Summer is sublime in this region that's full of lakes, nature areas, cool cities and laid-back small towns. And it doesn't tend to get too steamy, even in July and August.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Mich.
The 400-feet-tall sandhills along the state's lower peninsula offer superb sunning and stunning views of the crystal waters of Lake Michigan. Spanning 65 miles of shoreline, the dunes, Lake Michigan and the adjacent smaller lakes attract kayakers, bird-watchers and tranquility seekers. You can bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, get a license and fish for salmon or trout, or relax on the beach. Drive a half-hour east to sample the “farm-to-fork” foodie scene in Traverse City — from creatively prepared walleye at the Cook’s House to melt-in-your-mouth tamales and tacos at Spanglish. Stop to buy the area’s famed tart cherries (the area gets packed for the National Cherry Festival that starts at the end of June) and do some wine tasting at vineyards like Chateau Chantal outside Traverse City. Rent a cottage at one of the many inland lakes in the region or stay close to downtown at hotels such as the Bayshore Resort.
The benefits of an urban getaway are many, including near-endless dining and entertainment options and things to do. Music lovers can hear the blues at the Beale on Broadway or Blues City Deli (try their muffaletta, too), or catch the world-class Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Other musts: touring the Anheuser-Busch factory; walking through Forest Park, an urban treasure of 1,300 acres; riding the tram to the top of the famous Gateway Arch (combine it with a one-hour riverboat cruise for $20); catching a Cardinals game; and visiting the stunning Cathedral Basilica. Barbecue’s big, of course, so go hog wild at Bogart’s Smokehouse or Salt & Smoke. There are hundreds of places to stay, from apartment rentals and moderately priced chain hotels to the Ritz Carlton and tony B&Bs such as the luxe Fleur-de-Lys mansion.
Badlands National Park, S.D.
You’ll feel like you’re on another planet at this unforgettable park, famous for its otherworldly red-and-yellow-layered rock formations and fossils. You can drive parts of the 240-mile loop that winds through the park, stopping to walk trails and see fields of prairie dogs, their little heads popping up and down. The park’s also an incomparable place to enjoy the night sky, and on summer nights it hosts ranger-guided sky viewings (there’s a three-day Astronomy Festival in early July). The only place to stay in the park is Cedar Park Lodge, which has great little cabins, but it’s worth checking out Circle View Ranch, a family-run spot five miles from the park that offers evening s’mores by the fire pit and belly-stuffing homemade breakfasts.
A tiny, historic American town in the state’s northeast corner, Galena is a charming, low-key and affordable destination a few miles from the Mississippi River. It’s small, but still has days’ worth of activities and lots of great places to eat (Fried Green Tomatoes for steak and the German/French Fritz and Frites, for two). You can take a free guided tour of Ulysses S. Grant’s home; sample spirits at Blaum Bros. Distilling Co.; walk the trails of Mississippi Palisades State Park; and stroll into shops along Main Street (they call it the Helluva Half-Mile, a nod to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile). Stay right downtown at the DeSoto House Hotel — where Abraham Lincoln once spoke from a balcony — or the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel, or choose from many B&Bs.
Door County, Wis.
Just north of Green Bay, this pretty peninsula, 10 miles wide and 70 miles long, is known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. It offers beaches; lighthouses; fishing, hiking and biking; wineries; and all kinds of affordable accommodations — chain hotels, rental cottages and inns. Visit the limestone cliffs and water-carved caves at beautiful Cave Point County Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, taste some local goodness at one of the county’s seven wineries (also try Island Orchard Cider), and go cheese-crazy at the Door County Creamery, a goat farm in Sister Bay where you can get the freshest cheese plates and sandwiches. And, similar to the Traverse City area across the lake, this is cherry central: Especially later in summer, you’ll find cherries at roadside stands and cherry pie everywhere.