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Best National Parks And Sites Near Chicago

When warm weather coincides with vacation days, the open road beckons. However, if not sure which road to take, the National Park Service has nearly 400 answers from National Parks to National Lake Shores with hundreds more National Historic sites in between. Only 58 are National Parks and most of them are in distant states, but there are some choice destinations doable from Chicago.

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Mammoth Cave National Park
1 Mammoth Cave Parkway
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
(270) 758-2180

Explore formations named Frozen Niagara, Church and Domes at Mammoth Cave National Park. Do tours titled Gothic or Historic. Stay at a park lodge or campground. Hike, bike, horseback ride, kayak or go for bass bluegill, catfish, crappie and other fish. An easy drive of about 389 miles from Chicago, mostly on Interstate 65, Mammoth Cave is an all season destination with lots to do. And its numbers are impressive. With more than 390 miles mapped and more to come, the park has the longest cave system known to exist. The park encompasses 52,830 acres, mostly along the Green River. Scientists say the oldest section was formed about 10 million years ago. Park guides point out items left behind by Native Americans more than 2,000 years ago. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1981, Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941 but visitors have been touring the cave since 1816. The park attracts about two million visitors a year. For cave tour schedules and costs, click here.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 436-1200

Visitors who take the park's regularly scheduled bus from Gatlinburg to the Visitors Center in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, TN, are likely to hear the driver call out, "bear jam," not "traffic jam." The driver next suggests riders pull out their cameras. It's common for cars and bike traffic to come to a standstill when bears cross the road or wander along the side. Bears are only some of the creatures encountered in the park. More than 17,000 species of animals, invertebrates and plants live withing the park's 800 square miles, but scientists say the number could be twice as much. Visitors can go in the park up to the ridge that divides Tennessee and North Carolina and stand with feet in both states next to a sign. With elevations over 5,000 feet and the highest point at 6,643 at Clingman's Dome, there are terrific viewing points. In addition, part of the fun of visiting the park is to see churches, unusual barns and other settler buildings from the 1800s. The park has campgrounds and nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have several accommodation options from cabins to hotels. Great Smokey Mountains National Park is about 585 miles from Chicago, mostly on interstate highways.

Isle Royale National Park
800 E. Lakeshore Drive
Houghton, MI 49931
(906) 482-0984

If looking for a breathtaking backpacking, boating or fishing experience, check out Isle Royale National Park in northwest Lake Superior. After taking what you think you need from your car for a day or overnight, board a boat from one of three departure towns. What follows is nature's beauty and quiet. Hike rugged terrain. Kayak or canoe harbors and lakes. Don a wetsuit to scuba dive icy waters in search of shipwrecks. Take guided, interpretive land or water tours. Snag accommodations at Rock Harbor Lodge if not camping. The park is really an archipelago consisting of a large island and 450 smaller islands that total 850 square miles. Named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980, it received Federal Wilderness designation in 1976. Closed for the winter since November, Isle Royale reopens April 15, 2015 but ferry service doesn't begin until May 1. Isle Royale is also accessible by seaplane. The drive to a departure town such as Houghton, MI at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula is 400 miles north of Chicago through Wisconsin to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Boats also leave from nearby Copper Harbor, MI and from Grand Portage, MN. Click here to see departure point information.

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Sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Credit, Jodie Jacobs)
Apostle Islands
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Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
415 Washington Ave.
Bayfield, WI 54814
(715) 779-3397

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior doesn't shut down for the winter. Instead, if cold enough as it was in 2014, Lake Superior may freeze and enable visitors to walk out to see the famed sea caves under the shoreline's cliffs. Indeed, thousands of visitors from as far as Japan made the sea cave winter trek in March 2014. As of January 2015, the ice has not been as solid. No problem. The Apostle Islands entice visitors year round. Weather permitting (Lake Superior's changes quickly), boats take visitors to and around the islands to stay, visit some of the lighthouses (eight historic light towers on six islands) and see where former settlers, trappers and Native Americans lived. Kayaking around the islands and into the caves is popular as is taking a glass-bottomed boat to see shipwrecks or scuba dive down to the ships. The mainland and 12 islands have hiking trails. A good information stop is the NPS headquarters on the mainland in Bayfield, WI, about 458 miles north of Chicago on Lake Superior.


Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
9922 Front St.
Empire, MI 49630
(231) 326-4700 Park Headquarters
(231) 326-4700, ext. 5010 Philip A. Hart Visitor Center

Go to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwestern Michigan to do its famed, challenging Dune Climb. Overlooks on the dunes at Pyramid Point, Sleeping Bear and Empire are 400 feet above Lake Michigan because they are on glacial moraines. Or visit the park to follow its popular Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a seven-mile road through a seasonally changing color landscape with great overlooks of Lake Michigan. Or go there to see the park's Port Oneida Rural Historic District for a glimpse of late 1980s farm life and crafts. No matter what the reason, bring the bikes and hiking shoes. Bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and over to Glen Haven, a town that has changed little since 1900. An all-season park, Sleeping Bear has more than 100 miles of trails. The park has campgrounds, but to stay nearby in cabins and resorts, click here for neighboring towns. Glen Arbor, adjacent to the park, is about 318 miles from Chicago.

Related: Best Hiking Trails In Chicago

Jodie Jacobs is a veteran journalist who loves writing about Chicago, art, theater, museums and travel. Her work can be found on

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