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Laura Ingalls Wilder Road Trip Itinerary for a Little House on the Prairie Road trip
When we started to kick around the idea of a trip to Yellowstone National Park, a Little House on the Prairie road trip was not on my radar at all. I figured that we would drive straight out to the park from our home in the Philadelphia suburbs and then drive straight home. Once we took a look at how far the drive really was, we started to think of stops along the route that might break up our drive.
For the drive from Bucks County, PA to Yellowstone National Park, a suggested route is to take I-80 West to I-90 West and so on until you reach the East Entrance of YNP. This would take us across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and finally, Wyoming.
Not only did I grow up reading the Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was also a big fan the television series by the same name. I remember hopping off the bus every day at 3:55 pm and racing inside to watch LHOTP at 4 pm. By the time I was watching the show it was the late 80s/early 90s and the show was already well into its syndication run. That didn’t matter to me. I fell in love with the show and the characters and their pioneer way of life. Fast forward to many years later, you could even catch me watching snippets of LHOTP now and then in my college dorm room in between classes. These days most of my television watching is via streaming so I don’t watch as much Little House, but I still love it.
The Planning Began
When I was checking out our potential drive out west, a tiny little town name on the map caught my eye. I saw how close our drive would take us to Walnut Grove, MN and that’s when my plan started to hatch. Walnut Grove was the town where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in her book On the Banks of Plum Creek. It is also the town where most of the Little House television series takes place.
One night I casually mentioned to Bob that perhaps we could make a short stop in Walnut Grove on our way to Yellowstone. He agreed and that’s when I started to do a little digging into the various Laura homesites (those pioneers sure did move around a lot!). I got a copy of The Little House Guidebook and that helped to solidify some of our travel plans. (The book is a good starter for your trip planning but I did find many of the prices, etc to be incorrect despite my edition saying it’s an updated version. Many of the listed admission prices for the various museums, etc. have increased since publication.)
Our time spent at the Little House sites ranged from literally a drive-by-with-picture-snapped (Burr Oak, IA) to a short pit stop (Pepin, WI) to multiple days spent exploring and touring (Walnut Grove, MN and De Smet, SD).
Video Reel of our Little House on the Prairie Adventures:
Our first stop was to the small riverside town of Pepin, WI. It sits not far from the Mississippi River. Winding along a back road on the outskirts of Pepin, you come across a cleared patch of land surrounded by farm fields. It would be easy to drive right past this spot if you weren’t looking for it. This is the spot where a little log cabin once stood – the very same “little house” from Laura’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods. The immediate area is no longer wooded at all, but many of the nearby back roads are still heavily forested. Another name for this site is Little House Wayside.
We arrived to find one other visitor who was on her way out as we pulled into the small parking area. Once she left, we had the place entirely to ourselves. It was peaceful and lovely. On the property is a large historical site marker and a replica log cabin that you can walk inside of and look around. It is not kept furnished since the site is accessible 24/7 but it’s neat to poke inside and see the size of the cabin and the set-up. You can imagine Ma cooking over the fire and imagine that Mary and Laura are peeking over the loft into the room below.
There are some picnic tables on the property as well if you want to enjoy a picnic during your visit.
From the home site, we followed the winding road into the town of Pepin. Before long, we located the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum on the main drag. The gift shop is free to browse and the museum is available for a small admission charge. We toured the museum (doesn’t take long, it’s not too big). The cost at the time of our visit was $5 per adult, $2 for Lily and Landon was free. They had many items on display from the pioneer time period, but not a ton from the actual Ingalls’ family. There were quite a few items that belonged to Anna Barry, Laura’s first teacher.
Walnut Grove, MN
From Pepin, we set our sights southwest to Walnut Grove, MN. As I mentioned above, Walnut Grove was the setting for Laura’s second book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. Even though Laura never mentioned the town by name, the creek that runs through it is the very same one where her family lived. When they first arrived in Walnut Grove, they lived in a sod dugout home that was literally in the bank of the creek. At some point during their time in Walnut Grove, Pa built a house for them, though this structure is no longer standing.
