A Midwest Road Trip: Indianapolis

Arriving in the state of Indiana

The penultimate day of our self-planned 3-week road trip and after looping from Chicago through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, we were now heading through Indiana – a state we had all previously visited on our Trek America tour – where we’d be spending a night in Indianapolis before returning to Chicago tomorrow.

The giant toilet slide at Kids Commons

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!

Another giant rocking chair!

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.

Even the normally healthy vegetable option comes fried at the State Fair!

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.

Above, and below, exploring the Indiana State Fair

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.

Fairground stall at the fair’s Midway area

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.

Finishing our visit to the State Fair with a giant Funnel Cake

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.

Dinosaurs inside and outside the Children’s Museum of Indiana

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.

Dressing up to explore the Ocean display at the museum, and below, other exhibits at the Children’s Museum

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!

Right back to where we started – approaching Chicago 3-weeks after we left the city on our Midwest adventure

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…

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: 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: 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: 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!

Planning a US Road Trip

After years of visiting major American cities on various city breaks and then spending some time travelling across America on small group escorted tours, I was really starting to tick the 50 states of America off, having even managed to visit Alaska which isn’t part of the ‘Great 48’ mainland states.  A visit to Denver, Colorado marked reaching my 30th state (ok, some states I’d just passed through without stopping at at this point, but it still kinda counted!) and it seemed silly now not to try and aim to tick off all 50.

30 States down (pink), 20 to go (grey)

Looking at a map, it became clear that the majority of the states I had left to visit, were congregated around the middle – the Midwest states – and as it seemed to be agreed on most travel sites that there wasn’t a lot to see in this part of the USA, none of the small group tours I looked at visited any of these in much detail, if at all.

Having made a great group of friends on the tours I had previously done, I began to see if any of these would be interested in adding to the number of states we had visited and eventually, this lead to a group of 3 of us deciding to plan our own tour, a roadtrip of the Midwest states, lasting around the 3-week mark.

We were all drivers so would hire a car, plan a route and take it in turns to drive each day.  The aim was to tick off the states in the middle and find our own adventures along the way, proving the websites which said there was nothing to see in these states wrong!

Starting our trip in Chicago, and below, visiting the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri

Having never planned a trip like this before – we were all used to jumping on a group tour and having everything done for us – we were unsure where to start but having seen our tour guides in action, how difficult could it be driving across America, getting to places on time and finding interesting places to stop at along the way, right?

Deciding that Chicago would be a good ‘gateway to the Midwest’, we began to plot a possible circular route passing through as many states we hadn’t yet visited as possible before arriving back in Chicago.

Above, and below, visiting various Wizard of Oz themed attractions in Kansas

Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri were all on our list and, similar to our Trek trips, we decided to aim to spend just one or two nights at each stop along the way.

We had very little idea on what each of these states had to offer but we’d heard of St Louis, Missouri and all wanted to visit its Gateway Arch and one of us knew someone who had visited a Wizard of Oz-themed attraction in Kansas which sounded like fun – who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz after all – so we added those ideas to our list as a starting point. 

On a segway tour of Minneapolis

Wanting to try and recreate the feel of our Trek America trips, we also made a list of all the activities we had enjoyed on these tours so that we could find similar opportunities along the way this time – National Park visits, white water rafting, horse riding, bike or Segway tours… were all jotted down on a document we had created and shared via Google Drive.

On our Trek America trip across the Northern states, we had spent a lot of time travelling through South Dakota but never made it across the border into North Dakota.  It was a bit out of the way, to say the least, of the other states we were aiming to cross off this trip but as we were unsure when else we would ever get there, we started to look into whether we could somehow add it into our itinerary.

At Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, and below, visiting the huge Mall of America with its indoor amusement park in Minnesota

Remembering a brief couple of hours stop we’d had at Wisconsin Dells on our Trek America trip, we thought we could factor in a longer stop there after leaving Chicago then from there it made sense to once again pass through the state of Minnesota from which we could travel up into North Dakota before heading south through South Dakota and into Iowa to begin our original circular route back to Chicago.

So that is where we began, with 2 nights pencilled in in Chicago then 2 nights in Wisconsin Dells. I’d heard a lot about the Mall of America with its indoor amusement park which sounded like fun so we pencilled in a 2 night stop in Minneapolis. 

Some of the roadside attractions we visited included the World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the Jelly Belly Factory

Thinking of Minnesota reminded us of the random stop we had made during our Trek America trip at the Jolly Green Giant statue and museum and got us wondering what other random roadside attractions we might be able to find. This led us to the discovery of The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine, also in Minnesota and suddenly our trip took on a whole new direction. 

Visiting a cheese store in Wisconsin

We decided to try and find as many random roadside attractions as we could to stop at along the way and as we soon found out, if that was our aim, then the Midwest was definitely the right place to be to find them!

