A Midwest Road Trip: Kentucky

Briefly passing through the state of Illinois

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.

Arriving in 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!

Approaching Louisville

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.

Our Tepee accommodation

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!

Above, and below, at Dinosaur World

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.

Above, and below, on our cave tour

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!

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: Arkansas

Entering Arkansas

We were now about half-way through our self-planned US road trip. After a few days in Chicago, we had since ticked off Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma and so far, everything was going pretty much according to plan except for the realisation that we were consistently adding approximately 3 hours onto our expected drive time each day!

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.

Meeting Mr Peanut

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.

Driving through Arkansas state

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!

A DUCK vehicle in Hot Springs Village

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.

On Lake Hamilton

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.

Above, and below, exploring and learning about Hot Springs, AR

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.

Above, and below, exploring Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park

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.

Driving up to Hot Springs Mountain

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.

Hot Springs Mountain Tower, and below, views from the top

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.

Above, and below, heading to West Mountain Summit, stopping at viewpoints along the way

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.

At Buffalo National River, a National Park Service site

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.

A Midwest Road Trip: Oklahoma

5 minutes in Texas

We were into the second week of a 3-week, self-planned road trip around the Midwest states of the the USA and after adventures in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, we were departing the state of Kansas to spend a few days in Oklahoma.

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.

Entering the state of Oklahoma

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.

Oklahoma City comes into view

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.

White water raftering at OKC Riversports Centre

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.

Trying out the centre’s water slide!

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.

Brick Town in Oklahoma 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.

Above, and below, at the Oklahoma City National Memorial

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.

In Myriad Park

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.

A Brick Town water taxi

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.

Above, and below, fun visiting the Blue Whale of Catoosa

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.

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!

A Midwest Road Trip: Iowa and Nebraska

Day 5 of our self-planned Midwest USA road trip and we’d already taken in Wisconsin and Minnesota since leaving Chicago, Illinois.

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!

Crossing into the stateof Nebraska

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!

In the city of Omaha, Nebraska, and below, in Heartlands of America Park

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.

An airboat to ourselves, and below, our airboat adventure on the Platte River

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!

Stood in the Platte River

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!

Other airboats out enjoying the morning sunshine on the Platte River

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!

A Midwest Road Trip: Minnesota

Crossing the Mississippi River into Minnesota state

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.

Arriving at the Mall of America

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.

Rides at Nickelodon Universe, and below, a bit wet after a trip down the log flume and a BBQ dinner

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.

Almost in the city of St Paul

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.

Down by the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, and below, exploring the riverside area during our segway tour

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!

View from St Anthony Falls Visitor Centre

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 Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture

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.

Posing with the sculpture in Minneapolis, and below, back in St Paul with the Peanuts sculptures in Landmark Park

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!

Leaving St Paul for the town of Darwin MN

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!

Arriving at the World’s Largest Twine Ball

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!

It’s the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota!

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!

A Midwest Road Trip: Wisconsin

After a couple of nights in Chicago to overcome our jetlag, we were on our way back to its airport, this time to pick up a rental car which would be our main form of transport for the next few weeks. Despite having never driven in the US before, or hired a rental car anywhere before, we had planned a pretty ambitious road trip around the Midwest States of the US and we were nervous and excited in equal measure as we approached the AVIS building.

We had pre-booked our rental well in advance of our trip, paying up front in order to avoid any costs at pick up – or so we though, as we were charged for something or other at handover, a charge we spent the rest of the trip trying to figure out! The trip was not off to the best of starts when as well as the unexpected rental charges, we arrived at our designated pick up time to find a huge queue for the pickup desk, a queue that was moving at a snail’s pace!

Holding up the Leaning Tower of Niles!

Unimpressed with the service we had received from Avis so far, we were relieved to finally get the keys to our rental and get on the road towards Wisconsin.

We had a 4 hour drive to Wisconsin Dells ahead of us and lots of stops at roadside attractions planned along the way and we were already over an hour behind schedule thanks to the car pickup process being a lot more time-consuming than we had expected!

Sat nav set up, we were finally on our way towards our first stop of the day – and of the trip – in the town of Niles, Illiois where we were hoping to find the Leaning Tower of Niles, a smaller scale replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a bench where you could sit next to an Abraham Lincoln sculpture!

Entering Wisconsin state

As we made our way out of Chicago, we were unsure whether we’d find either or even a place to park but 20 minutes later, there was the leaning tower in front of us! After a few attempts going back and forth along the road, we settled on a place to park and hopped out to grab photos with the random sculpture. It was lunch time already so we popped to the supermarket next to the tower to grab snacks then back to the car.

Above, arriving at the Jelly Belly Factory, and below, touring the factory on the Jelly Belly Express

Our 5 minute stop had taken at least half an hour putting us even further behind schedule so with that in mind, we decided to skip the Abe Lincoln bench and continue on into the state of Wisconsin.

