Frugal Family Fun in the American Midwest

Some folks consider the American Midwest p-r-e-t-t-y boring.  In their minds, it has little culture, no historical significance, no mountains with ski resorts and no beaches for swimming or surfing.  However, those of us who grew up here and live here still, find frugal family fun activities galore.

Here are a few of my favorite things to do with the family in Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri.

Presidential Provenance

Did you know that seven of the eleven presidential libraries are in the Midwest, with three of them in these states?


Visit the Truman library and the Historic Truman home that he and Bess lived in; and the farm home where Harry lived as a young man  for only $12 per adult and $3 per child. Located in Independence Missouri, just off Interstate 70.   While you are in the area, visit Historic Independence Square and tour a couple of mansions.


Visit Abilene, KS  to tour the Dwight D. Eisenhower library, museum and his boyhood home for a total of about $10 per adult.  While you are there, checkout the other museums in the 5 star museum district.  The Chisholm trail ended in Abilene, and it was the largest cow town west of Kansas City.  Wild Bill Hickok was marshal there for a brief time.


Go to Little Rock, AR to see Clinton’s library and museum.  For about $7 per adult and $3 per child you can see 3 floors of museum exhibits. I haven’t seen this one myself yet!

Scenic Sojourns

For the price of gas, you can enjoy enchanting Midwest scenery.

Flint Hills National Geographic scenic byway.

Follow Hwy 177 south from Manhattan KS to see  the Flint Hills up close and personal. Visit the  town of Council Grove where the US commissioners and the Osage Indians reached agreement to allow safe passage along the Santa Fe trail. Have lunch at the oldest continuously operating restaurant west of the Mississippi – the Hays House. Continue south, enjoying the grasslands and scenic rolling hills tothe Tallgrass Prairie reserve and actually hike in the Flint Hills after you tour the Historic Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch.  Keep following Highway 77 into Cottonwood Falls KS to see historic Chase County Courthouse, the oldest courthouse in continuous use in Kansas. Folks come from around the country to see the impressive limestone structure.  Your kids will especially like the jail upstairs.

The geographic center of the contiguous states is in Lebanon Kansas.  If you are in the area, drive by just to say you were there!

Route 66

Route 66 winds its way from Chicago through Illinois, Missouri, a corner of Kansas, on down into Oklahoma, then across into New Mexico, Arizona and winds up in California.

According to Route 66 Roadtrip – this is “The Mother Road”.  They say “Route 66 is about getting off the interstate and slowing down to discover a different America, the one you find in 24-hour diners, historic gas stations, desert sunrises, mountain roads, mom-and-pop motels, old roadhouses and biker bars. The roads small town ambiance with roadside attractions will make you appreciate a time when getting there was half the fun. It’s about classic neon, museums, ghost towns, ghosts, artists, history, gorgeous scenery, wild burros, small towns, deserts, cool photo opportunities, classic cars and nostalgia. It’s about those trying to capture a moment of time gone by. Get your kicks on Route 66.”

My parents took us on a car trip each summer and Route 66 played a major role in most of those.  This was the major east-west highway in the country and we usually went west!

Ozark Highway Scenic Byway

Travel 35 miles of rugged, twisting Arkansas highland roads through the Ozark mountains.  Stop off at the Alum Cover recreation area, ditch the car and hike over to the Alum Natural Bridge – a 130-foot natural bridge carved from solid rock by wind, rain and ice. From this byway, you can launch a monster hike on the 170 mile long Ozarks Mountain Trail.  Finish your ride by driving on up to Eureka Springs to explore the quaint old town with scads of unique shopping experiences and hilly old town architecture.

This one is on my to do list!

Olde Towns

Practically every rural town in the Midwest has an old town section with charming main street architecture and quiet mid America hospitality. Here are a few of my own favorites.  For the price of gas, and perhaps a meal or trinket you can enjoy a full day of family exploration.

Weston, MO

Historic downtown Weston offers shops, wineries, a tobacco barn, restaurants and antique venues among the gently rolling hills of northwest Missouri.  In the mid-nineteenth century, this river port was a big player on the Missouri river, second only to St. Louis and at the time, larger than Kansas City.  Stay in one of the historic bed and breakfast Inns, visit wineries or the McCormick Distillary.

