Fall Foliage & Family Trip 2021 | Omaha, Nebraska to Mille Lacs Lake, MN | Visiting Hawkeye Point, Plum Creek, Redwood Falls, and Birch Coulee Battlefield | October 7-8, 2021
Four days after returning home from Montana, we packed up the car once again and set off on another vacation. I know, it’s getting kind of ridiculous at this point. We really didn’t start off 2021 thinking that we would be traveling quite this much, we just thought we’d take advantage of the 4 weeks Curtis had off between each class of his master’s program throughout the year by going on a few road trips or backpacking adventures. Then the family vacation and work trips just happened to work out with our schedule and were too good to turn down. We had started planning a fall foliage trip for October over Curtis’ fall break a while back, not knowing we’d end up going to Montana the week before. The idea of more long drives and camping in the cold for another week might have been a bit too much had we not planned this trip around visiting family as well. Knowing we’d have an even ratio of time spent relaxing with family and road tripping, we remained excited for this trip and confidently called it our last vacation of the year.
Wanting to break up driving days as much as we could, we ended up leaving a day earlier than planned just to get a head start and knock off the first three hours. We crossed into Iowa and began with heading North on I-29. The colors of the trees in the nearby Loess Hills had only begun to change, and we were confident that we would be home before the peak of fall happened here. When we reached Sioux City, we began driving Northeast on IA-60.
We made our first stop in Orange City to see the Sioux county courthouse. Upon arriving in the city, we saw parks and signs advertising an annual tulip festival occurring every spring — we’ll save that idea away for next spring. We went for a short walk around the courthouse, and everything about it was perfect — the setting sun cast a golden light, the streets were quiet, the temperature was comfortable and we knew that at least tonight we would have a dry and warm night for camping.
Our next stop was for the Osceola county courthouse in Sibley. At this point, the sun was dipping below the horizon and the clouds were lit up in golden and pink light. I was disappointed we weren’t at a more scenic spot to enjoy it, but that would simply give us motivation to wake up early and see the sunrise at our intended campsite instead. We were also a little concerned that our hunt for a campsite would be similar to what we experienced over Labor Day weekend when everything catered to RVs and most sites were occupied, but thankfully that wasn’t the case today. We got a spot exactly where we wanted to be — in the campground across the road from Hawkeye Point, Iowa’s high point. There were about 15-20 sites and only two were occupied, so we claimed a spot and set up camp. We then walked in the dark over to the high point, even though we planned on doing so for sunrise, just because we thought it’d be fun to claim three summits on this high point.
The campground is pretty nice, and even had heated bathrooms with running water and showers, and was $10 for tent campers. The only down side was that it’s right off of IA-60 which still sees a decent amount of traffic throughout the night.
The next morning, we rose before dawn and made our way back over to the high point. There was a dense morning fog that obscured the sunrise, but it caused the area to have a light pink hue.
We continued our drive North into Minnesota through the morning fog. We drove by the courthouses in Worthington and Slayton on US-59, neither of which were very interesting, then cut across to Walnut Grove on county roads. We had just discovered the night before that we would be driving near a Laura Ingalls Wilder historic site, and just had to stop and see. We couldn’t tour the museum in Walnut Grove since we had Charlotte, but we were able to visit the site of the actual dugout home where the Ingalls family lived for two years in the 1870s. Their time here is recorded in Laura’s book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek.” While the actual dugout caved in years ago, it is obvious where it was located because of a sign and roped off area, as well as the depression in the slope. Plum Creek still runs through the area, though it has flooded and likely changed course since then. I was so excited to be able to see this area, Laura Ingalls Wilder was my favorite author as a child and it feels like I’m living out a childhood fantasy of visiting the sites of places where she lived. (Prior to this, I have been to the hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa with my family in middle school, and Curtis and I saw Almonzo Wilder’s homestead in Upstate New York in 2016.) This stop then led me to search for all her other sites spread across the Midwest and star them on Google Maps so that we won’t miss other sites if we happen to be in those areas. There should really be a national historic trail for these sites, in my opinion!
Back on the road, we took US-14 East to US-71 and then North to Redwood Falls. We saw another courthouse, then went for a short walk to see the Chanshayapi River Falls. We thought we would go to another county park on the North Bank of the Minnesota River to see some more waterfalls, but when we got there we realized that the falls weren’t as impressive and we didn’t have enough cell reception to navigate to any trails. Instead we continued on to Birch Coulee Battlefield for some more walking off of US-71.
Curtis: Over a decade before the Last Sioux War and the Ingalls family would travel through Minnesota, the Santee Sioux – cousins of the Lakota tribes of the upper Missouri – had made deals with the US Government giving up much of their ancestral land in Western Minnesota, limiting themselves to the Minnesota River Valley and a forced agrarian lifestyle. In 1862, with the US Government embroiled in its own war and strapped for cash, the Santee found themselves at the short end of a stick when the Indian Bureau could not/refused to give out supplies and foodstuffs. The Santee Mdwekanton chief, Little Crow, had an impossible time keeping his young warriors in control and soon, petty crimes gave way to murders which gave way to open warfare with Little Crow having multiple early successes near the Lower Agency.
Unable to call upon the regular soldiers, the Governor of Minnesota formed a militia under Colonel Sibley, a long time fur trader, to sweep up the Minnesota River and cull the tribes. Sibley successfully broke the siege of Fort Ridgely and made the fort his central head quarters. In late August, 1862, Sibley sent out a force to attempt and find and bury some of the dead from previous battles. On their return, this force made camp North of the Minnesota amid the prairie near a ravine known as Birch Coulee, unknowingly near a force of 200 some Santee warriors. The Santee surrounded the camp and made a dawn assault on the camp. Unable to completely overwhelm the burial detail, the Santee instead laid siege on the wagon circle for almost 24 hours until Sibley was able to come to their rescue from Fort Ridgely, 16 miles down river.
Ultimately, like most of the Indian Wars, the Santee eventually were unable to continue fighting. The tribes were divided, the US Army more organized, and winter was coming. By the end of September, Little Crow was forced to surrender and most of his tribe was imprisoned, with many of the men sentenced to death by hanging. But in an act of clemency by President Lincoln, of the 303 condemned only 38 met the gallows in Mankato – though it was still the largest single execution in US history.
We walked around the prairie reading the signs while Charlotte chased the ever abundant grasshoppers. It is a very well preserved site likely very similar to how it would have appeared 150 years ago.
Satisfied with our walks and history for the day we pushed on with a few more hours of driving: traveling up US-71 to Wilmar and from there MN-23 to Milaca seeing courthouses in Renville, Kandiyohi, and Stearns counties. We drove North from Milaca to Mille Lacs Lake where we found a quiet campsite in the Mille Lacs Kathio State Park along the south shore. We had thought about kayaking in one of the smaller outflow lakes of Mille Lac (the wind was simply to high to kayak on that large of a lake) but found that Ogechie Lake was very dry. Instead we took a walk through the colorful foliage along Ogechie Lake reading about the pre-historic cultures that called this place home.