If you’re a fan of the “Little House on the Prairie” books or television show based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a road trip to visit the sites where she lived is a really neat experience. The best places to visit are in Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.
I read the entire book series to my kids, and soon after finishing the last book, we headed out for a weekend adventure to Walnut Grove, Minnesota and De Smet, South Dakota. It was a delightful time that immersed us in some cool history. I hope, after reading further, you’re inspired to take this road trip yourself.
LAURA INGALLS WILDER: A 2-DAY ROAD TRIP PLAN
|Day 1 – Afternoon||De Smet, South Dakota: Wilder homestead|
|Day 1 – Evening||Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant (De Smet)|
|Day 2 – Morning||De Smet, South Dakota: Wilder sites in town|
|Day 3 – Afternoon||Walnut Grove, Minnesota and Plum Creek|
De Smet, South Dakota: Wilder Homestead (Day 1 – Afternoon)
The “Little Town on the Prairie” of De Smet, South Dakota has a number of attractions to visit that showcase the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. To start, arrive just one mile southeast of town at the 160 acres of land that Charles Ingalls homesteaded. (Address: 20812 Homestead Road). There is so much to do and see on the 1880s historical farm that you can easily spend an entire afternoon there. (Note: it’s only open from April to October).
What to see on the homestead
First, check out replicas of the homes that the Ingalls family lived in, and their barn.
What to do on the homestead
The amount of things to do on the homestead is truly impressive. Kids can try hands-on activities from pioneer life like drawing water from a pump, twisting hay, wheat grinding, making ropes, creating corn cob dolls, pushing an antique lawn mower, sewing on a machine, and washing clothes with a washboard and then hanging them on the clothes line.
After that, visitors can head to the barn.
Here, kids have the opportunity to hold the reins and drive a team of horses pulling a covered wagon out to a schoolhouse.
At the schoolhouse, a teacher reenacts a lesson for the kids and one of them is selected to pull the big rope to ring the school’s bell indicating that class is dismissed.
The wagon ride back is a peaceful trip that allows you to experience the sights and sounds of prairie life as the breeze blows across the farmland.
Back at the barn, kids can play with ponies as they roam nearby, and also ride a horse (free with admission).
After leaving the homestead, head just a couple miles southwest of town to the cemetery. It is another peaceful setting; up on a hilltop with mature trees and beautiful views of the Ingalls’ homestead and the “big slough” that Laura wrote about in her books. Charles, Caroline, Mary, Carrie, Grace, and Laura’s infant son are all buried here. (Laura and Almanzo are buried in Mansfield, MO).
Walking around the cemetery, you can see gravestones of friends and neighbors of the Wilder’s who were mentioned in the books and portrayed in the TV series.
Wilder Pageant (Day 1 – Evening)
The perfect way to end the day is at the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant. Be sure to plan your visit to De Smet during one of the weekends in July so you can attend it. 2021 marks the 50th year anniversary of this “theater on the prairie” depicting Laura’s life.
Advanced tickets are not necessary thanks to plenty of seating. The show starts at 8:00 p.m. but arrive early for free wagon rides, entertainment, and concessions.
Behind the “stage” is the Ingalls’ homestead. Charles planted the 5 cottonwood trees for his wife and 4 daughters that you can see are still standing today (left side of the picture).
Where to stay near De Smet
As far as where to stay, there really aren’t a whole lot of options due to the fact that De Smet is a small town of only about 1,100 people. In my opinion, the best choice is one of the bed & breakfasts in town since most have historical significance. There are hotels, motels, and camping available too.
I visited on a pageant weekend and all the area B & Bs and hotels and motels were booked already, so we stayed at the Arlington Inn about 25 minutes away in Arlington, SD. This hotel was as basic as they come, but it worked for just the one night.
Camping is an option though, too. In fact, there are a few tent and RV sites right on the Ingalls homestead. You can even reserve one of the covered wagons to stay in, or a bunkhouse!
De Smet: Wilder Historic Sites in Town (Day 2 – Morning)
On your second day in De Smet, spend your morning visiting the sites in town. To begin, pick up a souvenir at The Loftus Store (address: 205 Calumet Ave SW). It is one of two original buildings on main street from the 1800s. Laura frequently wrote about this store in her “Little House” books.
Next, head to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. You’ll find the original surveyors’ house that Laura and her family first lived in when they arrived in De Smet (address: 105 Olivet Ave SE).
Plus, you’ll get to tour the original first school of De Smet that Laura and her sister, Carrie, attended.
And, you can enter a replica of the Brewster School that Laura taught at one winter (and hated!).
Finally, from there head just a few blocks west for a visit to the house that Charles built in town for he and Ma, completed in 1889. Mary, Carrie and Grace also lived there for a period of time. Carrie was married in the parlor.
If you still have some time, drive a couple miles out of De Smet to Almanzo and Laura’s homestead and tree claim on Highway 25. It is also where Rose Wilder was born. Just a historical marker sign stands there today, however.
A walking trail to Silver Lake, located just east of De Smet is another nice stop. Silver Lake was the site of the surveyor’s shanty before it got moved into town next to the other Wilder historical buildings.
Walnut Grove, Minnesota: Plum Creek (Day 2 – Afternoon)
After leaving De Smet, drive two hours straight east to Walnut Grove, Minnesota for more Laura Ingalls Wilder sites. The museum in town is a great first stop. With a total population of under 700 people, it won’t be hard to find (address: 330 8th Street).
The museum’s collections are located in a number of places including a chapel, schoolhouse, covered wagon, and more. Fans of the TV show will enjoy seeing some of the pictures and memorabilia from visits by the stars who played Ma, Mary, Carrie, Mrs. Oleson, Nellie Olson, Doc Baker, and Almanzo.
Finally, head just 1.5 miles north of town to the site of the Ingalls’ dugout home on the banks of Plum Creek. Laura lived here for two years (1874 – 1876), starting when she was 7 years old (address: 13501 County Road 5).
Just a depression exists now where the dugout house once was. A replica of it exists at the museum in Walnut Grove.
Take the time to explore the paths along the creek and just imagine what it was like for Laura and her family to live here. Personally, I found it a very beautiful, peaceful place. Course, we were here in the summer; I can imagine it was a tough place to survive in the cold, Minnesota winters.
Walnut Grove also has a pageant every July. The hillside amphitheater is constructed for some neat special effects.
More time to see Laura Ingalls Wilder sites?
- Pepin, Wisconsin: the birthplace of Laura; you can tour a log cabin replica of the “Little House in the Big Woods” and more.
- Independence, Kansas: visit a one-room replica of the log home that Pa built, and Laura wrote about in her book “Little House on the Prairie.”
- Burr Oak, Iowa: the Masters Hotel where Laura briefly lived with her family is still on the original site today.
- Mansfield, Missouri: tour Rocky Ridge Farm and see the writing desk where Laura penned her books, as well as Pa’s fiddle, Mary’s Braille slate, and other family keepsakes. The gravesites of Laura, Almanzo and Rose are just a few miles away.
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