The Ingalls moved away from Walnut Grove for a brief year in Burr Oak, IA and then returned before finally heading to South Dakota where Ma and Pa lived for the remainder of their lives.
We stayed in the Plum Creek Park campground. This fairly rustic campground was a beautiful place to stay during our 2 nights in Walnut Grove. The sites are wooded and offer electric hookup only (though they have water available to fill up your tank and there is an on-site dump station). This campground is the only place to spend the night in Walnut Grove – the nearest hotel is almost an hour away. Location is key with this one, so make sure you book EARLY if you are interested in a stay. It is very small and fills up during Wilder Days weekends. At the time of our stay, our campsite was just $30/night.
We planned our stop in Walnut Grove carefully so that it coincided with their annual Wilder Days celebration. During three consecutive weekends every July, this town celebrates Laura’s heritage and legacy in a number of ways. There’s the Wilder Pageant (a live stage show performed in an outdoor amphitheater that sits along Plum Creek. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in town holds various events and sometimes even hosts some of the stars from the Little House show.
Of course, the very first stop that we made after unhitching the camper was to the banks of Plum Creek to see the actual Ingalls dugout site. This landmark is located on private property and the owners have opened it up to the public during daylight hours between May and October. You pull into a long driveway that winds you back around a farmhouse and barn. There is a money collection box (honor system) where you deposit your donation ($5 per car or $30 per tour bus). Follow the road back about 1/2 a mile and there is a small parking lot.
We visited the dugout site during the early evening hours and I’m not going to lie – it was one of those life moments. I had chills and I will always remember our little snippet of time there. The sun was getting low in the sky. A gentle prairie wind swirled the grasses and wildflowers around us. There were no other visitors during our stop – we had this magical piece of yesteryear all to ourselves.
We saw the dugout where Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie all lived with Ma and Pa. We saw the plums that gave the creek its name growing in their thickets, not yet ripe. We found the “big rock” that Laura mentions playing on in the book and gave Lily a few minutes to plop down to continue reading On the Banks of Plum Creek on the banks of Plum Creek. (I KNOW!!)
We all dipped our toes in the water in a shallow spot (thankfully no leeches or badgers in sight!). One word of warning – that mud/silt in the creek bottom is pretty gross and took some serious effort to get off of our feet!! So wade at your own risk and certainly be aware of how deep the water is and quickly it may or may not be running.
I will truly cherish my time in this place with my family!
As I said earlier, we planned our visit to coincide with one of the annual Wilder Days weekends. We woke up on our second day in Walnut Grove and headed into town. When you picture a tiny town with a quiet main street and that’s about it, you’re picturing a place like Walnut Grove. The town itself (set next to some railroad tracks) is made up of the museum, a town park, a couple of stores, a gas station and all of two places to eat.
Our first stop was to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. At $7 per adult, $4 for Lily and Landon was free, we loved this museum! Unlike the museum in Pepin, the museum in Walnut Grove held some actual possessions belonging to the Ingalls family. There was also a collection of items and anecdotes from the former citizens of Walnut Grove (some of whom you will recognize from the Little House stories).
Probably my favorite part of this museum was the room dedicated to all sorts of memorabilia from the Little House television series. So many neat little pieces of publicity and photos from the show… of course the crowning jewel was the actual mantle from the Ingalls’ home that was used on the set of the show. I actually gasped when I saw it in the back of the room. Then I snapped a selfie with it. Then I touched it. Another bucket list item that I never even knew was on my list (this ended up being a common theme on our trip)!
Once you exit the main museum building, you wind through other buildings that are historical replicas (except for an original farmhouse). The other buildings include a church, schoolhouse, jail cell, dugout and (the kids’ favorite) a replica town where they could play store, etc.
We thought the museum was really well done and had a lot to look at!
We left the museum and were ready for some lunch. You only have a couple of food options in Walnut Grove and we chose Nellie’s Cafe, purely based on the reference to nasty Nellie Olsen from the Little House storyline. The food was tasty (we all had burgers) and for dessert I enjoyed a delicious slice of caramel apple pie. YUM!