Here, our first stop was at the Jelly Belly Factory where we had read that free tours were offered. We found Jelly Belly easily and luckily it was pretty quiet meaning we got on the next tour.

In the Jelly Belly gift store

We were handed Jelly Belly hats which had to be worn through out then boarded the train which took us around the factory, our guide telling us about it or stopping for us to watch videos. It was a fun stop and we even got a free bag of jelly beans each as we left through the gift store.

Next up was the Mac Cheese Castle, a huge cheese store near the town of Kenosha. As we neared the highway exit, we could see it lying just off the main road but as we reached the junction, the signposts vanished and we couldn’t work out how to get to it! Ending up back on the highway, we decided to give up and continue towards our destination. Conscious that time was rapidly ticking away, we also decided to abandon our plans to stop in Milwaukee – city driving didn’t seem like the best idea when we were still getting used to the car, the US road system and driving on the opposite side to what we were used to anyway!

Above, and below, moving figures at Ella’s Animatronic Deli

Instead, we stopped late afternoon in the town of Madison to visit Ella’s Animatronic Deli, a diner we had found which was crammed full of hundreds of moving figures. It was a fun food stop with lots to see as we waited for our food order to arrive.

At a Wisconsin Cheese gift store

We had one more food stop to fit in at the Mousehouse Cheesehaus in Windsor, a store specialising in Wisconsin cheese.

The sun setting as we near Wisconsin Dells

We had a quick look around, stretching our legs, sampling some of the cheese and taking photos of the huge mouse adorning the entrance before continuing to our motel in Wisconsin Dells, finally arriving just as the sun set!

Breakfast at the IHOP, and below, interesting sights driving through the Dells

The next morning, we were up early to grab breakfast at the nearby IHOP. We had all visited Wisconsin Dells once before, stopping for an hour or so as part of our Trek America tour through the Northern States but this time, hoped to see more of what it had to offer.

We started with a visit to Noah’s Ark, via quick pitstops at a Trojan horse, the Colosseum and an upside down White House – some of the Dell’s more random attractions along the way! Noah’s Ark bills itself as America’s largest water park and is one of many water and amusement parks in the Dells.

Above, arriving at Noah’s Ark, and below, at The Dell’s Lumberjack Show

We had decided to mainly because we got free entrance included with our motel stay so it seemed a shame not to stop by for a few hours. But after paying hefty parking fees and entering to find huge queues for every ride (it was the height of summer, after all), we regretted our decision. In the couple of hours we were there, we only got on one ride and ended up spending most of our time in the wave pool, the one thing you didn’t have to queue for.

Giving up on Noah’s Ark, we returned to our motel briefly to shower and change before walking down the main strip to see the Dell’s Lumberjack show. We had pre-booked our tickets to the afternoon show and while we enjoyed watching, it was pretty much a rerun of the same show I had seen at Grouse Mountain in Vancouver – same stunts and even the same jokes!

Lunch at the Cheesey Tomato Cafe

After the show, we walked back along the strip, stopping at the Cheesy Tomato cafe for a grilled cheese sandwich lunch and souvenir shopping. The Dells is full of random attractions but none of them are cheap and you could easily spend a fortune paying out for them all. We decided on a round of glow-in-the-dark mini-golf at one of the many entertainment complexes and this also gave us access to a giant King King sculpture which gave us some fun photo opportunities!

That evening, we had booked a trip on the Wisconsin Dells’ ghost boat. For some reason, we had assumed it would be like a ghost walking tour but on a boat.

We were expecting to cruise along the river being entertained with ghost stories about the Dells but this is not what we go at all! Instead, we were dropped by boat at an island which we roamed as we were chased by various actors dressed as all kind of gruesome, spooky characters! A bit like a longer version of the old House of Horrors at Universal Studios but outside in the dark!!

On the road again, travelling through Wisconsin

I love that kind of thing and had a great time but my travel buddies were less than impressed!

The next day, we were back on the road travelling through the state of Wisconsin towards our next destination of Minneapolis.

The World’s Largest Bicycle in Sparta, Wisconsin, and below, The World’s Largest Six Pack in LaCrosse

Once again, we had a long list of roadside attractions to stop off at along the way, starting with the World’s Largest Bicycle in the town of Sparta. We found the sculpture sat in a park straight away and hopped out to take photos between giggles, trying our best to be a bit quicker than we had at previous stops.

The next stop was in the town of LaCrosse where we found the World’s Largest Six Pack, another great photo opportunity!

UFO sculpture in Elmwood, Wisconsin

Our final stop in the state of Wisconsin was in the town of Elmwood, supposedly the UFO-sighting capital of America! The town plays on this title with UFO-themed window displays as well as hosting ‘UFO Days’, an annual festival celebrated every July with a parade and other UFO-themed events.

