We crisscrossed the country for our 2015 ‘top’ travel picks

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South Dakota’s Badlands National Park

We had some great opportunities to travel during 2015 and we saw a lot. We’ve seen some of the world’s biggest statues, as well as the homes of major historical figures. Since the end of the year seems popular for Top 10 lists, we thought we’d come up with our own “Favorites” list – of places we visited during 2015. It was difficult to dwindle the list to just 10 places or attractions. Our “Top 10” may have a few more items than normal.

In no particular order, here is The Walking Tourists’ “Top” visits during 2015:

St. Louis

Our first stop is personal. And it’s a well-deserved No. 1. Lisa was thrilled (and both of us impressed) when Lisa’s dad was able to spend the evening at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis during our visit for Father’s Day. Some of you may know that Lisa’s dad was on a transplant list for a double lung transplant earlier this year. However, the process started almost two years ago.

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St. Louis’ Missouri Botanical Gardens

He underwent a battery of tests at St. Louis’ Barnes Jewish Hospital in early 2014 to qualify for the transplant list. When he was finally put on the list, he and her step-mom received the call at 3 a.m. on March 3rd that a pair of lungs were available. They hustled to St. Louis from their temporary home in Evansville, Indiana. The transplant occurred on March 4th. And all went well.

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Missouri Botanical Gardens

We visited in April, about a month afterward. He was getting around pretty good. But, during our June visit, that’s when it hit Lisa – he was moving around great, eating well and had a lot of energy. This was something missing for the past few years (as the situation grew worse). It was odd not seeing the oxygen tank near him and the tubes in his nose. He seemed like his old self.

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The Chinese lanterns exhibit at Missouri Botanical Gardens

So, walking about the Missouri Botanical Gardens was even more a gift for the family than anyone could give him for Fathers Day. So, visiting the St. Louis gardens was No. 1 for the year.

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Water fountain display


Second on the list is my visit to Seattle for Christmas. Our youngest daughter Mallory moved to Seattle in October after taking a position with Amazon. This is the first time since college that either of our daughters has been more than a 20-minute drive from us. Anyone who knows us knows we are a close family. It was funny that most people asked Mallory and then me how I was handling the news when she accepted the position and announced she was moving halfway across the country. They acted like I was going to get all emotional and stuff. Geesh! It was only a kid moving away from home…one moment, I got something in my eye. Stupid allergies!

Anyway, I’ve handled it much better than most people thought. However, I know how tough holidays can be for someone when you are away from your family, at least for the first year. Our daughter Steph went out to Seattle at the end of October for a few days to visit. Their mom spent Thanksgiving week with her. Lisa couldn’t get the time off, so I traveled there by myself. I have a fantastic wife, who was willing to let me travel and spend time with the kid.

Mallory and I had a great time visiting. I saw several of the major tourist attractions. It was my second visit to the area in five years.  We spent time together at the Museum of Flight and the Woodland Park Zoo, among other fun times.

Ok, so moving on from personal top destinations.

North Dakota

The Enchanted Highway in southwestern North Dakota was the primary impetus for a Labor Day weekend trip. The highway is a 30-mile stretch near Dickinson and Medora, which happens to be home to some of the world’s largest metal-made sculptures. They range from giant geese, grasshoppers and fish to a larger-than-life farm family.

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North Dakota’s Enchanted Highway

The Enchanted Highway was actually part of an overall visit to Medora that impressed us tremendously. Medora is a town of about 500 people. But, during the tourist season, the population explodes. It’s home to the state cowboy hall of fame and museum, Theodore Roosevelt Park, Pitchfork Fondue and a musical about Medora.

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Medora, North Dakota

We love driving through the Roosevelt National Park. It’s easy to understand why the future president settled in the area for a number of years. The landscape varies depending on the curve in the road. You can run into wild buffalo and horses (if you’re lucky) or prairie dogs during the visit.

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota

Medora’s Pitchfork Fondue was a fun experience. It’s an outdoor buffet. The steaks are attached to pitchforks and cooked. The dinner comes with some nice fixin’s – potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw and fruit or salad. We finished the evening watching the 50th year’s version of “Medora, the Musical.” Songs and sketches relive the history of North Dakota and Medora. It was started by the founder of “Mr. Bubble.”

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“Medora, the Musical”

Little Bighorn

Staying in the northern area, another of my favorite sites to visit was Little Bighorn National Battlefield Monument. This was the spot where George Armstrong Custer met his demise at the hands of a well-prepared army of Native Americans. It was also one of the final battles during the 1800s’ Indian Wars.

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Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana

The National Park Service does a great job of presenting the facts of the events that took place. There is no emotion or judgment presented. The rangers present both sides of the event in telling the history.