After lunch we let the kids run off some steam at the park in the middle of town. There are a couple of playgrounds and there was a traveling mini golf area set up which they absolutely loved.
There were a few hours to kill before heading to the Wilder Pageant that evening (does not start until 9 pm!) so we returned to our campground and walked down to Lake Laura which sits in Plum Creek Park just a few minute walk from our campsite. We relaxed in the gazebo and took in the view. The kids wanted to go for a swim but Bob nor I are big fans of freshwater swimming (fish! weeds! *shudder*!!!)
Gates open for the Wilder Pageant at 7 pm. We bought general admission tickets earlier in the day in town and were set to sit in the general admission area on the lawn. Words of advice – bug spray. Bring it. Use it. Like the DEET-laden chemical kind. The mosquitoes were vicious and in full-on attack mode. You’re on the prairie, next to a creek, and the sun is going down. It’s mosquito-geddon. The lady next to us has one of these bug net chairs for her and her daughter. Every other person who walked by paid her a compliment.
Back to the show. We brought a big outdoor blanket (which was super handy b/c by the end of the show the ground was coated in dew) and spread out on the hillside. The pageant grounds have bathrooms and sell concessions.
The show does not start until 9 pm and runs until about 11 pm. I was very skeptical regarding whether or not the late night would be worth it.
Let me tell you.
The show begins with some very moving, soul touching music playing. As you search the stage for any sign of action, something catches your eye out far away across the field. Oh my God. It’s a covered wagon. Pulling the Ingalls family. It crosses the stretch of prairie to the tree line which is also the bank of Plum Creek. You watch as the wagon carries the family along the bank of Plum Creek. I was not prepared for this. I got goosebumps. I felt sentimental. Then I started to cry. Like, real tears-down-my-cheeks “Why is Mommy crying?” tears. The sight was just so touching to me! I wiped my tears and we enjoyed a fantastic portrayal of many snippets of the Ingalls’ life in Walnut Grove, as well as other important moments in the town’s history from the early days. This show exceeded my expectations and I was so very glad that we gave it a shot. Even better was the fact that we were staying in the campground about a mile down the road from the pageant grounds so even though it was over late, we were back “home” within minutes.
Our third day in Walnut Grove was spent in the town park enjoying the Family Festival. There were local vendors and artisans, food trucks and a bunch of kid-friendly activities.
Of course, the main reason that we were there was because Lily wanted to enter the Laura Look Alike Contest. Yes, she donned her prairie dress, complete with riding boots that passed quite nicely for prairie boots. Her hair braided and lunch pail in hand, she was set. The girls all looked fantastic (there was a contest for Nellie Look Alikes too!) and they were so sweet with each other. It was clear that most of them were there purely for the love of the books and all things Laura. While Lily did not win the contest, I think she will take the experience with her forever. (I know I will!)
We left the Family Festival and loaded up in the family wagon, pointed west once again!
De Smet, SD
Well. After we left Walnut Grove, we drove west for just a couple of hours to the small town of De Smet, SD. De Smet is the setting for the the following Little House books: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years.
We arrived in De Smet feeling a little high on Laura Ingalls Wilder history and were ready to do some more exploring. We were lucky enough to grab 1 of only 4 RV campsites at Ingalls Homestead which sits just outside of town. I booked this site in January for our July stay and highly recommend booking months in advance if you are hoping for one of the RV sites. The Homestead also offers tent camping (you can literally just pick a spot and pitch your tent out on the prairie) and they have a few bunkhouses you can rent that are shaped like, you guessed it, giant covered wagons!
We pulled into our campsite and had water and electric at the site. Note – this campground does have a dump station but it is only for gray water, not black. As you might have already guessed, the place is named Ingalls Homestead for a very good reason. When the Ingalls family headed west from Walnut Grove, MN this was the very exactly EXACT plot of land that Charles Ingalls decided to homestead. In other words, the place is steeped in LIW history. From the campground you have sweeping views of prairie from just about every angle. The only (and I mean ONLY) disappointment we experienced here was the big, gigantic, blinding, night-sky-ruining flood light on the back of the building. (Yes, I totally understand the need for a security light and visibility for tent/wagon campers getting to the bathrooms – but it was so bright and so far-reaching, it really took away from the night sky experience which we had been looking forward to.)
