Cuyahoga Valley National Park Day 2 ~ Peninsula, Ohio

When we awoke on our second day in Ohio near Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a quick check of the weather forecast over the next few days showed us that we needed to attempt to cram as much as possible into Day 2 of our time in Ohio since Day 3 had lots of storms and rain predicted. Here’s a breakdown of our whirlwind time in Cuyahoga Valley National Park on Day 2 of our adventures.

We began our day driving to nearly the southern most portion of the park to hike the Beaver Marsh portion of the Towpath Trail. This started out as a gravel path, quickly turned to boardwalk, and then returned to more gravel further north on the trail. At the trailhead there was a nice description that shared the differences between otters and beavers.

This area of the trail was especially fun. There were lots of birds hanging around the marsh and when we reached an overlook section there was a giant snapping turtle hanging out in the water. From there we walked a little further north on the trail and once we had turned around to begin heading back to the parking lot, we saw an otter swimming out in the distance. It was pretty cool to see so much wildlife in just a mile stretch of trail.

From there we headed back north towards the middle of the park on the east side and explored the Ledges Trail. The parking area for this gives no indication that this is anything special. There’s a large park shelter, a huge open field, and a trail that runs along the perimeter of the field. BUT…take that trail further into the woods and you come across a whole new atmosphere! So many fun rock outcroppings. It doesn’t take long to reach the Ledges overlook. The overlook was fun, but more fun was the trail we took to reach the bottom of the Ledges as we could meander under the rocks!

From here we decided to head into the nearby town of Macedonia for lunch as they had several fast food options in the area. After we had enjoyed a nice lunch in the car of Chick-fil-a, it was time for our third stop in Cuyahoga Valley National Park: The Canal Exploration Center.

This area clearly is a nice visitor center/museum space in non-pandemic years, but for us, we were simply able to explore the grounds of the area. Even without the museum area being open, I highly recommend stopping into this area as they have a detailed explanation of how the locks along the canal work. It’s the one lock that is still considered functional in the area. They also had a nice display about the mules that worked along the towpath.

From there it was time to venture outside of the park as we had one more important stop in the area we didn’t want to miss out on: Lake Erie. But that’s a tale for another post!

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park Day 1 ~ Cleveland Area, Ohio

On our latest trip, our large “destination” to visit was Cuyahoga Valley National Park located just south of Cleveland. The park itself is very urban and protects the Cuyahoga River, famous for being so polluted back in the day, that it caught fire! Due to the “urban” nature of the park, you drive through many small towns as you cruise the main park road. It also means you can see most of the park in 1-2 days, but plan to spend more time as there are several other city and metropark areas that are adjacent to the park that are super fun to explore as well! Here’s everything we saw in the park on our first day there!

Like all good visitors, we of course started our journey at the Boston Mills visitor center just after noon the day we arrived. You can access the inside portion that has a few exhibits and store, but that first day, we took advantage of their outdoor ranger set up, collected a map, stamped our passport, and sat down to decide what to tackle that first afternoon.

One of the main things the park is known for is sitting along the historic Ohio-Erie Canal. The towpath of the old canal has since been turned into a wonderful hiking/biking path along the river. You can easily access a portion of the towpath by crossing the bridge near the visitor center. We did just that a took a nice walk south on the path. Due to the urban nature of the park, this meant we walked as far as the interstate overpass above the path and then turned back towards the visitor center. It was hot that day and that portion of the trail was not overly scenic, so we figured we would explore another well visited spot of the park.

Our next spot to explore in the park that day was Brandywine Falls. This is an especially popular part of the park and sometimes parking fills up, but even when we arrived at 3pm, there were a handful of spots still open for us. This hike was gorgeous, but be prepared for lots of steps. The whole trail is a boardwalk type system, but lots and lots of stairs! You won’t be disappointed when you reach the viewing point of the falls though! They have both an upper and lower viewing point, but I think the lower was my favorite!