As we had just missed the festival by a few days, the town was still decked out with bunting and decorations.

Banners left up in Elmwood from the previous weekend’s festivities

After our stop in Elmwood, it was time to say goodbye to Wisconsin as we crossed the border into Minnesota to continue our trip. We’d had a fun start to our adventure, finding some fun and unusual roadside attractions as well as getting to revisit Wisconsin Dells to spend a bit more quality time there and now we looked forward to what the rest of our trip would bring!

A Midwest Road Trip: Chicago

After spending over 6 months planning a self-drive road trip of Midwest USA, the time had finally come to depart for our gateway city of Chicago. Being used to taking either short city breaks in the USA or escorted small group tours for longer trips – neither of which required us to do any of our own driving – it was the first time any of us had undertaken such a trip and we were equally excited and nervous for the weeks ahead.

At the airport waiting to board

To help to calm the nerves, we had chosen to begin our trip with a few (carless!) days in a city familiar to us all – Chicago. The three of us had all spent a few days here as part of the Trek America coast to coast tour through the Northern states we previously taken – the trip we had actually met on – and I had visited a few times prior to this and knew the city pretty well (read my tips for visiting the city here).

After meeting up in the arrivals at Chicago airport (we had all flown in from different parts of the UK), we managed to navigate our way into the city and then drag our luggage the short distance from the subway to our Michigan Avenue hotel. It was already early evening so after checking into our room, the only thing on our mind was food and sleep. We grabbed take away from the first place we stumbled across and then settled down in our room for the night.

Rising early thanks to the jetlag, we began the next day – our only full day in the city – with a stroll along Michigan Avenue up to the John Hancock building. After stopping for breakfast at Starbucks, we continued across the DeSable Bridge and onto the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This area is a shoppers paradise and we couldn’t resist popping into a few of the stores we passed including Dylan’s Candy Bar and the Disney Store.

Above, and below, views from Chicago 360

Eventually, we reached the John Hancock building where we had booked tickets up to its observation deck, now rebranded as Chicago 360. On our last visit together to the city, we had instead visited the observation deck at the Willis Tower but having been up both before, the John Hancock building’s observation deck was my favourite. Feeling adventurous, we had also purchased tickets to try out Chicago 360’s latest attraction, TILT. Branded “Chicago’s newest thrill ride”, here visitors can stand against a glass window on the 94th floor observation deck as it slowly tilts forward over the city below.

It was a clear, sunny day and the views over the city from the top, especially looking towards Lake Michigan, were beautiful. The TILT ride was fun, if short-lived, and not nearly as scary as it looked in my opinion although the screams from other visitors showed that not everyone agreed with me on that!

Walking along Lake Shore Drive

Once back at ground level, we walked east towards Lake Shore Drive, crossing to the path running alongside the lake and following it south past the beaches towards Navy Pier. Wanting to get out on the lake but having taken the Shoreline Sightseeing company’s Lake Michigan cruise on our last visit, this time we opted for a jetboat ride.

With some time to kill between booking our boat trip and its departure time, we walked the pier and had a go on some of the amusements before returning to board.

Navy Pier fun

The jet boat trip was great fun as we sped across the lake twisting and turning, getting us just wet enough to cool us down a bit from the the strong, summer sun without soaking us.

We returned to the pier at a slightly slower pace allowing us the opportunity to take some photos of the Chicago skyline in front of us.

Above, and below, having fun at the Cloudgate Sculpture

Leaving Navy Pier behind, we walked south to Millennium Park, home of my favourite Chicago attraction – the Cloudgate Sculpture or ‘the silver bean’ as we prefer to call it. Here, we spent more time than was probably necessary staring at the reflections of ourselves ad the city skyline in the sculpture, walking beneath and finding lots of different angles to take photos from.

Also in Millennium Park and not far from Cloudgate, is the Crown Fountain and with it being a boiling hot summer’s day, it was full of children – and some adults – cooling off by paddling their feet and waiting for the faces on the screens at each end to ‘spit’ water over them.

Crown Fountain

Having spent all day under the hot, summer sun, and now being almost back at our hotel, we couldn’t resist diving under the jet of water suddenly spewed from the fountain. We were absolutely drenched but it felt so good!

Next stop was across the road to our hotel to change – and to try to dry our clothes before the start of our road trip the next day! – before heading back uptown later for pizza at our favourite Deep Dish restaurant, Gino’s East. As usual, the pizza took a while to cook but we kept ourselves entertained adding to the customer graffiti covering the restaurant’s walls and furnishings!

The deep dish didn’t disappoint and full up, we waddled back to our hotel full of anticipation for what the next day would bring.

This was it, it was time to check out of our city hotel, head back to the airport and pick up our hire car for 3 weeks on the road. We would be back in Chicago at the end of it all having hopefully returned from a fun-filled Midwest adventure!!