Midwest Road Trip: Fun and Quirky Stops from Nebraska to South Dakota

Written by Vickie Lillo

August 9, 2021
Home >> Travel >> Road Trips >> Midwest Road Trip: Fun and Quirky Stops from Nebraska to South Dakota

Discover some quirky stops and unexpected gems that are worth the stop on a Midwest road trip. Start in Omaha and head to the famous Wall Drug.

Not a fan of piping-hot caffeine in the morning, I am just finishing up my glass of “free” ice water while my husband and in-laws are still sipping at their 5-cent cups of coffee. Both beverages were advertised on dozens of billboards en route to the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, between Mitchell, SD, and Wall Drug. This is the final stop on our Midwest road trip. Our adventure began in Nebraska with exquisite Lauritzen Gardens, wound through Sioux Falls’ famous cascades at Falls Park, and swept by the quirky Corn Palace castle, before arriving at this nearly 100-year-old pharmacy that has beckoned to passersby since the 1930s. We discovered some quirky stops and unexpected gems that are worth the stop on a Midwest road trip.

Midwest Road Trip

Wall Drug and Cafe in Wall, SD. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Midwest Road Trip Day 1: The Beauty of Lauritzen Gardens

We began our Midwest road trip at Lauritzen Gardens, one hundred acres of botanical splendor south of downtown Omaha, Nebraska. The Gardens’ mission statement describes it as a place to “escape to an urban oasis of beauty and tranquility…[to] discover a hidden sanctuary in the heart of the city.” As we entered the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory, on the left flank of the Visitor/Education Center, my mother-in-law (a florist) pointed out all of the noteworthy blooms.

midwest road trip

The Lauritzen Gardens, formerly the Omaha Botanical Garden, was established in 1982. The privately-funded garden includes The Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory, a rose garden, a 4-acre arboretum, and a Japanese garden. Photo by jpellgen via Flickr

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Inside Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory at Lauritzen

Moss-covered oaks, blossoming azaleas, showy crepe myrtles—a Southern staple—and orchids were all thriving in the temperate house. Moving to the tropical solarium, I caught glimpses of soaring palm trees, purple water lilies, and lipstick-red anthurium. These waxy, crimson flowers, with yellow spadices and shiny heart-shaped leaves, added vibrance to the greenhouse.

midwest road trip

Year-Round conservatory with plants, statuary, and fountains at Lauritzen Gardens. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Lauritzen Gardens – Where Flowers Come in All Shapes and Sizes

My favorite was the serpentine snake, created with multiple twisting containers of flowers, a translucent-blue crystal eye, and a metallic forked tongue.

Midwest Road Trip

Snake Planter in Lauritzen Garden Conservatory. Can you see the serpentining body’s forked tongue and blue crystal eye? Photo by Gustavo Lillo

I also enjoyed the spider floral, authentic down to its dangling eight legs and giant spun web. Utilizing a black tire oval for a head and an orange-red receptacle filled with greenery for its body, that oversized arachnid lent a whimsical touch to the conservatory. While rays of sunshine filtered through the glass panels, iridescent dragonflies in rainbow hues flittered amongst the perennials.

Fluttering Yard Decorations at Lauritzen Gardens

Outdoors, we meandered along a path of lovely garden decorations and mobiles for sale.  The trail continued, winding past shallow cascades and blankets of overhanging trees.

Midwest Road Trip

Outdoor Garden Decorations for sale at Lauritzen Gardens. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

We paused to admire the camellias, surprised their hot-pink blossoms gave off only the slightest effervescence of fragrance.

Midwest Road Trip

Camellias in bloom at Lauritzen Gardens. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Bird Statuary Near the Arboretum at Lauritzen Gardens

Finally, we ended up at the arboretum – a garden of trees – and Oberman Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary covers four acres of alternating savannah, maple linden forest, marshes, and floodplain. The Missouri River corridor is a natural flyway for migratory birds, giving you one easy way to experience birding in Nebraska. You might spot orange-breasted robins, scarlet cardinals, and red-winged blackbirds darting through the weeping willows. Wooden benches frame a trio of sand-hill cranes, their magnificence captured in the bronze “End of Day” sculpture by artist Dee Clements.

Midwest Road Trip

Crane statuary at the arboretum near Lauritzen Garden entrance. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Yellow goldenrod swayed gently in the breeze as we approached the parking garden. Its brilliant clusters gestured a fond farewell, sallying us toward our next Midwest road trip destination—Sioux Falls, SD. Be sure to check out more great gardens around the world on Wander.

Midwest Road Trip Day 2: Big Sioux River Waterfalls

The open road took us 182 miles from Omaha on I-29 South to Falls Park. This 128-acre playground along the Big Sioux River features gorgeous waterfalls cresting and ebbing through the center of town. Approximately 7,400 gallons of water per second dropped more than 100 feet, often showering light spray onto visitors strolling the lower-lying boardwalks.

