Sometimes we forget how much smaller cities and towns have to offer—not least of which is the chance to slow down for at least a day or so. When my kids were small and we lived in Chicago, we made it a tradition to head out of the city in fall (to pick pumpkins) and again at the holidays (to chop down our own Christmas tree). The kids have never forgotten those forays.
I spent a few days in Rockford, Ill., recently for a travel writers' conference and it gave me the chance to catch up with folks from across the Midwest. Chatting with them made me realize—once again—how much smaller Midwestern cities and towns have to offer families. Here are 12 tips for finding family travel fun in the Midwest this fall:
1. Find a dinosaur. Who knew the small city of Rockford, Ill., a little more than an hour from Chicago, is home to Jane, the most complete juvenile T-Rex (about 11 years old, scientists estimate) and Homer, the most complete adolescent Triceratops. He's seven feet tall and weighed more than two tons! You can visit them both at the Burpee Museum of Natural History.
2. Conquer a corn maze. The world's largest corn maze, winding through 33 acres of corn, is at Richardson's Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, Ill.
3. Pick Apples In Wisconsin. The Bayfield Apple Festival, is touted as one of the country's top fall festivals, while Center Creek Orchard in Fairmont, Minn., hosts a fall festival every weekend with hay rides, scarecrow building and pick your own apples. Minnesota grows more than two dozen kinds of apples.
4. Find your own pumpkins to carve in a giant field. Eighty-five percent of the nation's pumpkins come from near Peoria, Ill. Visit Ackerman Farms in Morton, Ill., which supplies Libby's food company with the pumpkin that many of us use for pumpkin pies. Come in October for the Punkin' Chuckin' contests where a catapult slings giant pumpkins at a target.
5. Count all the colors on the trees. The travel promoters from Travel Wisconsin even has a Fall Color Report to track fall foliage changes from across the street.)
6. Watch the migrating seabirds in Great Bend. In this Kansas town, take the kids to see the seabirds as they track along the state's Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway.
7. Design your own tractor. While you're at it, you can also climb up into giant farm machines at the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Ill.
8. Drive a huge truck down a mine. It's all done via a simulator at the new Caterpillar Visitor Center in Peoria, Ill., where there's an entire hands-on area for younger kids.
9. Celebrate everything trains. The Illinois Railway Museum, located in Union, Ill., is the country's largest railway museum. If you have kids who love Thomas the Tank Engine, they'll love the collection of steam, diesel and electric locomotives, passenger and freight cars. Teens will love Terror on the Railroad that lets you take a ride on the possessed Screamliner.
10. Visit a farm or cheese factory in Wisconsin. More than 600 varieties of cheese are made in this state, more than any other state. Large numbers of Swiss immigrants came to Wisconsin in the 19th century bringing their cheese-making prowess with them. The town of Monroe is considered the nation's Swiss cheese capital and is home to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center. (Cap off a Wisconsin visit with a stop in the Wisconsin Dells, the water park capital of the world. There are plenty of indoor water play areas.
11. Pick some cranberries. Besides cheese, I was surprised to learn that Wisconsin is the national leader in cranberry farming, producing more than half the cranberries Americans eat. Visit the Cranberry Discovery Center in Warrens, Wis., drive the Cranberry Highway or come for the Warrens Cranberry Festival, the largest, they boast, in the country with parades, tours of the cranberry bogs, contests and good eats.
12. Learn about the Amish way of life. For this Amish adventure, head to Grabill, Ind., near Fort Wayne where you also don't want to miss the chance to eat the biggest caramel apple you've ever seen at DeBrand Fine Chocolates —after you take a factory tour, of course.
Don't get me wrong. I love big Midwest cities, too—like Chicago, from which my "Kids Guide to Chicago" will be out before the holidays—but you'll be amazed what you and the kids will discover outside the cities.