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Little Bighorn

It was interesting to see the markers where people were killed; only in the aspect of where they were in relation to the final spot where Custer fell. Some soldiers were killed a good distance from the hillside. There were Native American markers, too, but few. Most of the dead Native Americans’ bodies were likely removed from the scene by other warriors after the battle.

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Native American memorial at Little Bighorn

South Dakota

Our next two favorites were in the same area. We enjoyed our visit to Rapid City and its presidential attractions. We took in Mount Rushmore, and the downtown presidents walk (among other attractions). We visited Mount Rushmore during the late afternoon and evening. We stayed for the lighting ceremony. The four presidents shine brightly in the darkness. One of the park rangers leads a program, which also recognizes veterans of all ages. We watched a video in the park. It was emotionally moving.

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Mount Rushmore in South Dakota

A morning walk through downtown Rapid City the next day was fun and interesting. The city has a “Presidents Walk” that places one of the previous 43 presidents on a street corner. President Obama’s statue will go on the walk after he leaves office in 2017. We checked out several of the statues. It just whetted our appetite for a return trip.

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George Washington on Rapid City’s Presidential sculpture walk

Our next favorite spot in the Rapid City area was the Crazy Horse monument. We had an opportunity to take a bus ride to the base of the Crazy Horse monument. Crazy Horse remains a major spiritual influence for all Native Americans. When completed, the monument will be the world’s tallest sculpture. Crazy Horse’s face is 80 feet tall, about 20 feet taller than the presidents’ faces on Mount Rushmore.

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We loved the view at Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota

A trip through Badlands National Park topped our Rapid City visit. The drive through the park is a beautiful experience. The jagged spires and cliffs give the impression of being on another planet. It’s a great way to spend a few hours.

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Badlands National Park


I’m a Minnesota Twins baseball fan (despite rooting for the Kansas City Royals during the playoffs. It’s a curse of having grown up a Royals fan then becoming a Twins fan during the 1980s while living in North Dakota). During a visit to the Twin Cities last summer, we had a chance to tour Target Field – home field of the Twins.

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Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis

It was a fun experience. Our tour group had access to a lot of cool spots in the stadium, including visiting team’s locker room, restaurant and bar areas, as well the Twins’ dugout at field level. While I loved all of that, I think my favorite stop was the press box. I got to sit in the spot where venerable Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman watches the game and writes his column. It brought out the kid in me.

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Target Field from the press box

Our final three favorite visits take place in Florida.

Clearwater Beach

First up, Clearwater Beach. Seeing the Gulf of Mexico’s water, white sand and sunset were impressive. We had so much fun, checking out the beach and boardwalk area. Watching the sun set over the water is always beautiful and magical. During our visit to the boardwalk, we were joined by a brown pelican who sat on the top rail, as if he, too, was taking in the beauty of the surroundings. He left after about an hour or so, but he wasn’t bothered by the humans around him. We were able to stand within a couple of feet of him.

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Clearwater Beach on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida

We visited during the Sandcastle festival, so we took in some great creations, all based on fairy tales. Clearwater Beach was a great visit.

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Clearwater is home to a great sand castle festival


During the same trip, we enjoyed our next favorite attraction – the Ybor City area of Tampa Bay. Ybor City has a strong Cuban influence. We watched cigars being made by hand. We followed a wild rooster down the street to a park, where he joined up with even more roosters and chickens. They are protected animals there and have a history of their own, which allows them to roam freely.

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Roosters run loose in in Ybor City, Florida

Ybor City is home to the Columbia restaurant. The great Babe Ruth dined here. The restaurant serves fantastic food. They have a nightly Flamenco dance show. We had the honor of sitting next to the stage and got an upclose view of the male and female dancers. Flamenco dancing is an emotional dance style and beautiful.

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The Columbia restaurant has Flamenco dancing nightly

Fort Lauderdale

Lisa had a wonderful visit during her trip to Fort Lauderdale. She attended the TBEX travel conference. She had an opportunity to go on a kayaking trip. She loved it. She saw creatures of all types, including large lizards and colorful birds, as well fantastic landscapes.

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Lisa saw a lot of wildlife on a kayak tour in Florida

A few more of the great places we visited and attractions we experienced include Minneapolis-St. Paul, Clear Lake (Iowa), Red Cloud (Neb.), St. Louis, Kansas City, Decorah (Iowa), a cross-state drive in North Dakota and Sioux Falls.

We have some fun trips already planned for 2016: Seattle to spend more time (both of us) with Mallory, Alaska (to visit great friends) and the Twin Cities. We have plenty of weekend trips planned, too, in the Midwest. So, as we continue our experiences, we hope you’ll share them with us. Also, enjoy your own travels next year and Happy New Year.