Our last major stop on our East Coast Escape Road Trip was Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We arrived in the evening just in time to head into the park for some star gazing. A huge full moon made star watching difficult, but lit up the surrounding landscape giving the night a truly magical feel.
The next day we were in the park bright and early to try and get some hiking in before the temperature rose. Most visitors to the park only drive the loop road stopping at the scenic overlooks, so once you get off the road you pretty much have the park to yourself. We decided to hike towards Deer Haven and didn’t encounter any other visitors.
Hiking through the badlands is like being on the surface of another planet where someone made hundreds of dribble castles out of sand. There are a variety of formations and the colors can be quite spectacular. The Younger Fives had a blast climbing the various outcroppings, but soon found out that even though the formations are highly prone to erosion (The Badlands average one inch of erosion per year) they are very rough and can really scrape up your skin.
As the sun moved overhead the valley floor quickly heated up and all too soon it was time to return to the car and continue on towards home. As we drove away from the Badlands we all agreed that this national park ranks as one of our top favorites, and we all hope for a return visit.
Several years ago when we were living in Maine Five String checked a book out from the library about the grasslands that once covered much of North America. Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands illustrates how much of the country used to be prairie and what happened to that ecosystem. The part of the book that really caught our attention all those years ago was the story that Prairie Builders told about the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. At that time we really wanted to visit the refuge and see what we had read about first hand. However, our travels took us in another direction and visiting was pushed to the back of our mind. So, it was with great excitement this past summer when we realized that we could finally visit the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on our trip across the country.
The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1990 with the mission to bring back the tallgrass prairie to 5,600 acres of land just east of Des Moines, Iowa. The process of reconstructing the prairie is really fascinating from readying the land to finding native tallgrass prairie seeds. The book Prairie Builders does a great job of describing this process. However, visiting the refuge and the Prairie Learning and Visitor Center was really amazing. This was especially true after driving by miles and miles of agricultural land on our way across the country and finally getting a sense of what the land would have looked like in a more natural state.
The Prairie Learning and Visitor Center was one of the best visitor centers that we have been to in a long time. It was super engaging for both children and adults and did a wonderful job of explaining the history, importance, and science of the prairie and how it is being reconstructed at the refuge. The Younger Fives loved the hands-on exhibits and were thrilled at being taken into the “seed laboratory” by a park employee and shown the process by which the seeds are collected and processed to be used to replant the tallgrass prairie.
After we took in our fill at the learning center we had several trails to choose from that would take us up close to the reconstructed tallgrass prairie. It was amazing to be in the midst of the tall grasses! We were able to view flowers and butterflies while the wind made everything sway. The abundance and diversity of life that the prairie supports is staggering when compared to a field full of corn or soybean. We took this video to remind us of the beauty of this wonderful ecosystem that so many people worked tirelessly to bring back to North America.
As a family we have always been a fan of the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her descriptions of the life of her and her husband are interesting and engaging (especially for younger readers). On our recent trip across the country and back we were able to stop off at two historic landmarks along the Ingalls Wilder Trail.
The first stop was at the childhood home of Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, just outside of the town of Malone, New York. The Wilder Homestead isn’t the easiest attraction to find (they definitely need more road signs). However, the grounds and tour more than make up for the 30 minutes that we spent looking for the homestead. Our tour guide was very informative and engaging, giving us a comprehensive tour of the school house, barns, and house. We spent the most time in the recreated barns that house many artifacts from the time when the Wilder Family farmed in Upper-state New York. We were most impressed with the original house and the very large tree growing outside the front door. Several families have lived in the house since Almanzo and his family left, but the foundation is still original, and you can see the black spot that Almanzo made on the wall as described in the book Farmer Boy.
Our second stop was in the town of De Smet, South Dakota where Laura Ingalls’ family moved in 1879 when her farther Charles took a job with the railroad. The family stayed in De Smet and started a homestead. When visiting De Smet there are many historic sites to view including the cemetery where Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie, and Grace Ingalls are all buried. For our tour of the area we decided to visit the original homestead that Pa started. There are five humongous cottonwood trees still standing today that Pa planted back in the 1880’s. From the homestead we walked a trail leading along the Silver Lake slough. We then headed into town to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society where we were able to view the original Surveyors’ House that the family stayed in and Laura wrote about in her book The Long Winter.
There are many more historic sites to visit along the Ingalls Wilder Trail each with amazing history. Five of Hearts would love to visit where Laura lived near Walnut Grove, Minnesota as well as Rocky Ridge Farm where Laura and Almanzo lived in Missouri until their deaths. Until then we will keep enjoying the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
For a very long time now we have wanted to experience the thrill of a water coaster and traveling back across the country this week provided the perfect opportunity. We only had to alter our return route a bit south to spend the day at Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari home to two of the top rated water coasters in the United States. The extra miles were definitely worth it as the water coasters were truly an amazing experience! As a bonus we were also able to ride a few regular roller coasters and introduce the Younger Fives to two new amusement park rides that they absolutely loved. Since the camera wasn’t a practical accessory at the water park we have included videos of our five favorite attractions at Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari.
1. Wildebeest – Rated the world’s #1 water park ride, Wildebeest does not disappoint! Thrilling yet at the same time gentle this water coaster is so much fun for the whole family.
2. Mammoth Water Coaster – Riding the world’s longest water coaster is so worth the drive to Indiana! The ride on Mammoth gets you totally soaked and as the tube twists and turns you have no idea what is coming up next. The best part is that the six person tube allows you to enjoy the ride with the whole family.
3. The Voyage – Voted the #1 wooden roller coaster in the nation, Five String and Five Ball were lucky to catch one of the last rides of the day on The Voyage. They both came away with huge smiles and wind blown hair declaring that this was hands down the best roller coaster they had ever ridden.
4. HallowSwings – The flying swing ride was always a favorite of Five Spice’s when she was younger and the Younger Fives took to it just as fondly. The 48″ height limit was a bit of a barrier for High Five, but luckily his baseball cap and the fact that he is very sneaky about standing on tip-toe got him past the ride attendant. We would definitely put one of these in the backyard if we ever won the lottery!
5. Mayflower – Usually know as the Pirate Ship this classic boat-swing ride is another that we wanted to introduce the kids to. It is such a blast and only gets scary on the very last swing making it a fun thrill ride for younger riders.