Recently, I rounded up my little pioneers, loaded into our (station) wagon and headed west for a Laura Ingalls Wilder road trip. We were searching for open spaces, free government land, and….okay, I’ll stop now.
But we did head west! (Well actually, first east, than west, but we’ll get to those details soon enough.)
I’ve been wanting to take my kids on this trip for a few years now, and more and more I’m realizing that we need to just DO these things that we want to do, regardless of what our kids or our schedules say. Because, life is short and I think we could all do with a little more of what makes us happy–like Laura Ingalls Wilder…she makes me happy.
Like many of you, I grew up with this series on my bedroom bookcase and they were some of the first books I read to my own kids. We’ve read the series through several times and listened to Cherry Jones read them several times as well. The vivid descriptions Laura gives makes seeing the sites in real life even more breathtaking.
We live in Minneapolis, Minnesota–smack dab in the middle of three great LIW sites. I’m going to lead you through our trip with all the tips I can muster from our experience. There are several more sites than what we saw, but we traveled to:
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- Pepin, WI–the birthplace of Laura and the setting for Little House in the Big Woods.
- Walnut Grove, MN–where Pa staked a claim on the banks of Plum Creek.
- and DeSmet, SD–where the Ingalls’ finally found their resting place and is the setting for about half of the Little House series.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Road Trip Stop 1: The Big Woods
On our first day, we headed east toward Wisconsin for our first stop. Pepin is about 2 hours east of where we live.
The day we drove in was rainy and grey. We had hoped to stop and picnic beside Lake Pepin, but we did pull over to check it out and take a photo. I think if we had had a nicer day, it would have been a beautiful spot to stop for a while. The lake was huge and gorgeous.
The next stop in this area was the Little House wayside. This is an unmanned rest area with a replica of the little house in the big woods. I have to say, the replica is really well done. It’s a great spot for a picnic as well. Inside the house is a display case with information and letters from Laura. The house is unfurnished but it’s a great visual of what it looked like so long ago.
The last stop in Pepin was to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and gift shop. The price for the museum was minimal, but it was quite small. The museum had a lot of artifacts from that time period in general, not just “Laura” things to see. There were some interesting things, but if you wanted to save a few dollars, you could probably skip this one. But the gift shop was quite full and very nice. We grabbed some stick candy and headed out to our next stop.
That night was stayed in Red Wing, MN. It was along our route to Walnut Grove and it is a larger community with more lodging options. I chose a hotel with a pool and a restaurant we cold walk to–the Country Inn + Suites, and it worked out really nicely.
LIW Road Trip Stop 2: Plum Creek
The next morning we headed out to Walnut Grove, MN. It was about a three hour drive from Red Wing. The drive was beautiful. This is such a gorgeous part of the country–the trees are so lush and there’s always some body of water in site it seems.
The first thing we did was run off some travel legs at the local park. We then headed to the local grocer’s for sandwich fixings and plums–because I’m nostalgic like that. With our lunch packed, we headed to Plum Creek.
Here’s a little bit of history:
Charles Ingalls was a bit of an unsettled guy. He was constantly on the move. Sometimes I wonder what Caroline really thought about all this even though Laura paints Ma in a beautifully submissive light. But in 1854, the Ingallses moved to the banks of Plum Creek after Pa’s ego was no-doubt a bit bruised from having to give up his homestead in Independence, Kansas because he parked it in the middle of reserved Native American land.
But he was determined and so they set out to stake another claim. They traded their horses to a Swedish immigrant in exchange for his oxen and dugout home.
The site we next traveled to was that dugout home.
It’s located smack dab in the middle of a sweet farmer’s property and they have graciously made their driveway the entry road for the site. You pull through, drop some money in a can (the honor system was used repeatedly on this trip and I loved that so much), and pulled through to Plum Creek.
This site honestly took my breath away.
The beauty here was abounding and all I could think was–this was a good pick, Pa.
We ate at the picnic area and enjoyed the site mostly to ourselves. After lunch, we hiked over the little foot bridge to the site of the dugout. It has since caved in, but the large depression in the land made it very evident that an underground home had been there.
I’m not ashamed to say that tears sprang into my eyes while I watched the creek rushing by what would have been the door of the dugout.
It was exactly what I had pictured in my mind.
The dugout site along Plum Creek had some beautiful prairie walking trails. We hiked along those and enjoyed the sunshine and scenery.
Our next stop was the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum back in Walnut Grove.
This place was SO good. The large gift shop lead into the grounds, which was a living history museum, a hands-on playground for the kids and a joy for me.
The little village of buildings included a chapel, “Grandma’s House”, a dugout replica, a school house and more.
One of the buildings housed an old-timey mercantile where the kids could play store, try on hats, and send mail and the post office. But the coolest part about this was all the “toys” were actual antiques. It was so fun!
There was so much to see and do in this museum and the kids could have played there for hours. We were catching them at the end of the day, so unfortunately we only got to stay for about an hour and a half.
