We were back in Chicago after a 3-week road trip through the Midwest states and after saying goodbye to one of our tripmates, two of us were continuing the adventure for one more week to tick off a few more states as we travelled to our final destination of Philadelphia.
After grabbing breakfast to eat in Millennium Park (because we couldn’t possibly spend a few hours in the Windy City and not visit the Cloudgate sculpture), we retrieved our rental vehicle from the hotel car park and hit the road again, driving north towards the state of Michigan.
Today’s destination would be the lakeside town of South Haven. From Chicago, we’d be following the east shore of Lake Michigan up through Indiana and into Michigan State.
Our first stop of the day was at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park). After calling into the Visitor Centre, we drove down to shore to have a picnic on the beach and walk along the lakeshore gazing up at the huge dunes backing the beach.
Back on the road, we continued towards Michigan and our South Haven motel. After checking in and grabbing some food from the Arby’s next door, we drove further north along the lakeshore to the town of Saugatuck where we had booked a dune buggy ride.
Sat in the back of a trailer, we were taken out on an off-road trail through the dunes. Racing up and over the dunes was great fun and half way through our tour, we stopped at a view point on top of the dunes and were given some time to take photos before we were on our way again.
After our dune buggy ride, we returned to the pretty lakeshore town of South Haven. We had booked a sunset lake cruise and luckily it was the perfect weather for it. We spent the next hour or so relaxing as we watched the sun go down on the horizon.
The next day, we drove east across the state towards Detroit. Today, we had a roadside stop scheduled that we were especially looking forward to – a trip to Hell!
The town of Hell did not disappoint. Playing on the town’s name, we were greeted with ‘Welcome to Hell’ as we entered Screams store and got to walk through the Gates of Hell to enter the grounds of the Hell Chapel of Love, a popular wedding venue!
While grabbing lunch from the Hell Hole Bar, we wrote the Hell postcards we had bought from Screams then visited the post office to send them. Before dropping them in the postbox, the cashier stamped them with ‘Been Thru Hell’ and singed them so they looked like they’d been through the fires of Hell!
A really fun roadside stop!
Our final stop in the state of Michigan was just outside the city of Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum.
We had read that this was a great museum to visit, on par with the Smithsonian Museums in Washington but it was even better than expected. As well as popular culture exhibits, the museum had a huge collection of historical artefacts including George Washington’s camp bed, the Ford Theatre chair President Lincoln was sat in when he was shot, the Rosa Parks bus and the car which President Kennedy was assassinated in.
It was a fascinating museum to visit.
After leaving the museum it was also time to leave the state of Michigan as we continued towards Ohio where we were staying that evening but we’d really enjoyed our first visit to the state.
Crossing into Indiana early afternoon, we stopped for lunch at an IHOP on the outskirts of Columbus before driving into the town centre to visit Kids Commons, an interactive science museum we had seen listed on a roadside America website due to it housing the World’s largest toilet!
The toilet was part of the museum’s ExploraHouse! exhibit where children can find out how different components come together to make a house by scrambling around different rooms and playing with the interactive elements like light switches. The toilet, in the bathroom area, doubled as a slide so you could mimic being flushed down it! A hilarious roadside stop and well worth the $6 entrance fee.
While there, we had fun looking around the rest of the museum, playing on the other interactive exhibits including a giant bubble machine!
Next stop was another giant rocking chair. Like the Red Rocker we had stopped at in Missouri, Big John which sits outside a furniture store in the town of Franklin IN, also shares the title of Former World’s Largest Rocking Chair. The chair didn’t seem as impressive as the Red Rocker but was still a fun roadside stop.
While planning our trip, we had had the idea of visiting a State Fair somewhere and luckily, found that the Indiana State Fair was being held on the days we just happened to be in that area.
This had made finding affordable accommodation in the city a challenge and after even considering hostel accommodation, we had eventually settled on a loft room in a small bed and breakfast on the outskirts of the city.
Conveniently, it lay on the bus route to the State Fair grounds so after arriving mid-afternoon and checking in, we caught the bus out to the state fair grounds to spend the evening there.
We weren’t completely sure what a state fair was, we’d seen pictures and footage on TV shows and knew it usually involved a fairground and food stalls and we guessed there would be local exhibits from around Indiana state. Expecting it to be busy being a Friday evening, we had booked our tickets in advance to save time queuing to buy them there.
Once inside, we found endless rows of food stalls mainly offering fried goods or tooth-rotting sugary treats! We each bought a corn on the cob, one of the healthier treats on offer, but even that was dripping in butter! Later, we grabbed delicious BBQ pulled pork sandwiches for dinner.
Away from the food stalls, we found, as expected, lots of local stalls offering samples and selling their farm produced goods – we especially enjoyed sampling various strengths of maple syrup at one stall! – but also some interactive events.
There was a tent housing a variety of farm animals to pet and we sat and watched a pig race cheering on our chosen porcine hero as it raced around a track through various obstacles.
We walked around the fairground to see what rides were on offer but decided the prices were a bit much and left without having a go on anything.
Deciding we should try at least one of the fried or sugary treats on offer, before leaving we bought a Funnel Cake between us. This calorific snack ticked both boxes being fried dough drizzled into a web so big it hardly fitted the paper plate it was served on then dusted in powdered sugar and drizzled in chocolate sauce!
Feeling we had now experienced pretty much everything the state fair had to offer us, we then caught the bus back to our b&b.
