My family just went on a wonderful 2 week road trip and saw nearly all the LDS church history sites in the east and midwest. We have been wanting to see the sites for a long time (I’ve never been to any outside of Utah before) and while I was expecting them to be very historically interesting and educational, I was not prepared for how spiritual, uplifting and life-changing the whole trip was. It made me want to be a better Saint, and to honor my ancestor’s sacrifices. It made me want to live a more consecrated life. And it was a wonderful experience for our young children, to be able to feel the Spirit over and over again and become familiar with the feeling. Having a family testimony meeting in the Sacred Grove will be one of my most treasured memories forever.
It was a pretty cheap vacation, too, as far as a 2-week road trip goes. The expenses are gas, lodging and food–but once you get to the sites, everything is free (except Community of Christ sites). When I was planning the trip, I wished for a blog post or something that laid it all out for me, so that I could know how long to spend at each place, how far the drives were between sites, and what to see. So here it is!
- A tiny village near Rochester NY. There aren’t many hotels in Palmyra, I only saw “The Inn at Palmyra”. Staying in Victor, Macedon, Fishers, or even Rochester isn’t too far of a drive.
- Spend two relaxing days here. There are several things to see–enough to cram all in one day, but a perfect amount to enjoy spread over two days.
- Hill Cumorah and visitor’s center – start here. The visitor’s center has some great displays, and then you can walk up to the monument on the hill.
- E.B. Grandin’s Bookshop is on Main Street in Palmyra – free tour
- The cemetery where Alvin Smith is buried – self guided tour.
- Martin Harris’ farm (you don’t tour it, just look at the gorgeous landscaping and interesting lake stone home).
- LDS Temple – you’ll drive by it as you go to the Smith Farm
- Smith Farm – our favorite place. You could spend a couple of hours here easily. There are two homes that the missionaries take you through, as well as a barn and cooper’s shop. And of course, the Sacred Grove.
- Whitmer Farm in Fayette (about a 45 minute drive east from Palmyra, neighboring Seneca Falls and Waterloo). Church here is delightful if you can manage a to be here for a Sunday. The church building was built in 1980 for the 150th anniversary of the organization of the Church, and President Kimball broadcasted General Conference from it for a session. The farm is where Joseph and Oliver went to translate for a while, and where the church was first organized in 1830. Definitely worth seeing.
- The Chill and Grill is at 616 E. Main Street and serves GIGANTIC ice cream cones and sundaes. Definitely worth a stop. If you ask for a “half kiddie” you’ll get an appropriate amount for a child.
- Niagara Falls is just under 2 hours away, and easy to see if you have an extra day. The views on the Canadian side are better, but if you don’t have a passport, just opt for the Maid of the Mist boat ride to get a good up-close view of the horseshoe falls.
Drive South for 2 hours and 40 minutes to Oakland Township to see the sites in Harmony, Pennsylvania.
- Isn’t even called Harmony anymore. It’s Oakland Township. It is tiny. We found a hotel in Binghamton, NY that was still close and is a fun little town to visit.
- Spend one day here. There is only one site.
- Priesthood Restoration Visitors Center – the newest Church History site. Located at the Hale family farm (Emma’s parents). You see a special video about what happened in Harmony, tour two homes, see the river where Joseph and Oliver baptized each other and the sugar bush (grove) where John the Baptist ordained them to the Priesthood.
- If you stay in Binghamton, there is a little zoo (Ross Park Zoo) there which is overpriced if you don’t have another zoo membership, but if you have a membership at your home zoo, it may be reciprocal and 50% off, which is about right ($4). We had the whole zoo to ourselves. Even better, outside the zoo there is the most adorable children’s garden and playground that we have ever visited. My kids were in heaven for a couple of hours. And IT is FREE!
- Nirchi’s Pizza in Binghamton served really good pizza.
Drive West for 5 and a half hours to get to Kirtland, Ohio.
- Kirtland is a suburb on the east side of Cleveland. There are plenty of hotels all around there. We stayed at a Red Roof Inn in Willoughby. I would personally not recommend doing that. But I’m sure there are other nicer places around.
