Posted in: Exploring Illiniois, Food, Hiking, Museums & Tours, Sightseeing

Exploring Chicago: Day 2

(NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.)

We got up at 6:45 AM to beat the crowd at Wildberry Pancakes & Cafe. We rolled out of the hotel around 7:30. A fog hung in the air still, which gave the cityscape a different look from the day before. On the walk to breakfast, Nick suggested we stop at the Bean and get pictures. Yesterday Millenium park was crazy with a festival, but this morning it was empty. In fact, the whole city was nearly empty at this hour on a Sunday morning. It made for easy pictures.

We got immediate seating at Wildberry which was a great surprise since many reviews called out wait times over 2 hours on a Sunday. Nick got the Oreo S’more pancakes. I got the egg white veggie omelet with a side pancake (Key Lime pie). Everything was delicious. I couldn’t even finish my whole omelet.

Nick wanted to do the Architectural boat tour, so I put him to work booking us tickets. We took a short 1.25 mile walk to the boat. The end cost for a 90-minute tour was $121 ($116+$5tip).

The boat was the Ft. Dearborn, named after the fort that started Chicago. Marshal was our docent (tour guide) on the boat tour. Captain Carol drove the boat. We explored all 3 branches of the Chicago River. It was very educational and neat to learn the difference between “Modern” architecture (Modern architecture has a flat roof and no ornamentation) vs. the other styles. We did learn an interesting fact about the Chicago flag as well.

Chicago borders Lake Michigan on the East. Chicago’s name comes from the smelly wild onion plants that used to blossom on the shores. In the Native American language, it sounds somewhat like Chicago. Willis Tower was constructed with a tube construction (9 towers bundled together to fight the wind). They dubbed the area around the rivers as “From warehouse to our house.” (Conversion of river warehouses to upscale apartments and condos).

Next, since we were close, we walked to Navy Pier. It was pretty lame. But on our way out we shared our first Chicago dog from Relish ($6). It comes with jalapeño, pickle, celery salt, mustard, relish, tomato, cucumber, and of course the all-beef hotdog. We both liked it a lot. Which was strange for me because I don’t normally like mustard, relish, jalapeños, or pickles. Who knew I would like it when you shove them all together?

On our way to the Magnificent Mile, we detoured to see a beach at Lake Michigan. People had donned wet suits and were swimming in the lake. It was 60F and windy. These are some tough people.

We wandered the Magnificent Mile. We stopped at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, which was an insane 5-story Starbucks that we had to wait in line to get into. We didn’t buy anything because it was nuts inside, but they did have a tempting flight of Starbucks-themed martinis and a silk-lined blazer made from coffee bean bags for just $525. Unfortunately, they didn’t have my size.

We souvenir shopped our way back to the hotel area, picking up a Cubs hat for me and postcards.

We stopped at the Buckingham Fountain for the quintessential Chicago picture. Nick noted that the horses look like they are vomiting and are surprised about it. Strangely I agree.

We walked over 9 miles before stopping back at the hotel to rest before dinner. When I told Nick we were over 20,000 steps, he said, “No wonder my feet hurt.”


Posted in: Exploring Illiniois, Exploring Ohio, Food, Hiking, Hotel, Museums & Tours, Sightseeing

Exploring Chicago

(Note: Click on an image to view full screen.)

I have always wanted to try traveling by train. Something about it sets your imagination wild. Nick and I decided to take a trip to Chicago on Amtrak this summer. We had been to Indianapolis multiple time, but Nick had never been to Chicago and it was the next closest stop. The Saturday train was scheduled to depart at 1:41 AM. Sarah and Will dropped us off and we got to Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio at 12:30AM. We checked in and Nick’s state ID came in handy. (An alternative could have been a school ID). The train’s arrival was delayed until 2:01AM, and then again to 2:16AM.

