The annual road trip MN to IL: Bucket list edition

Do you have a route that you travel so often you get from point A to point B without even realizing it? The road trip from St. Paul, Minnesota to Central Illinois is that route for us. We have lived in Minnesota for close to 11 years now and with my family living in Illinois where I grew up we do the long eight hour drive several times a year.
Each time we pass by the same little towns, the same site markers, and the same wooded areas. Perhaps the first few trips I looked out the windows with wonder and took note of possible stops, but after realize how the day is going to be, stopping for anything other than gas or a potty break seems out of the question.
Things are changing though and the blinders are coming off and the eyes of wonder will open once more. On this last trip between my two homes I took note of things I’ve been ignoring for years and finally started that list of stops:
Miniature clowns at Circus World in Baraboo Wisconsin
Although I certainly don’t agree with how circus animals were treated in the past I do remember going to several as a kid. Long before our time the circus had its hay day. For some towns the traveling circus was the only form of entertainment for several months and an event that was not to be missed.

This museum brings that magic to life again and this year you can visit the big top for a 1950s inspired show: Doo Wop Big Top! You can see several 19th and early 20th century circus wagons that have been restored to their former glory, an amazing exhibit on the Ringling bros, remnants of old P.T Barnum side shows, a gorgeous collection of original circus posters, and 10 or the original winter quarters for the Ringling circus where they would come post tour each year to repair, paint, and practice for their next tour.
I’m fascinated by the history of this place and am sure I could spend several hours taking it all in.
I will gladly drive out of my way for good food, especially a good slice of pie so when I saw they had opened a Norske Nook in Osseo right on our route it got put on the list. Each crust is rolled by hand on-site and these pies are blue ribbon winners – as in, blue ribbons from the National Pie Championship held annually in Florida (possible future trip?).
Besides pie, I have heard locals rave about their breads, lefse, and Swedish meatballs.  Goodbye fast food, hello glorious Norwegian comfort foods.
I have always heard that the Dells has a little bit for everyone, but I never guessed they had a little place full of weirdness and wonderment quite like this. The website describes it as a love child of “the circus, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the Smithsonian Institute, and Madam Tussaud’s”.
How could I not check it out?!? If you’ve been there let us know what you thought.
This is one I’ve always felt guilty about because I lived 18 years of my life in Illinois and this is one of the most historic and beautiful places in the state, yet I never visited.
Although the name is derived from a sorrowful legend, this park is full of history, stories of hope and survival, and natural beauty that outlasts any human footprint. There is a lot to do here so it might have to be broken out over several trips or woven into a longer stay in Illinois. The visitor’s center provides the background on the park and its place in local history with replicas of the fort that once existed at the park, a Native American wigwam to demonstrate how natives lived hundreds of years ago, and a 400 gallon aquarium full of fish found in the Illinois River.
Outside of the center there are plenty of hiking trails for bird watching, especially the large eagle population, botanical tours, and hikes to the beautiful waterfalls and canyons that draw visitors from all over. You can hike on your own, take a guided hike, or enjoy one of the trolley or boat tours. You could fill a whole day here so we might have to weave this into a longer trip to Illinois instead of as a pit stop on our drive.
And can I just say I found so many weird things to put on my visit list for Wisconsin while writing this. Check out this list from Atlas Obscura!

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