Best Summer Road Trips from Chicago

Why a road trip during Summers?
For Midwesterners, summer is a precious commodity. After all, you only get few months of relief against the several layers of clothing you need to adorn all along the year to succeed in your warfare with the callous Chicago weather.

And the additional summer daylight provides a vital impetus to both travel as well as sightseeing.

Criteria for these road trips?

The place should within a day’s drive (10 hours threshold) and have a plethora of activities in three main areas – adventure, nature and touristy spots.

1. New River Gorge at Fayetteville (West Virginia)

Distance: 570 miles.
ETA: 9 hours.
Why visit?
Adventure
activities – white-water rafting, bridge walking, ATV rides, rock climbing, rappelling and a lot more.
A Nature Lover’s paradise –
Trails, scenic drives, panoramic vistas, ancient forests, rivers.
Endless Wall Trail is voted #1 trail in the nation in many polls; I have never seen such stunning views accessible via a gentle 2.3 mile out-and-back hike. As a bonus, you hike through the ancient Hemlock forest rich in local flora.
Long Point trail comes a close second, another gentle hike with dazzling views of the symbolic New River Gorge bridge.

Tip: The key to visit so many places in a short trip (3-4 days) and not spend enormous time in planning, is to simplify the logistics. I stayed and booked most of these adventure activities directly from Ace Adventures resort whom I found very reliable and resourceful. Would highly recommend similar strategy for others to enjoy more and plan less.

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The New River Gorge, as seen from the Concho overlook

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The New River Gorge Bridge (as seen while white-water rafting)

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Rafters heading into one of many Class IV/V rapids

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New River Gorge (as seen from overlook on the Endless Wall trail)

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The endless bluffs of the Endless Wall trail

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Riding the ATVs through the rugged terrain (and getting stuck)

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The ‘Bridge Walk’ on the New River Gorge Bridge

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A creepy sign inside the Kayanoor Mine

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A waterpark over a natural lake, at the Ace Adventure Resort

2. Smokey Mountains National Park

Distance: 600 miles
ETA: 11 hours with multiple breaks
Why visit?
Touristy spots – Gatlinburg downtown including Skylift, the Little River Scenic Drive.
For Nature Lovers – Plenty of hiking options, notably – Laurel Falls, Gretto Falls, Clingmans Dom – highest point at Smoky with stunning views, Cades Cove – your best chance at live bear sighting
For Adventurists Rafting (we did it with kids as young as 8 at the Lower Pigeon River), Zip-Lining, River Tubing at The River Rat Main Outpost.

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Rafting at Lower Pigeon River

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Smokey 101 – The SkyLift Bridge

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An overlook on the way to Gatlinburg

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Laurel Falls

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The night view of Gatlinburg atop the SkyLift Park

PXL_20210619_002837662 (1)The view from our cottage – a true country side experience 

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Bear cub climbing a tree, as seen in Cades Cove

3. Mackinac Island

Distance: 440 miles.
ETA: 8 hours with couple of leisurely breaks.
Why visit?
Touristy spots – Mackinac Island is truly one of a kind – 8 miles long with no cars allowed inside, most of the island preserved as the state park and a ton of historical and architectural magnificence on offer. No wonder it attracts a bazillion tourists each year.
For Nature Lovers – The 8.2 mile bike trek around the island, with Lake Michigan giving you company all along, is as good as it gets. You can also visit Tahquamenon Falls State Park, known for hosting a series of waterfalls plunging into Lake Superior. You can also take a dip in the Lower Falls at Tahquamenon, a family-friendly swimming site.

Tip: Mackinac Island bifurcates Upper and Lower Peninsula, which gives you a unique opportunity to travel up north to places like Pictured Rock and Soo Locks and if you want to savor Lower peninsula, you can visit Traverse City and some of other my favorites – river tubing at the Platte River and the scenic M31 highway tracing through Elk Rapids, Charlevoix and Petoskey.

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Take the M31 instead of I-75

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The Big Mac Bridge, as seen from the beach on the edge of Mackinaw City

IMG_20160724_081426The view from our hotel in St Ignace.

IMG_8045The iconic Arch Rock on the Mackinac Island

IMG_4122The official locomotive at Mackinac 

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Getting ready to light the canon, at the Fort Mackinac

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And there it goes..

A monarch taking its flight, at Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory

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Big Mac Bridge from the Mackinac Island StarLine ferry

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Tahquamenon Falls – courtesy melodious707 under Creative Commons

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The celebrated sandstone cliffs at Pictured Rock, as seen during the evening cruise

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Sunset at the middle of nowhere in the Lake Superior

4. Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes, River Tubing (Michigan)

Distance: 360 miles.
ETA: 7 hours with couple of leisurely breaks.
Why visit?
A perfect intermix of water, sand and urban activities.
Touristy spots – Traverse City has something for everyone – vineyards and wineries, dozens of beaches, food and entertainment.
For Nature Lovers – Sleeping Bear Dunes with its emblematic bluffs, dunes and the eponymous Dune Trail to Lake Michigan; canoeing, kayaking and floating at the natural lazy river – Platte River; Biking, paddle-boarding, kayaking, sunset-sails as organized by The River Outfitters and finally, all the camping options.