The next morning, we were leaving Indianapolis to make our way back to Chicago in time for one of us to make an evening flight back to the UK. We left early with plenty of time to spare and a few stops scheduled along the way, the first being at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. We didn’t have any plans to pay to go into the museum, we just wanted to see the huge dinosaurs surrounding the museum building.
After taking photos of the dinosaurs, we had a quick look in the museum gift store and, after seeing information about what the museum had to offer, decided it actually looked worth a visit. Agreeing to drop any other stops we had planned for the day, we worked out that we could fit in an hour or so at the museum and still make it to Chicago on time.
As well as displays on dinosaurs,interactive science exhibits and plenty of opportunities to dress up, the museum also had lots popular culture exhibits including one on toys from the past, housing items we recognised from our own childhood. On the top floor, there was a fun circus exhibit and we also found a carousel we just had to have a go on!
We spent a bit longer than anticipated at the museum but still had more than enough time to reach Chicago on time. That was until we stopped for lunch at seemingly the busiest McDonalds ever where it took us almost an hour to get served and suddenly it was a race against time to make it to Chicago in time. As soon as we arrived, we had to say a hasty goodbye as our friend raced to the airport while we checked back into the hotel we’d began our adventure in 3 weeks ago.
It had been an exciting 3 weeks exploring America’s Midwest states and we’d seen and experienced some amazing things. And our adventure wasn’t over yet – we still had one week left on the road travelling to Philadelphia via Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia…
After more than 2 weeks on the road, we were on the home stretch and close to completing our 3-week tour through America’s Midwest. Looping anti-clockwise from Chicago, we had so far spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri and now, we had just 2 states left before we returned to the Windy City. Starting with Kentucky.
After a couple of nights in the city, we left our St Louis hotel for Louisville, Kentucky with, what we thought was, plenty of time to spare. We had an unusual activity booked their for that afternoon – ziplining underground in some caves – so needed to make sure we arrived in plenty of time to check in.
Unfortunately, we had completely forgot, or just hadn’t realised at all, that we’d be crossing a time zone and because we were travelling East, we would be losing an hour!
It wasn’t until we checked on the traffic as we left St Louis and saw that our arrival time was out that we suddenly realised. Luckily, we were still able to make it on time, it just meant we had to do the drive in one go without any of our planned stops including the stop at a KFC just because we were in Kentucky and at the Louisville Visitor Centre to take photos with a Colonel Sanders wax statue.
Arriving in Louisville and finding the Mega Cavern complex relatively easily, we checked in for our Mega Zips tour and got decked out in our safety equipment. Our guides and ziplining experts took us into the caverns where we manoeuvred around via 6 ziplines and 2 rather precarious rope bridges, often with just the torch on our helmet for light! It was an amazing experience leaping into darkness, often not being able to even see the other end of the zipline as we left the platform, although for the most part, the caverns were well-lit as we zoomed over the cavern below us.
After our zipline adventure, we drove to Cave City where we checked in at accommodation for the next 2 nights at the Wigwam Village! Here, our motel room was an en suite concrete tepee. It was a fun alternative to the standard motel rooms we had become used to and there was a lot more room inside than it looked like there would be from the outside!
The next morning, we drove into Cave City and after breakfast at the Cracker Barrel, visited its Dinosaur World attraction. The park had a collection of life-size dinosaur replicas. It was definitely somewhere aimed at kids and wouldn’t have been my choice of how to spend a couple of hours but one of my travel buddies was a big dinosaur fan and seemed to enjoy it!
After Dinosaur World, we returned to Cave City to look around its few stores and grab some snacks before driving up to the nearby Mammoth Cave National Park. The park is nestled above Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the World. We had booked a Cave Tour and after picking up junior ranger booklets to fill in from the visitor centre, checked into head underground.
There were a variety of tours to choose from, all differing length and group sizes, but we chose the Historic Tour as it fitted best with our plans for the day. The tour was really fascinating, taking us through the cave to see all the highlights and following in the footsteps of explorers from as far back as the 1800s. We heard the stories of these explorers and saw graffiti etched into the cave walls from long ago.
Once back in the daylight, we used what we had learnt to complete our Junior Ranger booklets and earn another ranger badge!
That evening, after dinner at a nearby Pizza Hut, we visited Ralphie’s Fun Centre for a change from our usual night in and a game of bowling!
Our journey from Kentucky to Indiana the next day meant retracing our inbound route slightly. This gave us the opportunity to call into one of the stops we didn’t have time for before, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. The site housed a memorial to President Lincoln inside of which was a replica of the Kentucky cabin he was born in.
Then it was time to say goodbye Kentucky as we continued on our road trip, Indiana-bound!
Staying in the state of Missouri, we were now travelling further north to the city of St Louis but first, in keeping with the theme of our road trip, we had a few stops to make at some random roadside attractions!
Our first stop this morning was in the town of Springfield, Missouri where we went in search of the World’s Largest Fork! Not obviously visible from the road, we eventually found it rising from the ground in front of an office building after wandering around the area our Sat Nav had taken us to.
Slightly underwhelmed, we were unsure it was really worth the effort but we did at least find a supermarket nearby to stock up on some snacks for our journey and grab something from its coffee shop!
Our next stop was a late addition to our itinerary and an hour’s detour away from our original route to St Louis but after seeing it listed on a few road trip websites, we immediately knew we had to include it in our adventure! The Famous Swinging Bridge of Brumley at the Lake of the Ozarks looked way more fun than a giant fork – an almost 90-year old single-lane bridge suspended across the water without supports from below. Definitely a ‘cross it if you dare’ challenge!
