Stopover Suggestions in the Middle of America
December 19, 2017 4:09 PM   Subscribe

I am driving down from Toronto to a wedding that will be taking place in Louisville, Kentucky and Little Rock, Arkansas over the Christmas holidays. I have small kids and will need to stop the car every 90 minutes or so. Where are the best places to stop?

The rough itinerary has us going Toronto - Detroit - Louisville - Little Rock - Dallas - Little Rock - St. Louis - Chicago - Detroit - Toronto. I'm looking for interesting places to eat or things to see that are close to the highway. We've got 2 small kids, ages 3 and 6, so there will be frequent stops for going to the washroom and leg-stretching and I was hoping to make them at something more unique than a McDonalds.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Roadtrippers and AtlasObsura both have useful maps of weird/interesting roadside stuff.
posted by gregr at 4:23 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

St. Louis has a great Children's Museum (maybe has Play in the name, not sure) -- it postdates my time living there and fills me with envy. Not a pit stop, but worth a substantial visit for running around and blowing off car-ride energy!
posted by acm at 4:32 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Be advised that the drive between St. Louis and Chicago is one of the most spectacularly boring rides in the Midwest. I'm talking Lord, why hast thou forsaken me? boring. Even if you find a few fun stops to squeeze in, the drive itself is aggressively monotonous. Save a few arrows in your kiddo entertainment quiver for that leg of the trip.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 4:38 PM on December 19, 2017 [9 favorites]

You really have to go see the arch in St Louis. It's pretty amazing.

I would get some kid-friendly audiobooks for those long stretches of nothing - per DirtyOldTown, those roads are boooooring. And some good kid's music albums, but make sure to cap them at a couple of playbacks per day.

Detroit-Toronto I know well and it's also pretty aggressively dull. If you're taking the 401 the whole way maybe take a short swing off by Rondeau Provincial Park on Lake Erie? It would be a nice way to stretch your legs on the home stretch.
posted by GuyZero at 4:49 PM on December 19, 2017

St. Louis has the City Museum, which is the absolute best place in the world for kids, but good luck only staying there for a short visit.
posted by Mchelly at 4:50 PM on December 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

30 years later I still remember going to the Memphis riverwalk as a kid.
posted by AFABulous at 4:51 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Little Rock to Dallas is also a really dull ride with even less interesting roadside foods. But Crater of Diamonds SP is really cool if you don't mind going a tad out of your way.
posted by theweasel at 4:57 PM on December 19, 2017

Fair Oaks about an hour or two south of Chicago, maybe on your way back up from St Louis if you're on that route, is definitely fun for kids, whether you stop just for ice cream or for a whole tour of the farm, new calves, etc.
posted by velveeta underground at 5:10 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

St. Louis: the one and only Ted Drewes
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 5:12 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

A few ideas for the Michigan part of your trip:
Detroit - The Detroit Riverwalk is lovely, but if it's windy not very comfortable in December. If you do go, it is easier to get to if you take the tunnel rather than the bridge from Windsor. For indoor fun, I'd recommend the RenCen for a stop. Lovely views of the river and Canada from the atrium, some room to run around for the kids and a variety of places to eat. Relatively easy parking too.
Ann Arbor: Stop at Zingerman's Roadhouse for great food without having to navigate downtown Ann Arbor. Literally right off the freeway (I-94) on the west side of town. If you are willing to go a bit further, check out U of M's North Campus Wave Field, an "earth sculpture" by Maya Lin.
New Buffalo: On the way back from Chicago you could stop here to see Lake Michigan as you can reach the shore in just a few minutes from 94.
Kalamazoo: If you are a beer person at all, stop at Bell's
posted by thatquietgirl at 5:34 PM on December 19, 2017

You’ll drive through Ann Arbor on the way from Chicago to Detroit, and there’s a lot of fun stuff for kids here. If you are interested in a longer stop, the Hands on Museum is great. It’s near Zingerman’s Deli, which has fantastic sandwiches and is a super kid friendly place to eat (though on the pricey side). It’s order at the counter / they bring food to the table service, and I’ve eaten there with my toddler many times.

On preview, I agree that Zingerman’s Roadhouse is also a great option - kid friendly, easy parking. It shares a (giant!) parking lot with a branch of the Ann Arbor public library, which could be a good place for the kids to stretch their legs if it’s too cold to run around outside. That particular branch has a large children’s area that my toddler loves.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:38 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

While Ted Drewes is closed for the season, Crown Candy will be open. We did the City Museum and Crown candy for my birthday one year and it was amazing. Also, I was like 27, but I think 6 and 3 would also approve.

