We took a family minivan vacation this weekend in Southwest Minnesota. Neither of us was familiar with the area, or any of our destinations, and there was very little critical information available on the interwebs -- travel plans were made on a "this sounds good" basis. Since I've got this blogging platform, with a demographic of hip parents with young kids, I thought I'd put in my (positive!) recommendations for this SW-MN weekend tour.
Our chosen destinations -- the Jeffers Petroglyphs and the End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum -- are both within reasonable driving distance from New Ulm. Twin Citians will appreciate New Ulm for being "the closest thing to civilization" in this area of Minnesota. Alternatively, we stayed at Fort Ridgely State Park and had a great time; Lake Shetek State Park is technically much closer though. And since I assume you got your State Parks Permit when you donated to Minnesota Public Radio, your parking fee will be covered at either place.
For your convenience, here's a map of the area with the various locations I've mentioned highlighted:
View SW-MN weekend vacation in a larger map
As far as eating lunch, it doesn't matter what your tastes are -- there simply aren't that many towns to stop at in the area. We saw a place called The Loose Moose in Westbrook, but didn't go inside. Pack a picnic.
So, first off, the Jeffers Petroglyphs are thousands of Native American drawings carved in the quartzite rock on the ground, each anywhere from 7000 to 250 years old. Apparently any one carving has a temperamental ease of viewing; time of day, level of sunlight, and weather have an effect on what you'll be able to see. We got there shortly after the Interpretive Center opened at 10 A.M. (by the way, it closes at 5 P.M. -- but signage on the premises suggests that you're trusted to view the site whenever you want) and received nearly the entire spectrum of Minnesota summertime weather while we were there:
Your guide will happily point out many of the notable carvings, but the ones you remember will be the ones that pop out at you on their own. I found a "cyclops" man that, according to my son, looks like my tattoo (the tour guide said that the round head with a single, central eye signifies "wisdom"):
There was another cyclops in a busy scene of other figures; the guide suggested that the whole image may be the recording of an inner spiritual drama in which a man "kills his boy spirit so that his man spirit may survive":
OR, according to the sign, it's a celestial chart:
This turtle was so clear that even a four-year-old could (and did!) see it:
But Ez's favorite petroglyph animal was the Thunderbird. This carving (below) was pretty clear. You'll see an arrow coming down from its neck and pointing to its heart; the guide said that this was an indicator, that could be put on any animal, to communicate that the artist considered that animal to be his/her spirit guide.
So, before we left, Ez had to get some Thunderbird bling:
Next up: the End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum in Currie. I honestly can't remember how I found the website for this place, but I marked it as a "maybe/probably" on our itinerary. From now on I'd mark it as "we're goin'."
If End-O-Line was anywhere near the Twin Cities, we'd put it along with the Science Museum and both zoos as a guaranteed fallback plan for weekend activites. I even like it better than the Duluth train museum; rather than feeling like you're creeping around in somebody's grandpa's basement, you're out in a very well-maintained park, hopping from one "old-fashion" (Ez's new favorite term) building or train car to the next.
End-O-Line is a staunch preserver of hobo culture
Ez as old-fashion schoolteacher
The whole "museum" forms a circle of buildings (including a schoolhouse, a church, a general store, and a mill) around a picnic area and train-themed playground: so if you've run out of steam well before your kid, you can just sit down and let him entertain himself for a while. The extremely non-mopey teenagers that staff the place are even willing to give your kids a spin on the replica turntable.
By the way, while you're in the area you'll notice Historical Marker signs pointing you to Harkin's General Store, just northwest of New Ulm. We checked it out. It's not worth it. I can't imagine a single scenario in which the $5 per person admission fee won't feel like a total rip-off. If you're really, really into "living history" general stores, set up to look like they did in the days of Minnesota's early statehood, you've already seen one at End-O-Line.