After hours driving down long winding roads in seemingly the middle of nowhere, our Sat Nav directed us onto a gravel track masquerading as road. Eventually, this led us to Grand Auglaize Swinging Bridge.
Parking just down from the bridge, we got out to inspect the structure. It didn’t look particularly safe but it had taken so long to get to it that not crossing it would add hours onto our already long journey. So after taking photos on the bridge and making sure nothing was attempting to cross it from the other side, we jumped back into our car and slowly edged across. Thankfully the bridge withstood the weight of our car and a couple of long minutes later we had made it to the other side!
It had been an exciting day for road side attractions but we had one more stop left before making it to St Louis. his time, we were back on Route 66 for the second time this trip, stopping in the town of Fanning to seethe ‘Red Rocker’, formerly the largest rocking chair and way more impressive than this morning’s giant fork!
Then it was on to St Louis, arriving in typical fashion as the sun began to set and finally checking into our city hotel almost 9 hours after leaving Branson that morning!!
The next morning, we were up early to walk through the city towards the banks of the Mississippi for our first up close look at the huge Gateway Arch and a river cruise aboard a Steamboat.
The cruise was fun although similar to my experience cruising along the Mississippi in New Orleans, there was not a huge amount to see or hear about on from the live commentary.
We had pre-booked tickets to go up to the observation deck at the Gateway Arch and by the time our cruise had finished, it was time to return to the arch to check in.
Visitors travel to the top of the arch in a tiny capsule – not one for the claustrophobic! – and once up there, there isn’t a huge amount of space to move about.
It was a beautiful clear day however and the views across to Illinois in one direction and over St Louis city in the other,stretched for miles.
After lunch at a Sports Bar in the Laclede’s Landing Riverside District, we walked back through the city to City Museum.
Calling this a ‘museum’ is a bit misleading as it’s actually more of a giant adventure playground with tunnels to crawl through, structures to climb and slides to slide down both inside and outside the building. It gets its ‘City Museum’ label because all of these structures were made of pieces of buildings, artefacts and just general bits and pieces from various cities and were fashioned into a giant playground by artists!
This isn’t a playground restricted to children, big kids are allowed too and we had great fun scrambling around and even playing in a huge ball pit although we came out aching and covered in bruises reminded that we’re not as young as we used to be!
In need of something a bit more relaxing, we stuck with the art theme and walked to the Citygarden Sculpture Park, a small park area with fountains and sculptures dotted around, our favourite of which was a huge Pinocchio sculpture!
We finished our day with a visit to the Old Courthouse Building near the Gateway Arch, a building which we’d passed many times over the course of the day but had not been inside yet. As well as being able to tour the Courthouse, it also acts as a National Park Service Visitor Centre for the Arch.
Exhausted from being on our feet most of the day, we then made our way back to our hotel, leaving again only to grab some dinner from the nearby Hard Rock Cafe.
We’d enjoyed our day exploring the city of St Louis and spending time in the state of Missouri.
Planning a road trip through the Midwest USA had been like trying to solve a long, time consuming puzzle, trying to workout what we wanted to see and how we were going to fit it in to a 3-week time frame putting us back in Chicago in time for one of us to catch a flight back to the UK.
While we had always intended on visiting the state of Missouri – and more specifically, the city of St Louis – spending 2 nights in Branson, Missouri first was a late, and rather hastily inserted, addition to our ever changing itinerary.
It was spotting a replica of the Titanic on the Roadside America website that first brought the city of Branson to our attention and when further investigation revealed that this was actually a Titanic Museum housed inside the replica of the doomed liner along with various other tacky attractions nestled along its main strip, it seemed like a no brainer not to visit on a trip we had fashioned around random roadside attractions.
From our research, it had seemed that Branson was split into 2 main touristy areas: Downtown Branson and Branson Strip. We had opted to stay in a motel just off the strip, walkable to the Titanic Museum and other touristy attractions but were aiming to head to Downtown Branson to visit Branson Landing, a huge shopping, dining and entertainment complex on a lakeside setting, before checking in.
Here, we had pre-booked a ride on Parakeet Pete’s Waterfront Zipline, a seated zipline experience over the White River which we had read offered great views over Branson, Lake Taneycomo and the surrounding Ozark Mountains.
Unfortunately, we arrived in Branson to torrential rain and after killing some time browsing in some of the many shops to shelter, we realised the weather wasn’t changing anytime soon and we’d have to just suck it up and ride the zipline anyway!
It was still a fun, if rather tame and child-friendly, experience although our views were rather obscured by the heavy cloud and rain and we exited soaked to the skin!
Branson Landing is also home to a dancing fountains show said to rival the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. As it would have been a shame to leave the are without seeing it, we put up with the rain to watch one of the hourly shows, the jets of water dancing along to the beats of King Fu Fighting. As with all fountain shows, I’d imagine it would have been a lot more impressive at nighttime, all lit up and that possibly applies to Branson Landing as a whole – we should probably have aimed for a later visit than mid-afternoon.
Still damp, we decided to grab tea and cake from a Starbucks to warm up. Despite the coffee shop not looking particularly busier than any other Starbucks at a popular shopping mall, it took us over 30 minutes to reach the counter. Only to find that the most of the items we wanted were out of stock!
Unimpressed with Branson so far and mainly empty-handed, we decided to escape the miserable weather and downtown and head to motel to check in.
Despite it being just a 4-mile journey to our motel, it took us over an hour to make it down Branson Strip as we sat in heavy traffic and hit a red light at every set of traffic lights.
