep climbs and descents, offers you well-earned views of low-lying farmland, the Ohio River, and mixed hardwood forests hundreds of feet below. A combination of weathered brown shale, sandstone, and siltstone creates “knobstone” shale, which is prevalent along the trail and gives the escarpment its namesake. Because the terrain and difficulty are similar to the Appalachian Trail, many prospective thru-hikers hike the KT as training.

Tip: Water isn’t always readily available on this trail. You can filter water directly from streams along the trail at certain times in the year, but it’s also common for backpackers to leave water caches. 

Shawnee Backpacking Trail, Ohio

This 50-mile loop trail takes you through Shawnee National Forest, but you’ll feel like you’re further south in the Smokies. Because of its ridges covered with a forest dense enough to create the humidity-fueled haze that give the Smoky Mountains their name, this forest is also called the “Little Smokies of Ohio.” Don’t be fooled by the flatter trails you might have already hiked in Ohio; this one is full of calf-burning, quad-quaking hills that reminds hikers of the AT to the east. You can hike the north loop for a 21-mile trip or the south loop for a 28-mile challenge.

As always, bring bug spray and be prepared for ticks: They love to hide in the waist-high grass along some sections of the trail, especially near Camp 1. Want a longer adventure? Try the River to River trail in the same national forest for a 157-mile thru-hike. 

Kekekabic Trail, Minnesota

Want a couple days of solitude? You’ll find it along this dog-friendly, 40-mile-long trail near the Canadian Border. You might know the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for its paddlecraft activities, but for nearly a century, this area has been home to this rugged trail for hikers, too. In the 1970s, nearly 450 hikers got permits every year to cross the Kekekabic, but after the U.S. Forest Service stopped maintaining the trail in the 1980s, the number of hikers plummeted to 25 per year. Just a decade later, the Kekekabic Trail Chapter was born, which partners with the USFS to maintain the trail and keep it blazed and clear.

Tip: Bring trekking poles, not only for the rolling hills, but also for the ankle-busting rocks. Although this trail is hikeable year-round, it’s best to visit during late summer and early fall. The eastern terminus of the “Kek” connects with the Border Route Trail, allowing you to extend your trek on the 65-mile BRT. 

Ozark Trail, Missouri

This is the most popular backpacking trail in the state. Along the 230 miles of the OT, you’ll cross through more than a dozen sections that each offer something new: from 1.5 billion-year-old mountains to igneous glades to swimming holes with natural flumes and odd rock formations. Backpackers can rejoice over the surplus of water sources on the Ozark, and steep, rugged terrain to keep the trail interesting.

If you’re looking for a way to spend a weekend on the trail, check out the 29-mile Between the Rivers section that stretches from the Current River to the Eleven Point River. 

Yellow Trail, Illinois

For trails in the Midwest, Chicago-based Backpacker contributor Erica Zazo really knows a thing or two. Here’s what they wrote about this trail three hours from the Windy City.

“I love this trail system for its quirkiness. For one, they don’t call it Sand Ridge State Forest for nothing. This Central Illinois forest boasts long sections of sandy trail that are unlike anything else Midwestern hikers have ever seen outside of the Great Lakes beaches. Backpackers are in for a workout, as this trail is packed with hilly terrain. And who knew there were prickly pear cacti in the Midwest? I sure didn’t. Hike this trail and you’ll encounter them firsthand. Pitch your tent at backcountry site 7. Consider an early summer trip when the native eastern prickly pear cactus is in full bloom.”

Vesuvius Backpacking Trail, Ohio

Read what our contributor Zazo wrote about this 17.2-mile Middle Earth-like trail:

“Don’t sleep on the lesser-traveled Wayne National Forest, just a stone’s throw from the Hocking Hills. Nestled in the Appalachian foothills in southeastern Ohio, the 244,000-acre forest is full of dayhikes and long-distance backpacking trails, including the North Country Trail and Buckeye Trail segments. But our favorite is the 17-mile Vesuvius Backpacking Trail loop that circles the quiet and calm Lake Vesuvius. Spring and fall make for prime hiking here. Between March and May, you can hunt for morel mushrooms, which grow in abundance across Ohio’s state and national forests. In the autumn, soak in the changing foliage across the lake when the surrounding oak-hickory forest transitions to bright hues of orange and yellow by mid-October.”

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