11 Hidden Gems on the Ultimate Road Trip Through the Midwest
What the Midwest lacks in elevation, it more than makes up for with quirky, memorable sights and attractions. Here are 11 pit stops you should add to any trip through Middle America.
1. Serpent Mound – Bratton, OH
This 1,330-foot-long prehistoric effigy mound is a relic of the Native American Adena culture, which flourished between 800 B.C. and 100 A.D. Even after extensive study, the main purpose of the mound is still unknown. Some scientists believe it may have served religious purposes, while others think it was created to mark the changing of the seasons because the head aligns with the sunset during the summer solstice.
2. World’s Largest Catsup Bottle – Collinsville, IL
Built in 1949, this 170-foot behemoth is located just off US Route 159 in Collinsville, IL. There’s more to the giant bottle than meets the eye - it’s actually a 100,000-gallon water tower. The “Brooks Catsup” on the label is an actual company that sells catsup (or “ketchup”), and despite limited distribution in the US, it is more readily available in Canada.
3. Smith Falls – Valentine, NE
Outdoorsy adventurers flock to this partially secluded 70-foot spring-fed waterfall (the highest in the state) as they canoe or kayak along Nebraska’s Niobrara River. Although Nebraska isn’t known for its waterfalls, this picturesque spot is worth a visit – it’s the remnant of glaciers that passed through the area thousands of years ago.
4. International Peace Garden – Rolette County, ND
You’ll have to drive all the way to the U.S.-Canada border to visit this destination in North Dakota, first planned and unveiled during the Great Depression in 1932. Created as a symbol of the bond between the United States and Canada, the garden now features more than 150,000 freshly planted flowers every year, as well as other attractions like the 120-foot, quadruple-columned Peace Towers and the permanent floral designs depicting each nation’s flags.
5. World's Largest Ball of Twine – Cawker City, KS
First started in 1953, the world’s largest ball of twine is constantly being fortified by people who stop by to see this quirky attraction. The ball was originally started by a Cawker City resident in 1953 as a way to store twine remnants before turning into a project the entire town embraced. As of late last year, the ball weighed nearly 20,000 pounds.
6. American Gothic House – Eldon, IA
Grant Wood’s iconic painting “American Gothic” is imprinted in the mind of anyone who’s taken an art history class, but what professors fail to mention is that the house in Wood’s masterpiece is a real home. The house’s memorable Gothic windows still make it the perfect photo op for anyone who’s passing through Eldon, IA, and a helpful visitors’ center even provides overalls, jackets, dresses, glasses, and pitchforks to help tourists capture the perfect homage to Wood.
7. The Viking – Geneva, IL
One of the showpieces of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the Viking, a replica of a ninth-century Viking ship. The Viking was built in Norway and then sailed across the Atlantic and through the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes to appear at the exposition, where it was such a hit it was eventually honored on a U.S. postage stamp. The replica ship has had several homes since the exposition ended, but today it sits in a covered dry dock in Geneva’s Good Templar Park, a local hub for Scandinavian culture.
8. Cahokia Mounds – East St. Louis / Collinsville, IL
Cahokia, a massive ancient Native American city inhabited from 700 to 1400 CE, covers nearly six square miles. During its heyday, it was a booming population center – anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 inhabitants filled the city at any given time. The reason for the decline of this ancient metropolis is unknown, but the city’s downfall may possibly be due to depletion of resources as well as war, disease, and cultural power struggles. Today the mounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an incredibly important archaeological site that’s worth a visit.
9. Mitchell Corn Palace – Mitchell, SD
The Corn Palace is a multi-purpose arena with an exterior decorated entirely with corn and other grains. Thirteen different colors of corn are used to create murals based on a rotation annual theme (this year’s theme is “Remember When”), which are usually finished sometime in October. The current building is the third iteration of the Corn Palace, and was erected as a permanent establishment in 1921.
10. The National Mustard Museum – Middleton, WI
If you’re looking to elevate your appreciation of mustard from the purely culinary realm to a more scholarly one, set a course for Middleton, WI. The museum’s collection began as a former lawyer’s passion project in 1986 and has soared to incredible heights – the museum currently boasts over 5,600 mustards from over 70 countries. Admission is free, and becoming your social group’s resident expert on mustard is priceless.
11. Wabasha Street Caves – St. Paul, MN
These caves on the shore of the Mississippi River have done a little bit of everything. They’ve been shelters for Native American tribes, silica mines for 19th century glass making, a site for mushroom farming, and even a speakeasy during Prohibition. Today, the natural caves have transformed into an event hall that hosts swing dancing on Thursday nights, so if you’re in the Twin Cities and want to dance in a historic venue, head for the caves.
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