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Saturday 12 March 2022

Our Midwest Summer Road Trip

Ok, I started writing this post last Summer, but as usual six months later it's still not done. If you see any references to our "recent" Summer trip, just pretend it's still August 2021!

Did you travel anywhere last Summer? 

Over the end of June and start of July we took a two and a half week road trip through the Midwest and explored some new to us cities, towns and well known locations. The main destination of our trip was Chicago. I'd been wanting to visit Chicago for such a long time, and we had actually planned to spend Spring Break there in 2020 - but we all know why that didn't happen! I'm so happy we finally made it there this past Summer and it's one of my new favorite cities. We'll definitely be back!  

Originally we thought about flying to Chicago or even taking the overnight Amtrak train from Denver, but ultimately settled on making it a road trip. I figured that while we were right by the Great Lakes it would be nice to explore the area a little more and we'd need a car for that. The original plan was to take the sleeper train to Chicago (something we've never done before) and then get a rental car to explore the Great Lakes after a week in the Windy City, but with rental cars being a hot commodity last Summer and there being no guarantee that a booking would actually stick (no matter how high the price) we figured it was safest to take our own car. Driving from home also gave us the freedom to add in some extra stops along the way, extra space for luggage (our minivan fits a LOT), and no need to lug around car seats to use in a rental.

As well as Chicago, our trip included Detroit, St Louis, Kansas City, Mackinac Island, Mount Rushmore and more.  We drove through ten states on this trip: Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Kansas. I've got a lot of new states to cross off my list! We visited world famous landmarks, stopped at quirky roadside attractions, ate all sorts of new to us foods, crossed mighty rivers, took in lots of art, visited amazing museums, and caught up with friends. Our good friends from New York met up with us in Chicago and spent the better part of two weeks with us before we went our separate ways to head home. It was so good to catch up with them and the kids love having other kids to play with when we travel. This was our third Summer trip together so it's become something of a tradition. Last year they stayed with us in Colorado and a few Summers back we spent time with them in New York before traveling to Boston together.    

Here's a look at the route we took for this road trip. We added in some detours to visit various places rather than driving the most direct route. Google tells me that it was about fifty two hours of driving all up - and I can tell you that it definitely felt that way! Most of our driving days were around six hours of driving, but there were a few nine hour drives thrown in towards the end. While it was nice to be able to add in a few destinations that wouldn't otherwise be on our radar, I've got to say that the driving part of road trips is definitely not the highlight. Who ever came up with that "It's about the journey, not the destination" phrase clearly did not spend 50 hours in a car driving through the mid-west! It's always about the destination if you ask me!

Let's take a look at our trip day by day...

Day 1
Boulder, CO to Rapid City, SD

On the first day of our trip we headed north east to Wyoming and and then on to South Dakota. Apart from stopping for snaps with the state signs and for a bite to eat, our first stop of the day was Crazy Horse Memorial. We spent a couple of hours here checking out the museum and, of course, amazing carving in the mountain. While the mountain carving is a LONG way from being finished it's still a sight to see. Crazy Horse's face is complete but his body and his horse will take decades before they emerge from the mountainside.

From Crazy Horse we headed a little further north to the better known, but also incomplete, Mount Rushmore. Did you know that Mount Rushmore was incomplete? I had no idea until I learned about that on our tour at the Crazy Horse Memorial. While the rock carving was never finished to its original plans, the government declared Mount Rushmore done and it has stayed the same way ever since. Mount Rushmore wasn't especially busy, but the crowds here were definitely bigger than those at Crazy Horse. Our visit felt a lot more impersonal and after learning the history behind the Crazy Horse Memorial, visiting a mountain stolen from First Nations peoples with the faces of four white men carved into it just felt wrong. I mean, it is an impressive sight, and I'm glad we have seen it, but I was much more impressed with the Crazy Horse Memorial, both in scale and the story behind it.

After watching the lights turn on at Mount Rushmore after sunset we headed on to the nearby town of Rapid City where we spent the night.

Day 2
Rapid City, SD to Sioux Falls, SD

The second day of our trip was mostly spent driving however we did have a few small stops along our way. Our first stop was the small town of Chamberlain, SD on the shore of the Missouri River. We stopped here to take in the views of the river, to check out the stunning Dignity sculpture that overlooks the river, and to have lunch. 

From Chamberlain we drove on to the town of Mitchell, home to "The World's Only Corn Palace". You know I'm a sucker for a cheesy roadside attraction, so when I found the Corn Palace while researching our trip I had to fit it in! The Corn Palace is a building decorated with, you guessed it, corn! Both the exterior and interior of the building are decorated with murals made of corn. Yes, it's kind of cheesy, but the murals really are impressive. 

We then continued on to the city of Sioux Falls where we spent the night.

