The states of middle America aren't fly-over states when you really stop to look what they have to offer. Incredible natural beauty, expansive and important American history, stunning museums and cultural attractions...the list goes on. If you want an affordable vacation with friends, family, or an educational trip for your students, consider a trip to the Midwest where unspoiled territory meets sophistication and excitement.
If you enjoy nature, there are plenty of parks for you like the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton. Seeming like a park from the "Home on the Range" song, Wichita Mountains is a preserve for the animals that once roamed the Midwest like bison, Rocky Mountain elk, Texas longhorn cattle, and others that were in danger of becoming extinct in their natural habitats. Also make sure you stop by the Robbers Cave State Park to see where Jesse James, the legendary outlaw and bank robber, hid out with Belle Starr in the underground cave system.
Oklahoma is also a state of extreme significance to the history and culture of Native American tribes. With over 67 tribes calling Oklahoma home, the state has, over the years, collected a lot of history with government-tribal relations. While the turmoil of the past has calmed, the history remains and you can witness it for yourself in Oklahoma City at the Red Earth Museum. Also consider visiting the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah or the Chickasaw Heritage Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
What the Show Me State does best is diversity so whatever you want to do, she's got it. Head to the big cities for class and pizazz - to St. Louis for the Gateway Arch (you really shouldn't miss it) and Forest Park - the site of the 1904 World's Fair and home to the St. Louis Zoo and Art Museum (both of which are free). Kansas City has grown in popularity in recent years, cleaning up with free attractions like the world-renowned Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, an incredible example of what art museums should be.
From the naturalist perspective, Lake of the Ozarks is one of the state's most popular destinations - especially in the summer - for its incredible expanse of shoreline and great water activities. Branson, too, is the perfect combination of activity and relaxation. The Live Entertainment Capital of the World (also one of the most affordable) is also on the shores of one of the state's biggest lakes, Table Rock Lake.
Home of Chicago and Abe Lincoln, Illinois grabs tourists through its exciting attractions, history, and more. Chances are, when visiting Illinois, you'll probably head for Chicago and that's perfect because you won't want to miss out on the Navy Pier, one of the absolute best boardwalks in the country, or the Magnificent Mile's Fifth Avenue-esque high class shopping. Lincoln Park, its zoo and botanical gardens, are all free to roam and explore, making for excellent itinerary fillers.
Moving on from Chicago, check out the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site in Galena, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois State Capitol - both in Springfield. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is another attention grabber with natural beauty and Native American history while Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby wows with beautiful waterfalls and caves.
In the far north Midwest you find Minnesota, hugging the scenic banks of Lake Superior. Nature reigns supreme in places like the Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, and others. You won't be able to miss out on the gorgeous scenery, untouched by man.
Aside from natural beauty, try out man-made attractions like the Cathedral of St. Paul , an utterly magnificent construction of Classical Revival architecture that pierces the sky with its spire topped dome. Whether or not you are Catholic or Christian, you can certainly appreciate the artistic endeavors of the faithful to create a place of such beauty and worship. Also make sure you visit the conservationist International Wolf Center in Ely where wolves are protected and education on this dangerous yet misunderstood species is supported through interactive exhibits. Finally, you don't want to miss out on the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the United States located in Bloomington.
Even more stunning than Minnesota, Michigan reigns supreme when it comes to outdoor activities, even in the harsh winter. Head first to Mackinac Island, an island and resort area in Lake Huron with all the beauty and attractions of a much larger destination, though it's only 3.8 square miles. For more nature, stick to the water and see the Pictured Rocks National Seashore, one of the most stunning sights in the U.S., or Isle Royale National Park where stargazing and sightings of the Aurora Borealis are not uncommon.
From the pristine natural side of Michigan, try out its history and cultural sides next. Visit the State Capitol for free tours of the government's inner workings or go back in time to Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, a preserved and semi-recreated village from the area's mid-18th century settlers. Finally, see for yourself the recreated Belgian town of Holland, Michigan and see the Windmill Island, a picturesque spot that's right out of a fairy tale and perfect for an international vacation right here in the U.S.
Coming to the end of our Midwest list, we don't want to forget old Wisconsin, America's Dairyland. Known for cheese and cranberries, the first stops to make in Wisconsin are the Cranberry Highway, a stretch of road leading through the state's most prosperous cranberry bogs and cranberry history museums, and also the numerous dairy farms and factories like Cedar Grove Cheese or the Mars Cheese Castle.
Another aspect of Wisconsin that draws in the visitors is the Wisconsin Dells, made famous for the large rocky Cambrian sandstone rock formations rising out of the waterways. You definitely want to tour the official dells but don't ignore the area's plethora of waterparks, both indoor and out, for easy trans-seasonal fun. Finally, make sure you take a trip up to Door County, a series of islands and a collection of 53 magical beaches in eastern Wisconsin.