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Celebrating 70 Years of RVing - In the Frontier West & Great Plains
Woodall's Campground Directory
The Great Plains states once stood as the frontier range, where strong men and hearty women braved rough terrain and a hostile environment. Lewis & Clark seemed to have left their footprints in every one of these states. It’s here where the Wild West began. Railroads built boomtowns and industry created millionaires. Soon, highways cut across the land, connecting towns like Kansas City and St. Louis, Omaha and Rapid City. The Wild West may be gone now, but there’s still plenty of its influence left to explore in the Great Plains.
A drive down South Dakota’s Highway 14 is the consummate road trip. Your adventure starts in the rolling plains of the state’s eastern half, where the romantic vision of frontier life is alive and well. Begin your tour in Brookings. This would-be quiet frontier town is actually a hotbed of culture, thanks in large part to the presence of South Dakota State University, the state’s largest educational institution. While in town, don’t miss your chance to see the impressive South Dakota Arboretum and McCrory Gardens, a 70-acre expanse that captures the natural beauty of eastern South Dakota.
Heading west you’ll come upon the town of Huron. As South Dakota approached annexation, Huron stood on the brink of being named state capital. It eventually lost out to Pierre, but Huron still succeeded at becoming an economic and cultural hub of the area. One of the most impressive and nostalgic areas in Huron is the dramatic Campbell Park Historic District, which showcases dozens of Queen Anne and Colonial architecture. And, if you find yourself in Huron during August, you’re sure to have a ball at the South Dakota State Fair.
South of Huron, if you take a detour along SR-37 to the town of Mitchell, you’ll discover the Corn Palace. First built in 1892, the palace murals are decorated annually with more than 2,000 bushels of corn, with more than 10 different shades of corn.
If your experience in Huron only whets your proverbial appetite to see the state capital, then by all means point the RV west on US-14 to Pierre (pronounced “peer”). Nestled along the banks of the mighty Missouri River, Pierre is a magnificent display of South Dakota’s past and present. Brush up on the area’s history at the Cultural Heritage Center before heading over to the State Capital, one of America’s finest capital buildings.
(Travelers Advisory: Be aware that there are three neighboring locations in this area with the name “Pierre” in them. The state capital, as mentioned; the actual outpost known as Fort Pierre and the adjacent town of Fort Pierre, described next.)
Our next stop requires a hop across the Missouri River to Fort Pierre, founded by the American Fur Company in 1832. The town still remains close to its rough-and-tumble heritage, where cowboys and cowgirls ran the town. But this friendly little stop is a terrific jumping off point to explore the great western part of the state. US-14 then zigzags its way southwest until it ends at Interstate 90. But your South Dakota adventure is now just beginning. I-90 will bring you to what is some of the finest – and most underrated! – regions for RVing in all of North America, at least if dramatic landscape is your thing. Southwest South Dakota offers a laundry list of amazing sites and riveting stopovers, including the Black Hills, the Badlands, Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and the incomparable Mount Rushmore. Enjoy!
US-14 west leaves South Dakota after Spearfish, but before you do, just north of Belle Fourche on Hwy. 85 is the geographic center of the U.S. You can’t get more in-the-middle of America than that.
It is believed that the third longest cave in the world can be found in the hills of Jewel Cave National Monument. The area certainly has its own unique brand of Old West history. The last great gold rush left behind boomtowns and mining camps Like Custer City and Deadwood. Some of the greatest legends of the west were no strangers to this region; Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, General George Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Jedediah Smith, among them.
The town of Wall, along I-90, is home to one of South Dakota’s most visited sites, Wall Drug Store, which opened its doors in 1931. It survived the depression-era by serving water to travelers. Nowadays, ice is free and coffee still costs a nickel. It’s got an old-fashioned soda fountain as well as an emporium, art galleries and Western-themed restaurants, museums and entertainment – and 6,000 pair of cowboy boots, to-boot!
Nebraska is a land of contrasts. Rolling hills with horizons of farmland, once dominated by Native Americans and later European pioneers, are broken up by several metropolitan areas, each possessing its own cultural bounty. Along US-6 you’ll encounter all this and much more.
Start your tour of Nebraska in the town of Ashland, located along the state’s eastern edge. The 300,000 square foot Strategic Air & Space Museum brings 20th-century military aerospace history alive as it pays tribute to the men and women who safeguarded liberty around the globe for the past 55 years. The aircraft, missiles and exhibits on display focus mainly on the tools and strategies of America’s defense during the tension-filled Cold War years.
Naturally, we have to include a stop in Omaha and, while there, take in the Lewis & Clark Landing. The original landing site of the famed expedition in 1804 is today a 24-acre park that regularly hosts concert and other events. If you want to explore Lewis and Clark’s route in style, consider an excursion on the River City Star, and elegant riverboat dedicated to ferrying passengers up and down the waterways.