When you stand on your campsite at Ingalls Homestead, you are on a big hill that overlooks prairie land in all directions. The actual “Ingalls Homestead” is a living history farm (I’ll delve into that in a few minutes). As you gaze over the prairie, you might notice a large history marker on the hill and a bunch of large trees closer to the road. The marker notes the existence of the Ingalls residency on that property and those trees are the actual Cottonwood trees that Pa himself planted, well over 100 years ago.
Looking out at the land in front of you there are several buildings that are part of the Ingalls Homestead experience. It’s not hard to imagine Pa’s crops growing in the field by the replica house… and yes, the Big Slough is also visible (the very same one that Laura and Carrie got lost in as they walked back from town with the new blade for Pa’s plow).
Adjacent to the Ingalls Homestead is the pageant ground where you can catch yet another Little House themed play in an outdoor amphitheater if your stay coincides with their Wilder themed weekends. We actually caught the show our first night in town. De Smet was celebrating Laura’s 150th birthday year that weekend and had Allison Arngrim and Dean Butler (Nellie and Almanzo from the television series) in town for various events. The events included a Q&A session before the show, so that’s the night we went. We had a wagon ride around the property (included with pageant admission) and then settled in for the Q&A and pageant. While the outdoor amphitheater in De Smet is set in a gorgeous location, the fact that the sun was setting for the entire first half of the show took its toll. We were hot, tired, and had to squint to see. Pair that with an exhausted Landon who was not at all interested in sitting and we totally bugged out during intermission.
Back across the field at our campsite, we enjoyed a campfire and took in the sunset views. I could look across this prairie every day and never tire of its beauty and the history that is wrapped within.
On our second day in De Smet we spent the entire morning enjoying the living history activities at Ingalls Homestead. What a great place!! Admission is not included in your campsite fee if you are staying there, but we all agreed that it was well worth the price. There are so many things to do! The kids had a blast checking out the dugout and claim shanty. Then they pumped water from the water well, checked out the garden and we paid a visit to “Ma’s house” which is a replica home based on the one Pa built for the family on this very land. Inside the house were two ladies dressed in period costume who were full of Ingalls and other pioneer era knowledge.
After the house we headed down to the barn. The kids took a pony ride and drove a pony cart before we all piled into a covered wagon to enjoy a ride across the prairie. I thought we were just heading for a quick wagon ride. Not only did all of the kids get a chance to drive the team of horses, but we stopped at one room schoolhouse for a bit.
Inside the schoolhouse we were greeted by a teacher who led the kid through a couple of mini lessons and games, while giving us some more history about the actual schoolhouse as well as some Laura factoids. As school was dismissed the kids got to help her ring the bell! We loaded back up on the wagon and took our ride across the field to the barn.
Make sure you stop in Flindt’s Garage before you head back up the hill as there are several fun Little House related activities for the kids to do. They can make corn cob dolls like Ma made for Laura (or they can make corn cob superheroes or ninjas if dolls aren’t their thing).
Our kids also made their own jump ropes.
The third activity in the garage was a demonstration on how to make the hay twists that the pioneers resorted to burning during The Long Winter after their other fuel sources (coal, wood) were depleted.
Pair the incredible prairie backdrop with the fact that this is the actual land Laura once walked on and you won’t be surprised that I had a little photo shoot with Lily right there on the Homestead.
I have already had a canvas print made from the title photo in this post. There are no words to describe how amazing and special this set of pictures is to me!
Ingalls Homestead was not only a wonderful location to stay overnight but we cannot recommend the living farm enough as a family friendly attraction to visit with the kids!
We spent way more time exploring Ingalls Homestead than we figured on, so it was mid-afternoon before we headed towards town for some more sightseeing.
First on my list was to try to locate the original Silver Lake i.e. By the Shores of Silver Lake. Some historians will tell you that the lake no longer exists, having dried up many years ago. I did some research prior to arriving in De Smet and from what I could tell, this pothole lake still exists, though my guess is that the water level fluctuates.
