Our first stop after crossing into Minnesota from South Dakota was Pipestone National Monument, one of the most unique Monuments we’ve visited. “Pipestone” refers to a red stone that is considered sacred by some Native American tribes and been quarried for centuries to make ceremonial pipes. Pipestone, or a similar type of stone, can be found in other places, but the deposits here in southwestern Minnesota are the highest quality and best-known. Quarrying rights were restored exclusively to Native Americans when the National Monument was established in 1937, and today there is a waiting list up to 10 years for a permit to do the labor-intensive work of extracting pipestone from layers of hard Sioux Quartzite rock.
Unfortunately it was raining heavily during our visit so we opted out of a walk to see the quarries and waterfall. But it was still a worthwhile stop to learn about the fascinating history and continued use of pipestone at the excellent Visitor Center. There were stations where pipe makers demonstrated their craft and answered questions, many examples of the beautiful work in the museum, and a gift shop with everything from full-size ceremonial pipes to jewelry for sale. We rarely buy souvenirs at National Parks – the kids have to earn their Junior Ranger badges – but I couldn’t leave Pipestone without a small token from this special place to keep with us in the RV.
The first few days in Minnesota were full of rain, but we did manage some excursions (and lots of laundry) while we stayed at an RV park outside of Minneapolis. I took the kids to meet up with a friend who introduced us to the awesome children’s bookstore Wild Rumpus. We’ve visited many libraries and bookstores and this really is a great one, with cozy reading nooks and a friendly roaming chicken in addition to the great staff and selection of books.
At the other end of the retail spectrum is The Mall of America – the largest mall in the US! Since we were staying nearby we couldn’t resist a visit. I was pleasantly surprised by the contemporary interior and curved corridors, which made it feel slightly less overwhelming. Until we came to the indoor theme park – also the largest in the US! I couldn’t believe how many roller coasters and thrill rides fit into the space, not to mention a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, zip line, and several kiddie rides. The log flume was the first big ride Rita and Charlie have ever been on by themselves. The uncertainty on their faces at the top of the last drop was comical, but they loved it and it was a memorable moment for all of us. After all the National Parks and natural wonders we’ve been to, Charlie’s longest and most detailed journal entry has been about The Mall of America. Too bad they don’t have a Junior Ranger program.
It took a few more calls than usual to find a place to stay over Memorial Day weekend, but we did in the town of Nelson, Wisconsin, just across the Mississippi River from Minnesota. Both sides of the Mississippi River Valley are lined with charming, historical towns. Nelson itself is tiny, but the first day we enjoyed excellent BBQ at J & J’s, and there were people lined up for ice cream outside the ivy-covered brick building of Nelson Creamery.
We had memorable meals overall: delicious berry pie from Stockholm Pie and General Store; beer-battered cheese curds and burgers on the Mississippi with a fun Memorial Day crowd at Harbor Bar; and a wonderful experience at The Stone Barn. Pizza farms are apparently a thing in Wisconsin, a trend I heartily endorse: wood-fired pizza made with ingredients from the farm, local beer and wine, all in a beautiful bucolic setting where the kids can run around.
When we weren’t eating, we were enjoying the natural surroundings of the Mississippi River Valley (OK, sometimes we did both). Bald eagles rode the thermals above the bluffs behind our RV park, a dozen at a time. It was incredible to see some of these majestic birds up close at the National Eagle Center back across the river in Wabasha, Minnesota. Frontenac State Park was the perfect place to take a hike through the woods with a view of Lake Pepin, the widest naturally occurring stretch of the Mississippi. In the town of Alma we watched a barge pass through Lock and Dam No. 4, and had the thrill of standing on a pedestrian bridge while a long train rolled through.
After Nelson, we spent one overnight on our way to Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. The Wisconsin Dells is the water park capital of the world, but we didn’t let the kids know that. The largest water park in the US (!) was nearby, and Charlie could probably have written a thesis about it, but instead he played with his sister on the playground of a quiet RV park on a small lake, surrounded by trees. He’ll always have The Mall of America.