Books transport us to faraway fantasies and magical lands. They can also serve as travel guides to their settings. Here, 14 spring trips inspired by books, movies, and music.
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Every spring, the prairie blooms in tiny Walnut Grove—blooms with girls in calico dresses and bonnets. Their moms, and sometimes really game dads, bring them to retrace the steps of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. On the off-chance you haven’t read Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series or seen the ’70s-era television series—and yet are still reading this—Walnut Grove is where the Ingalls family lived in a dugout house on the banks of Plum Creek, just outside town.
Where to go
Drive Route 14, also known as Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway, from Mankato to Walnut Grove and use your imagination. You’ll get a sense of how daunting it was for pioneers to travel west across the treeless prairie, much less live here—hence houses made of sod. Few traces of the Ingalls family remain. There’s a good museum in Walnut Grove with replica buildings and objects from the Ingalls’ era, plus a large gift shop in which obsessive fans could easily drop a paycheck. But to really submerse yourself in the experience, go outside. A short walk gets you to the site of the family dugout on Plum Creek (the actual structure, about the size of a king mattress, caved in long ago). To get a feel for what this primitive lifestyle was like, visit the Sod House on the Prairie, a series of newly built sod structures in nearby Sanborn. Or wander into the grasslands adjoining the creek, where Laura, known as “half-pint” in the books, would get lost in grass so tall she’d have to call Pa to be rescued.
On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Also check out The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, in which the cheeky Little House devotee attempts to create “Laura World” by making Vanity Cakes and Long Winter bread, churning butter, and traveling to Laura sites across the Midwest, with unpredictably charming and insightful results.
In Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Ingalls Dugout Site, about a mile north of town (330 Eighth St., walnutgrove.org). In Sanborn, Sod House on the Prairie (12598 Magnolia Ave., sodhouse.org). The soddies were built by Stan McCone with antique tools. McClure calls the largest one “the Cadillac Escalade of sod houses”—it would’ve been a mansion to the Ingalls family.
Pack a picnic and eat at the dugout site next to Plum Creek, or grab a burger at Nellie’s Café in town (550 U.S. 14, 507-859-2384).
Lodging in these parts is as scarce as prairie chickens in a blizzard, especially during the Wilder Pageant (July 12-13, 19-20, 26-27). So make it a day trip, camp, find a motel in New Ulm, or keep moving west—to the Dakotas—as the Ingallses did. For prairie aficionados, combine this itinerary with the one to Blue Mound State Park, outlined below, and include a stop at Pipestone National Monument. The monument (a park, not a statue) offers a unique insight into the Native Americans who were living on the prairie when Laura arrived. Natives still live there today and quarry the area’s red stone, as they have since at least 1200, to make peace pipes (nps.gov/pipe/index.htm).
WANDA GÁG’S HIDEOUT
As he lay dying, Anton Gág made an odd request of his eldest daughter: to keep pursuing art, even as she supported her six siblings and mother. Wanda honored that wish 20 years later when she published Millions of Cats, the first modern picture book and still a hit with kids today.
➻ Where to go
The Gág house in New Ulm is interesting enough—its skylights, turrets, and attic-level studio reflect the family’s artistic flair. But the real draw comes from within: the house doubles as an exhibition space, featuring everything from displays on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 to paintings by Flavia Gág, the baby of the family. September marks the 85th anniversary of Millions of Cats, so expect something big (226 N. Washington St., wandagaghouse.org).
➻ Where to stay
New Ulm has a good amount of B&Bs and hotels to choose from, but the best of the bunch is Bingham Hall. There, plush robes, fine breakfasts, and handsome rooms are second only to the generous hospitality of the innkeepers (500 S. German St., bingham-hall.com).
FREDERICK MANFRED’S SIOUXLAND
In southwestern Minnesota, peering over the prairie from his six-foot-nine vantage, Frederick Manfred wrote 24 novels set in what he called Siouxland. Lord Grizzly was a finalist for the 1954 National Book Award. Scarlet Plume, a fictional recounting of the U.S.-Dakota War, is the Manfred novel most closely associated with the area.
➻ Where to go
Manfred’s estate is now the interpretative center in Blue Mound State Park, overlooking buffalo-dotted grasslands. From quartzite ridges, you can see into South Dakota and Iowa. Freya Manfred’s Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers, from 1999, is a poignant guide. Of the old house, she says, “The entire northern wall of the house was a low cliff of pink and purple Sioux quartzite. Sometimes small amounts of groundwater seeped out of it, and bull snakes found their way down its craggy face.”
➻ Where to stay
Camp in the park for the prairie experience. You can even stay in a tepee that sleeps six (dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/blue_mounds).