We finally boarded and were underway by 2:30AM. Our conductor assigned us our seats, which were towards the front of the train. It was a relief to be assigned rather than having to scramble and fight for a seat together. They were big seats (2x the size of an airplane) with many comfort adjustments (foot rest, leg extension and reclining). There seemed to be plenty of overhead room for carry-on items. The restrooms were in the back of each car.

Expert tip: Remember to bring your phone charger and longer cords. Each pair of seats has two 110V outlets. This is super convenient and way better than coach seats on planes.

Indianapolis was the only stop longer than 1 minute during our trip. We didn’t get off, but some smokers did to get their fix and stretch their legs.

The train started much slower than I expected (9-10 mph through city area) and gently rocked like a boat. As we got further out from the train station, the speed picked up to around 30 mph. The snoring of other sleeping passengers lingered in the air. If you really want to sleep well, ear plugs, eye masks and a pillow are mandatory equipment. It was fun to try to identify the various chemical plants as we passed by them in the city. I never realized how many existed in the Cincinnati area along the train line.

By 3:30 am Nick had calmed down and fallen asleep. He didn’t look comfortable, but even uncomfortable sleep was probably good for him.

We crossed a river near Hamilton, Ohio. It was fun to see the river from a different perspective. I can see why writers wrote on trains. It is a ‘romantic’ way to travel and the perspective change gives different insights. Something about going a little slower, the changing scenery and interacting with so many different people creates a spark of creativity.

Nick and I both managed to sleep a couple hours before it got light again around Indianapolis. The seat was rough on my knee somehow and left me feeling stiff, but rested well enough.

The track seemed bumpier after passing through Indianapolis. We moved at a quicker speed (up to 60 mph), so that likely played into it.

At 6:30AM we rope-dropped the Cafe car for breakfast. It was a reheated, unremarkable, bordering on gross breakfast sandwich that I ate completely. Despite the food, the cafe car was a different and nicer venue than our seats and we got to sit in a booth. The coffee was fine. Nick liked his bagel and hot chocolate. It was $13+$1 tip. I also grabbed a can of Diet Coke for an exorbitant $2.50. Expert tip: Bring your own food.

The bathrooms on Amtrak are kind of gross. They meet the minimum, but would get old over days of traveling. They use a vacuum assist flush and Nick said they seemed like RV toilets. I think he means that they are smaller seats. We were reminded by the conductor to make sure that we locked the door when we used it because he said, “there is always one that doesn’t on every trip.”

I am glad we chose a short trip to test things out on Amtrak. The price was certainly right since we got a Valentine’s Day BOGO, making the whole thing $84 for both of us. The fare was by far the cheapest part of the trip. With gas prices over $5/gallon, other than biking or walking, it seemed the cheapest way to go. Maybe the Megabus is competitive? I will have to check it out.

The train was 75%+ full in the coach sections. It was quite the eclectic mix of people with a large mix of all races, ages, ethnicities, and wealth.

The sleeper car people are at the back of the train and are really separated from the masses. They get the VIP treatment starting with the boarding processes, where they are taken out a separate way to the train. I would like to see what a sleeper room or roomette would feel like. Maybe next time.

It takes about 5 hours to drive from Cincinnati, OH to Chicago, IL. Flying is just 1.5 hours (+1 hour of airport security and chaos). We took from 12:30 AM to 10:00 AM terminal to terminal (9.5 hours) via train. All that to say, train travel via Amtrak is not fast. For Cincinnati users, the departure time is very inconvenient at 1:41AM.

After arriving via the Amtrak in Chicago, Nick and I had 3 hours to kill before going to the Skydeck in Willis Tower. We walked by Millennium Park (the Bean), Maggie Daly Park with an amazing “Play Garden,”and rode Centennial wheel at Navy Pier ($40).

After 2 hours of walking we were beat and Ubered back to Willis Tower from Navy Pier to catch our 1:00PM appointment.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears tower) was wonderful. My friend Bill sent us on a wild goose chase for Chicago dogs that he said were in the Willis Tower food court lobby. Not finding them and running out of time before our ticket time, Nick and I settled for a trail-mix that we had brought for emergencies. It had been awhile since breakfast, so we counted it as an emergency.