Due to spending the morning on the road and the high temperatures, we opted to head towards our hotel following our time at Brandywine Falls. We knew we had two more days in the area, so there was no rush to pack in everything the park had to offer! More details will follow over the coming days of everything else we explored!

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Pipestone National Monument ~ Pipestone, Minnesota

This past weekend we were finally able to head out and add a new passport stamp to our National Park Passport! We were so excited! We’ve been wanting to visit Pipestone every since moving up this way, but once we were ready to, the pandemic happened and we had to wait for the visitor center to reopen to actually be able to mark that stamp officially in the book! After months of stalking their website for updates, we finally had the go ahead that the visitor center had reopened a few weeks ago. It was time to head out!

We did opt to watch the video online about Pipestone before driving out there to minimize time in the Visitor Center. Pipestone is named for the stone that is quarried in the area by Native Americans (usually of the Dakota tribe) to turn into pipes. Native Americans can still quarry in the area today, but the wait is quite long to receive a quarry site.

Another great thing about visiting Pipestone was we were able to bring the dogs along for this trip as the trail was dog friendly. We weren’t sure how well it would go with them, but they loved it!

When we arrived we took right to the trail as the dogs were itching to get out of the car. I think during normal times, you would be able to access the trail right out doors from the visitor center, but you also can access either end of the loop from the parking lot as well. We wound up probably going backwards because of not starting near the center doors, but either way seemed to work. This one actually led us to an old quarry right away, which was a neat way to start the trail.

From there you could take the Circle Trail or the South Quarry Trail. We knew we wanted the loop, so we continued on the Circle Trail. The trail is a nice mix of asphalt and occasional “rock” bridges. It was tight in some places so while it many should be accessible to all, it could be tougher in some places than others. At first we had a lot of view of prairie grasses, and then the rocks really began to appear.

Once we really got going, you could hear the roar of the upcoming waterfall and creek bed. It is an absolutely stunning waterfall that kind of shows up out of nowhere! You also can utilize some rock steps to view the waterfall from above as well.

Up above you also can access a really neat piece of history. Turns out the Nicollet Expedition passed by this way and actually used it as a rest point along the way. This portion of rock was actually etched into by Nicollet on the journey and is preserved for viewing today.

Following out hike, we dropped the dogs into the car for a few minutes while we went into the Visitor Center. They actually had the passport stamp outside of the center for easy access, but this allowed us to browse a few of the brand new exhibits they have just had put in.

I highly recommend taking a trip to Pipestone if you live anywhere nearby, or even if you will be passing nearby on another trip. It’s a very interesting part of Native American history and provides a beautiful short hike.

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Devils Tower National Monument ~ Devils Tower, Wyoming

This past fall I got to revisit Devils Tower 17 years after my first visit there, and it was still just a majestic and wonderful as my first visit those many years ago. Andrew had viewed Devils Tower from some of it’s many roadside vantage points with his family long ago, but it was his first time actually visiting the monument.

You pay a small entrance fee to visit the monument. From the entrance area, the road begins to wind upward towards the parking for the tower. Along the way, you will encounter several roadside pull outs where you can view the prairie dog towns.


You will continue upward towards the tower, passing a roadside turnout for the campground along the way. There are several parking areas as you near the tower. I suggest just finding a spot in one of the gravel lots as we did, instead of trying to find one in the paved lot/loop area near the visitor center. You’ll have to walk a bit further, but it’s better than searching for a spot. The visitor center has a small gift shop, and informational area, and restrooms accessed from the outside on the lower level. In the middle of the parking loop, there are also some picnic tables and an area for groups to meet. The tower stands majestically in front of you.


Devils Tower offers several different trails but we decided to take the paved (and most popular) Tower Trail. We decided to head out clockwise around the trail. We reached a fun vantage point shortly into the hike, but you are never truly without a few of the tower.


