Who serves the best ice cream in the Midwest? We road trip with Kia to find out!

Best Ice Cream Road Trip

Who has the best ice cream: Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, or Ohio? 

Raise your hand if you like ice cream. OK, if you’re not raising your hand, you are either lactose intolerant or just stubborn. Perhaps a descriptive roundup of the best ice cream spots in the Midwest will change your mind.

According to the International Dairy Foods Association, the average American consumes more than 23 pounds of ice cream per year. That’s roughly four gallons of ice cream every year. I guess I’d have to say I’m above average on this, because this summer alone I feel as though I’ve had a couple of gallons. And every summer, when my family heads north from Texas, we eat our way through some of the best ice cream shops in the country.

This summer, Kia generously lent me a 2017 Soul Turbo to help all of our ice cream dreams come true, and we drove it through four states. Because we had to do some research, of course! Landing in Chicago, we picked up our Soul at the O’Hare Hilton, and drove straight to Naperville, Illinois, for our first ice cream adventure. From there, we road tripped to Elkhart, Indiana, to set up home base at my parents’ house. Then we traveled to Dayton, Ohio and both the Detroit side and the St. Joe side of Michigan. It’s incredibly scenic in the summer.

Have you driven a Kia Cadenza? Read our review here (spoiler alert: we loved it!). 

Come with us as we meander through dairy country to share with you some of our favorites:

Sanders Candy

Michigan Ice Cream Sanders

Trust me when I tell you that Sanders bumpy cake ice cream is the weirdest name for an incredibly delicious treat. Photo: Kristin Shaw

We drove our zippy little Soul 3.5 hours from Elkhart, Indiana, to Rochester, Michigan, to see friends for our annual visit. The Soul has a giant panoramic sunroof, and my son and I had it open and listened to “Despacito” approximately 274 times on the way. He wanted to eat peanut butter crackers and Goldfish along the way, which I was afraid would make an orange-crumb mess on the pretty stitching, but we were having a great time and I vowed to clean it and vacuum it out when we arrived. I was pleasantly surprised that the crumbs swept right out. And then I stopped at a gas station vacuum later and ensured we weren’t messing up our nice car.

Last year was our first trip up that way, and our friends introduced us to the joys of Sanders‘ famous Bumpy Cake and ice cream. Even better: BUMPY CAKE ICE CREAM. Just outside of Detroit, Rochester is a fun town with a family-friendly layout and great people, and we fell in love with all of it.

Sanders started with a borrowed barrel of sugar and a dream on June 17, 1875.  That’s the day Fred Sanders Schmidt opened his first chocolate shop in Detroit. Since then, Morley Candy Makers purchased Sanders, but the Sanders name remains.

Honestly, I could have eaten two of these ice cream cones. Only a great deal of restraint kept me from doing so.

Graeter’s Ice Cream

Best Ice Cream Ohio Graeters

My niece’s favorite flavor at Graeter’s is the Buckeye, which makes sense, since she’ll be starting at Ohio State this fall. Photo: Kristin Shaw

In 1868, young Louis Graeter moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to sell ice cream at neighborhood street markets.

In 1989, young Kristin Shaw moved to Cincinnati to attend the University of Cincinnati and fell in love with Graeter’s.

My mom, my son, and I drove the Soul down to Dayton, Ohio, to visit my sister and her family, about 4 hours away. What made the ride easy was the cruise control commands and drive mode button right on the wheel. We played Road Trip Bingo on the way, which is fun and keeps everyone looking outside at the beauty of the summer landscape. The middle console is convenient for drinks and Wendy’s 50-cent Frostys and whatever else we picked up along the way.

Best Ice Cream Kia

For 10 years, Graeter’s was my main squeeze, and there was one particular sundae I was crazy about: the WEBN, named after a local radio station. The radio station is now defunct, and so the sundae went through some changes. It was briefly called The Velvet before it was replaced and forgotten in favor of other sundae flavors.

I’m a fanatic, though, so I just tell the staffers at Graeter’s that I want vanilla bean ice cream, homemade bittersweet chocolate sauce, marshmallow creme, and chocolate jimmies.

If you go, try the raspberry chip. Or if you go in the autumn, the pumpkin and cinnamon flavors are usually available in October and November, and they’re dynamite.