Does your event schedule require you to go back through AR? Because if I were driving, I'd loop back from Dallas to St. Louis by way of Oklahoma on the Roy Rogers parkway. There's some roadside prairie dog towns who you can feed cheetos, plus even if you're avoiding McDonalds you can't resist the WORLD'S BIGGEST MCDONALDS!

Well, you probably can. But I loved it when I was 6.
posted by theweasel at 5:39 PM on December 19, 2017

Mammoth Cave National Park is pretty close to I-65 between Louisville and Nashville.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:47 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

The children's museum in St. Louis is the Magic House. It's fun, but probably not worth the ticket price for such a quick visit.
posted by cpatterson at 6:25 PM on December 19, 2017

Ever been to a Bass Pro Shop? Well, even if you have and/or don’t care, there’s a great big pyramid right on the riverfront in Memphis that they’ve re-opened as a Bass Pro Shop. It costs $10 to go up the elevator to the top and walk around.

There’s also Graceland, Sun Studio, Beale Street, and a bunch of other stuff, but it’s farther away.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:48 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Kewpie Hamburgers in Lima, Ohio is about two hours south of Detroit. It's not right off the freeway, but it's worth stopping.

Two hours south of there is Cincinnati, and there was a recent Ask about things to do there. Depending on how much time you want to spend, there's either Jungle Jim's International Market, or many locations of Graeter's ice cream. Or Skyline/Gold Star Chili, if you're bold.

Mammoth Cave is right off the freeway about an hour south of Louisville. The entrance to the cave is only a couple minutes away from the parking lot, so you can get a pretty nice cave experience without stopping for more than a half hour.

St. Louis has a bunch of great stuff. Forest Park is beautiful year-round, but in the winter there's an outdoor ice rink. Quite charming. Fitz's Root Beer is nearby in the Loop and serves good food in addition to bottling the world's best root beer on site.

If you're into beer, the Bell's brewery is in Kalamazoo, between Chicago and Detroit.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:49 PM on December 19, 2017

On The chicago- Detroit leg you could stop in kalamazoo and go to the interactive children's museum. Stop at the crows nest for delicious food.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:00 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Does the Detroit > Louisville leg take you through Indianapolis? If so, Indy also has a top-notch children's museum.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:28 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

For the stretch between Chicago and Detroit: Warren Dunes State Park (huge sand dunes to run up and down and burn energy and lovely views of Lake Michigan) and Sarett Nature Center (indoor animal exhibits, outdoor nature play area, many trails including a treetop walkway) are both excellent kid stops.

And I see Bell's in Kalamazoo has been recommended which is fun but I prefer One Well Brewing for kids - they have a ton of games and are really family friendly (and super close to I-94).
posted by Empidonax at 7:22 AM on December 20, 2017

Little Rock is my hometown and I lived in Louisville for a few years. What strikes me is your plan to drive between the two via St. Louis rather than through Tennessee. If you find the trip south takes too long, consider returning via Memphis and Nashville. That route ostensibly has more kid-friendly rest stops and restaurants by virtue of being a well-traveled route through big cities. The Road Food website is a pretty wonderful resource for finding places to eat that aren't big national chains.

No matter which route you take, interstate driving in the American South (or in the U.S. generally) can be a bit depressing. If you're willing to hop off the interstate and take local highways to some destinations, you're more likely to find the small towns (and their soda shops and old cafes) that the Interstates bypassed. With a trip like the one you have planned, though, I'm guessing time is at a premium.

I'll be in Little Rock over the holiday, too, so feel free to get in touch if you need any suggestions while you're there.

Happy travels!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:00 AM on December 20, 2017

Mammoth Cave is a great stop, but you usually have to book tours a day in advance IIRC. A lot of the tours are > 2 hours so with small children it might be a bit of a gamble. There's one self-guided tour but I don't think they offer it at all times.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:10 AM on December 20, 2017

Ideas between Little Rock and Dallas: there's a cute, low-key children's museum in Commerce TX. It's nothing fancy, but my niece and nephews loved it:

Nearby in Sulphur Springs, TX, there's a fun looking dairy museum.

Hot Springs AR is a tourist town in need of some revitalization, but there are family-friendly restaurants and an interesting national park, if you need a longer break.

