National Park Service Units of the Midwest: The Great Plains States

Just because my second child is due in about two months doesn’t mean I’m not constantly thinking about travel. Assuming that the baby and I are both healthy, The Working Dad and I are trying to figure into my maternity leave as much travel as possible. When we do hit the road later this summer with an already-four-year-old and a newborn, we know we won’t venture too far from home. Thinking about all the nearby places we’ve yet to visit, I figured it was the perfect time for me to complete the feature I started last year and give you National Park Service Units of the Midwest: The Great Plains States.

Iowa: Effigy Mounds National Monument

Thirty-one earthen mounds in the shape of animals are preserved along the Upper Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa at Effigy Mounds National Monument. The mounds are considered sacred, especially by the Monument’s twelve affiliated Native American tribes. In addition to the mounds in the form of bears and birds, the park also offers fourteen miles of hiking trails and eighty-one acres of prairie. There are no paved automobile roads in the park. All access is via walking/hiking.

Missouri: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial117818946_e51c5e56e5_o

The Memorial celebrates the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century. Located in St. Louis along the Mississippi River, the memorial consists of a ninety-one-acre park, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and – most notably – the Gateway Arch. I have visited the Memorial several times on my visits to St. Louis (one of my favorite cities to visit, by the way). A trip to the top of the Arch is well worth it but be forewarned: it’s not ideal for the claustrophobic. The little capsules that transport visitors to the top are – well, little. Do not skip the Museum of Westward Expansion and, if the weather is cooperating, spend some time walking or biking through the park and marveling at the Mighty Mississippi.

North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This park is in the top three of my “must visit” list mainly because it’s named after former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was quite influential in the establishment of the National Park System. As a passionate conservationist, it’s only fitting that President T. Roosevelt has a park named after him and, as a big fan of his and of the National Parks, it’s only fitting that I pay a visit. The park is divided into three sections and covers a total of 110 miles. The park is open year-round, though some roads and attractions may be closed during winter months due to snow and ice (check conditions before your visit). There are three campgrounds in the park, as well as backcountry campsites; opportunities for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking on the Little Missouri River; and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter. I need to get there – soon.

South Dakota: Wind Cave National Park

I can’t help but geek out over Wind Cave. It just looks so cool! It’s a giant underground cave containing almost 140 miles of explored passageways. Visitors can get subterranean and take part in ranger-guided walks through the cave system. Above ground, the park boasts the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States which is home to an abundance of wildlife and thirty miles of hiking trails. Like Effigy Mounds in Iowa and countless other spots in the United States, Wind Cave is a sacred place for many Native American tribes. The natural entrance to the cave gained the interest of early explorers and settlers who were intrigued by the changing direction of the wind passing through the opening. Today, we know this phenomenon as barometric wind. I know it as way cool.

Nebraska: Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

At the mere mention of “Nebraska”, many people make a funny face and say something like, “What’s in Nebraska?” or “Nebraska is boring!” But I imagine if you’re an archaeologist or paleontologist, Nebraska is so NOT boring, especially someplace like Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. There you will find a large collection of Miocene fossils (dating from about 23 million to 5 million years ago) of species such as Miohippus (prehistoric horse), Amphicyon (bear-dog), and Palaeocastor (land-living, burrowing beaver). There are interactive exhibits inside the Visitor Center/Museum, and short hiking trails outside.

Fossils. Rawr.

Fossils. Rawr.

Kansas: Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

For something equally as important in American history, and having nothing to do with fossils or prairies, visit the former Monroe Elementary School in Topeka. Memorialized here is one of the most significant events in our nation’s history: the decision to end legal segregation in public schools.

Other National Park Service Units in…



North Dakota

South Dakota



“There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle.” — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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16 Responses to National Park Service Units of the Midwest: The Great Plains States

  1. Anita Mac May 18, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    So many parks to choose from! I am afraid I have not been to one yet, but they sound pretty good! Love getting out into the parks!
    Anita Mac recently posted…Running the Rochester Color RunMy Profile

    • Francesca May 22, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

      I love getting out into the parks, too, and advocating for the National Parks has become a passion of mine over the years.

  2. Traveling Ted May 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    Interesting that you bring up Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I was at dinner a couple of nights ago and I met a fellow hiker who had done the Appalachian Trail. We got to talking, and he said that he worked for the National Park for awhile in Theodore Roosevelt. He said it is pristine and a place not many people go. It really got me interested in visiting this park.
    Traveling Ted recently posted…Illinois Beach State Park Dead RiverMy Profile

    • Francesca May 22, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

      “Pristine” and “a place not many people go” = exactly why I want to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park! I’m really hoping to get there next summer.

  3. Val May 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    Going to National Park sites close by in the Midwest is where we love to travel. It is amazing how many great things you can see and do in your “backyard.”
    Val recently posted…Farm FridayMy Profile

    • Francesca May 22, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

      Amen, Val! The exact reason I’ve chosen to highlight the National Park Service Units of the Midwest.

  4. thelazytravelers May 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    the wino majored in anthropology during her undergrad and thus has a soft-spot (and somewhat nerdy) love for anything archaeological. may have to give nebraska a shot! xo
    thelazytravelers recently posted…hotel highlight: first landing beach resortMy Profile

    • Francesca May 22, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

      Because I couldn’t heart you girls any more, you have to tell me that one of you is an anthropology/archaeology nerd. Totes awesome.

  5. lola May 20, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    oooo love that photo of the Mississippi from Mound Hill!!
    lola recently posted…Ultra Music Festival – Miami EditionMy Profile

    • Francesca May 22, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

      Thanks, wish I could take credit for that one!

  6. Fiona May 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Love the idea of The Great Plains States, frontier Travel=ultimate travel!
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    • Francesca May 22, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

      That’s a great way to put it, Fiona! Love it!

  7. Kieu ~ GQ trippin May 20, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

    I’m not American.. 🙁 I haven’t been to any of these. Our national parks are definitely on my list. It’s about time I get out and explore our own country more.
    Kieu ~ GQ trippin recently posted…Thailand: Travel Costs & HighlightsMy Profile

    • Francesca May 22, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

      I say that all the time, Q. As much as I love to travel abroad, there is SO MUCH to see and do in our own country. I’m trying to make domestic travel a priority while the kids are still young.

  8. Kiera @easytravelmom May 23, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    So many parks! And good for you and the husband making plans after that second baby comes to travel. I know it’s difficult because you never know, but you have to keep thinking about it. As much as I’ve traveled btw, I have not been to any of these parks!
    Kiera @easytravelmom recently posted…Indoor water parks in Ohio: Maui Sands ResortMy Profile

    • Francesca May 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      Only one I’ve been to on this list is Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. I need to get on the ball, too!

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