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.

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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.

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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:

  • 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.

A drizzly day at Lake Pepin

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 Little House Wayside site.

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.


The kids on the banks of Plum Creek. The creek was very high and rushing hard that day. You can see the dugout site and sign up the hill from the kids–exactly how Laura explained it.
Plums on Plum Creek.
Prairie flowers on our hike.

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.

A dugout replica at the museum in Walnut Grove.

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!

Vera working in the mercantile.

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 torture play with
  • 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!


  1. My 28year old daughter and I just got back from touring all five of the sites in the books. We were gone for 13 days and had an amazing trip! We had wanted to do this for years and finally the opportunity presented itself. Anyone who is thinking of doing this JUST DO IT. I’m so thankful that I was still physically able to do the trip. We will always remember it.

  2. This was a delightful description of your road trip, Alicia! About 3 years ago I was looking for a road trip to take with our granddaughter. I came across someone’s post about a road trip with their children to some of the Little House sites. We took about 12 days wandering from through these areas with our nine-year-old granddaughter. We live in Texas so it was a long road trip. We visited the home site near Independence, KS, the Rocky Ridge Farm & home at Mansfield,MO, the museum and hotel in Burr Oak,IA, the Pepin sites, the Walnut Grove museum and dug out on Plum Creek, and finally the Homestead at De Smet, SD. We hit the Pepin area the weekend they had their big LIW Days and all 3 of us had a blast, even my husband who prior to the trip barely knew who Laura was. I was not even aware of the Burr Oak site until we were passing through on our way to Pepin. Every one of the sites had plenty to do. We also listened to the audio books on our trip. Lots of fun.

  3. As a local South Dakotan. I want everyone to who is planning on doing the Laura Ingalls Road Trip know that every weekend in July both the Desmet and Walnut Grove site put on a Laura Ingalls Wider Pageant. This is very well done with local talent. This gives you you something to do a night in small rural towns. May consider doing one one night and the other the next night. Or two different weekends. Enjoy the good life of South Dakota

  4. Hi! I found your post as I’m researching a trip to the prairies. I’m curious when you made your trip and if it was overly busy. I’m planning a trip for our family this summer and was trying to decide when is a good time to make the trip.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience. My husband and I (from Washington state) took a trip this summer. We normally go to Maui but since we couldn’t do that we took what I call the I90 COVID road trip. We hit I90 and headed east. Our main destination was Mount Rushmore. I told my husband that Walnut Grove was only another 6 hours and 45 minutes. He agreed. We were supposed to go to Indiana to see family but due to COVID they decided that it probably wasn’t a good idea. We ran into a family at the dugout site in Walnut Grove and they told us about DeSmet so that’s where we went next. We loved it so much that I am determined to try and take my mom back this summer. I’m a teacher and my husband has a hard time getting time off in the summer so it might just be my mom and myself. I’m planning to also hit Rocky Ridge Farm and Burr Oak Iowa. There’s a chance I’ll talk my sister into going with us so we can take my seven year old niece since I bought her the Little House book series for Christmas. Again thanks for your story. I really enjoyed it. P.S. My husband enjoyed Walnut Grove and DeSmet more than he though he would.

  6. What a wonderful report of your trip! I am a huge Laura Ingalls fan from the Netherlands, growing up reading these books. They have shaped me who I am today. Doing a Laura Ingalls inspired road trip is on my bucket list and as I was googling today (because due to Covid currently there is not much actual travel going on) I came across your website. Thanks for sharing, letting me be part of your trip. It was a wonderful read and I hope to follow your steps one day with my own family.

  7. So I want to plan a trip like this! I live in New Mexico so we’d fly in and rent a car. How many days would you say you’d need?

  8. Laura, you guys will LOVE IT!! We’ve been back to DeSmet twice now and it’s all so fun!! Enjoy!

  9. Thank you for this blog post, I am using it to plan our trip to Walnut Grove/Plum Creek this summer. We live in MN, and this will be about a 3 hour trip for us! So excited!!! This is our celebration for reading the ENTIRE series of the “Laura Years”. Thank you, Alicia!

    Laura K.

  10. I was first at Rocky Ridge in Mansfield, Mo. in 1991, I then planned, mapped out and visited every book site plus Mt Rushmore on a 13 day trip. Very moving experience!!!! I have back to Rocky Ridge several time, my last visit was 10 years ago, I am still looking forward to another trip there, I enjoyed reading your story!!!!

  11. Thank you so much for sharing your trip experience. I don’t know anyone here in Louisiana that shares my love of all things Ingalls. This was a treat for me to read and experience a bit of what your family did. Thanks again!!

  12. When living in South Dakota, we went to the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet each summer. We camped in a covered wagon when our youngest was a baby, so all 6 of us fit, but the children were much smaller then. I still remember how amazing it was to be alone on the prairie when all of the other visitors departed for the evening.

    When we moved to Iowa we went to the Laura Days celebration in June in Burr Oak. That is definitely a site to put on your list for another time!

  13. I so want to do this some day. We live in Tallahassee, FL and the Little House on the Prairie books are my absolute favorites since I was young. Thank you so much for sharing.

  14. Thank you! What a great post! I had no idea there was so much there to enjoy. We love this book series. I will read this again later for details as we are beginning to plan our cross-Canada back-through-America epic motorhome voyage for 2020 and this is exactly the type of thing I don’t want to miss!

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