Between Louisville and Little Rock, it's a 20-minute detour near Jackson, TN to visit Pinson Mounds Archaeological Park. It's a really pretty little park with neat Indian mounds and your kids can run around.
posted by toastedcheese at 9:45 AM on December 20, 2017

So, between Little Rock and Texarkana, once you’ve passed Hot Springs heading southwest, there is a place called Hope. In addition to a 24-hour super Walmart, Hope also has the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site. It’s free. It’s a house. I never went when I lived near there, but as a quick stop it might be worthwhile.

If you check out Hot Springs instead, but still want to get a Bill Clinton fix, (and you didn’t go to his library in Little Rock), there is a truly bad mosaic portrait of him near one of the water fountains.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:00 PM on December 20, 2017

Response by poster: There are a lot of good suggestions here, thanks everyone. That Roadtrippers website is quite neat. Plugging in the leg between Detroit and Louisville it showed Kewpie Hamburgers and I thought that might be a good place to stop and kevinbelt's comment confirms that.

The trip from Louisville to Little Rock will go through Nashville and Memphis. It's on the way back from Little Rock to Toronto that we'll be going via St. Louis, and thanks to your input we'll probably be spending more time there then I originally planned (I just wanted to see the Gateway Arch).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:51 PM on December 20, 2017

Re: St. Louis
Don't take children under 5 to the City Museum. They will literally get lost in the walls- they will be able to crawl through small openings where you can't follow them, and they'll end up on a different floor in the Museum. It's a spectacular museum, but only for those kids you can trust to find you again. The Magic House is the right attraction for kids of your age group.

I took my 3-year-old to the St. Louis Arch with his grandparents in August. It is heavily under construction so we didn't get to see the museum displays; we were just able to do the tram ride up to the top. Definitely book your tickets online ahead of time.

On the way from Little Rock to St. Louis, Google says it's shorter to do the country roads through southern Missouri than to go up I-40 to I-55. I would seriously doubt that, and doubly so if it's there's even a little bit of precipitation. That is hilly country and the roads will be narrow and windy.
I recommend taking the interstate route instead, even if it's dull. And if you do that, you will go through the Missouri Bootheel and then hit Sikeston, which would make a very good lunch stop for you. Sikeston is home to Lambert's Cafe, the House of Throwed Rolls. They serve heavy southern-style cooking, but they're mostly famous because they throw your dinner roll at you from several feet away rather than serving it in a bowl. Kids will love it.

On the Illinois side of the river from St. Louis is the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which is the site of a huge pre-Columbian Native American city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Well worth a visit if the hours work with your schedule.
And if the weather is good, you could also consider the St. Louis Zoo, which has been rated the best free attraction in the country. It is open through the winter.

As far as regular stops with the kids, what you want to find are city parks with playgrounds. Practically every town in America has a city park with a playground, no matter how small or rural the town. And practically any Midwesterner will be happy to tell you which park is the best park and how to get there. When I'm traveling and I don't know where to go, I will ask waiters or gas station attendants or anyone who seems to live in the area. They'll throw a park name at you and that's enough that you can look up the directions on your phone after that.

Good luck!
posted by aabbbiee at 9:42 AM on December 21, 2017

Louisville to Little Rock is going to be a LONG HAUL to try for one day. Google says 7.5 hours, but I don’t see any way to do it in less than 9, even without little kids in tow.

Anyway, Memphis! We now have a very cool pedestrian walkway across the river called Big River Crossing. Which is about the coolest thing to do Downtown. And yes, The Bass Pro Shop in the pyramid is very very kid friendly and fun. If you stop here and the weather isn’t great, we have a good childrens museum with a newly restored antique carousel they would like. Central Barbeque Downtown would be a good option for lunch/dinner if you want to try Memphis style barbecue.
posted by raisingsand at 8:13 AM on December 22, 2017

I agree that Louisville to Little Rock is a bit of a slog-- we recently did similar and were exhausted by the end, without any big diversions.

On the way between Detroit and Louisville, I'd recommend Columbus, Indiana. It's known for its architecture, but is also a charming little town with nice food options, and has "family fun" options in that link. We really enjoyed stopping there for lunch on our way from Louisville to Michigan.

Louisville itself is a great city, we usually stop there for a break on our trips in the area. We always end up in what I guess is called NuLu, this time we ate at Royal's Chicken, which we both really enjoyed. Lots of independent casual restaurants and shops, and easy to get in and out of downtown.
posted by lettezilla at 8:34 AM on December 24, 2017

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