Rochester is in the heart of Laura Ingalls Wilder country. Whether you refer to it as Highway 14 or the Beltline, it is also “officially” known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway. Did you know Pa, Ma, Laura, Mary, and Carrie traveled through our town before the Mayo Brothers put Rochester on the map?
Even if you didn’t grow up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, here’s a great opportunity to introduce your family to this historical “celebrity” who grew up in our region.
You don’t need to read all the books cover to cover. But a little exposure to Laura’s stories can make the visits even more meaningful. We read several Laura books before we began visiting the sites. Additionally, we listened to audiobooks from the Rochester Public Library while traveling to Laura sites to fully immerse ourselves in the experience. While listening to By the Shores of Silver Lake, we even spotted pelicans just as Laura described them in the book!
Little Road Trip on the Prairie: Your Guide to Laura Ingalls Wilder
Approximately 60 miles northeast on Highway 42
Pepin is the setting of Ingalls’ first book in the “Little House” series, Little House in the Big Woods. A museum, gift shop, and a reconstructed “little house” at the site of Laura’s birth make this a great start to your Laura adventure.
While it’s a quick seven mile drive from little cabin in the big woods to town, imagine taking the wagon. Going to town was a special treat for Laura and Mary.
Lunch options range from the Harbor View Café (a splurge but the halibut is so yummy) to the Homemade Café (did someone say pie?) to a picnic lunch on the shores of Lake Pepin (Ma served bread and butter, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and cookies). Take time to wander along the shore and collect pebbles. Just don’t be greedy like Laura and take so many that you rip your pocket!
The house at Laura’s birth site is open year round and is free; however, the museum in Pepin has an entrance fee and is only open mid-May through mid-October.
This day trip could easily be an add-on to a trip to Lark Toys in a Kellogg or to Wabasha to visit the National Eagle Center. If you want to take an alternative route home, head to Lake City before returning to Rochester.
Burr Oak, IA
Approximately 60 miles south on Highway 52
Burr Oak was the home of the Ingalls family from 1876-1877. Pa managed the Masters Hotel, which is now the site of the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. Laura’s sister Grace was born in here in 1877.
Laura skipped over the family’s time here in her books; some refer to this time as the missing years or the dark years. Others say she just felt the short time here did not flow with her storyline.
The Burr Oak experience begins in the visitor center, once the home to the Burr Oak Savings Bank. Guides will then lead you on a tour of the Masters Hotel. After the tour you can wander through the cemetery or walk along Silver Creek, two things Laura did during her time here.
Dining options are limited. If you want to eat out, head on over to Decorah for a meal before returning to Rochester.
The museum in Burr Oak has an entrance fee and is open May 1 through mid-October.
Spring Valley, MN
Approximately 27 miles south on Highway 63
Almanzo Wilder’s family settled here in 1870 when he was a teenager. Laura and “Manly” lived in Spring Valley from 1890-91 and attended Spring Valley Methodist Church, site of the museum. While Almanzo’s childhood in New York is chronicled in Farmer Boy, this museum gives you a glimpse into the Wilder family’s life when they first settled in Minnesota.
The church museum is open daily June through August and has an admission fee.
Nothing says summer in Minnesota like a trip to Dairy Queen. Stop by the Spring Valley DQ for a dilly bar or a blizzard before heading back to Rochester.
Walnut Grove, MN
Approximately 160 miles west on Highway 14
This nearly 3 hour drive is either a day trip for the highly ambitious or a potential overnight. We visited this site as the first stop of a longer road trip that included De Smet and Mount Rushmore.
For lovers of the television show, Little House on the Prairie, the town of Walnut Grove is where all the Laura action took place. But really, this town is the setting for the book, On the Banks of Plum Creek.
The museum and a drive out to Plum Creek (which was nearly flooded when we visited; truly the book coming to life before our eyes!) and a hike to see the original dugout site make this a great day of Laura fun.
We ate lunch at Nellie’s: the Little Café on the Prairie. Try the Nellie burger (order it with “the works” because just like Nellie, it has EVERYTHING!).
The museum is open April through October and has an admission fee.
325 miles west on Highway 90, then north on Highway 29
We went west toward De Smet after a day in Walnut Grove, stopping overnight in Brookings, SD. We had a great time at the The museum is open. The next morning we headed to De Smet.
De Smet, South Dakota was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home for nearly 20 years. It is the setting for five of her “Little House” books (By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter,Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years). Between the actual town and the homestead, there are enough activities for a day or more!
In town you can visit the Surveyors’ House and “the house that Pa built” and see numerous Laura artifacts.
The sites in De Smet have an admission fee and are open year round.
The Ingalls Homestead is truly a living history farm. You can twist hay and grind wheat just like the Ingalls family did during their suffering in The Long Winter. You can help drive a covered wagon out to the schoolhouse. Then don some pioneer clothes and “attend” school. But the highlight, must not miss activity, is sleeping overnight in a covered wagon. We cooked dinner and breakfast over a campfire. My son even napped in the covered wagon!
The homestead is open late April through October and has an admission fee.
If you use the acronym LHOP, you are a diehard Laura Ingalls Wilder fan who will run out the door this minute to visit all things Laura before the sun goes down. That’s me. Or maybe you are a bit more, um, “restrained” in your affection for Little House on the Prairie (using the more leisurely spelled-out title), in which case you will have fun choosing which one of these LHOP-themed (oops), I mean Little House on the Prairie-themed sites to visit this summer.