- Stay in Kirtland for two days. Spend one day in the historical village and seeing the temple, and another day at the outlying farms.
- Kirtland Historical Village — start at the Visitor’s Center, see the Newel K. Whitney Store (School of the Prophets room), John Johnson Inn, Wood Mill and Ashery and beautiful old houses. In these historical villages not every house is on display, many are private residences for the senior missionary couples, but they are pretty to see from the outside.
- Kirtland Temple — The temple is owned by the Community of Christ (RLDS). They are open from 9:3–4:30 and they will take you on a tour that takes about an hour. (You have to start the tour on the half-hour, there are no private tours, so arrive a little before __:30) There is a charge of $5/person. They sell delicious root beer in their gift shop.
- Isaac Morley Farm — Right down the road from historic Kirtland, in Mentor. This is a significant place in the missionary efforts of the early church. The guides tell you about it and walk you up to a grove to listen to spiritual stories. You don’t ever actually tour a house. Really interesting stop.
- John Johnson Farm — This was one of my favorite stops on the whole trip. Maybe because it was late afternoon and we just hung out and played on the lawn for an hour afterwards, but it was a peaceful, happy place. This is about an hour south of Kirtland (map below). There is a tour of the house and loads of stories. This is where Joseph was taken from his bed and tarred and feathered, and then stood out on the step and preached a sermon the next morning. This is where section 76 of the D&C was received. It is a holy place.
This next drive is a long one, and it isn’t chronological with Church history, but it makes more sense geographically. From Kirtland to Nauvoo, Illinois is a little less than 10 hours. With stops and meals, plan on 12. Or break it into two days. Whatever. Caffeine and a book on tape. Whatever.
- I wish we could have spent 5 days here. We spent two and a half. There is SO much to do and see. The Saints came here when they were driven out of Far West, then Independence. They backtracked across Missouri and then had to cross the same distance again when they were driven out of Nauvoo in February 1846.
- Nauvoo is a tiny little farming community not really by anything else. Because of the Mormon pilgrimage, however, there are plenty of hotels. We scored a sweet 2-bedroom condo from Nauvoo Vacation Villas.
- Historical Nauvoo has an abundance of houses to tour, blacksmith shop, brickyard, bakery, newspaper shop, gunsmith. . . everything a small frontier town would need to survive. And each place you go into, you get a guided tour. So there is no “in and out”–plan on about 20 minutes per place.
- There are also wagon rides, carriage rides and oxen/wagon rides. These are free but you need a ticket for most at the Visitor’s Center.
- Musical presentations in the Visitor’s Center and Cultural Hall by the Young Performing Missionaries and Senior Couples. We saw three plays that were quite delightful. You will get tickets for those at the Visitor’s Center as well. Lines start forming a bit before 9:00 so its best to head there first, grab all the tickets that you’ll need for the day (only same-day tickets) and then go touring.
- The buffet at Hotel Nauvoo was divine. We ate there both nights. The price and the variety were just what we needed.
- Carthage Jail is about 40 minutes away from Nauvoo. It is of the same spiritual quality as the sites of the early church. Historical Nauvoo isn’t as much about spiritual matters as it is about the miracle that they built this town in a few years and then left it behind as they moved on. But Carthage Jail had me in tears. As soon as I saw the bannister that rose up from the door, curved at the top of the stairs and led straight into the room where Joseph and the others were kept, I could picture the mob and the fury and the desperation. The bullet holes are still in the door.
- The Community of Christ owns the Red Brick Store, Joseph Smith’s homestead, the Mansion House and the cemetery where Joseph, Hyrum, Emma and others in the Smith family are buried. You will need to pay a fee to tour some of those sites, but you can go into the Red Brick Store and Cemetery on your own.
Drive west for 4.5 hours to get to Independence, Missouri. In the timeline of church history, their time in Independence happened before Nauvoo, but it makes more sense to go west.
- Independence is a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. There are tons of hotels and places to eat. There is also a great Children’s Museum at Union Station called Science City that was really fun for a day of diversion. If you have a pass to your local children’s museum you can get in for free!
