Let’s Go Off-Roading! Upper Midwest Trails and Rec Areas to Explore

We’re gonna be real with ya’ll, the Upper Midwest region of the United isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for off-road activity. There are a few hills and mountain ranges, but this region is home to some of the flattest states in the union (looking at you Minnesota/North Dakota). I guess with much of the area covered by the Great Plains, you can’t expect a ton of topography. But we think this is actually a great sleeper region for wheelers to visit.

While others may flock to crowded and well-known trails of the Mid-Atlantic and West Coast, the Upper Midwest provides a less-populated and less-traveled off-road experience. It may not get its due recognition, but there are some great spots to appease and challenge any level rider. Let’s take a look at our favorites from each state.

Note: Please check with each trail/event about permitted vehicles. It’s unfortunate but many areas—especially this region—are prohibiting Jeeps and similar width vehicles in favor of allowing ATVs and side-by-sides only.

Minnesota – Iron Range Off-Hwy Recreation Area

As a native Pennsylvanian, the Iron Range Recreation Area gives me some serious Mid-Atlantic vibes. An old mining hotbed, Iron Range’s trails are carved into the remnants of extracted mine waste. Not really an appealing first verbal impression, but this displaced rock and gravel make for fantastic off-road features.

Iron Range Offroad

The Iron Range Recreation Area has a ton of trails, segments, and vistas and we think it’s probably the most challenging place on this list. You’ll creep down narrow mine cliffs, crawl up challenging stair climbs, and roll around in a carved-out mud-laden gravel pit… all while seeing some truly remarkable overlooks and vantage points.

Be sure to check out Ted’s Revenge, receiving its name when a clearing crew found a miner’s helmet with the name Ted inscribed on it. It’s a great rock crawl where you can also see the helmet (now mounted on a log with a face), as well as leave your own touch to the Ted statue.

North Dakota – Pembina Gorge State Recreation

Sitting on over 2,800 acres of public land, the Pembina Gorge Recreation Area is a go-to place for OHVs. In addition, the trails are open to such activities as biking, horseback riding, and hiking as well as kayaking down the Pembina River with amazing views of the surrounding gorge. The open trail system is relatively new, being available to the public only since 2012. On the 30+ miles of trail, you can expect steep cliff drop-offs, secluded prairie views, dense wetland areas, and the largest undisturbed forest in North Dakota.

Please call or check the website before arranging a trip, as the trails do close after heavy rainfall. At the time of writing, we found Pembroke Gorge to be open only to hikers. While this may be an inconvenience for those looking to access with motorized vehicles, these closings keep the overall rutting and long-term ground disturbances to a minimum.

Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area

South Dakota – Black Hills and Badlands

Sure, this seems like a bit of a cop-out answer as the Badlands and Black Hills cover hundreds of miles, but there is so much to take in we didn’t want to narrow it down to one small area. Sure, we’re here to talk about off-roading, but firstly, go see Mt. Rushmore and Wind Cave. We’re not telling to you try and winch your way up Teddy Roosevelt’s face, but put the recovery boards down for a sec and bask in the wonderment of these two touristy, but need-to-see sites.

The Black Hills National Forest features one of the largest trail systems open to motorized vehicles. Like we said in the intro, there are designated trails reserved for vehicles of a certain width. So, it may be worth your while to bring your ATV along in addition to your Jeep so you can see everything.

Within the Black Hills, Sturgis is a city known for a rally of a two-wheeled variety. Widely known as the biggest motorcycle event in the world, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally routinely gets upwards of a half-million participants each year. (If you’re a biker, we don’t need to tell you about it.) But Sturgis also holds an off-road event each September. The Sturgis Offroad Rally spans 3 days with riders exploring over 3000 miles of Black Hill’s trails and road system. This year’s running will be from September 8-10, 2022. More details to come on the website.

Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association

Wisconsin – Trans Wisconsin Adventure Trail

Dirt Orcas

Perhaps the trail on this list that gets me most excited is the 600+ mile journey of the Trans Wisconsin Adventure Trail.

As the name suggests, this baby goes all the way from the Wisconsin/Illinois border in the south, up to the northern shores and Lake Superior—with minimal pavement involved. Along the way, you’ll be sure to pass many festivals, events, and attractions scattered right along the route.

The difficulty of the trail itself can’t be considered extreme. However, for those wanting to do the whole route, the length and preparedness of the 4×4 and driver is where the real effort lies. You’ll start off in The Driftless Area—a space filled with leftover rocks and sediment from glacier time as well as lush green forest. The Central Plains portion is flatter but with great wildlife and nearby ATV trails. The final leg—the Northern Highlands—is remote with stunning vistas, giving way to the sand and shore of Lake Superior.

Along the way you’ll find tons of German and Scandinavian influence, and of course, a number of dairy farms—it is Wisconsin after all. Wear your green and yellow and get ready for some cheese sampling.

Hit the Road, Dee Zee-Ready

Before tackling any off-road trail or area, we strongly recommend giving your Jeep, SUV, or truck a little added bolstering for the trip. It’s amazing what a few simple aftermarket accessories can do to the performance, durability, and look of your vehicle! Our friends at Dee Zee have been making quality equipment for the road ahead since 1977. In addition to proving itself in the aftermarket, the company is also an OEM manufacturer for brands like Ford, GM, Subaru and Toyota.

Dee Zee’s Jeep lineup is diverse and ever-growing with cargo solutions, Jeep doors, and just about any bracket you’d ever need to mount lighting and accessories. Many of these parts are available for the new Bronco as well. But it’s the brand’s new overlanding lineup that we’re really digging these days. It’s a fairly new segment for Dee Zee, but the overlanding products boast the same careful engineering and metalwork that make the company an undisputed leader in truck racks.

Dee Zee

If you’ve got a Ranger, Tacoma, Colorado, Canyon, or Gladiator that you’d like to turn into a functional overlanding monster, Dee Zee’s Cab Rack/Side and Top Rail/Molle Panel combo can’t be beat. Utilizing your bed space wisely is essential in pickup overlanding, and Dee Zee’s rack system has a seamless fit, tons of mounting options, and a weight capacity that will surpass anything you plan on using it for. Born in the heartland of Iowa, Dee Zee knows what it takes to tackle the Midwest, or anywhere else you plan on exploring.

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