AS SOMEWHAT of a professional hobo, I spend half my life exploring distant trails, stumbling up mountains, trying desperately not to drown in a kayak, and sleeping in the back of my dusty camper van. I’m a huge believer in the power of nature to transform lives or just to energize a vacation. Unfortunately, too many people write off these types of trips, sighing, “I’m just not the outdoorsy type.” But through all my vagabonding, I’ve seen firsthand that almost anyone can enjoy getting a little dirty outside. Take it from me, a dude who looks like Sasquatch ate Willie Nelson, you don’t need to be in top-notch physical shape to venture out there and get wild. If I can do it, you can do it too. To prove it, I’ve found the absolute best spots within driving distance of Indianapolis suited for all ages, abilities, and skill levels. From camping and hiking to bird-watching, stargazing, fishing, and more, your next adventure is waiting for you.
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA
Distance: 550 miles | Drive time: 8.5 hours
First, a heads up: Hiking in Shenandoah is a bit more rugged than in the Hoosier state. What Indiana considers an expert-level trail may only be a moderate-level path in this park. Also, many of the trails have foot-catching rocks embedded in the dirt or covered in loose gravel. A hiking pole and boots with lots of ankle support will help keep you stable.
Perhaps the most favored hike in the park, Hawksbill Summit rewards hikers with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Reaching the summit requires either a 2.1-mile (one way) hike with a gradual 400-foot ascension or a shorter 1.5-mile trek with a steeper rise. The Rose River Falls loop may be my favorite in Shenandoah, offering mile after mile of cascading creeks and waterfalls. You could spend all day on this trail snapping amazing photos. I recommend taking this hike clockwise, doing the more difficult downhill section first. Upon reaching Dark Hollow Falls at the end, take the fire road, which will give you a more gradual return to the parking area.
If you and your family enjoy bicycling, Skyline Drive’s relatively low speed limit and rolling terrain make it an ideal spot for breaking out the two-wheelers. With 75 scenic pull offs along Shenandoah’s 105-mile Skyline Drive, grandparents, if they like, can enjoy the Blue Ridge scenery without ever setting foot on a trail.
Bird-watching is a popular activity in the park, with nearly 200 migratory and resident bird species, like red-tailed hawks and Carolina chickadees, found throughout the park. The 1.3-mile Limberlost Trail is one of the most popular in the park for bird-watching. Considered fully accessible, it’s mostly flat with a crushed limestone surface suitable for both wheelchairs and strollers.
Kids tend to love the junior ranger program found at nearly every U.S. national park, and Shenandoah is no exception. Children ages 7–12 can learn about plants, native wildlife, and ecology through fun, hands-on activities. Get them excited about the trip by downloading the activity book ahead of time.
Ranger-led programs are another way to engage a kid’s curiosity about nature. Shenandoah offers dozens each week during high season, including short hikes focusing on black bears and geology. Find the current list at nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/rangerprograms.htm.
And the adventure doesn’t end at dusk. Stargazing is one of the most popular activities in the park. On clear, moonless nights, you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye. With a telescope, the sky is the limit. Rangers and local astronomy clubs often give presentations in the park, and Shenandoah hosts an annual Night Sky Festival every August.
Distance: 350 miles | Drive time: 5.5 hours
Ludington State Park is one of Michigan’s finest parks—and if you’ve ever spent time in the mitten state, you know that’s a high compliment indeed. It attracts visitors from all over the Midwest. Connecting the Lost Lake, Ridge, and Island trails lets hikers experience much of the park’s immense natural beauty, from forest views to the lakeshore, in about six relatively easy miles. The hike is best in autumn, when the maple and oak trees explode into a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and golds, broken up only by the deep blue hues of the bordering lake. If you’re into lighthouses, the 2.5-mile hike to Big Sable Point is worth the extra effort after the trail gives way to sand.
If you’re feeling a little peckish after the five-hour drive north, I suggest grabbing a burger and a Hazy IPA at Jamesport Brewing Co. Then head to one of the nearby campgrounds. The closest is the Lake Michigan Recreation Area campground for $29/night. The campground at Ludington State Park is a bit more modern, though also a bit farther, and starts at $30/night. You’ll also find cabins to rent.
Don’t leave without visiting the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. The area reminds me of Sleeping Bear Dunes in northern Michigan and Indiana Dunes before they were overrun by people. The 6-mile loop hike, which will take you from a forest filled with evergreens and oaks to the sandy banks of Lake Michigan and back, is soul restoring.
Distance: 330 miles | Drive time: 5.25 hours
In Madison, you can hike or bike by day, then hit the town. Consider booking a room at the Hotel Indigo near the heart of downtown. Rooms in the former paint factory are huge. The common areas are full of cool modern art.
The city is so compact that if you bring or rent a bike or e-bike, you likely won’t need to use your car. Wisconsin is tops for trail connectivity, so it’s wonderfully easy to both navigate and escape Madison by bicycle.
If you’re looking to do a day trip, take the Capital City State Trail to the Velo UnderRound, which connects to five different rail trails just outside neighboring Fitchburg. Consult the map near the signpost for details about what to expect on each of the trails. If you’re up for a longer ride, take the Military Ridge State Trail west and pedal through an inspiring rural landscape. Mount Horeb, the self-proclaimed troll capital of the world, is 25 miles from Madison and makes a good turnaround point. Wisconsin is known for its homey bars and welcoming breweries; you’ll find both right off this route. The Grumpy Troll Brew Pub offers a good variety of tasty eats (try the Thai Pie). The circa-1884 Riley Tavern serves all-day, stick-to-your-ribs fare and hosts bluegrass jams in the summer.
You can have your fill of fresh-air fun within city limits, too. The University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum is a National Historic Landmark with 1,260 acres of restored forest, prairie, and wetlands. Lock up your bike on the rack at the visitor center and then explore on foot. The Longenecker Horticultural Gardens house lilacs, flowering crabapples, and dozens more.
Just west of Hotel Indigo, Williamson (aka Willy) Street is a mix of fun dive bars and eateries that serve the state’s greatest culinary contribution after cheese: bratwurst. You can also explore the Dane County Farmers Market on the grassy grounds of the state capitol every Saturday, April through November. Locals are all about the farmers market. If navigating crowds is dicey for anyone in your group, consider arriving when it opens at 6:15 a.m. Getting first dibs on the goodies, including a hot cup of locally ground coffee, is worth the early start. Be sure to bring cash and a shopping bag.
Just off the Capital City State Trail, Brittingham Boats rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to explore Lake Monona. Monona Terrace, the city’s dazzling convention center (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), makes a short journey. And yes, fishing off the pier is allowed.