“Are you from around here?” a friendly local asked. I shook my head no. “You see those bike paths across the way?” She indicated the greenway trails across the sluiceway, which towered above the cascades. “Last spring, there was so much melting snow that the river went THAT far out of its banks.” However, she confided that, after enduring a couple of years of drought, Sioux Falls residents were not too upset by the flood.

Midwest Road Trip

Overlook of the cascades of the Big Sioux River at Falls Park in Sioux Falls, SD. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

As for me, secure on a concrete bridge abutment high above the Big Sioux. I could imagine those torrents of water coursing over the rock bed, metamorphosing into a raging powerhouse of fury. Hurtling through the quarries of Sioux quartzite like a freight train, fueled by excessive snowmelt, high soil moisture just prior, and frozen ground. On a rampage, the river would cut a swath through the verdant grasses and peat moss…obliterating the wispy white seeds of dandelions instead of dispersing.

Midwest Road Trip

The Big Sioux River has returned to its banks after last year’s flooding, where it completely surged over all of these boulders up to the first level overlooks. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Overlooking the River at Falls Park in Sioux Falls, SD

After speaking with the local resident, I relocated the rest of my entourage. They were busy investigating the crumbling remains of what was once the 7-story Queen Bee Mill. The brainchild of Richard Pettigrew, South Dakota’s first senator, the state-of-the-art factory opened in October 1881. At the time, it could process 1,500 bushels of wheat per day. The plant closed within two years due to inadequate water power and a short grain supply. Converted into a warehouse, it eventually succumbed to fire.

The only other structure still standing on the river’s eastern bank is the former Sioux Falls Light and Power Company that once housed three 500-kilowatt hydroelectric generators. Abandoned in ’74 and recently converted into the Falls Overlook Café, the imposing building is the perfect spot to sink into a chair with a refreshing drink and light lunch fare—paninis, soups, nachos, and local Stensland ice cream.

Midwest Road Trip

Formerly the Sioux Falls Light & Power building, it’s been transformed into a cafe that overlooks the Tower and the Big Sioux River at Falls Park in Sioux Falls, SD. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

As we sat near the edge of the beautiful Sioux River Falls, bicyclists and joggers launched their daily exercise regimens along the intersecting paths. At the same time, dog-lovers and their canine friends enjoyed frisbee games on the lawn. Noticing a young girl curled up under a shade tree with a book, I longed for time to do exactly the same thing.

Midwest Road Trip

Former Sioux Falls Light & Power Company restored into a café overlooking the cascades and the park. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Midwest Road Trip Day 2: The World’s Only Corn Palace

Once back on the road, our quartet set the GPS toward Mitchell, SD. Seventy-five miles west of Sioux Falls, off I-90, we took a short jaunt to check out the World’s Only Corn Palace. We aren’t alone in checking out this quirky spot on a Midwest road trip. Each year, half a million other tourists come from miles around to admire this agricultural showplace. With a new theme every year since its 1892 inception, the Corn Palace celebrates successful crop-growing seasons with ostentatious murals—inside and out—fashioned completely from native grasses, grains, and corn.

Midwest Road Trip

Moorish castle on South Dakota prairie, the World’s only Corn Palace. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Art Displays at the Corn Palace

Each year, the Corn Palace dyes hundreds of thousands of ears of corn in 12 shades, including calico and this year’s latest addition of green. After they dye the corn, Dakota Wesleyan University digital-media students magically transform them into works of art.

Midwest Road Trip

Art Mural Made from Dyed Ears of Corn at Corn Palace. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

One by one, students nail multi-colored cobs to the exterior of the castle-like façade. Indoors, they arrange them into intricate frescoes that decorate the auditorium walls.

Midwest Road Trip

The auditorium mural at Corn Palace was completely fabricated from dyed ears of corn. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Acting Corny in Mitchell, SD, at the Corn Palace

With every quirky road stop, there is always a chance to act silly. Or, a little corny at The Corn Palace. Just inside the entranceway is your first chance to keep it corny. It involved posing for a silly picture by sticking our heads through the openings of a pair of herculean-sized caricatures of yellow-and-green ears of corn.

Midwest Road Trip

My in-laws are acting corny at the World’s Only Corn Palace. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

The four of us ambled down the halls, gazing at the poster-sized renditions of Corn Palace designs from decades past. Where else but South Dakota would you expect to see a Moorish Alcazar, built in the 12th-century traditional architecture of Andalusia, Spain—complete with Islamic minarets, similar to those in mosques for the mu’addhin to call the congregation to prayer—but decorated with corn?

We darted across Main, avoiding a bit of late-afternoon traffic, for more good-time photo opportunities alongside an enormous, cartoon-faced cob of corn. Inside, you’ll find the usual roadside gift shop. Since this is at the Corn Palace, you’ll also find specialty popcorn and corn-cob jelly, made with strained corn juice from shucked ears of corn. I selected a few choice postcards from Corn Palace designs of yesteryear…and wondered what fanciful new decorations this year’s festival in late August would bring.

