Best of the Midwest

Enjoy the Heartland's encahnting mix of the natural, man-made and historic.

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Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Otherworldly rock formations, startling colors, one of the richest fossil beds known to exist, grazing bison and a madcap prairie dog village all jumble together into a fascinating landscape for adults and kids alike at the Badlands National Park in the Black Hills of Dakota. The park, established in 1939, preserves 244,000 acres of beautiful flora and fauna and — for your budding paleontologists — contains the world's richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, which date back 28 million-37 million years.

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Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

When they say some people are larger than life, they might have been talking about the four presidents carved into Mount Rushmore. Designed to promote tourism in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore took nearly 400 people to carve from October 1927 to October 1941. More than 2 million people every year pay a visit to the Black Hills to see George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln  all selected because of their role in expanding territory and preserving the United States.

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Little House on the Prairie, South Dakota

Fans of the stories Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her life in the 19th century Midwest will enjoy a visit to the real Little House on the Prairie. The tales of Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura and Carrie Ingalls come to life in this area by the shores of Silver Lake. Romantics will be interested in knowing that "Beth" and "Manly" (Laura and her husband Almonzo) lived on the homestead for five years after they married — a slightly different scenario than on the popular TV show. While you won't see nasty Nellie or Mrs. Oleson, visitors can enjoy exploring the schoolhouse, taking a ride in a covered wagon, and climbing Lookout Tower to get a great view of the land, which Pa said was "just right in every way."

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Forest Park, St. Louis

"Meet me in St. Louis, Louis. Meet me at the fair." In 1904, thousands of people came to Forest Park for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the "World's Fair." More than 1,500 buildings were created for the seven-month-long fair, which is still the largest to date. Today, the area is home to The Missouri History Museum, The St. Louis Art Museum, The St. Louis Zoological Park and The McDonnell Planetarium, in addition to a tennis center, skating rink and golf course. Sounds big? At 1,293 acres, St. Louis' Forest Park is more than 50 percent larger than New York's Central Park.

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White Water, Branson

The city named for the owner of a general store in the 1880s has made its mark on the entertainment map as more than 50 clubs and celebrity-run theaters (including Andy Williams and the Oak Ridge Boys) call Branson home. But those who prefer their fun to be a little wetter flock to a different kind of entertainment at White Water. The 12-acre water park offers more than 2 million gallons of water and 7,000 feet of waterslides, including the seven and a half story Kalani Towers and the Bermuda Triangle. The park, which opened about 100 years after Mr. Branson's original store, is part of the Silver Dollar City attractions.

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Fiorella's Jack Stack BBQ, Kansas City

When its time for barbecue, those in the know head to Kansas City — and those in Kansas City head to Fiorella's Jack Stack BBQ. The restaurant was founded by eldest Fiorella son, Jack, who wanted to differenciate the restaurant from other barbeques in the area. So, in 1977, he started cooking with a hickory wood-filled brick-oven, in use at all four Jack locations. Menu faves include Jack's famous spare ribs, Hickory Pit Beans and Cheesy Corn Bake — which can all be shipped anywhere in the country. But, if it looks like a lot of food for your young ones, the kids menu makes sure everyone can get some Kansas City BBQ lovin'.

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Deadwood, South Dakota

If Deadwood's walls could talk, what a story they would tell. The lawless town in Dakota had a reputation for being one of the wildest places in the "Wild West" as it was full of folks seeking to find their fortune in gold. The streets are safer now than they were in the 1800s, but the casinos still make it a draw for gamblers. The town was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and there is plenty of history to be found, such as the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was killed and Calamity Jane's final resting place. But for those who want the "West" without the "wild," there are several hiking trails that have their starting points in Deadwood.

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