A Midwest Road Trip: St Louis, Missouri

The World’s Largest Fork

We were edging ever closer to Chicago and the end of our self-planned 3-week road trip through the Midwest States of the USA. Starting in Chicago 15 days ago, we had since travelled through the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas and were currently in the state of Missouri having spent a couple of days in Branson.

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!

On the swinging bridge

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.

Hoping the car across the bridge stays put!

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!

A giant chair!

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!

A dusk arrival in St Louis

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!!

View of the Gateway Arch from the Steamboat, and below, cruising along the Mississippi River

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.

Art in the Riverside District

After lunch at a Sports Bar in the Laclede’s Landing Riverside District, we walked back through the city to City Museum.

Outside 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!

Ball pit fun, and below, letting out our inner child at City Museum

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!

View of the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse, and below, sculptures in Citygarden Sculpture Park

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.

A Midwest Road Trip: Branson, Missouri

Being greeted by roadworks as we entered Missouri – setting the scnee for our visit?!

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.

A Branson water tower

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.

So after 11 days on the road travelling from Chicago through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, we were driving back north towards Chicago again heading towards Branson, Missouri (our second visit to the state of Missouri this trip after we spent a night in Kansas City en route to Kansas state) for a 2-night stay.

A rainy Branson Landing

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.

Riding Parakeet Pete’s zipline

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!

Fountain show at Branson Landing

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!

Bizarre sites as we crawl through traffic down the Strips

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!

Half of the Titanic sat on Branson Strip, and below, other Strip ‘attractions’

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!

Off to visit the Titanic Museum

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.

Above, and below, at the Celebrity Cars Museum

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.

Riding the Mountain Coaster

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!

The Dixie Stampede finale

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!

A Midwest Road Trip: Kansas

Entering the state of Missouri

Day 6 of our three week self-planned road trip exploring the American Midwest and after ticking off Illinois with a few days in Chicago, then Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, we were briefly venturing into Missouri, the first of two visits to this state along our trip, with an overnight stop in Kansas City.

Approaching Kansas City

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.

First stop on ourKansas City BBQ Tour

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.

Above, the National WW1 Museum and Memorial, and below, touring Kansas City

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.

Arriving at the Oz Museum in Wamego, and below, exploring the displays at the 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!

Above, and below, a pit stop at Old Abilene Town

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.

Stood in the middle of the USA!

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!

Above, and below, our Western themed accommodation, Dodge House Hotel

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.

Arriving at the Boot Hill Museum

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.

Above, and below, exploring more of Dodge City away from the Boot Hill Museum

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!

Back at Boot Hill Museum, and below, looking around the museum’s displays

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.

Cattle Overlook

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!

Off to the Long Branch Saloon for Miss Kitty’s show

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.

Witnessing another shoot out display before the saloon show, and below, enjoying Miss Kitty’s Saloon Show

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.

Sreetching our legs in a field of giant corn plants

The following morning, it was time to “Get the hell out of Dodge!” as we continued our journey through Kansas state.

At Dorothy’s Housein Liberal, Kansas

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.

The start of the Yellow Brick Road, and below, our journey through ‘Oz’

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.

Above, and below, Wizard of Oz memorabilia in the small museum

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!