The portion of the tower is actually quite wooded and if you aren’t near other groups along the trail, it’s very peaceful!

Along the way, it’s also fun to stop and watch the different rock climbers scaling the tower. The photo below actually contains an old wooden ladder that was used in climbs long ago. Many still try to stick close to that route today.


The front portion of the monument is very rocky, and you can actually have some fun climbing on the boulders to get a closer view.


After completing the hike, we drove down towards the campground area to view the Sacred Smoke Monument and get another fun photo op in. The history of the sculpture is very interesting!

Finally, before we left the area, we decided to stop off and view the prairie dogs one last time, this time actually taking  a small trail further into their colony. I was amazed at how close we could get before they would scurry down their holes to safety!

Devils Tower is a must for anyone visiting Wyoming! It is such a unique place and offers great hiking opportunities. We loved the morning we spent there! Someday it would be fun to camp there and hike even more of the trails!

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Riverside Park ~ Yankton, South Dakota

In early September, we decided to take a family trip (dogs included!) down to Yankton, South Dakota, as this is where the headquarters for the Missouri National Recreational River are located, which meant we could get another stamp for our National Park Passport.

We parked near the playground in Riverside Park so that we could walk along the river with the dogs. As you can see, this playground is accessible to kids of all abilities.


Riverside Park is also home to the first Dakota Territorial Capitol.  A replica stands in its place today. This was the territorial capital until they moved it to Bismarck, North Dakota before they territory was split in two and became two states.


The main highlight of Riverside Park is the Meridian Pedestrian Bridge. We actually had to head up to the street to access the bridge when we were there as there was some construction going on in the park that blocked our way to the bridge. From the street we were able to access the bridge. The bridge has two levels to it, so we opted for the upper level first. From the bridge you can see the new Discovery Bridge for vehicles that also takes you into Nebraska.

Once we reached the Nebraska side, it was time to turn back and take the lower portion of the Meridian Bridge back to South Dakota.

Here’s a little more info about the bridge and it’s history.


If you do have a National Park Passport you need stamped, you actually need to head to a building further east up the street from Riverside Park. They have a small visitor center with bathrooms, and small table that contains the stamp needed, and a room to view a film about the Missouri River. Here you can also obtain a map that shows other attractions along the Missouri River on both the Nebraska and South Dakota sides.

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Grand Portage National Monument ~ Grand Portage, Minnesota

After visiting Grand Portage State Park on the Minnesota/Canada border, we made our way into the town of Grand Portage to visit Grand Portage National Monument, a historic fur trade fort located on the shores of Lake Superior.

We first stopped off at the visitor center, which had a surprising amount of cars in the parking lot. The visitor center itself was beautiful and I was able to get some details about the site from one of the rangers on staff, as well as get my National Park passport stamped. We also took a quick look through the museum before heading across the street to the historic site.


While we visited the had several people volunteering as actors, who helped bring the old trading post to life. There are three main buildings, (two of which are located within the fort,) and also several outdoor exhibits.

Our first stop was among the Ojibwe village located just outside the fort door. We also checked out the building behind which was a replica of a canoe warehouse.

Once inside the fort gates, there are two main buildings to explore. The first that we went into was the smaller kitchen. Someone was inside making real food, and a chalkboard outside the kitchen explained what was on the “menu” that day. We even saw the toast cooking in the fire!

Just outside the kitchen is also an outdoor oven.

IMG_6299The Great Hall building housed many different exhibits including a fur trade shop, a main dining area, and a hat shop. It was really neat to see how those hats would have been made.

Just before you exit the fort on the lake side, you can see one of the giant canoes voyageurs would have used back in the day.


As you can see, they also have plaques located around the outside with details about other buildings that would have been located inside the fort. Our next stop was to exit out the gate shown above and head out to the docks.


After this we were beginning to get hungry so knew we should start heading back towards Grand Marais since we still had one more state park we wanted to visit before lunch. But not before I had a chance to get a nice picture of the visitor center from the dock area.


