Published: June/July 2009
Central States
Check out the season's best weekend trips near you.
Text by Contributing Editor Robert Earle Howells
The Hidden Gem: Big Sky Territory

Ohio isn’t known for mountaintop stargazing. But in the deeply wooded Appalachian foothills you’ll get an eyeful. Burr Oak State Park’s 18-mile Backpack Trail loops around 658-acre Burr Oak Lake, drops into hollows, climbs onto hilltops, and occasionally intersects with the lake itself at primitive waterside campsites. Make a two-nighter of it by hiking counterclockwise, camping by the lake at the Main Camp one night and at the Scout Camp the next. That’s where you’ll want to set up a scope: High and open, the Scout Camp is a favorite spot for local astronomers. Post-trek, go cushy at Burr Oak Resort overlooking the lake (doubles from $115; Treat yourself to some fine cuisine in the dining room: Meat loaf and apple pie are specialties—hey, it’s Ohio.

Two wheels, 61 miles, No sweat

The Illinois & Michigan Canal, which joined the Chicago River to the Illinois River, was mothballed in 1933—but its towpath lives on as a flat 61.5-mile artery called the Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail. The canal and trail also constitute a National Heritage Corridor, so a ride along the crushed-gravel path is equal parts nature watching (herons, egrets, beavers, river otters, turtles) and historic stopovers like the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Ottawa. Lock 14 in LaSalle is a good starting point for a west-to-east weekend ride ( ). Pause 36 miles later for pork chops at Weits Cafe in Morris and camp beneath cottonwoods in Channahon State Park, nine miles shy of the eastern terminus, before retracing your tire tracks.

American Idyll

The perfect campsite is not too near, not too far, not too crowded, not too isolated. It’s a lot like site 12 in Newport State Park. Not only do you get a wilderness campsite that faces sunrise over Lake Michigan, it’s just a hundred-yard walk around a point to see sunset over the lake as well. But you can’t go wrong at any of the 18 sites in the 2,370-acre park near the tip of the Door Peninsula. Each is private and separated, and almost all sit along the 11 miles of shoreline fronting the big lake; two are on inland Europe Lake. The real attraction is quiet and solitude; every site is hike- or bike-in only, by way of easy trails through northern hardwoods and boreal forest speckled with trillium and thimbleberry blossoms. The trails cover a lot of ground: 3.5 miles to the north, five miles to the south. Magical site 12 is to the south ($20; ).

A Cornhusker Oasis

“You come upon the Niobrara unexpectedly,” says river outfitter and lodge owner Lee Simmons. “There, along its banks, is what looks like a rain forest surrounded by high desert. It’s always astounding.” The Niobrara, a National Scenic River, flows calmly and steadily through a sea of grass in northern Nebraska, carving a lush valley filled with birch, oak, ash, walnut, aspen, and even ponderosa pine. Simmons suggests a weekend float anytime from May through September. Start below Cornell Bridge and end at Rocky Ford, with an overnight in between at Simmons’s Niobrara River Ranch, a log cabin retreat and working cattle ranch at river’s edge. You’ll pass dozens of spring-fed waterfalls tumbling into the big river—including 60-foot Smith Falls, the largest in the state (there’s not much competition for the title)—and see elk, deer, raccoons, turkeys, bald eagles, and river otters. “It can get hot, but you won’t even notice,” says Simmons. “You just roll over into the water” (cabins, $125; campsites, $25; two-day canoe rental and shuttle, $75; ).