After our snack, we went to the Skydeck ($80). There was a nice Chicago fact museum and Instagram selfie studio prior to going in, where we grabbed several pictures. I got pictures with Michael Jordan and Oprah. Nick got pictures with the Obamas and Chicago food.

After capturing enough selfies, we ventured up 103 floors to the glass ledge where we “dangled” out past the building. It is a great hook and super fun. Nick, who doesn’t like heights, did great. We grabbed some pictures and some great footsies.

Having conquered the Himalayas of Chicago, we were ravenous and decided to go to Giordano’s. The restaurant was a block away, so we didn’t have far to go. We got the appetizer sampler, a Cobb salad, and a small stuffed deep dish Meat & More Meat pizza (each slice is 1,000 calories). The pizza was amazing!

Naomi was a great server and even helped us get pictures and video of our experience.

We left Giordano’s right at 3PM, which was the  first available time we could check in to the hotel, and headed to the hotel. The Central Loop Hotel was close to all the things we wanted to see and it was reasonably priced for a bedroom with two twin beds. We had no issues checking in and found ourselves exhausted in our room at 3:30 PM. We showered, changed, and promptly fell asleep with an alarm set for 7:30 PM and no specific plans for what we would do when it went off.


Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Hiking, Museums & Tours, School, Sightseeing

Off To Prison: Exploring the Ohio State Reformatory

Ben and I had both seen the movie Shawshank Redemption many years ago. (Who hasn’t at this point?) With our post-trip adventure spirit of wanting to see new things, we decided to finally see the Ohio State Reformatory (aka the OSR). What do the two have in common? Parts of Shawshank were filmed at the OSR. The Ohio State Reformatory closed in 1990, after a lawsuit filed by prisoners citing conditions and overcrowding.

The prison does not have all of the outbuildings anymore, but the main building is still standing. The architecture is amazing and gives an imposing castle-like appearance.

(Ohio State Reformatory (OSR) Exterior Images: click to enlarge)
(OSR Interior Images, Tour Details, Handcuff queue barrier: click to enlarge)
(OSR Interior Images: click to enlarge)

There are two wings to the prison: East Block and West Block. The East Block was the second cell block built and holds the record for being the “largest free-standing steel cell block“. The West Block was built first and is made with concrete. This part of the prison was supposedly better for temperature control (concrete as an insulator, versus metal heats up in the summer).


(East Cell Block Images, East Cell Block Showers, Mail Station: click to enlarge)
(East Block Cells, Library, Spiral Staircase: click to enlarge)
(East Block Cells: click to enlarge)


(Room Between East and West Blocks, West Block Images, Solitary Confinement Rooms: click to enlarge)
(West Block Cells: click to enlarge)
(West Block Showers, Walkway, 1896 Prisoner List: click to enlarge)

You begin the tour on the upper floors of the East Block Cells. If you get vertigo, do not look down over the railings!

During our walk through the East Block, we went through a corridor. The building was built so symmetrically that when there is sunlight coming through the windows and the room doors are open, an X forms on the floor. We were there on a cloudy, rainy day, but were lucky enough that the sun peaked through enough that we could see the X.

(Symmetric Building, X in Sunlight: click to enlarge)
(Chapel, Elevator: click to enlarge)

You will eventually make it to the Guard Room on the upper floors. It sits between the East and West blocks. I almost wish we were able to start the tour here. It gives you a good overview of both sides of the prison. This room has been restored with large glass windows for viewing both cell blocks and is available for event rental.

(Guard Room Images: click to enlarge)

One of the main differences between the movie and the prison was the cell layout. The movie had the cells looking at each other, but the prison actually had the cells facing the outer walls/windows. The shower rooms were horrible. Although the movie shows them all standing next to each other in the shower room, our audio tour stated that in the East Block shower room, the prisoners would hang up their towels and would then have one minute to walk down the line of showerheads, washing as they went, single file. They got showers once a week! (FUN NOTE: During the shower scene in the movie, there was no hot water. They used dry ice to create steam and they were all washing in cold water.)