Finding a couple of websites that listed this kind of thing, we began to plot our route and itinerary around these random stops! The Roadtrip America and Roadside America sites, both had useful map features pinpointing places of interest in each state and we soon had a long list for Wisconsin alone including the Jelly Belly Factory, a Cheese Castle and giant sculptures of a cow, an elephant and a bicycle!

A huge bicycle in Wisconsin state

We had a lot of debate over where our overnight stops should be in each state, how long our drive times each day could reasonably be and what routes to take and there had to be a lot of compromise. Eventually, we realised that adding in North Dakota was too much of a stretch so we dropped the 4 days we’d have spent there and in South Dakota from our original plans, leaving us with a couple of days to add in elsewhere along our route which we ended up allocating to a stop in Branson, Missouri.

A Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri shaped like the ship itself

A rough route worked out starting and ending in Chicago and taking exactly 3 weeks, the 2 of us who were school teachers and had more time to play with plotted out an extra week or so on the end of our trip with the aim of ticking off the states of Michigan and West Virginia and ending in Philadelphia – a city we’d made an hour’s stop in on our Trek America tours but felt we needed a bit more time exploring.

Flights booked, we went back to the first draft of our itinerary and spent the next few months fine tuning it, looking at where we’d make our one or two night stops and booking roadside motels or convenient city hotels.  Here, we found a slight problem for travelling as a group of three in that most accommodations offered rooms with 2 doubles and didn’t offer triple rooms or rooms with an extra bed. This meant that most nights, two of us had to share a double bed while we took turns have the other bed to ourselves! Car parking was also something new for us to consider and while most roadside motels offered it for free, this was rarely the case in the cities so we had to factor this into our budget.

A rough map of our 3-week route taking in Illinois, Chicago,Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana

We had originally said we’d aim to keep drive days down to a maximum of 4-5 hours driving but the more we researched the states we were passing through, the more random roadside attractions we found that were ‘just a short diversion off our route’ and just had to be added into our itinerary.  We even managed to alter our route to include cutting through a corner of Texas as one of us hadn’t been to that state before!

Suddenly, we found that some of our 4 hour drive days, were now 6 or 7 hour drive days but we told ourselves it would be fine as we could make an early start and share the driving three ways. With two of us making it clear from the start we were much less confident with city driving, we also had to make plans to switch drivers well before we reached any cities on our itinerary.

The last thing we got around to booking were the attractions and activities that needed to be booked in advance. Where possible, we booked these in places where we were staying 2 nights so we were already in the area and didn’t have to factor in possible traffic stopping us from reaching the attraction on time. If we couldn’t do this, then we aimed to book them for first thing in the morning on the day we left that area so any driving was after.  There were a couple of activities including ziplining in Kentucky where we had to book for the afternoon we arrived so we made sure we didn’t have any other stops planned along the way that day and added an extra hour or so onto our arrival time, booking a slot for late afternoon. It was good job we did in Kentucky as we had completely forgot to factor in US time zones into our plans and we later realised we would lose an hour crossing a time zone that day!

On an airboat in Nebraska

There were also some activities we had to drop purely because we didn’t have the time – we’d read that in Nebraska, something called ‘tanking’ was a popular summertime activity. It involved floating down a river sat in a giant tub and it looked like great fun. But as we researched it, we realised it was a full day activity with tanking trips taking 4-5 hours and unfortunately there was no way we could fit that in. We replaced it with an air-boating trip on the River Platte so we did at least get out on the eater!

When our trip finally came around, we were very excited but also nervous at the thought of hiring a car and driving around such a huge country, on the other side of the road, with its complicated multilane highways around the cities.  We had a great few days in Chicago after arriving in the US but sat in silence on the subway en route to the airport to pick up our hire car on the day our road trip was to begin, probably all thinking about all the things that could go wrong!

Heading back to the city of Chicago 3 weeks after our trip began

Three weeks later, we were back in Chicago after what had been, all in all, a pretty successful trip.  While we had learnt that we had way over planned what we could fit in on a drive day, we had made it to many of the roadside stops we had in our itinerary and had made it on time to all of the activities we had booked specific time slots for along the way.  We also found out that 6-7 hours drive days were not a good idea as we somehow seemed to add on 3 hours to the timings we had down in our itinerary each day once food stops, petrol stops, stops to switch drivers, time spent at each attraction along the way and general faffing had been added in; so an estimated 4-hour drive day took us 7 hours and a 7-hour drive day took us 10 hours!

Lessons learnt for our next US roadtrip and there have been 2 more equally successful trips since.

I’ll be writing about our trip soon so come back to find out exactly how our trip went and what we got up to along the way soon!!