By the time we checked in – and were handed a map outlining alternative routes to avoid traffic on the Strip, something we could have done with an hour or so earlier -we were pretty fed up and regretting our decision to include Branson on our itinerary!
Once we’d calmed down and changed out of our still-damp clothes, we set out for our first walk along Branson Strip, our first glimpse of the reconstruction of the Titanic (or half of it, at least!) looming into view across the main road along with a different take on Mount Rushmore outside the Hollywood Wax Museum and a giant fork and meatball outside the Italian restaurant we eventually decided to have dinner at. Maybe our stay would be fun afterall…
We began the next day with a visit to the Titanic Museum. Here, visitors are – in slightly bad taste?! – handed a card with a passengers name on as they enter and track the fate of this passenger as they move around the museum, eventually finding out if they survived the disaster or not!
The museum, claiming to be the “World’s Largest Titanic Museum Attraction” housed plenty of artifacts from the doomed liner and staff were dressed in period costume talking to visitors in character as passengers on board the ship. There was plenty to look at and it was an interesting way to spend a few hours.
It was lunchtime by now so we decided to visit Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, a singing waitstaff restaurant but after being seated in a busy section of the diner, we were ignored for over 20 minutes, the menus and table waters we were promised never emerging. Eventually we gave up and slipped, probably unnoticed, out of the diner opting for the quicker and much cheaper Dairy Queen just up the Strip instead.
At this point, we were at a bit of a loss for what to do next. The one thing we had quickly come to realise about Branson, Missouri was that its many attractions all cost money and none of them were cheap. A lot of the attractions we had looked at doing while researching the town looked fun on paper but now we were here seemed tacky, over-priced, out-dated and not at all worth it.
Rather than completely wasting the afternoon talking about what to do, we settled on a visit to the Branson Celebrity Car Museum. I’m not into cars at all but I am a big movie fan and like popular culture museums so went along with the idea to look around and handed over my money at the entrance gate.
The museum had plenty of recognisable cars on display from TV shows and movies such as Jurassic Park and the Fast and the Furious but I found it was unclear whether these were the actual cars used in those films and shows or if they were cars bought and mocked up to look like them. It didn’t take long to walk around and take photos and soon we were back outside wondering what to so next.
Over McDonalds’ sundaes, we contemplated a Duck Tour but it wasn’t long since we did one in Hot Springs, Arkansas – plus the Branson one was pretty expensive. Looking through tourist leaflets and scrolling through Branson websites on our phones we decided that the Runaway Mountain Coaster looked like fun so hopped into our rental and drove to its slightly off-strip site.
The coaster was similar to tobogganing rides I had been on before where you control speed with a brake in the vehicle but ran on a railed track rather than down a chute. I loved every second of zooming down the twisting, turning and sometimes quite steep track and it was without a doubt my favourite thing in Branson so far!
We still had sometime to kill before we had to go back to the motel to get ready for our night out at the Dixie Stampede show so we decided to drive down towards Table Rock Lake, hoping to find something to do that didn’t cost any money! On the way, we spotted signposts for the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery and made a spur of the moment decision to pull in and have a look. There was a small visitor centre to look around and then an opportunity to feed the trout being reared in the pools outside. If we’d had more time there were also hiking trails to follow from the car park but instead, we had to drive back to our motel to get ready for our evening out.
One of the things we knew we Branson was famous for was the many shows on offer and despite spending a lot of time researching these, there was really only one choice for us – Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, a popular dinner show. We’d bought tickets that included a souvenir boot to drink from and after picking these up in the foyer, went and found seats on the balcony for the pre-show entertainment, a fun bluegrass group.
Once the pre-show entertainment was over, we were lead into the main arena where we were seated around a central stage area. As the show began, we were served our meal – a soup starter followed by a whole chicken for our mains. We had heard that cutlery was not provided and everyone was expected to eat with their fingers so being terribly British, we had taken plastic cutlery from Starbucks along with us to make the eating experience a bit easier!
While not exactly what we were expecting, the show was still good fun and VERY American, offering a variety of entertainment including rodeo-style displays, singing, dancing, comedy and interactive games culminating in a very patriotic choreographed, flag-waving horse parade to the strains of Dolly Parton singing Colours of America!
With hindsight, Branson was an unnecessary stop on our trip, or at least it was unnecessary to have spent 2 nights there, one would have been sufficient allowing us to spend an hour on the Strip and still take in a show, or we could have even seen a matinee and moved on to stay elsewhere after. Like Wisconsin Dells in many ways, it is a place only worth visiting if you are willing to part with your money and while it felt like we had researched what Branson had to offer to some extent, we’d maybe been swayed by the silly roadside stop-type attractions of its huge inland Titanic replica and movie-star Mount Rushmore and not thought about the logistics of how we were actually going to spend our time there enough. Billing itself as the gateway to the Ozarks, maybe we should have paid more attention to the surrounding area and looked into spending time outdoors by the the lakes and mountains instead of in the tacky resort centre. Either way, our stay was definitely an interesting experience but I’m not sure we’ll be rushing back!
Taking that into account, we had left our Oklahoma City accommodation pretty early, on what we had down as a 6-hour drive day in our itinerary and after a scheduled stop along Route 66 at the Blue Whale of Catoosa, we were now on track for an afternoon arrival in the state of Arkansas.
Soon after crossing the border, we felt in need of a break to stretch our legs and after spotting some signposts for Fort Smith National Historic Site, we made a spur of the moment decision to stop and have a look around.
We had a look around the visitor centre and museum, set in a building built as barracks in 1851 before being converted into a courthouse and jail in 1872, as well as taking a quick walk around the grounds before continuing on our journey to the next roadside attraction on our list.