Day 3
Sioux Falls to Northfield, MN

We started the day with a visit to the falls that give Sioux Falls their name. Falls Park is a pretty impressive sight, with many small waterfalls and rocky outcrops spread along a section of the Big Sioux River. Normally my kids are eager to at least get their feet wet when we visit any water source, but the water here wasn't particularly nice - even if it did look lovely tumbling over the falls. I imagine that in Spring and Fall when there's more water it's probably a lot cleaner. 

Much of our day was spent driving with our destination for the evening being the town of Northfield, just south of Minneapolis in Minnesota. This was a little detour that we took on our way to Chicago to visit friends who had moved here from San Francisco. We caught up for dinner at a pizza farm and spent the evening catching up while watching fire flies light up the night sky. This was our first time seeing fire flies so that was pretty exciting. As much as I tried, I didn't manage to snap a pic or even capture a clear video of the fireflies, so if like us, you've never seen fireflies before you 'll just have to imagine what they looked like. They're pretty magical.  

Day 4
Northfield, MN to Chicago, IL

This was pretty much a travel day with not an awful lot of stops. After delicious pastries from a local bakery we took a quick tour of Northfield and grabbed coffee before heading off towards Chicago. We stopped at the Mississippi to watch barges go through the locks and to take in the grandeur of the mighty river. It sure is wide! Our only stop in Wisconsin was for lunch (I couldn't even tell you where) and by late afternoon we had made it to Illinois. This whole area is so green and lush and we were in awe of it as we drove through the countryside. It was quite late by the time we made it to Chicago so we pretty much just checked into our hotel and grabbed a quick take out dinner. Richard and Mylee, our friends from NYC, had arrived earlier in the afternoon but were already in for the night by the time we arrived so, as excited as we were to catch up, we left that for the following morning.

Day 5
Chicago, IL

Our first full day in Chicago! We caught up with our friends in the hotel before heading out to check out nearby Millennial Park. Here we found Crown Fountain, a splashpad with large screens showing faces at either end. The kids would've happily played in the fountain all day, but we had more to see, including our next stop, the Bean! Ok, so it's actually called Cloudgate, but everyone knows what I'm talking about when I call it the Bean! It was pretty crowded here as you can see in my photos. We then headed to Maggie Daley Park where we found the most amazing playgrounds. Just like the fountain, the kids would've happily stayed there all day. We spent much of the day walking around taking in the sights of Chicago. We walked along the waterfront, past the Buckingham Fountain (you might recognize it from the opening credits of Married With Children) and along the River Walk where the kids found yet more fountains to play in. In the evening we went back to Crown Fountain for a splash and then to the River Walk to watch the nightly illuminations of the fa├žade of Merchandise Mart Conference Hall.

Day 6
Chicago, IL

Happy birthday America! Day 6 of our trip just happened to be 4th of July. We spent much of the day at Chicago Institute of Art checking out world famous artworks including the Obama portraits. I love that we got to see these in real life, especially on America's birthday. The museum is home to many famous paintings including "American Gothic", Chagall's "America Windows", "Sunday on La Grand Jatte" (the impressionist painting from Ferris Bueller's Day Off), "Nighthawks" and so much more. It really is an impressive museum. 
In the evening we took another walk along the river to watch the nightly light display again. It was much busier this time and the crowd was very excited about the patriotic display - especially when Michelle and Barack Obama's portraits appeared. The walk back to our hotel gave us a little glimpse as to what 4th of July in Chicago is like, and I must say it's very different from anything I've ever experienced! There was definitely a lot of chaos amongst the celebrations and there were police everywhere. In fact, many streets were barricaded making it tricky to get back to our hotel. There were large groups of revelers throwing small fireworks in the street and there was lots of loud music. Kim went out to a laundromat in the suburbs to do our washing, and when he got back into the city he couldn't make it into the hotel's parking lot for a few hours due to the police barricades!  

Day 7
Chicago, IL

As the Monday after 4th of July, this was a tricky day as many places were closed in observance of the holiday. One place that wasn't closed though was Morten Arboretum located in the suburb of Lisle. We spent the day in the park strolling through gardens, finding our way through a hedge maze, playing in the Children's Garden, and checking out the giant wooden sculptures dotted around the park. The giant sculptures make up an exhibition called Human+Nature and they are absolutely stunning. There are five sculptures dotted around the gardens so we made it our mission to find them all. Morten Arboretum is rather large so we spent the whole day here and still didn't see it all. If you're in the Chicago area it's definitely worth a visit. 