Omaha is also home to the famous Girls and Boys Town. Founded by a priest named Father Flanagan in 1917, Boys Town was a shelter for homeless youth. By 1936 it had become its own town, governed by the boys who called it home. In the 1980s, the town’s name was changed to Girls and Boys Town. Today, the National Headquarters of Girls and Boys Town offers tours and has an interactive museum and a rose garden, in addition to its historic buildings.
Stop by the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln for the Great Plains Art Collection at the Center for Great Plains Studies. Here you can visit a by-gone era where immigrants staked their claims and farmed the land. Today the museum holds more than 400 pieces of work, from sculptures to oil paintings, as well as an impressive library of Americana. A few miles outside of town, one can find Nine Mile Prairie, a rare remnant of the prairies that once dominated the landscape out here. Today, this 230-acre parcel provides an educational venue where visitors are welcome to view some of the 80 species of birds that can be found here.
Continue westward to the town of Hastings. Okay, so the town isn’t the birthplace of a famous artist or U.S. president, but it is the birthplace of Kool-Aid. We suggest quaffing a ceremonial cup of the stuff while here, just to say you did so. The area is also home to a natural phenomenon, as migrating sandhill cranes regularly make stops in the fields surrounding town on their flights north and south.
If you want to see one of America’s more famous, and oddest, roadside attractions, take a detour far west and north of Holdrege where Hwys. 385 and 2 converge at the remote western town of Alliance. Modeled after the old Druid monument, Stonehenge, you’ll find the modern-day equivalent, Carhenge, which consists of 38 cars, held upright in pits with the trunk end down. Whatever your take is on Carhenge, it undoubtedly captures the heart of the great American roadside attraction.
US-30 is part of the 1st Transcontinental Highway. Also known as “The Lincoln Highway” it passes through small farm towns like Kimball, Sidney, Ogallala, North Platte, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus, Fremont and Blair. It parallels the Platte River, so if you’re feeling a little dry through this part of Nebraska, there are myriad opportunities to pull the RV over and drop your feet, or your whole body, into the river for a cool break.
US-40 makes a memorable appearance as it winds its way through western Kansas before being absorbed by Interstate 70, the state’s main thoroughfare. But before jumping on that massive highway, tour the slower, more peaceful part of Kansas. (True, most of Kansas is slow and peaceful, but I digress). Begin at the town of Sharon Springs, a historic and modern-day county seat. Hopefully, you’ll find yourself in town at the end of May, where you can enjoy, or partake, in a unique event, the Rattlesnake Roundup. Be sure to leave the rounding up to the, ahem, professionals.
Head east and you’ll soon find yourself in the town of Oakley, born during the halcyon days of the Wild West. Today, this historic town welcomes visitors from all over.
The town of Quinter, east of Oakley, was originally just a whistle stop on the Kansas branch of the Union Pacific Railroad. The area is most known for its impressive landscape, namely Castle Rock, a unique rock outcropping rising out of the flat prairie landscape. And you thought Kansas had little in the way of topography! South of town begins an impressive “badlands” environment similar to the more famous one in South Dakota.
After Quinter, US-40 and I-70 intertwine heading east all the way to Kansas City. But first, stop at the town of Hays, a place reminiscent of the Old West. If it’s not too creepy for you, we suggest a tour of legendary Boot Hill Cemetery, where many rough-and-tumble characters found their final resting place. The town is chock-full of other historic frontier wonders including the Cheyenne Indian Raid Gravesite and historic Fort Hays. The Historic Walking Tour is easily the best way to learn more about the city’s frontier history.
Head east out of Hays and you’ll wind up in Salina, where you can get lost exploring the many historic and nostalgic attractions available in the city’s downtown area. Finish your visit with a review of area history at the Yesteryear Museum. Abilene, located just east of Salina, features the Eisenhower Center. This is the birthplace and childhood home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Facilities include a museum, library and a meditation chapel - the final resting place of the former President and First Lady.
State capital Topeka is our next stop along the route. Here, one can learn more about one of the most important events in U.S. history at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, a facility dedicated to the Supreme Court decision to end segregation in public schools.
On a lighter note, don’t miss the Carousel in the Park, a restored merry-go-round inside the elegant Gage Park. The mile-long mini train is arguably the best way to explore the 160-acre park. One can’t-miss Topeka attraction is the Combat Air Museum, which showcases dozens of retired aircraft as well as other unique military exhibits.
Head east for Lawrence, which is easily considered the cultural capital of the state. Head down Jayhawk Boulevard to tour the impressive campus of the University of Kansas. While there, don’t miss the KU Natural History Museum, one of the most impressive museums of its kind in the nation. For basketball buffs, one can’t miss a visit to Allen Fieldhouse, a mecca for college basketball. Lawrence is where the game was invented, dontcha know, by Dr. James Naismith, the university’s first head coach. Tour the stadium’s impressive museum and learn about other Jayhawk legends such as coach “Phog” Allen and Kansas’ most distinguished b-ball playing alum, Wilt Chamberlain.
