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Fly to the national parks: Northern Plains and Great Lakes areasFly to the national parks: Northern Plains and Great Lakes areas

Want to really get away from it all? With the exception of Mount Rushmore, most of these National Park Units see relatively little traffic.

  • Air Force One flies over Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota. You can fly over it too, but maintain at least 2,000 feet agl. Photo courtesy USAF.
  • Theodore Roosevelt sought solace at this Maltese Cross Ranch House after his mother and wife both died on February 14, 1884. He later moved to his Elkhorn Ranch, farther north on the Little Missouri River. His years in the West, ranching, cowboying, and hunting, greatly influenced his life, presidency, and world view. Photo by Jasperdo via Flickr.
  • Theordore Roosevelt was an incredible writer. His "Ranch Life & the Hunting Trail" (perhaps my all-time favorite book) is filled with real-life descriptions of the Wild West as it briefly was—saloons, Indians, cowboys, and all. As Roosevelt relates in his book, in the dead of winter in 1886 thieves stole Roosevelt’s boat from his Elkhorn Ranch. He hastily built a new one and set off down the Little Missouri River in pursuit, sleeping outdoors and eventually capturing the thieves some 49 miles away at the mouth of a creek. He then marched them at gunpoint through snow overland to Dickinson where they were tried and convicted. Photo by Laura Thomas, courtesy NPS.
  • A visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park—filled with bison, wild horses, grouse, and falcons, and graced by the otherworldly beauty of the Dakota Badlands—can provide a counterbalance to our busy, crowded, city lives. Pitch your tent and stay a night or more! Photo by Jeff Van Hooser, courtesy NPS.
  • A park ranger points out the boxwork ceiling inside Wind Cave, the world’s first cave designated as a national park, established in 1903. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Once thought extinct, black-footed ferrets are still exceedingly rare but have been reintroduced into Wind Cave National Park. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Near Wind Cave, Custer State Park makes a worthy sidetrip, with its excellent hiking trails and abundant wildlife, including bison, elk, and pronghorn. The park is also home to a herd of feral burros that, hoping for a handout, often approach visitors. Photo by Mailseth via Wikipedia.
  • Each head at Mount Rushmore is about 60 feet high and carved into solid granite. The scree of rocks blasted and chiseled away from the mountain forms a large pile below the sculptures. Photo by Dean Franklin via Wikipedia.
  • Hikers on the Tobin Harbor Trail in Isle Royale National Park move through a Laurentian Forest habitat. Photo by M. Duchek via Wikipedia.
  • These fishermen in Voyageurs National Park returned with a large northern pike. Photo by Adam Baker via Flickr.
  • This photo shows the International Space Station in orbit over Voyageurs National Park near the Canadian border. On other nights, the aurora borealis sometimes makes an appearance. Photo by Adam Baker via Flickr.
  • A bald eagle wheels over Rainy Lake at sunset in Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota. Photo by jck_photos via Flickr.
  • Take the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad into Cuyahoga National Park, where the train runs alongside the Towpath Trail. Photo by Kevin Vance courtesy, via Flickr.
  • The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail is especially popular in fall. Hop on and off the train, or bike its entire length. Photo by Kevin Payravi via Wikipedia.
  • The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad normally operates diesel trains, but a few times a year, usually in September, riders can enjoy a two hour round trip with the Nickel Plate Road Steam Locomotive no. 765 at the helm, one of the largest operating steam locomotives in the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota: This park is broken up into three separate areas: the North Unit, South Unit, and Elkhorn Unit, each of which is intersected by the Little Missouri River. Fly to the appropriately named Dickinson-Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport to access the South Unit. Medora, near the South Unit’s entrance and park headquarters, is a small Western-themed town with wooden-planked sidewalks. Take a buggy ride, have an ice cream, visit the museums, play golf, and, on summer evenings, see a musical in the outdoor amphitheater. Stay in Medora or camp inside the park.

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota: Fly to Custer County Airport to tour this unique cave, discovered in 1881 by two brothers who heard wind rushing through a small hole in the ground. Wind Cave contains about 95 percent of the world’s discovered boxwork formations, which you’ll see on your tour. Above ground, the park contains the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States. After exploring the cave, take a road trip to Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore (below), and north to Deadwood, Sturgis, Spearfish, and even Devil’s Tower National Monument in nearby Wyoming.

Cannonball concretions in the Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit. Concretions form within layers of sedimentary strata, before the sediments harden into rock, and are later exposed by erosion. Photo by M Duchek via Wikipedia.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota: No trip to the Black Hills is complete without visiting this gigantic stone carving of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum created the design to honor those who helped birth the United States (Washington), expand its territory (Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase), preserve the Union (Lincoln), and increase America’s world influence and preserve its resources (Roosevelt with the Panama Canal and our national parks, refuges, and monuments).

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan: Isle Royale is the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, averaging around 17,000 visitors per year. It’s also a designated wilderness, so there are no motor vehicles. It therefore offers deep solitude for backpackers, kayakers and canoeists (you can rent kayaks and canoes on the island), hikers, and scuba divers. It is legal to land your floatplane at three sites around the island; these are shown on the sectional. Otherwise, you can land at Grand Marais/Cook County in Minnesota or Houghton County Memorial in Michigan and board one of the ferries that offer both overnight and day trips to the island. Ferry trips are 1.5 to six hours one way, depending on route and ship chosen; a commercial seaplane ride is 35 minutes. There’s a lodge at Rock Harbor, a pair of rustic camper cabins in Windigo, or you can camp on the island, which has 36 campgrounds across its 40-mile length.

A seaplane taxis away from Windigo, on the southwest side of Isle Royale National Park, Michigan. Photo by Bob Walker via Wikipedia.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota: International Falls is the jumping-off point for Voyageurs National Park, a vast park along the Canadian border known for its forests; waterways; and huge, island-dotted Rainy, Kabetogama, and Namakan lakes. The even-more-vast border area between the park and Grand Marais is almost all taken up by the spectacular Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Together, the park and canoe area form a wonderland of lakes, rivers, and boreal forest, inhabited mostly by moose and intrepid canoeists. In the park, rent a houseboat or take a ranger-led boat or canoe tour. The Ellsworth Rock Gardens, created by artist Jack Ellsworth, are a series of abstract sculptures that rise from a terraced outcrop above Lake Kabetogama. The remote Kettle Falls area has an old dam and historic red-roofed hotel and restaurant.

Riders on the special steam train can de-board at a secure location for an exclusive photo opportunity. Watch as this 400-ton locomotive thunders through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park at full speed and experience the wonder that surrounds the 'Steam in the Valley!'

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley National Park preserves the rural landscape along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron. The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail is a restored section of the canal's original towpath and perfect for bikers and hikers. Seasonally, you can take the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad along the towpath and hop off or on at any of seven stops. This is especially popular with bikers and for viewing and photographing fall colors. Fly to Akron Fulton International, grab a taxi to the train station a few miles away, and ride the train into the park. In the park’s north, the Canal Exploration Center details the 19th-century waterway’s history. Towering Brandywine Falls is one of several waterfalls.

Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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