Midwest Road Trip

Mitchell’s Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, is decorated fresh every year with a new design. Photo by Terryfic3D via iStock by Getty Images

Midwest Road Trip Day 3: A Taste of the Old West at Wall Drug

On our last official Midwest road trip stop before the Badlands, we arrived in Wall, SD, around breakfast time. On the map, it was a mere 55 miles east of Rapid City, which sits 15 minutes outside the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. With its own unique method of advertisement along I-90, Wall Drug blossomed over the years into a city-block-long drugstore, café, Western-wear mega-mall, and souvenir gift shop.

midwest road trip

A book store in the iconic Wall Drug in Wall, SD. Photo by Jason_Ray_Photography via iStock by Getty Images

Wall Drug Evolves from Small-Town Pharmacy to Cowboy Superstore

Ted and Dorothy Hustead put the town of Wall, SD, on the map with their two million visitors yearly. They get an estimated 20,000 folks looking for fun and quirky on a good summer’s day. Looking around the mall, I realized the Husteads had created an empire on the prairie.

It began during the early years of the Great Depression—in a town affectionately glorified as “the geographical center of nowhere.” Plastered over countless hand-painted signs across the open prairie, that simple advertising idea to offer free ice water to weary travelers continues to lure travelers in off the highway. Today, what was once a small-town pharmacy, now hawks everything from flashy refrigerator magnets to a stuffed jackalope head, perfect for mounting over your hearth.

Midwest Road Trip South Dakota

One of the many iconic Wall Drug billboards along Interstate 90. Photo by Terryfic3D via iStock by Getty Images

Exploring Wall Drug

With so much to see, I really didn’t know where to start, so I began some heavy-duty browsing in the cowboy-themed strip mall of shops.

My husband could hardly contain his excitement as he breathed in the musty smell of tanned leather. Immediately, he strapped on a rawhide gun holster and Western-styled hat; he stepped in front of a floor-length mirror, visualizing himself as a true Chilean huaso, from the country of his birth. As for me, I gravitated towards a pair of adorable bright-red, long-johns with the convenient butt-flap before making haste to Calamity Jane’s Jewelry Emporium. There I enjoyed the displays of Black Hills gold and Lakota turquoise.

Midwest Road Trip

Sample a taste of the Old West at the Leather Goods Stores at Wall Drug. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Jackalopes and Runaway Conestoga Wagons at Wall Drug

We then retreated to the Wall Drug backlot for hilariously fun photo ops. We all took turns standing beside the gigantic Jackalope, passing up the saddle, which is 8 feet off the ground. We climbed inside the replica of a Conestoga wagon and imagined we were crossing the prairie. We even posed next to a gargantuan rabbit, laughing…having a great time at this quirky roadside attraction that draws customers by the busload.

Midwest Road Trip

It enjoyed pretending to drive a Conestoga wagon in the backlot of Wall Drugstore. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

Western Art Gallery Restaurant

My eyes rove around the Western Art Gallery Restaurant room, which seats more than 500 people, admiring the Hustead private collection of more than 300 original oil paintings and illustrations. It is the largest private collection of its kind in the United States. Famed late 19th century artists like NC Wyeth and prodigy Harvey Dunn, who studied under Drexel University teacher Howard Pyle, grace the café walls. The collection even includes some works of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of the Presidential faces on Rushmore Mountain.

You can still get free ice water and a 5-cent coffee, but you can also order breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And a glass of wine to go with your meal. There are Wall’s legendary hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy, burgers, and homemade rolls. Leave room to visit the Soda Fountain Ice Cream Shop for ice cream, soft serve, floats, sundaes, shakes, and malts.

With a final slurp of that free ice-cold water, I wash down the remaining crumbs of my Wall Drug’s famous homemade cake donut. It’s time to meander, one more time, through the souvenir bazaar, past the kitschy Zoltar fortune-teller kiosk, bidding adieu to the mannequins of grizzled gold prospectors and sexy saloon girls.

Midwest Road Trip

Sidle up to the kitschy Zoltar Kiosk in Wall Drug’s Mega-Mall. Photo by Gustavo Lillo

I scoop up ten postcards—still an unbelievable five for a buck—and saunter to the car for the remainder of our Midwest road trip. At the approach to the highway, we all wave goodbye to the humongous, 80-foot-tall green-and-white T-Rex dinosaur. One more gimmick to entice exhausted travelers off the highway to Wall Drug. We had definitely found our share of quirky—and some beauty—on our Midwest road trip. Be sure to check out Wander for more great road trip ideas. We also love uncovering even more quirky travel that awaits your adventures.

Our adventure began in Nebraska with exquisite Lauritzen Gardens, wound through Sioux Falls' famous cascades at Falls Park, swept by the quirky Corn Palace castle, before arriving at this nearly 100-year-old pharmacy that has beckoned to passersby since the 1930s. Discover some quirky stops and unexpected gems that are worth the stop on a Midwest road trip.

Written by Vickie Lillo

Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based freelance travel, birding, and reptile writer. She is also a stringer for the local Gadco Times and Calhoun/Liberty Journal weekly newspapers. She enjoys globetrotting with her husband Gustavo, and now that her son Nicolas has left the nest, is glad to have given him the gift of the love for travel.

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