Cookie Dough Creations

Best Ice Cream

Cookie dough on top of ice cream. Trust me, it’s incredibly good. And no raw eggs = no salmonella risk.  Photo: Kristin Shaw

I set the navigation in our Inferno Red Kia Soul Turbo to find our way to another one of our favorite destinations for sugary sweet treats. Testing out the drive modes – Eco, Normal, and Sport – I liked the Sport mode for quick handling and stiffer steering when I was getting on the highway, but I found that Normal was my personal favorite for most situations. It’s empowering to have options available for different driving situations, and Kia has figured that out. Next stop, Chicago.

I love ice cream.

I love cookie dough.

Why should I have to choose?! Cookie Dough Creations, in the town of Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, is one of my must-stop favorites when I travel north. It offers several flavors of cookie dough (all sans eggs, so don’t worry), including traditional chocolate chip, peanut butter, M&M, brown sugar (basic cookie dough with no chocolate chips or other additions), turtle, Oreo, and fudge brownie.

But wait, there’s more! Under that delectable scoop of cookie dough (or on top, if that’s your style), a nestled a scoop of ice cream. Together that combination is heavenly. It makes my son happy that the chocolate ice cream is egg-free too, since he’s allergic to them.

Simonton Lake Drive-In

Best Ice Cream

From top left: vanilla soft serve, root beer float, root beer malt, vanilla cone, root beer float, and chocolate soft serve at the Simonton Lake Drive-In.  Photo: Kristin Shaw

When I was 14, my mother drove me a mile down the road from our house to apply for a job the Simonton Lake Drive-In, a throwback to the old A&W root beer stands. The deal was that if summer employees would stick it out for the whole summer, they’d get a bonus of a quarter per hour worked. Not only did I stick it out that summer, I worked four summers until I left for college.

From that experience, I learned how to make a perfect soft serve swirl, a delicious malt, and mix up a batch of sugary homemade root beer. Now, when I go back, I try to make it on Wednesday evenings for classic car night, which blends two of my favorite things: ice cream and classic automobiles.

Now, typically the carhops (the servers who bring the food to your car) place the soft hooks of a tray on your window. Then you enjoy your treats from there. However, when you’re talking about kids and sticky, sweet root beer, that’s not the best idea when you’re in a borrowed car. We opted to eat our ice cream and root beer floats at the picnic tables. If we had accidentally spilled a malt into the Harman/Kardon speakers, I would have cried. The speakers in the Soul, by the way, can be set up to pulsate different colors to the music. Sweet.

Sometimes, you need to stop and give your car a good cleaning when you’re on the road. Try these tips to recapture that new car feeling. 

Elkhart County 4-H Fair Dairy Bar

Best Ice Cream

I almost forgot to take a picture of this delicious, creamy, unbelievably fresh ice cream. Who can blame me? It was melting fast and I couldn’t wait to eat it.

My parents came along with us to the next destination, the 4H Fair, as is our tradition. They liked the Kia Soul’s front and back seats, and the convenience of which we could store our cooler, jackets, and purses in the hatchback. It’s easy to open and close the hatch, which is important with one person on the shorter side (Mom) and one person with a prosthetic arm (Dad).

The Elkhart County 4H fair is one of the largest county fairs in the country. The event is a feast of the senses, with sights and smells and sounds that are not found in that unique combination anywhere else. There seems to be a corn dog vendor at every entrance; consequently, the smells of the batter, along with the scent of cinnamon-sugar-covered elephant ears (fried dough) and the unmistakable, pungent odors of the animal exhibits is earthy and real.

Not far from the nearest cattle building sit two ice cream stands: Dairy Bar 1 and Dairy Bar 2, called (cheekily) the Calf-é. The ice cream is fresh, soft, and delicious. And let me tell you, if you get an elephant ear at the same time and eat them together, you’re going to be singing my praises.

The Verdict: In conclusion, I can’t decide which one is the best. Shall I taste them again next summer?

Looking for Road Trip Tips? Start here (and I highly recommend getting a toll pass – this helped us across three of the four states we traversed). 

A Girls Guide To Cars | Who Serves The Best Ice Cream In The Midwest? We Road Trip With Kia To Find Out! - Ice Cream Pinterest

Writer. Car fanatic. Mom. Kristin is the co-owner of auto review site Drive Mode Show and a nationally-published writer... More about Kristin Shaw