Historic St. Charles

St. Charles was founded in 1769 by the French, the first capital of Missouri, the starting point of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and in the home neighborhood of Daniel Boone.  Visit historic main street, the early commercial center of the area, right alongside the Missouri river to shop at art gallery’s, specialty shops and find great restaurants. Right outside of St. Louis, just off Interstate 70 you find this quiet oasis of restored historical buildings.  Take a two hour detour south to visit Daniel Boone’s home in Defiance, Missouri.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas – a “Victorian Mountain Village”

This town is built on and into the hills and has wonderful old architecture, lots of specialty shops and art studios as well as restaurants and bars.  Visit the Palace Hotel & Bath House, built in 1901.  Here in the historic bath house, you can “indulge in the soothing bliss of a whirlpool mineral bath, clay mask, and massage therapy, soak in original clawfoot tubs, and enjoy a eucalyptus steam treatment in the same wood barrels our world travelers used at the turn of the century.”.

Hikes and Bikes

There are many, many places to hike and bike in mid-America, but these two are outstanding – and free.

Katy Trail

The Katy Trail is an unbroken, 225-mile rail-trail running from St. Charles, Missouri, nearly all the way across the state to Clinton. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources manages this converted railway especially for biking (bicycling) and hiking.  Where else can you bike across a state without worrying about car traffic?  The trail passes nearly 40 rural communities and flows through the peaceful trees, towering bluffs, creeks, and grasslands of Missouri.  Stop off at Rocheport, eat overlooking the Missouri River bluffs, sip Les Bourgeois wine (my favorite is Riverboat Red!) then rent a bike and ride a bit.

Ozark Highland Trail/Ozark Trail

If you are an avid hiker, try part or all of the Ozark Highland Trail in Arkansas – a 170 mile long trail through the rugged Ozark Mountains.  It’s cousin, in southeast Missouri, just north of the Bootheel, is the Ozark Trail.  Someday, when they join together, there will be more than 700 miles of trans-Ozark trails.  Bring your hiking boots, backpack or horse. Hike along the Current river (and maybe stop along the way for a float trip on the ripples!).

Train Travel

We love experiencing what it was like in bygone days and one comfortable and inexpensive way to do that is with a train excursion.  Here are two I can personally recommend – I’ve ridden both.

Branson Scenic Railway

For $25 adult and about $15 per child, show the kids how folks used to travel.  This is a short 40 minute excursion through the Ozark foothills just into Arkansas and then back to Branson, MO.  While you are in Branson, visit the new Branson Landing with Vegas like water shows and take the trolley up town to historic Branson.

Amtrack to Hermann MO for Mayfest or Octoberfest

For some adult family fun.  Hop on the Amtrack train in St. Louis or Kansas City and ride to either the Mayfest or the Octoberfest in Hermann, MO.  This quaint German town tucked into the rolling Missouri hills boasts multiple wineries, restaurants, and antique stores.  It’s all a big party, from the moment you step on the train until you are safely back the same day.

Hunting and Fishing

For the price of a hunting or fishing license and a rifle or pole you can show your kids hours of entertainment – with the added pleasure of using your take!

If you are looking to catch walleyes, bass, panfish, northern pike, or catfish – then this is the place for you.  You can even enter fishing tournaments.  Hunt deer, turkey, quail and other species, and of course there is the special hunt always offered first to our Eastern guests – the snipe hunt.

What is your areas best frugal family fun activity?

This article was written by Marie.


Frugal Family Fun in the American Midwest — 25 Comments

  1. If you ask me I would say the midwest scenery is the best that America has to offer! Route 66 is a classic! The perfect road trip for scenery lovers. What is your favorite part of route 66? I would have to say Amarillo, texas so far.

    I can’t wait to drive the whole thing! Thanks for all the fun ideas!

    My frugal family vacation is always going up to the hot springs in Pogosa, Colorado.

  2. I’ve been surprised at the fun I’ve had in the midwest. It’s been anything but boring for me. Driving through Nebraska one time we had to race a tornado. Of course, when I drove through South Dakota I had to do the whole Mt. Rushmore thing (though I imagine this gets old for natives.) And St. Louis….one of the funnest cities I’ve visited! It helped having a local friend. But all of the museums etc were FREE! What?!

  3. Our free fun activity right now is star gazing. Mr. Super Frugalette is trying to cultivate a love of astronomy in our six year old.

  4. For anyone in Arkansas that lives in the central arkansas library system area, you can check out fishing rods for free. They are provided by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Check out time is two weeks, although I renewed our several times. The rods generally come with the swivels but not hooks, unless a patron left the hook on. Then just use the Game and Fish site to find out when the fish are biting.

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