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.
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.
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…
- George Washington Carver National Monument
- Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
- Ozark National Scenic Riverways
- Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
- Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
- Badlands National Park
- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Homestead National Monument of America
- Missouri National Recreational River
- Niobrara National Scenic River
- Scotts Bluff National Monument
- Fort Larned National Historic Site
- Fort Scott National Historic Site
- Nicodemus National Historic Site
- Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
“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