- You could do all the church sites in one busy day, or two relaxed days.
- There is a big church visitors center right across the street from the Community of Christ’s temple and conference center.
- Liberty Jail has an amazing visitor’s center. It is near Independence, and has a great tour that takes you to the actual jail, renovated on the original foundation inside the visitor’s center. The stories there are incredible.
- Far West is an hour north of Independence. The only thing there is the temple lot. The cornerstones are encased under plastic and there are plaques explaining what each one represents. No tours.
- Adam-Ondi-Ahman is gorgeous. It is up near Far West. Do those two on the way in to town from Nauvoo. Don’t go down the service road, look for signs by the big plaque that explains about Spring Hill (see map below). When you get to the parking area, take the trail to the lookout, and from there, take the little trail that goes down into the valley with the Preacher’s Rock (anyone standing on it can talk and be heard in the valley AND it looks like an altar). The grassy valley is a lovely peaceful and slightly mysterious place. This was one of my and my kids’ favorite sites, even though its just a beautiful piece of nature.
Drive north for 3 hours to get to Council Bluffs, Iowa. This is Winter Quarters, where the Saints camped after their exodus from Nauvoo. They stayed there for a year and a half, getting things ready to cross the plains and built up another beautiful frontier city. They were experts at that point.
Winter Quarters, Iowa
- Just spend one day here. Council Bluffs is a suburb of Omaha, and the Kanesville Tabernacle is right within Council Bluffs. There are plenty of places to stay and eat.
- There are three sites here.
- The Kanesville Tabernacle – This takes about an hour. There is a visitor’s center and a guided tour. A group has reconstructed the Kanesville Tabernacle after the pattern of the original (which only lasted a few years because it was built mid-winter on top of a spring). This is where Brigham Young was sustained as the new prophet. It is also where a repentant Oliver Cowdery came to speak to a group of saints waiting to go west.
- The Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters – Spend a couple of hours here, they have a vast museum and interactive displays of the preparations and process that the pioneers had to go through to cross the plains. We wish we could have stayed longer here.
- Winter Quarters Temple – across the street from the Mormon Trail Center, a beautiful temple with the grounds adjacent to a pioneer cemetery. If you had an ancestor die at Winter Quarters, they can tell you where they are buried.
Drive 10 hours west on I-80 (no tolls!) to get to Martin’s Cove. This is where the Martin Handcart Company was camped when the rescuers came and they built up some energy to make it in to Salt Lake.
Martin’s Cove, Wyoming
This is a long drive. It would have been an even longer walk. So no sense moaning about it.
- Spend one day here. There is a visitor’s center and you can even take handcarts on a little family trek. This is a really special place.
Salt Lake City, Utah
- There are too many things to see here to even list. You could probably spend a week here. We grew up around Salt Lake so we didn’t spend any time there on this trip.
- Salt Lake City Temple and Temple Square. Exquisite architecture, a monumental sacrifice of the early saints. Tours for everything there (by the way, if you haven’t been to an LDS temple before, you are only allowed to tour the actual temple when you join the church and get a recommend. But if there are temples being built around where you live, they always have an “open house” before the temple is dedicated and you can go and tour a temple then. LDS or not.) You can often catch concerts in the Tabernacle or Assembly Hall too. There are several visitors centers on the block.
- This is the Place Heritage Park. Spend a day here. Interactive frontier village, tours, gift shops, etc. It costs $13 for people over 12 and $9 for kids from 3-11. Children under 2 are free. Seniors are $11. It is a privately-run attraction, I believe.
- The Lion House is a great place to have a meal. There is a pantry on the first floor that is cafeteria style. They are famous for their delicious rolls. It was Brigham Young’s house and is on the same block as temple square.
- Old cemeteries, genealogical library, museums, walk around the streets, enjoy the old and the new all mixed into one and marvel at how this marvelous work continues to roll forward. At 15,000,000 + membership, the church is growing rapidly, filling North and South America as prophesied by Joseph Smith in a tiny log cabin in Kirkland with 14 faithful elders.
If any readers live near these sites, please comment on the best things to do in your city! What have I missed? What would you recommend?