Grand Portage National Memorial has probably the most beautiful visitor center I’ve ever seen. The staff were incredibly helpful and friendly. I wish I had realized just how much the site had to offer before visiting, because we definitely would have spent a lot longer here if we had known. Most National Monuments we have visited in the past are a fairly quick stop, spending an hour tops at a location. If you visit here, make sure to give yourself at least half a day!

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Day Trip to Effigy Mounds National Monument ~ Northeast IA

Those who have followed the blog for awhile know how much we love to visit sites run by the National Park Service. We took a road trip on our anniversary to Effigy Mounds National Monument to complete the Iowa National Park Sites in our passport.

We arrived at the Monument around 10 in the morning. Inside the visitor center they have a nice gift shop area and a small museum that introduces you to what life was like for the Native Americans that once lived in the area and created the mounds.

We attempted to hike to one of the mounds near the visitor center but after we were a bit in past the small mound, we decided to turn back as I was not dressed for hiking. I guess I should have done more research before we left, because most of the more significant and larger mounds you’d need to hike a ways to see, and most of the hiking is uphill since the mounds are located along the bluffs of the Mississippi River.


After visiting the mounds, we drove across the river into Wisconsin to grab a quick lunch in Prairie to Chien. They had lots of typical fast food joint to choose from as Marquette, IA and the surrounding area didn’t have much to offer.

When we crossed back into Iowa we spent a bit of time visiting Eagle’s Landing Winery in Marquette. The Winery is located right downtown and offers lots of different kinds of fruit wines. My mom had visited here before and I really liked a strawberry wine she had and wanted some of my own. Marquette also has a beautiful river overlook where we stopped for a photo op.


We also took a brief pit stop on the way back to Coralville into Strawberry Point, IA. Strawberry Point is home to the World’s Largest Strawberry. The locals gave me laughing smiles as I stepped out of the car to snap a quick picture.


Overall we had a fun outing and made it back to the hotel to get some pool time in before we walked to dinner that night at Wig and Pen. More on our favorite restaurant in the Iowa City/ Coralville area in the next post!

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Spring Break Day 3: Branson and Springfield, MO

The third day of our trip we really weren’t in much of a rush. We only had about an hour to drive between Branson and Springfield, so most of our time could be spent exploring the area.

After sleeping in we chose to head to Grandma Ruth’s for cinnamon rolls. Lots of people and articles I’d seen had talked up these giant rolls. We were not disappointed. We both ordered a caramel roll and could have easily shared one between the both of us, but we took the leftovers with us to use as breakfast the next day. We met Grandma Ruth herself as she came by our table to chat with us about where we were traveling from. When you ordered you could watch the rest of the family create more rolls through the glass on the side. It’s a very cute and sweet family run business and they had some live entertainment going while we were dining as well. It was just a great “down home” experience!


Now comes the more disappointing part of the day. I’d spied this beautiful church while on Pinterest one day and knew that I just had to see this in person!


It’s located at Top of the Rock in Branson. Isn’t it just beautiful? Unfortunately this is as close as I could get to it. Just to get into the Top of the Rock grounds area (it’s owned by Bass Pro Shops) we had to pay 10 bucks for the carload, but they give you a voucher that allows you to get that money back if you spend money in their gift shop or restaurants. The downside…..the restaurants and gift shop weren’t open yet when we were there. So 10 bucks got us the opportunity to look around the grounds, check out the views of Table Rock Lake (which we could have done for free at the state park on the other side) and check out the massive sinkhole that occurred a few years ago on this property. A sinkhole that they are still excavating in hopes of leading to a new cave series on the property. For even more money we could have toured their museum or gone on a cave tour but we were already pretty disappointed that this was all our 10 bucks got us so we snapped a few pictures and then took the free shuttle back down to the spot our car was parked and went on our merry way to Springfield.