Walking The East Block Shower

The interior of the prison is striking. Not necessarily for good reasons. The common areas, where visitors would arrive and the offices are more decorative; detailed wood door and window frames, tiled floors, decorative staircase (looks like carved wood, but is actually painted metal). The cell blocks are six levels high, facing the outer walls/windows. The doors are very small. If you were a bigger person, it would not be comfortable getting in and out of the cells. The cells are also small for two people. Some of them were designed originally for 1 person occupancy, but later had two people per room (the room size did not change).

It’s a little haunting walking through, even in the daytime. The lighting is dim, especially on a rainy day like we had. There are several layers of paint peeling off the walls, bars, cells, etc. The building sat empty for many years, and maintenance has been done on the building, and the administration rooms. The rest of the building is in various states, so I would recommend wearing flat, closed-toe shoes. There were several areas of puddles or debris on the floor. The building was constructed in the late 1800s, with its first prisoners admitted in 1896. I am sure there is still lead paint and asbestos contained in the building. There were spots where windows were missing or broken, letting the weather into the building. The cell blocks are not really heated or air-conditioned, although the museum/store/ticket area is temperature-controlled, so dress for the weather.

The museum area had some interesting items, including several different types of shanks and souvenirs people could buy about the prison/prisoners (including postcards of death row inmates).

(Museum Images: click to enlarge)
(Museum Images, Souvenirs, Prisoner Woodworking Items: click to enlarge)
(Shawshank Redemption Movie Items: click to enlarge)
(Round Rooms, Tiny Doors: click to enlarge)

Shawshank Redemption may be the most popular movie shot at the prison, but there have been several other movies that have been filmed at this location. There have even been some music videos!

(Small Cell Door Width, Lil Wayne Music Video Cell: click to enlarge)

There are several different types of tours available: self-guided, self-guided with an audio wand rental, tour guide, Shawshank, ghost, etc. I would definitely recommend renting an audio wand. It was $5/wand. The volume is not very loud and you hold it next to your ear, so you may be able to get 1 wand per 2 people if you place your heads close together, but it is worth it to rent them for your whole group. There are a few signs around, mostly markers for the audio tour that have extremely limited information on them. You will miss out on a lot of information if you do not have an audio wand or go with a tour group. I think it would make the experience a lot less enjoyable. Even if you are not a ghost believer, I think going on a ghost tour at night would be extremely freaky. The atmosphere of the prison is haunting during the day, but without sunlight, it would be scary (even just for tripping hazards).


  • Wear closed toed shoes.
  • Dress for the weather.
  • Rent the Audio Wand for the self guided tour!
  • Be aware. Although not currently a prison, there is an active prison located behind it. You will know where because on the windows that face the active prison there are “pictures taken out these windows is prohibited” signs.


  • WHERE: 100 Reformatory Rd, Mansfield, OH 44905
  • HOURS: Daily 11:00 am to 4:00 pm
  • COSTS: $25+ (adult tickets). Please check website for pricing for children/adults/seniors and different tours offered.
  • PARKING: Yes 
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: 1.5 hours+
  • Details correct at time of posting, please double check before you go.
Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food, Hiking, Sightseeing, YouTube Video Link

Jungle Jim’s Market

Anyone who lives near Cincinnati has heard of Jungle Jim’s. It is a grocery store. Now, if you are not from the area, you may be wondering asking “Sarah, why do I care about a grocery store?” The answer is that it is not just a grocery store. It is definitely an experience. If you are passing through or new to the area, please stop to check it out. I would recommend at least an hour or two, and if possible to go on a weekday. The weekends tend to get pretty crowded.

What makes Jungle Jim’s so unique? It is crazily decorated and offers food from around the world. It is home to the famous port-a-potty restrooms (Don’t worry, it’s just the door. The bathrooms are actually big and clean. (YouTube Video.).