Tip: Try to merge your road trip with one of the many scenic drives MI has to offer.

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A panoramic sight atop the first hill on the Dune Trail

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One of many captivating sights at the Dune Trail

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Kids being kids, at the Dunes Trail

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Biking trip, booked via The River Outfitters

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Floating away, at the Platte River

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MI trip is incomplete without a visit to a vineyard, courtesy Chateau Chantal

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Did I mention about Michigan’s scenic drives before?

5. Cuyahoga National Park (Ohio)

Distance: 380 miles.
ETA: 7 hours with couple of leisurely breaks.
Why visit?
A lesser known national park but with all the perks.
Touristy spots – Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
For Nature Lovers – Brandywine falls, Biking across the historical Ohio/Erie canal Towpath trail and finally, The Ledges Trail, a moderate 1.8 mile hike abundant of vivid rock formations and cliffs,  making it truly one of a kind. 

Check out the full blog here.

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Scenic Railroad (courtesy – Raymond under creative commons)

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Cuyahoga River, as scene from the scenic train (courtesy – Alan under CC)

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Kids enjoying the scenic drive

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The Ledges Trail – a must visit

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One of the many entrancing views at The Ledges 

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Brandywine Falls

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Biking through a partially flooded stretch at Towpath trail

6. Adventure Road Trip to Niagara, WI.

Distance: 300 miles.
ETA: 5 hours with many breaks along the way.
Why visit?
Wide assortment of adventure activities for kids and adults, just 5 hours away. Best part is the simplified logistics since lodging, activities and even food is managed by Wildman itself.
White-water RaftingWildman Resort is one of the nearest and well-managed white-water rafting spots from Chicago.
Other adventure activities – zip-lining, paintball, kayaking, climbing.
Camping by the Peshtigo River.

Check out the full blog here.

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Heading into the Class-IV rapid at Menominee River

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An exclusive view of the Menominee river rapids

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Cliff Jumping during Kayaking trip

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Kayaking at the High Falls reservoir 

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Ziplining at the resort

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Catching a cornhole game in between the activities

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Our cottage rental

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Peshtigo river meandering the resort

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Amateur golfing amenities

7. St Louis (Missouri) and Springfield (Illinois)

Distance: 300 miles.
ETA: 6 hours with couple of leisurely breaks.
Why visit?

Touristy spots – The iconic Gateway Arch (don’t miss the ride which takes you all the way to the top of the arch), Monstrocity play area with giant slinky tunnels (thrilling for kids and adults alike), Grant’s Farm.
For Nature Lovers – Meramec Caverns, Lone Elk Park (famous for elk, bison and a lot of other wildlife).
For Adventurists Ziplines at Meramec caverns.

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The Gateway Arch

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The Stalactite formations at Meramec Caverns

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The Meramec Caverns have rich human history as well

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Monstrocity, photo by Laurie Skriva, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

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The center dome at the Capitol of Illinois

The full blog for the vivid St Louis trip is here.

8. Chattanooga and Nashville (Tennessee)

Distance: 630 miles.
ETA: 11 hours with couple of leisurely breaks.
Why visit?

Touristy spots – The Rock City which boasts a vantage point where you could see 7 states, Ruby Falls (underground waterfall), Lookout Mountain (known for the epic Civil War battle), Incline Railway (one of the steepest funicular railway incline in the world), Point Park.
You can also visit Parthenon in Nashville on the way to Chattanooga. 
For Nature Lovers – We did the Cherokee Falls trail in Cloudland Canyon State Park. Detailed list of all trails is here.
For Adventurists Ziplines at Ruby Falls.

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‘Seven States’ point at The Rock City

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View from the Lover’s leap overlook at The Rock City

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Take the Swing-A-Long bridge, for sure

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Fat Man Squeeze – You will find plenty of constricted entry points at The Rock City

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High Falls – 100 ft. man-made waterfalls at The Rock City

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Chattanooga Incline Railway – as it looks from the top

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Cherokee Falls

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A canyon atop the Lookout Mountain, used during the Civil War

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An tale of Union Army’s grit, at the Lookout Mountain

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One of the many eccentric quotes in our cottage

That’s it!

Hopefully, this blog helps you get behind the wheels and take a memorable road trip.


If you liked this blog, please share the feedback in the comments section or better still, shoot an email to me at cagespear@gmail.com. I will put the best ones in this blog itself!

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