Since we hadn’t spent nearly the time there we had thought we might, we decided to check out Wilson’s Creek Battlefield just outside of Springfield before lunch. This Battlefield seemed so much more interesting than Pea Ridge a few days before. The ranger who helped us with our entry fee mentioned that our receipt was good for 7 days and would also get us into Pea Ridge. Not sure if it works the same way around and we hadn’t save our Pea Ridge receipt so I couldn’t go back to check. The house that still stands on the battlefield grounds is usually open for tours, but due to the cold weather that week was not open, but the ranger said we were still free to walk up onto the porch and peek in the windows all we wanted, which we did. It’s really crazy to think that a family was living in the house watching the battle take place across their fields. It was also really neat to see their spring house across the way. The other significant marker we hiked out to was the site where General Lyon was killed. I liked that they had a lot more markers detailing what happened at each site.

After touring the battlefield, we had a quick lunch at Arby’s and then trekked over to the Bass Pro Shop Headquarters. This is a sprawling store, but in my opinion not nearly as impressive as the shop located in the Pyramid in Memphis. Although currently the Aquarium portion of the store was under serious renovations and not open to the public so maybe I would change my mind if I could see that portion.

Following our walk through the store we decided to check out the Route 66 Visitor Center. It’s a cute setup in a small storefront of a parking garage. One corner is dedicated to Route 66 gift shop memorabilia and the other side is your basic Springfield Visitor Center filled with guidebooks. The lady working the desk was quite helpful in giving us lots of suggestions for seeing things along the Mother Road while in Springfield and also gave us several brochures about parks in the area where we could get a decent walk in.

After leaving there we decided to head to Valley Water Mill Park to get a nice outdoor walk in since the weather was finally turning a little warmer. We walked around the entire lake and even saw some fun wildlife along the way. It was a nice place to go to get away from the town.

Following our walk we had an amazing dinner at Springfield Brewing Company. I wish I had a picture to upload of our meal! I ordered the Bavarian Pretzels and Andrew of course ordered Mac and Cheese but we both shared with each other. It was probably some of the best mac and cheese I have ever tasted.

Next we checked into our hotel, The Best Western Rail Haven. It’s been around since Route 66’s heyday. More on the hotel in next Tuesdays post! By that point we were craving something sweet to have while watching March Madness so we opted to walk down to the Steak and Shake that also has been around since the heyday of Route 66. I normally wouldn’t focus much on a chain restaurant but the charm of that place still holds. We both got our shakes to go, but the service was quick, it was fun to sit at the counter while we waited, and the old signs around the property still gave that Route 66 charm.

We will be doing some traveling over Memorial weekend, so no promises as to if I’ll actually have a blog post up next Tuesday, but if not Tuesday….Wednesday for sure!

Spring Break Day 2: Fort Smith and Buffalo National River

Since we spent the night in Fort Smith, we were able to sleep in a bit before heading back over to Fort Smith National Historic Site. We’d already purchased our passes the night before, so it was easy to get back into the indoor exhibits. We began our time watching the short film they offer. This was helpful, because it reviewed some of the exhibits we’d seen outside the night before, but also gave us a better overview of what we would see inside as well. There were hardly any people there that early, just us and another older couple.

After the film we went into the old jail area on the first floor. It was all one pretty big room with concrete flooring and showed why they felt the need to build a new improved jail. For those who don’t know, we like to take our friend Buddy Bison around to all the National Park Sites we visit and get his picture in fun locations. Here he is all locked up in a cell!

Next we went up to the second floor where there is a replica built of what the new jail cells would have looked like. These were stacked cells, but gave the prisoners their own individual space with open walk areas on the outside of the cells. All of this was basically enclosed in a giant cage.  The prisoners doors would have been opened every morning so they could get out of their cells to stretch in the open areas and mingle with other prisoners.


In another area of the upper level, they also had an exhibit on the Trail of Tears and another that shows Judge Parker’s Courtroom as it would have looked during his time spent at the fort.