There are two locations: Eastgate and Fairfield (both in Ohio). Both locations have the port-a-potty- bathrooms and the Jungle Jim’s movie that show how the store began (NOTE: as of February 2022, the Eastgate location still had the movie playing, but the Fairfield location had the movie room closed). Both locations offer an amazing variety of foods to discover. (Ben loves the winesap apples Jungle Jim’s carries. It is by far his favorite apple. The kids love finding new “weird” snacks to try.) However, each one is decorated differently (mostly because these are one-of-a-kind items). My personal favorite is the original location at Fairfield. Why? I think it has more things to see and to explore.

Eastgate has similar offerings of the Big Cheese, international food items, a big fish counter, and a large candy section. There are some larger decorations at the Eastgate location including an old beehive amusement park ride and a small Airstream RV. If we are just going to go for a quick grocery run, we might go to Eastgate.

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Fairfield has a monorail system installed along the side and front of the store. The cars are stationed amid a large snake-guarded building (located on the right side of the building when facing the front). Inside the store, you will find a large ship in the seafood department, a singing Elvis bear in the candy area, and a Robin Hood treasure-filled forest scene in the English food section where I like to pick up tea and Hobnob’s. They offer cooking classes and different tasting events. There is also a pressed penny machine there.

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Tours are also available for a fee and are by appointment only. We have not done one yet, but it does look fun! There is also a weekly podcast that broadcasts on Wednesdays.

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NOTE: Although both locations have very large parking lots, there is not really designated RV parking.

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Hiking, Sightseeing

Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park

The boys and I went to Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park in Hamilton, Ohio a couple of years ago over summer break. Ben had never been, so he and I went last month to explore. Now, it is winter in Ohio and it was a windy cold day. We didn’t get to explore quite as much as we wanted due to icey spots and the cold wind. I would definitely recommend going in the Spring/Summer/Fall for the most enjoyment. They do have several really neat pieces! There are a few walking trails in the park as well, although we have not explored them yet.

After entering the park, follow the drive to the visitor center building where you can pay for your admission and rent a golf cart (they call them art carts) if desired. You can walk or drive around the park. There are parking spaces close to many of the sculptures.

(click to enlarge)


  • WHERE: 1763 Hamilton Cleves Road Hamilton, OH 45013
  • HOURS: Park hours Sunday to Saturday 9:00am to 5:00pm. Museum Monday to Sunday 12:00pm to 5:00pm.
  • COSTS: $8/adults, $3/children (6-12). Optional golf cart rental $20/first hour (then $15/hour).
  • PARKING: Yes
  • BATHROOM: Yes (portalets are the only available ones in winter)
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: 1-3 hours
  • *Details correct at the time of posting, but please double check before you go.
Posted in: Exploring Michigan, Hiking, National Park, National Parks

Sleeping Bear Dunes: Sleeping Bear Point Trail

We picked the Sleeping Bear Point Trail to hike in the park. It was listed as a moderate trail, but less strenuous than the Dune Hill Climb. It was a 2.8 mile trail loop. We did the trail clockwise, as the app stated that it was a little easier that way.

We started in a grassy forest type of area. I would wear long socks or stay in the middle of the trail, as there was poison ivy along most of that part of the trail.

We did see some great views of the water along the hike. One of the reasons we picked this trail was the “ghost forest”. The dunes shift and over time the trees that become covered in sand will die. There were a handful of trees, but not what I would think of a forest.

Hiking on sand is no joke! We were all pretty tired at the end, but the kids of course had a lot more energy. If you take this hike, bring water, a hat, and sunscreen. Once you leave the tree area, there is no shade.

Posted in: Exploring Michigan, Hiking, Sightseeing

Petoskey Stones

If you hadn’t noticed yet, we like finding local things to do and especially collecting an item from the area. The boys and I like going to fossil parks. We found shark teeth in Myrtle Beach, and we like to find cool shells at each beach we go to. Michigan is known for having Petoskey stones. These are cool rocks with fossilized coral. There are a few beaches you can find them out, including the National Park.