With one of my travel companions having a severe peanut allergy, she thought it would be hilarious to stop at (a safe distance from) Planters Company Peanut Factory, where we had seen on a Roadside America website that there was a bronze sculpture of Mr Peanut outside which you could take a picture with.
With most of the cars parked on the lot belonging to the factory’s workers, we weren’t sure if we should even be on the grounds so we made the stop pretty quick, jumping out to take photos before hopping back into the car to continue on our way!
The rest of the day was spent following an extremely long, winding road past a National Forest all the way to the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, our only other stop being a late lunch at McDonalds.
We arrived in Hot Springs early evening, checking into a lovely motel run by a British couple. They were so excited to have fellow Brits staying that they graciously offered us their residents passes to one of the town’s spas to use during our stay!
After settling in at our motel, we took stroll into town hoping to find somewhere to have dinner. Pretty hungry at this point, we eventually decided on Deluca’s Pizzeria. Unfortunately, there turned out to be a large party in who had given their orders in right before us meaning a huge delay in our orders arriving. After waiting over an hour for our food, we did at least get an apology and discount.
We were so hungry by the time it arrived that the pie we had ordered between us wasn’t enough to satisfy our hunger and once back at our motel, we were dipping into the breakfast bars left in our room for the morning!
The next morning we wandered back into the town. Hot Springs, a spa town, is actually part of a US National Park, the smallest National Park in the US National Park System. As we walked down the main street past the old bathhouses, we decided to book ourselves onto a National Park Duck Tour.
Two of us had taken a Duck Tour the previous year in Seattle and it had been great fun and we hoped to learn a bit about the history of Hot Springs National Park and see a bit more of it than we would have otherwise by taking a tour.
There was availability on the next tour so we were handed quackers to use on board and climbed straight onto our DUCK.
The tour took us through downtown Hot Springs and out onto Lake Hamilton. Unfortunately there wasn’t a huge amount to see and a lot of our guide’s humour fell flat but we did learn some interesting facts – finding out that the town holds the USA’s shortest St Patrick’s Day Parade on a tiny back street each year and that President Clinton had actually grown up in the town and attended Hot Springs High School – and it was at least fun sounding our quackers, trying to hold conversations with the ducks we passed out on the lake.
After our tour, we took now-traditional National Park sign photos then went straight to the park’s Visitor Centre set in one of the grand bathhouses, Fordyce Bathhouse, to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. Although technically aimed at kids, having completed some for these booklets on our Alaska tour before, we had found it a good way to learn about the National Parks.
The Park Rangers tended to allow anyone that asked to take part in the programs and it’s a fun way to explore a National Park as well as the badges awarded at the end making great souvenirs!
Junior Ranger booklets in hand, we set about exploring the town, concentrating on the Bathhouse Row area where most of the historic bathhouse buildings were situated but also fitting in a bit of shopping and a break to sample some delicious cupcakes!
Once we’d filled in most of our booklet, we returned to the Visitor Centre to get them checked by a Park Ranger and take our ranger pledge to earn our badges and certificates!
While Bathhouse Row is the main part of Hot Springs National Park, there is also a section of the park away from the town which, set in the mountains, is a bit more like the National Parks we were used to visiting.
We left the town behind to drive up the steep mountain hills to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a lookout tower perched on Hot Springs Mountain.
We paid the small fee to go up to the observation deck to enjoy sweeping views over the surrounding parkland and down to Hot Springs Village before following the road through the park to West Mountain Summit for more pretty views.
It was now late afternoon and we’d already packed a lot into our day at Hot Springs National Park so we decided to take advantage of the passes the motel owners had provided us with and spend a relaxing hour or so actually experiencing the hot springs we’d heard and read so much about over the course of the day by visiting Quapaw Baths & Spa.
The spa’s thermal pools are filled with Hot Springs water and it was a really relaxing way to spend the end of our busy day.
The next morning we were leaving Arkansas for a few days in the state of Missouri.
We had had a few possible stops down on our itinerary near the city of Little Rock but after talking to the Hot Springs Park Ranger yesterday, had decided to change our plans after he pointed out that the Buffalo National River park would likely lie along our route. We had looked into it and found that we’d not have to alter our route much to be able to stop there so decided to skip our other stops and head straight for that!
It was a really pretty drive through Arkansas to Buffalo River and once there, we spent a bit of time at the Visitor Centre before wandering down the the river enjoying the pretty scenery.
We’d had a fun time in Arkansas visiting one of the most unusual but interesting National Parks we had ever been to and could see from driving through the state that it was one of the prettiest states to visit and one we’d like to someday explore further.
Our route from the town of Liberal, Kansas to today’s destination of Oklahoma City, took us through a corner of Texas so we pulled over to grab photos with the state border sign and had lunch at a Texan Dairy Queen so that we could say we had set foot in the state of Texas this trip!
After popping to Texas for lunch, we continued to Oklahoma state where we picked up the famous Route 66.
Our first Oklahoma stop was in Elk City at the National Route 66 Museum. The museum mainly showed information on travelling Route 66, in its heyday and the present.
It covered all the states which the road passes through from Illinois to California and you could read and hear first hand stories of what it was like to travel along it. Its displays depicted mock ups of typical Route 66-style diners, drive-ins and gas stations with old cars parked around the exhibition. It was a fun and really nostalgic place to look around.