If you decide to look for Silver Lake, do NOT do what I did. We pulled off the main highway into town after seeing a sign for the “Silver Lake something or other.” There was a pull off area and a big informational marker about wetlands and birds. Next to that sign there was a walking path. Well. I walked along the path until the mowed grass ended and the tall, thistle-thick brush took over. I kept walking for about 10 yards or so and clearly, there was no lake to be found. The field next to me was packed with plants that looked like the ones you’d find in or around water – reeds, etc. Not only did I NOT find the lake, but my one arm was eaten alive by resident mosquitoes during my trek and I came back to the car sporting several quarter-sized welts up and down my arm.
Still determined to find the darn lake, we got back on Highway 14 and headed towards town, turning right onto 4th Street. We took 4th Street all the way back to an industrial complex (basically driving past the walking path and overgrown marshy land I had just walked on). As the trees gave way to a clearing to the right, we got a glimpse of a lake. It was small, probably much smaller than it was during Laura’s lifetime, but I really feel that this body of water is what remains of Silver Lake.
The next stop was a very quick one, but still part of the pilgrimage for sure. We found the De Smet Cemetery and located the Ingalls burial plot. Here are the burial sites for Pa, Ma, Mary, Grace and the infant son of Laura and Almanzo. Pa’s headstone is the tall white one. I couldn’t help but feel at peace knowing that you could see the prairie lands from that location. It’s almost as if he will always have the prairie to look out over.
If you have a couple of hours to spend in the town of De Smet, I highly recommend taking the Historic Homes Tour from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. Yes, you can walk to the buildings on your own and save some cash, but if you take the tour, you get to go inside the buildings!! Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and enjoyable to listen to. We got to walk inside of the actual (NOT A REPLICA) Surveyors’ House where the Ingalls lived in By the Shores of Silver Lake.
From there we walked into the first school of De Smet. This is the orignal building that Carrie and Laura attended (with Eliza Jane as their teacher!) and the school described in The Long Winter and The Little Town on the Prairie.
Next up, the Brewster School. This building is a replica of the tiny schoolhouse where Laura taught her first class. This is the school described in These Happy Golden Years.
The final piece of the Historic Homes Tour is a short drive away from the first set of buildings. Everyone on our tour followed the tour guide to the actual home in town that Pa built. This was the final home for Pa, Ma and Mary Ingalls. The house has holds many possessions that belonged to the Ingalls family. I think that this house and the Surveyors’ House were my favorite buildings in this tour, but the whole experience was fantastic.
If you are traveling with young kids, take a few minutes and pop into the Discovery Center across the street from the Surveyors’ House. This little schoolhouse is filled with a lot of hands on activities for the little kid crowd. Our kids had a great time playing in there before our tour began. (Bonus – it’s air conditioned!!)
That was about it for De Smet. From there we continued west towards Yellowstone!
Burr Oak, IA
Probably the most obscure LIW stop on our big road trip was after our time in Yellowstone. We were on our way back home to PA and getting ready to leave our campground in Minnesota and head to Ohio. We decided to drive through Iowa instead of getting stuck in downtown Chicago traffic with a camper in tow, which is what happened on the way out.
We made a super quick stop in Burr Oak, IA to drive by the Masters Hotel. You can see the original building where the Ingalls spent a brief year after multiple failed crops in Walnut Grove. This was a dark time period in the Ingalls’ lives as their infant son Charles died. Laura never wrote a book about their time in Burr Oak but it was still neat to see the hotel and check one more place that they lived off of our list.
I could go on and on about the amazingness of this trip or how much it meant to me… but I’m pretty sure that my pictures do a good job of summing that all up! I do hope to get to the Independence, KS and Mansfield, MO sites someday to complete visits to every place that Laura lived. I think that the two best parts of the entire trip were seeing it through my 8 year old daughter’s eyes and also the chance to see the things that Laura described so vividly in her book come alive right in front of me. All of our vacations are fun and we have a good time, but they don’t all have as profound an impact on our lives as this one did!
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