After leaving Fort Smith, we began our journey to Buffalo National River. Did I mention our cold our southern spring break trip had been? Well on our way to the Buffalo National River it began to snow! Nothing stuck so the windy roads to get there remained safe for travel! The area of the river we visited was near the Tyler Bend Visitor Center. When you go into the visitor center there’s a nice small museum display of some of the animals you might typically find in the area. They also have a small gift shop and will play a short film upon your request. They have a deck viewing area, but it was closed while we were there due to the wet, slippery conditions.

We didn’t want to have come all that way and not actually see the river, so we chose to hike the one mile trail out to the overlook. The trail was well packed but did have some steep and narrower parts to it. We also had to hop over a few very small creeks (or maybe it was one that kept winding back into our path) on our way to the overlook and back. The view of the river once we got to the overlook was well worth the hike out!

On our way back to our car, we also saw a few deer along the path, so that made it very exciting. Our next and final stop for the day (and night!) would be Branson, MO. We arrived there shortly around dinner and headed to a well loved local pizza place: Rocco’s Pizza. Rocco’s is located in a small house so parking is limited and the tables are cramped but the food was well worth it and all lovingly made. We started with the garlic knots which arrived covered in real minced garlic, not just the garlic seasoning you get other places. I had a basic cheese pizza and Andrew got a calzone. We both had plenty to take with us for another meal later on the road.

It was a pretty short drive to our hotel. We stayed at the Super 8 near Andy Williams Theater. The man who checked us in was very friendly and we were able to park near the side door that was fairly close to our room. I know we didn’t see much of Branson that night and that it was the off season, but I’ve often heard people say that Branson is the Wisconsin Dells of Missouri. Growing up in Wisconsin, I’ve frequented the Dells quite often and all I can say is, clearly these people have never actually experience the Dells because I found Branson to be pretty mellow during our visit and much more down home. It’s more spread out and not so in your face and definitely focused more on the shows you can see than the amusement parks you can visit.

Spring Break Day 1, Part 2: Bentonville and Fort Smith

Following out time at the rather frigid Pea Ridge Battlefield, we decided we should get some nice warm lunch before heading to the Walmart Museum in Bentonville. I did a quick search for some cheap eats in Bentonville on my Trip Advisor App and discovered a nice diner type place called the Station that served some great warm sandwiches. As we plugged the address into our phone, we were even happier discovering it was two buildings down from the museum. Perfect!

We easily found some free street parking just a block away from our destinations. The Station is a nice Mom and Pop place located on the square. I loved the decor of license plates and old gas pumps. It had been forever since I had a grilled cheese sandwich so that’s what I ordered. Andrew opted for the Ham and Cheese.


Following our meal we walked down to the Walmart Museum. It’s cool because the old Walton’s 5-10 storefront is still there. They also have another building portion that holds the museum exhibits, and a soda fountain. The museum is organized chronologically. It was really neat to see how the company spread across the U.S. and globe over time. They also had some fun interactive activities to try in each area.

Our final stop for the day would be in Fort Smith which was also where we would be spending the night. We made it to Fort Smith National Historic Site around 4pm which only gave us an hour to see everything. Fortunately, the entrance fee allowed us to come back the following day. We chose to spend our first evening there exploring the outside grounds. We got to go inside the Commissary and the Gallows. We also walked across the railroad tracks, crossing the Arkansas/ Indian Territory boundary to see the site of where they wanted to first build the fort. There also is a nice path that goes along the Arkansas River over on that side of the tracks that allowed us to get a nice walk in after being in the car for several hours that day.

After Fort Smith closed for the day, we drove over to the Baymont where we were spending the night. Check in was a breeze and they even had fresh cookies out for us to take. That held us over before we drove North of town to get to the nearest Zaxby’s. We don’t have Zaxby’s near us, so it’s always a treat when we get to eat there!