Ahead of schedule for once, we continued along the road – making sure we each had a turn at driving a stretch of it – to the town of Clinton and a second museum, the Route 66 Museum which contained further memorabilia from the iconic road’s past.
Set up in decades, each showing a snapshot of the road in time, this museum concentrated more on the history of Route 66 covering it’s rise, fall and resurrection to its current cult status. It was a shame this had been the second museum we had come to as I think it warranted more time spent here reading the information in the displays compared to its Elk City counterpart. If we had known that in advance, we’d have spent less time at the first museum to give us more time here. For the small entry fee though, both museums were worth visiting, even if short on time, as they both offered different but interesting takes on the road.
From here, we left Route 66 behind for a while to take the Interstate through to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma! from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical blaring out on repeat. Despite being ahead of schedule earlier, our stop at the second museum followed by hitting rush hour traffic meant it was late evening by the time we arrived at our hotel so after checking in and walking to the nearby Denny’s for dinner, we decided to leave the exploring til tomorrow and instead have a night in doing laundry and having an early night.
Desperate to do white water rafting on our trip after all really enjoying the experience on the Wyoming-leg of our Trek America trip before, we had gone back on forth on where we could fit it in on our trip. Deciding we couldn’t really divert from our route to fit it in at any of the places we had found offering it in Wisconsin and Minnesota, we had given up on the idea when we noticed a river sports facility in Oklahoma River offering white water rafting on a man-made course.
We knew it wouldn’t quite be the same as rafting on a real river but thought it would still be fun so we’d booked passes to raft the next morning.
After checking in at the centre, we changed into clothes we didn’t mind getting wet and picked up our safety vests and helmets then went for an orientation and safety talk before boarding our rafts. We went around the course a few times and if anything, the rapids were a lot bigger than any we’d experienced river rafting before. It was still great fun though and, while not as authentic without the scenery of travelling down a natural river, a great alternative.
Our passes gave us access to some of the other activities available at the centre and we had a few goes on the giant inflatable water slides after but, exhausted from our rafting experience and with time that could be spent exploring Oklahoma City ticking on, we changed back into our dry clothes and decided to move on.
Finding somewhere to park in Oklahoma City’s Brick Town area, we spent the next few hours exploring the city.
After looking around Brick Town, an area which we guessed came more alive at night with its bars and restaurants, we wandered up towards the city’s National Memorial and Museum. The memorial commemorates the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people lost their lives.
While we didn’t have time to visit the museum itself, wandering around the memorial and reading the information available on the significance of its design features, especially its 168 empty chairs, was a moving experience.
After paying our respects at the memorial, we walked to Myriad Botanic Gardens and strolled through its grounds, passing its Crystal Bridge Conservatory before returning to Brick Town and our car.
If we had had more time, it would have been nice to have visited the museum at the National Memorial or take a guided tour on a water taxi along the Brick Town canal to find out more about the city but as it was now early evening, we were hungry so instead deciding it was time to get some dinner. Having not see anywhere we fancied eating at in the city, we drove out to a Cracker Barrel on the city outskirts before returning to our hotel for the evening.
The next morning, we were leaving Oklahoma state and travelling on to Arkansas. We had tentative plans to pay a quick visit to the city of Tulsa first but after previous experiences of trying to find places to park in a city, and with a 6 hour drive day ahead of us, we decided against it.
There was however, one more Route 66 roadside attraction just outside of Tulsa city we just had to see – the Blue Whale of Catoosa. Back in the 70s, the glory days of Route 66, this was a popular stop along the road where travellers could picnic and swim in the pool surrounding the giant whale but as new, faster roads were built and Route 66 fell out of use, the park and its huge whale closed and fell into disrepair.
With Route 66 later being revived and now a popular tourist route, the whale has now been restored as a popular Route 66 attraction. While it is no longer used as a water slide – and swimming in the surrounding pond is no longer recommended! – it is possible to walk into the whale and clamber on top of it for some fun photos!
Our visit to the Blue Whale of Catoosa was a great way to end our visit to Oklahoma state and we left for Arkansas state with huge smiles on our faces.
Kansas City actually lies across two states, Missouri and Kansas but on our visit, we would be staying in the Missouri part of the city, travelling across the border into Kansas the following day.
As usual, we had a few road side stops planned before reaching our destination. But, also as usual, after our Nebraska airboat river tour finished later than we had expected that morning, we were already behind schedule and stops for food, conveniences, driver swaps, snack shopping etc etc just put us further and further behind schedule – meaning, if we were going to make it in time for the KC BBQ Food Tour we had booked for that evening, we didn’t have time for any other random stops along the way!
The city skyline finally loomed into view late afternoon and after checking into our hotel, we had just a bit of downtime before it was time to set out for the meeting point of our tour, Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque restaurant.
We’d been inspired to do a BBQ food tour here after being huge fans of London BBQ chain, Bodeans, which has always claimed to get its inspiration from Kansas City BBQ. We were told by our guide that the taste of American BBQ food differs from state to state, mainly because of the sauces used, and we were keen to get started and try some authentic KC BBQ.
We visited three restaurants over the course of the tour, Arthur Bryant’s, LC’s Bar-B-Q and Gates, getting to sample different dishes at each. While the food was delicious at each stop, my favourite was without a doubt the tender burnt ends in a delicious sweet BBQ sauce at LC’s.
Between stops, we were also given a brief tour of Kansas City, our guide pointing out the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial – the most comprehensive WW1 museum in the World – amongst other sites from our tour minibus. It seemed like Kansas City actually had a lot to offer and I wished we had more than one night in the city to explore it properly.