That night, we drove about 10 minutes west to Tracy, Minnesota. (Some of you might recognize this place as the town Pa got work after his wheat crop on Plum Creek was destroyed by grasshoppers.) We stayed in Tracy at the Wilder Inn. It was an OK place to stay–not new by any means, but it was cozy and clean. There’s not much along the highway that leads from Walnut Grove to the next stop, DeSmet, South Dakota. If you’re looking for a bigger hotel you could possibly stay in Brookings, SD.
LIW Road Trip Stop 3: Little Town on the Prairie
The next morning, we hit the road again and headed to our last stop–DeSmet, South Dakota. And, I’m a South Dakota girl so I’m a bit biased, but I gotta say…I think we may have saved the best for last.
The drive from Tracy to DeSmet was about two hours. We had lunch at one of the only eateries in town, The Oxbow, and it was great.
There are two areas to checkout in DeSmet: the “in-town” sites and the Ingalls Homestead. The homestead is amazing–we’ll get there in a minute–but my suggestion would be to do the sites in town first, like we did. It worked out really well for us.
In town we grabbed our tickets for the tours at the main building. From there, we took a guided tour of the Surveyor’s house (YES, the actual one!!!!), the original school house from The Long Winter, a replica of the Brewster Schoolhouse where Laura first taught, and the Ingall’s home where Ma and Pa lived out the rest of their days in town.
This tour was so so special. They had pages from the books enlarged to poster-size so we could read the descriptions of the places we were standing in.
The Surveyor’s house was set up like the Ingalls’ winter they’d spent there, complete with table set with red-checked table cloth and canned peaches and soda crackers. We were grinning ear to ear, remembering that part of the story so well. (The Shores of Silver Lake)
And the school house–you remember The Long Winter, right? When Laura and Carrie and sitting in school and a huge blizzard blows in and they walk home and almost die?!? We were IN that school! They showed us twists of hay like the ones Laura and Pa had to make to burn and keep warm that winter. We talked about school back then and the kids could write on slate boards.
After the guided tour, we headed to the Ingall’s Homestead.
Something I wasn’t expecting when taking four kids on a road trip by myself was finding peace. The deep kind of peace that makes you feel it way down in your gut–you know what I mean?
This place did that for me.
I grew up on the prairies of South Dakota and couldn’t wait to move on to bigger and better things. Little did I know that there really isn’t anything bigger OR better than the prairies of South Dakota.
Their sunsets and endless grasses and open spaces that gives no choice than to put down your phone and breathe deeper than you ever have–yes, that’s what you’ll get here.
This place made me proud to be a So Dak native.
Ingall’s Homestead Details
The coolest thing about Ingall’s Homestead is that they’ve converted several covered wagons and a bunkhouse into lodging you can rent. We’ve got too many kids to stay in the wagons, but we did rent the bunkhouse and it was perfect. It’s about as close to camping as I’m comfortable with–you bring your own bed linens, there’s air conditioning, and a mini fridge.
Yes, to all of that please.
When we got our house settled, we grabbed our map to go explore the acres of property.
Everything on this property was hands-on, always open, and waiting to impress you.
Here’s a few things you can expect to see at Ingall’s Homestead:
- more open spaces than your kids know what to do with
- “Ma’s House”-a replica of the house Pa built when he staked his claim, complete with hands-on activities like washing the laundry, making old-time toys, quilting, and gardening
- a hay-covered barn like Pa was required to build when he took on the homestead through the Homestead Act
- wagon rides around the property
- pony cart and horse rides
- lots of kitties for your kids to
- hay-twisting, rope-making, and wheat-grinding
- a huge gift shop with books and prairie gift kits
- one-room schoolhouse to play dress up and explore
We left the following afternoon completely exhausted from all the time outdoors and completely satisfied with our Laura Ingalls Wilder road trip.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Road Trip Tips
If you’re planning your own LIW road trip, here’s just a few tips.
- Listen to the audio books as you go. We listened to the book about the site we were on our way to and it really brought it all to life. These were re-listens, but no one seemed to care. In fact, my teenager commented on how cool it was to hear about the place right before we actually saw it.
- Remember that this stretch of highway is pretty remote, so don’t expect to see a wide variety of restaurants and hotels. Shop at the small-town grocer’s and picnic. Eat at the local joints. It makes it all the more fun!
- Even if you have bigger kids and you don’t think they’ll think it’s fun, go. Go, because if YOU think it’s fun, your enthusiasm just might catch on.
- And with that, if your kids would rather sit something out, let ’em. I found that letting my teenager–who wasn’t overly obsessed with Laura like the rest of us–sit some things out, he was happier to join us later on. We visited a lot of spots and letting him skip a few because he wasn’t super into it, was a good choice.
This road trip was better than I even anticipated. It was relaxing and eye-opening and the best history lesson I could have given my kids this summer.
I hope you’ll take this road trip someday. And please, if you do, let me know!
Have you ever been to the Laura sites? Which ones and what did you think?? Let me know in the comments!
Happy traveling, pioneers. (Sorry, I had to.)
Click on over HERE to check out my list of favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder resources on my homeschool site!