Day 8
Chicago, IL

Day 8 saw us doing a little learning with a visit to Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry. This is one of the best science museums I've visited with lots of hands on exhibits and some really fun things to check out including a German WWII submarine. After our visit to the museum we headed up, up, up to the 94th floor of the John Hancock Building to check out the views from 360 Chicago. The views over the city were stunning. Don't let Mathilde's face in the photos fool you - she wasn't scared at all! She was just trying to ruin my photo. Yep, we've reached that stage. From the dizzying heights of 360 Chicago we headed back down to Michigan Avenue and started our hunt for some famous Chicago style deep dish pizza. I'm not going to lie, it's not something that particularly appealed to any of us, but we couldn't visit Chicago without trying it. We tried three different pizza restaurants before we found one without an hour long wait for a table. Was the deep dish pizza worth all the hassle? Maybe not, but the thin crust pizzas and the croissant garlic knots we ordered definitely were. I'm still dreaming of those croissant garlic knots. So good. 

Day 9
Chicago, IL

Day 9 saw us taking in views over Chicago from yet another observation deck. This time it was Sky Deck in the former Sears Tower which boasts views from the 103rd floor as well as glass observation boxes that hang over the side of the building. Lola, Mathilde and I loved checking out the view from the glass boxes, but Kim and Ava weren't so keen. They stepped in for a quick photo and then ran straight back to solid floor. Next up we headed to Shedd Aquarium where we saw beluga whales, jellyfish, rays, sharks, turtles, and a ton of fish. The views over Downtown Chicago from the aquarium were pretty cool too. Next up we had planned to take a boat ride along the river but the wind picked up and it started raining so unfortunately we had to give that a miss. It's definitely on the list for our next visit though.

Day 10
Chicago, IL to St Ignace, MI

On day 10 we said goodbye to Chicago, a city we fell in love with, and made our way towards Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Along the way we stopped at Indiana Dunes National Park and played in the sand and the waves (when the life guards weren't driving past telling everyone to keep out of the water, that is). Can you believe those waves are a lake? It totally looks like the ocean.
The kids picked up new Junior Ranger badges from the visitor center and then we made our way on to St Ignace, Michigan which is located right where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join. We arrived in the evening so we grabbed dinner, hit the hotel pool and had an early night in preparation for our early start the following day.

Day 11
Mackinac Island, MI

Can you believe I was up in time to watch the sunrise? It doesn't happen often, but when I caught a glimpse on the colorful sky outside our window I just had to head down to the small beach in front of our hotel and watch the sun rise over the water. It really was stunning.

We started our day pretty early with a ferry ride to Mackinac Island (with a detour under the Mackinac Bridge) right after breakfast. Have you ben to Mackinac Island? It's really pretty and such an interesting place to visit. Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island so the roads are full of pedestrians, cyclists and horse carriages. Even the UPS delivery guy was loading up a horse drawn cart! We checked out the historic Fort Mackinac where we watched a canon demonstration, learned about the history of the island, and took in some pretty stunning views. We did plenty of hiking on the island and made our way to famous sites including Arch Rock and Fort Holmes. We walked among the historic houses and business stopping to watch blacksmiths at work and to taste (and buy a LOT of!) the island's famous fudge. We also spent quite some time hanging out on the beach where the kids would've happily stayed all day, I'm sure. After taking the ferry back to St Ignace we grabbed some pasties for an early dinner. While really common back home in Australia, pasties are pretty much unknown in the US outside of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, so it was nice to have a little taste of home - even if they were the wrong shape!

Day 12
St Ignace, MI to Detroit MI

We said goodbye to the UP and made our way to Detroit about four and a half hours south. Our hotel here faced the Detroit River and it felt so weird knowing that the land on the other side was Canada. Seeing street signs saying "This lane Canada only" and Canadian flags waving in the wind felt completely surreal - especially seeing as it was so close but we couldn't go there due to the pandemic.

After dropping everything off at the hotel we made our way to the Heidelberg Project. The Heidelberg Project is an outdoor art exhibit created by Tyree Guyton. To draw attention to Detroit's forgotten neighborhoods, Guyton started creating installations in Heidelberg Street where many of the houses had been demolished. He painted remaining houses in colorful designs and created thought provoking pieces out of discarded goods. It really is an interesting place to visit. Our next stop was Steve's Soul Food for a hearty lunch before heading half way across the river to Belle Isle. Belle Isle is a large island in the middle of the Detroit River and features some rather impressive buildings including a conservatory and light house. Unfortunately most things were closed due to the pandemic so we spent our time walking around avoiding mosquitos. There are LOTS of mosquitos in Michigan! In the evening Ava and I went out for a walk around Downtown which was pretty busy due to it being a Saturday night. We made our way along Woodward Avenue to Campus Martius Park where we found a beach set up, free outdoor cinema, a musical playground and so much more. It really was a fun spot to hang out on a Summer's night. 