The next morning, we crossed the border into Kansas, eventually leaving the Kansas City limits behind. Kansas was one of the states on our trip we were most excited about with it’s links to the Wizard of Oz and the Wild West and our first stop was in the town of Wamego to visit the Oz Museum.
The museum had displays of a range of Oz-themed memorabilia related to the original books, the famous 1939 film and various other productions including the 80s Disney film, Return to Oz. Some of the displays and models of the characters were on the tacky side and I’d have liked to have seen more memorabilia from the Wizard of Oz film but it was still a fun stop with a great gift shop attached!
After a lunch stop at a nearby Cracker Barrel – a restaurant which then became a staple stop on our trip after we found vegetables to be on the menu!! – we continued through Kansas State to Old Abilene Town, a reconstructed old West town populated with actors dressed as cowboys.
It was free to wander around the town and look in the old buildings and we arrived just in time to see a shoot out being recreated in the town square!
We made one more stop to stretch our legs along our drive, in the town of Kinsey. Said to be the midway point between New York on the East coast and San Francisco on the West coast, there is a huge marker celebrating the fact so we posed for photos with it, excited to be stood exactly in the centre of the USA!
Just as the sun started to set, we arrived at our destination for the next 2 nights – the infamous Dodge City, a Wild West frontier town which has been the setting for many Western-themed films and TV shows.
We were staying at the Wild West themed Dodge House hotel and loved it’s fun decor and saloon door entrance to it’s bar and restaurant!
The next morning, we headed straight to the town’s Boot Hill Museum, a Wild West recreation town which also houses historic exhibits on Dodge City and the Wild West.
We arrived in time to watch the morning shoot-out, a much more exciting and involved production than the one we had witnessed at Old Abilene Town the day before. Then deciding to get into the spirit of things, we paid to dress up as saloon girls for an Old Time Photo!
The museum offered re-entry with its wristband throughout the day, so we took some time out over lunch to explore the rest of Dodge City a bit more before returning later to explore it’s museum exhibits in more detail.
After a late lunch at the local Pizza Hut, we drove up to Cattle Overlook where we found the famous Dodge City welcome sign just across the road making for some fun photo opportunities!
That evening, we returned to the Boot Hill Museum once again, this time for some Wild West-style entertainment at Miss Kitty’s Saloon Show at the museums’s Long Branch Saloon.
Before the saloon opened, there was another chance to watch a good old-fashioned shoot out outside then we were invited to take a table inside for an enjoyable evening of singalongs, skits and dancers.
The following morning, it was time to “Get the hell out of Dodge!” as we continued our journey through Kansas state.
After a long journey past endless fields of corn, we arrived at our final stop in the state, the small town of Liberal.
Liberal is the site of Dorothy’s House, another Wizard of Oz themed Kansas attraction.
Here, a guide in character as Dorothy herself took us into a recreation of the type of house Dorothy Gale would have lived in and talked us through the events of the Wizard of Oz as they were recreated around us.
After we were ‘hit by a tornado’, we entered a recreated Land of Oz and followed Dorothy along the Yellow Brick Road to meet all the characters from the story along the way.
Then, after all clicking our heels together and chanting “there’s no place like home”, we exited into a small Wizard of Oz exhibition with memorabilia from the film and a gift shop.
The experience was very much aimed at young children and we had to supress a few giggles being three grown adults being taken on such a tour but we played along and it was a lot of fun!
Kansas state had been just as much fun as we had anticipated and we were sad to be leaving it behind but we still had lots more adventures ahead of us on our epic Midwest road trip!
After an exciting start to the day seeing the Largest Ball of Twine in the World in Minnesota, we were delayed arriving in the state of Iowa after hitting a few roadblocks and being forced to take some lengthy diversions.
Once across the state line, we headed straight for “Ice Cream capital of the World”, otherwise known as the town of Le Mars. Le Mars is home to Blue Bunny Ice Cream and we went straight to the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlour. There was a small museum about the history of the company upstairs but we were mainly there to taste the wares, settling onto a bar stool to demolish an ice cream sundae!
With time ticking on, we abandoned our tentative plans for stops at a few more roadside attractions in Iowa and instead continued on to the city of Omaha in Nebraska state. We had left our hotel in St Paul, Minnesota at 7.30am that morning and it was 5.30pm when we finally arrived at our Omaha hotel, our 7 hour drive actually taking us 10 hours!
The hotel receptionist was extremely excited to have visitors from the UK at the hotel, wondering what on earth had brought us to Omaha and repeatedly asking us to speak so he could hear our accents!
Exhausted from along day on the road, we resisted the urge to stay in the hotel all evening and instead got the hotel shuttle to the city’s Heartland of America Park.
We had read that it was possible to get gondola rides in the park’s lake over the summer months which we thought sounded like a fun, if a little random, thing to do. Unfortunately, they were not operating that evening but the standard boat rides were so we hopped on the next boat for a trip around the lake, past its impressive fountain, just as the sun started to set.
From the park, we walked into the city and had dinner at a local pizzeria before strolling back to our hotel for a well-deserved sleep.
The following morning, we were leaving Omaha city – and Nebraska state – to head to Kansas City, Missouri. But first, we had a pre-booked morning we had really been looking forward too – airboating on the Platte River just outside of Omaha city. There were a few companies offering this but we had booked a 10am slot with Bryson’s Airboats.
Possibly because it was an early-ish morning slot, we were the only ones on the tour so had the boat to ourselves!
It was a beautifully sunny morning. Our guide took us up and down the river stopping to point out points of interest and to look for wildlife along the way. We were really lucky to see huge golden and bald eagles up close .
