Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Let the Road Trip Fun Begin!

We left Michigan early on a Sunday morning, and decided to high tail it through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and half-way through Iowa the first day, which came out to about 550 miles. I had an entire big, overstuffed accordion file with me, which was full of maps, brochures, and notes for routes and fun things to do along the way. We had a few stops we knew we were definitely making, and then I had plenty of back-up ideas for any time the kids were getting restless and we needed a diversion.

I didn't necessarily plan on our first day of vacation being a long, boring stretch of pretty much nothing but driving, but that is what it ended up being. The weather was clear, there was very little traffic, and the kids weren't complaining, so we decided to run with that and get as far as we could right away. I hadn't made hotel reservations because I didn't know how far we would get, so when we started getting tired we pulled off the highway and found a Baymont in Brooklyn, Iowa.

Allow me to go off on a bit of a tangent for a minute here. This trip was a major learning experience because I had never done anything like it before. I had made two hotel reservations for the first leg of the trip, and we decided to wing it the rest of the time. Sometimes that worked out okay and sometimes it really sucked. The nights we had reservations were much less stressful than the nights when we didn't. If we had been working with an unrestricted schedule, maybe it would have been fine, but we had to be at certain places on certain days, which really put on the pressure. Now I have a better idea of how many miles of driving in a day is reasonable and doable*, so I think when (not IF!) I do this trip again, I will make more hotel reservations.

Which brings me back to....

Brooklyn, Iowa doesn't offer much to the weary traveler. Our dining options were restricted to two mom and pop type restaurants within a couple miles of our hotel. We chose one, hoping for the best, and ate an overpriced, underwhelming meal and then found out payment was cash only. Grrrr. The food was okay and it was clean enough. I suppose that was the best we could hope for. Our hotel wasn't exactly a bargain for the money either. Again, it was okay. Clean enough, friendly staff, and a freezing cold pool I refused to swim in because I'm not a fan of submerging myself in ice water (admittedly, I'm a wimp!). But it was our only option unless we wanted to keep driving further down the highway, which we didn't. So it worked out okay, but could have been better.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa
Monday we were due for some fun! I had read about the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa and thought it would be an interesting place. I knew which exit and had directions, but there were signs posted, so I thought it would be a safer bet to follow the signs. Which turned out to be stupid. Get directions ahead of time, and stick with that. The signs took us on a circuitous route, miles out of the way. When we finally arrived, we were rewarded with an awesome, clean, air-conditioned, and modern facility, AND we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa

The Prairie Learning Center was a kid-friendly museum. I actually think the only other people there were employees and a few people shopping in the gift shop. It is kind of out of the way, although not too far from Des Moines (about 30 miles east on I-80). And, it was FREE. I am a huge fan of free, who isn't? My kids loved it. My mom and I loved it. Never mind that all tourist attractions are more fun when you don't have to share them with any other tourists. We learned about prairie animals and the prairie habitat.

The absolute coolest part was the "underground" tunnels. We got to feel like little animals living underground in dirt tunnels. See that cute little groundhog in the picture? Well, it was a little creepy and Lucy wouldn't get near it. As you can see, Mattie wasn't exactly thrilled to be near it either. But it was a really unique exhibit and we got a kick out of it. Those of us not terrified by it, anyway.

Bison ears from Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa
After walking through the museum, we got down to business with our first souvenir shopping of the trip. The gift shop has a nice selection, including several reasonably priced options for kids who are foaming at the mouth to BUY SOMETHING!!! Bethany and Connor picked out adorable bison ears. I then spent the rest of our vacation trying to find these in every gift shop we visited because I realized I should have bought them for my godson too. But no luck. Lucy bought a pink slap bracelet snake, which she played with endlessly for days. Seriously.

Free-roaming bison @ Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
After shopping, we drove around to find the stars of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: the free-roaming bison. The driving paths could be marked a little better, we found them to be a bit confusing. Parts are unpaved roads that require frustratingly slow driving. Just when we were about to give up and find our way back to the highway, we struck bison gold. We couldn't get that close, but we spotted the bison, huddled around a relatively shady spot, trying to find some relief on the 100+ degree day. I took pictures through a fence, but later when we made a turn I realized I could have had some unobstructed shots. However, at that point, I was too focused on trying to turn the van around on a very narrow gravel road. The bison were far enough from the road that we didn't feel endangered at all, but they were free-roaming, and could have very well decided to hang out in the middle of the road. How awesome is that? You won't find free-roaming bison in Michigan, that's for sure.

If you're every driving through Iowa along I-80, I would highly recommend a stop at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center in Prairie City, Iowa.

Other places I had noted as possible stops in the vicinity include the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines, and the actual covered Bridges of Madison County. While we didn't get a chance to visit these attractions, we were really happy with our choice and are keeping these other options on file for next time.

Outside of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
When we left the wildlife refuge, we continued west on I-80 until we were almost in Nebraska, and then went north on I-29 to Sioux City. We pulled off the highway to check out the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which I had read about. Unfortunately, it was closed that day. But it was still a nice place to let the kids get out and stretch their legs for a short time before continuing on our way. The outdoor grounds are lovely, and adorned with statuary. There is a playground as well, which we somehow, thankfully, managed to sidestep and avoid (did I mention the 100+ degree temps?), as well as the Sargeant Floyd Welcome Center (which comes in the shape of a big, land-parked ship - also closed when we arrived), restrooms, and picnic tables.

Our final stop Monday night was Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There happened to be some big college sporting event going on, and a big wedding, which meant driving around to several hotels before finding a vacancy. Luckily Sioux Falls is a pretty big city (for South Dakota) and there are tons of hotels. We ended up getting a room at a Super 8, and it was a really nice room, with a good breakfast the next morning. There are also many dining options in Sioux Falls, including familiar chains like Cracker Barrel, where we ended up having dinner.

This was the day our road trip really started feeling like a vacation. We had fun. We saw things we had never seen before. It was a good day.

* I found that for me, personally, 500-600 miles a day of driving is possible but grueling. Especially considering that I was the only one driving. I think 300-400 miles a day makes for a much more enjoyable experience, especially if you want to stop and smell the roses along the way.

 At the Prairie Learning Center, Connor sees how snakes burrow underground

Lucy at the Prairie Learning Center
Bethany at the Prairie Learning Center
Bethany smooching a bison at the Prairie Learning Center
...and Connor picking its nose...boys! Prairie Learning Center, Prairie City, Iowa
Lucy and her little snake, @ the Prairie Learning Center, Prairie City, Iowa
Rest stop where we stopped for lunch after the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Lucy is not happy to be posing!
Sargeant Floyd Welcome Center, Sioux City, Iowa
We couldn't get it, but we took a little walk around the deck. Sargeant Floyd Welcome Center, Sioux City, Iowa
Outside of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Sioux City, Iowa

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