Day 13
Detroit, MI

We woke up to a gloomy, rainy day - not so good for being outside exploring, but perfect for being inside a museum. So that's what we did! We spent the entire day at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. This sprawling museum is part of a larger campus that includes the Ford Rouge Factory and Greenfield Village, an open air museum. We had planned to spend time exploring Greenfield Village, which offers rides in a Model T Ford, but it was just too rainy so we stayed inside the museum instead. In fact, the museum is so large that we needed a full day there anyway. The museum has such much to see and do. As you can imagine, there are many vehicles on display including those from historic moments. We got to sit on the bus that Rosa Parks rode on, we saw the limo that JFK was assassinated in, and we laughed at the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile! The highlight for me was the Jim Henson Exhibition where we got to see real Muppets and memorabilia, and make our own puppet videos. You can see my post about the Jim Henson exhibition here.

Day 14
Detroit and Ann Arbor, MI

After 10 days together we said goodbye to our friends after breakfast as they started their trip back to New York. We'd planned to have one extra day in Detroit to catch up with other friends. Kim spent the morning taking in the tour at the Ford Rouge Plant before meeting up with an old workmate in Ann Arbor. The girls and I spent the morning hanging around Downtown Detroit and along the Riverwalk before meeting up with my friend Sareka. We had planned to check out Monroe Street Midway which was decked out in colorful murals and features an outdoor roller skating rink, basketball courts and food trucks, but the previous day's heavy rain meant that it was closed. So instead we headed out to Ann Arbor where Sareka showed us her favorite book stores and Graffiti Alley, an alleyway covered in, you guessed it, graffiti. 

Day 15
Detroit, MI to St Louis, MO

With the main part of our vacation finished there was one things left to do: start the long drive home! The next few days would mostly be spent driving and we started off with an eight hour drive to St Louis. Along the way we made a few stops at state borders (our drive took in four states) and in Springfield, Illinois to check out a former home of Abraham Lincoln. We arrived in Springfield after the National Park had closed for the day, so we were unable to go inside the visitor center or any of the houses in the park, but we were still able to walk around and check them out from outside. 
By the time we arrived in St Louis it was quite late so we checked into our hotel, took in the views over the Gateway Arch from our window, and went to bed.

Day 16
St Louis, MO to Kansas City, MO

We started the day off with a visit to Gateway Arch National Park and the Mississippi River. I had not realized until a day earlier that the Gateway Arch is actually hollow and it's possible to take an elevator ride inside it to the very top. Unfortunately because I only found this out at such short notice tickets for the elevator were all sold out. Going up is definitely on my list when we visit next time. We strolled around the park taking in the sight of the giant arch. It's so much bigger than I had expected. As we had another driving day ahead of us we left fairly early and made our way to Kansas City. Our drive was a pretty short one so we arrived in Kansas City late in the afternoon. Fun fact! Kansas City is in Missouri and Kansas! Much of the well known parts of the city are on the Missouri side, so this is where we stayed. Kim was keen to try Kansas City BBQ, which is apparently a thing, so we drove to the Kansas side of the city to a well known BBQ restaurant that used to be a gas station. The kids and I aren't keen on BBQ so while Kim lined up for about an hour for huge chunks of meat we headed across the road to a Mexican restaurant. We got our food to go and headed to a nearby park for a picnic style dinner and a chance for the kids to run around and play. Back in Missouri we checked out the public library which is decorated to look like giant books and then headed to a nearby ice cream shop for dessert. Just like the BBQ place there was a long line here. 

Day 17
Kansas City, MO to Boulder, CO

The last day of our trip and another long drive. I had spotted an Australian cafe the evening prior and was keen for a little taste of home so I headed out to buy a big box of lamingtons, home made iced vovos, and caramel slices while everyone else was getting ready. It started pouring with rain while I was walking back to the hotel but I managed to keep the treats dry - the most important thing, right? We then started our drive home. There's not a whole lot to stop and see between Kansas City and Boulder so we mostly just drove, stopping for fast food lunch, bathroom breaks and some quick photos at the border. I had totally expected Kansas to be completely flat with nothing but cornfields so it took me by surprise to find undulating hills. I mean, they were small, but they were definitely hills. There weren't as many cornfields as I had anticipated either, but we did find one right by the border that I was able to snap some pics in. How could I resist a cheesy "Children of the Corn" photo opportunity? Our last two cheesy photo opportunities involved posing with the state signs for both Kansas and Colorado. 
And then it was just driving, driving, driving until we reached home. There wasn't really anywhere to stop along the way.

And that was our Summer road trip! 

It's a long post and it's taken me an awful long time to share it. I plan on sharing dedicated posts about our favorite destinations and as well as what to do with kids in Chicago and Detroit, so stay tuned for those. They may take a while though! 

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