Half way through our tour, we were invited to step out of the boat into a shallow section of water in the middle of the river and pose for photos. It wasn’t until we were in that snapping turtles were mentioned but we were assured there’d not be any in that part of the river!!
There were plenty of other airboats out on the river, mainly privately owned boats for personally use, and our guide stopped to introduce us to people he knew explaining they rarely had out-of-Staters visiting Omaha, never mind Brits!
The airboat tour was without a doubt the best thing we had done on our trip so far and, even though we were only a week into our road trip, we all agreed, the experience was going to be hard to top.
It had been a short visit to Nebraska state but definitely one we wouldn’t forget in a hurry!
After a weekend in Chicago and a few days on the road in Wisconsin, we were about to enter Minnesota – the state that had been the inspiration for a lot of our 3-week road trip after we’d spotted the Largest Ball of Twine on a map while researching our trip. But more about that random road side attraction later, first of all we had 2 nights in the Twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul ahead of us.
After leaving Wisconsin behind, we came to our first major driving challenge of the trip – navigating the busy, at times 5-lane, interstate system around the city of Minneapolis. Our first attempt didn’t go too badly and we managed to get onto the busy road easily enough and back off at the correct exit for our first stop in the state, the Mall of America. The bit of city driving between the interstate and the Mall’s car park also went smoothly and soon, we were making our way into the Mall for an afternoon of shopping and amusements at the Mall’s Nickelodeon Universe.
The Mall was as huge as we expected and it took a while for us to navigate our way around to the stores we wanted to visit. After a bit of browsing, we followed the signposts down to Nickelodeon Universe, a huge amusement park built into the basement of the mall. Here, we purchased wristbands allowing us access to the rides which included huge roller coasters, flying chairs and even a log flume (which I got absolutely drenched on!)
After experiencing pretty much every ride in there, we went for dinner at a BBQ restaurant before heading back to the car for take two on the interstate.
At this point, it was rush hour making driving on the busy multiple-lane road even scarier. We missed our exit for our St Paul hotel after being instructed by our Sat Nav to somehow make our way across 5 lanes of traffic into the exit lane but after it re-navigated, we made it off at the next exit then through the city to our DoubleTree Hotel, all breathing a sigh of relief as we pulled up.
The next morning, we had a Segway tour booked in Minneapolis.
We had hoped to have arrived in St Paul the previous day early enough to go out and figure out the public transport system into Minneapolis but seeing as we’d not had time, we decided to jump in a taxi to ensure we made it there in time for our tour check in.
After a quick practise to refamilarise ourselves with riding a segway, we followed our guide across the bridge and alongside the Mississippi river, stopping regularly to hear about the city or pose for photos. While I don’t feel I learnt a great deal about Minneapolis or that there was really a lot to see, it was a lot of fun riding segways for a couple of hours and we were delighted to receive a ‘Segway Driving License’ as a fun souvenir at the end of our tour!
After the tour, we walked into the city stopping along the river at St Anthony Falls Visitor Centre for a closer look at the falls we’d seen on our Segway Tour and learn a bit about the lock and dam at the Upper Falls.
Then, after grabbing lunch at a Potbelly’s Sandwich store we made our way through Loring Park to Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
The sculpture park is next to Walker Art centre, a contemporary art museum and is free to look around. We were there to see one particular sculpture, Spoonbridge and Cherry, but it was fun to explore the grounds and the other sculptures while we were there.
From here, we managed to navigate our way back to St Paul using the cities’ light rail system. It was late afternoon by now which didn’t give us a great deal of time to explore the city of St Paul but we did at least find the time to see the Peanuts bronze sculptures in Landmark Park, a tribute to Peanuts creator and St Paul native, Charles Schulz.
Dinner this evening was at the historic Mickey’s Diner, a traditional American diner. The diner, set in an old train car, has been in operation since 1939 and has featured in films including The Mighty Ducks and Jingle All The Way as well as regularly being rated in top 10 diners lists and appearing in various travel and food TV series. I ordered the One-Eyed Jack, a grilled cheese, ham and egg sandwich served with hash browns and it was delicious!
The next morning, we were up at the crack of dawn. We had a long drive day ahead of us, 7 hours in total to our destination of Omaha, Nebraska, and we wanted to make sure we reached our first stop at the long-anticipated Ball of Twine as soon as its visitor centre opened. That meant a 7.30am start to get there for 9am!
We spent most of the journey singing along at the top of our voices to Weird Al’s Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota song, playing it on repeat as we neared the town of Darwin. Soon, the shed encasing the ball was in view and as we pulled up alongside it, we couldn’t contain our excitement any longer!
The twine ball was quite a sight to behold. As the song says “what on earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing?” We hoped to find out by visiting the small museum and gift shop (we really wanted to purchase our own miniature ball of twine souvenir – also mentioned in Weird Al’s song!) but were disappointed to find its doors were closed.
Pinned to the front was a card with a phone number to call if you wanted to visit so, despite the hefty fees for calling a US number from our UK phones, we rang it and spoke to Marilyn who said she be there in 5 minutes to let us in!
The museum gave a bit of background to the ravelling of the twine ball as well as featuring some displays on the history of the town of Darwin, Minnesota. After looking around, we went straight to the gift store and all purchased a mini-ball of twine fridge magnets and our own ball of twine starter kits!
Then, after thanking Marilyn for her time, it was back on the road, listening to Weird Al’s song one last time as we pulled away, our adventures in Minnesota state over!