Your next and final stop in Kansas is Kansas City. For baseball fans, check out the wonderful Negro Leagues Baseball Museum located in the city’s historic jazz district. Right down the road is the American Jazz Museum, which showcases Kansas City’s important contributions to the art, most notably by its favorite son, saxophonist Charlie Parker. And who could visit Kansas City without partaking in its most famous fare, BBQ? There’s many, many restaurants to choose from, but some of the local favorites are Gates BBQ and Arthur Bryant’s BBQ.
From Kansas City, jump onto US-50 and head east to explore Missouri. On the outskirts of Kansas City, you’ll find yourself in Independence, of the nation’s most historically-rich cities. Why, you ask? This humble city holds the unique distinction as serving as the starting point for both the Oregon and Santa Fe Trail. The city is also the birthplace of Harry S. Truman, whose life and legacy can be explored at the Harry S. Truman Library.
You’ll find the town of Liberty nearby and it’s a worthy stopover for the overgrown cowboy in your crew. It was here, on February 13th, 1866, that Jesse James and his brother Frank walked into a local bank and began their legendary crime spree. Today, you can explore the life and times of these men at the Jesse James Bank Museum.
Heading east, make a stop at the town of Sedalia, the birthplace of Ragtime, a truly American style of music. Each June, the town hosts the world-class Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, so named in honor of the man who is credited with the sound’s creation. Thousands also flock to Sedalia each August for the annual Missouri State Fair.
Continue your route and you’ll soon come across the state capital, Jefferson City. Consider a tour of the impressive Missouri Sate Capitol building, situated along the banks of the Missouri River. The town is also Lewis and Clark country, which can be explored along the Native Stone Lewis & Clark Hiking Trail.
St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, will be your final stop in Missouri. But don’t just marvel at the famed Gateway Arch. Not when there are a host of unique attractions delivering days’ worth of exploration opportunities. For dog lovers, how about a quick stop at the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog? Don’t forget St. Louis was practically raised on riverboat gambling, and the modern days are no different. There are several riverboat casinos to choose from including Casino Queen and several others. Grabbing some tasty ‘que (that’s barbecue, people) wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.
For military history buffs, don’t miss the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site to learn all about the man’s life, military career, and presidency. Continue touring historic St. Louis at the Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum. If you’re looking for more history, don’t miss the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, an impressive complex and one of the most comprehensive exhibits dedicated to the explorers.
Right across the street from Busch Stadium, home of the baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals (a park that most likely has been bulldozed to make way for the new stadium by press time) is the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame.
But back to the famous Arch. Obviously, we haven’t traveled this far to miss it, as it is one of the country’s best-known landmarks. If a ride up the arch isn’t to your liking, keep your feet on the ground and visit the Museum of Westward Expansion, located directly below. Other great museums in the city include the Museum of Transportation, the St. Louis Art Museum, or the City Museum.
Arkansas’ Highway-70 runs west to east, traversing some delightful terrain in Middle America. Along the way you’ll find many outdoor retreats, a few enchanting cities, and wind up outside Memphis, Tennessee.
Your first stop along US-70 will be the hoppin’ town of Hot Springs. The town, of course, is a great jumping off point for the Hot Springs National Park, where you can tour some stunning landscape and learn firsthand why Arkansas is called “The Natural State.” Be sure to stop by the visitor’s center to learn more about how the town was born from the thermal pool industry that once drew scores of visitors during the turn of the century. The historian on your team (most likely a Democrat historian) should enjoy the many sites dedicated to former President Bill Clinton. Hot Springs served as his childhood home and you can visit his birthplace, his elementary school, and – most importantly – his favorite burger joint.
Continue heading east and you’ll soon find yourself in Little Rock, the state capital. Continue your Bill Clinton tour with a visit to the recently opened William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum, which houses thousands of artifacts from his two terms. An often-overlooked gem in Little Rock is a visit to the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, home to a collection of fine arts galleries.
From Little Rock, US-70 runs parallel to I-40 as it heads east towards Tennessee. Make a stop in Brinkley and brush up on your Louisiana Purchase history at the Central Delta Depot Museum. Harlow’s Completely Unique Shop, is, well, definitely unique shop, and where the local artisans go to sell their wares.
At Forrest City, don’t miss a chance to drive the Crowley’s Ridge National Scenic Byway. Sure, it ain’t necessarily full of nostalgia, but what kind of RVer ever passes up a scenic drive?
From Forrest City, you’ll find yourself in the Mississippi River Valley and your US-70 trip is coming to an end. But really, the adventure is just beginning. Cross over the Mighty Mississippi and you’ll find yourself in one of the South’s finest cities, good old Memphis, Tennessee.