You are allowed to collect up to 25 pounds of Petoskey stones a year. However, you are not allowed to remove any from the National Park.

This time, each kid got a “Mom Day” where we hung out for a couple of hours. Nick and I made the first adventure out to Point Betsie Lighthouse. Point Betsie had a neat lighthouse, which is available for tours during the summer. Parking is located along the street, as there is not parking lot available for public use at the lighthouse. There is a bathroom and gift shop at the lighthouse as well. The beach is very rocky! Which is great for finding Petoskey stones, but bad for silly people like us who forgot to bring sandals/crocs/water shoes. We managed to find a few stones, although they were smaller ones.

The next day, Will and I went to Empire Beach. Empire Beach had a playground, volleyball net, and bathrooms. There was a parking lot, but it was a paid lot ($1/hour). The beach was much nicer for beach use, as it was sandy. However, it made it harder to find Petoskey stones, as it wasn’t as rocky. We did find a few small ones though.

We bought some polish and will hopefully be able to sand and polish our stones so you can see the patterns. When they are dry, the stones look pretty much like any other grey rock.

Click to enlarge

Posted in: Animal Sightings, Exploring Michigan, Hiking, National Park, National Parks, Sightseeing

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

This was the last National Park on our current route. The name of the park seems sweet, but it is a horribly sad tale. I read two different versions. A mother and her cubs are forced to flee from wildfire into the Lake and have to swim to the other side. The cubs do not make it. The mother bear lays down waiting for her cubs. The other version is that there was a food shortage, and to keep from starving they had to cross the lake. The cubs do not make it. The two small islands pop up as monuments for the cubs.

The main visitor center, Phillip A Hart Visitor Center, was located in Empire, Michigan. It was not in the park. The park boundaries are actually made of 3 sections of land with towns in between and 2 islands. We drove around the park in a few locations, but only saw a ticket/pass booth at the Dune Climb parking lot.

On our first visit, we drove the Pierce Stocking Scenic Dr. I’m sure it had wonderful views, but all we could see was fog! (It hadn’t been foggy at our campground, about 30 minutes away). There was a small covered bridge that was fun to see.

There were several hiking and bike trails in the park, along with beach areas.

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Hiking, Sightseeing

Connecting with Cleveland Cousins

We had family in the Cleveland area and they invited us over to dinner. The night was pretty amazing. The weather was great, they made a taco bar for dinner, and we had and great company. The boys got to meet their younger cousins.

They introduced us to a new (to us) game called Ticket To Ride. They boys played the Ticket To Ride First Journey* with their cousins. It was a lot of fun and I think we will be picking up one of the versions of the game when we get back home!

After dinner and a game, we took a walk to Lake Erie. There was an ice cream place on the way, so we picked up dessert.

Thank you J and K for such a great night!

*Affiliate link

Posted in: Animal Sightings, Exploring Ohio, Hiking, Sightseeing

Deep Lock Quarry Trail

We found this trail on AllTrails app. The Deep Lock Quarry Metro Park was next to the National Park, so we only had to drive a couple of minutes to get to this trail.

The trail was about 1.4 miles, although we added a little bit on with a side trail. It had a few informational signs about things along the trail. There were remains of Quaker Oat millstones, the remains of sandstone blocks from a loading dock, bases of old derricks used to load boats/trains.

Quarry Trail Signs
click to enlarge

There was the old quarry as well. You could see the layers of cut out rocks.

We took a side trail to see Lock 28, which was the deepest lock of the Ohio Erie Canal and was nicknamed Deep Lock. The lock was a little overgrown, but still easily seen. It was really neat to see the remains of the canal system.

Lock 28 Signs
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(Small Cell Door Width, Lil Wayne Music Video Cell: click to enlarge)
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Quarry Trail Signs
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Lock 28 Signs
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