Our summer trip had new limitations this year. I am finishing a divorce and on a restrained budget, but I wanted the trip to be fun and memorable — and not in a bad way.

I offered my kids some choices, and they decided to drive to Indiana to see their grandfather, visit cousins in Illinois and camp in Wisconsin. To save money, we chose to camp along the way instead of hotels.

So, I had to plan for fun activities and stops along the way while keeping my budget under control.

This year, we chose Cadillac Ranch and Meramec Caverns on the way to my father's. I didn't know what the plan for visiting cousins (schedules were iffy) would include, and I reserved three nights of camping at Ice Age Campground in Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin.

Cadillac Ranch

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Cadillac Ranch, as history goes, was created by a group called Ant Farm back in 1974. The art installment consisted of a series of vintage Cadillacs. It represented the birth and death and all the evolutions in between of the iconic tail-fin Cadillacs, buried in the hot Texas dirt.

In 1997, the installation moved to its location along I-40. The original glory of the cars is long gone, and now the cars are buried under layers and layers of spray paint. Leaving your mark is encouraged, and I watched my sweet 8-year-old daughter channel her inner-most vandalism alongside my 13-year-old son as they left hearts and their initials along with dozens of other folks. I did it, too.

I must say on a bad note, you could see the ground littered with empty cans from the road. It is a unique feature out in the northern part of Texas where cattle and wind turbines reside. Could someone not get a dumpster out there, or couldn't everyone who visited take an empty spray can home with them?

After leaving our marks, we grabbed six empty cans to toss when we stopped for gas; I taught my kids the importance of respect.

Wilson's Creek

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This was an unplanned stop for us. In about 30 seconds or less, I saw the sign, queried my crew of two and turned on the blinker when an affirmative came resounding back.

My children are fascinated with Civil War history. I thought Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield would be small and we'd dash in, soak up the history and be on our way in no time. However, the park is quite large and quite beautiful! We were going to be here a lot longer.

The Wilson's Creek Battle (Battle of Oak Hills) was the first major battle west of the Mississippi and the battle that took the first Union general's life, Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon.

It is the second major battle of all the Civil War battles. Approximately 2,300 men lost their lives on the land, covered in lush green grass, trees and wildflowers. We all felt somber as we walked and explored trails along the fields and creek. So many men died in that small area, and it was so incredibly beautiful.

Wild berries, wild turkeys and butterflies were some of the sights as we walked. We enjoyed lemonade and cookies under a big maple tree in the front yard of the house that became the hospital. Several local bluegrass bands took turns spinning reels for us. It brought me to tears so many times.

My daughter is a fourth grader this year, and the national parks have a program, Every Kid In A Park, which got us in free. Happy budget!

Meramec Caverns

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My stringent goal to get to Meramec Caverns that night relaxed as I sat under a huge maple tree listening to music, sipping lemonade. Still driving until 10 p.m. in the rain, I checked us into a hotel about 30 minutes away, and I am relieved I did this even though my budget cringed at the extra expense.

The canyon that the cave is in and the Meramec River had another 100-year flood a few weeks prior, and the campground, hotel and restaurant were all damaged from the flood. The cave itself took on standing water. We had to navigate our way through construction, sheets of plastic and blowing fans to take our tour.

Legend tells that Jesse James escaped the law by going deep into the cave and hiding out until the coast was clear. For more than 100 years, the cave was an asset for saltpeter deposits used to make gunpowder. The cave was so rich in it, its name used to be Saltpeter Cave.

Meramec Cavern is amazing! We entered into a grand ballroom with a disco ball hung from the cave ceiling. We weaved down alongside an underground river, and into the upper part of the cave to see a cathedral of incredible geologic features. Not all of the cave is explored; more is waiting to be found.

I have a degree in geology, so I feel this pull to grab a hard helmet and a flashlight and go spelunking. My kids also loved it. It is an easy walk through most of the cave. There is a series of stairs at the upper section, but the guide does offer you a choice of going around.

Things you can also do at the caverns:

  • Rent a canoe and paddle down the river.
  • Zip-line course. It's about 40-60 minutes long with a series of lines that you travel through.
  • Pan for gems in a slough.
  • Riverboat rides.

We panned for gems afterward and eyed the zip-line course. My daughter didn't pass the age or height requirements, and the cost also prohibited us from just sending my son. We pouted for a moment and left.

Visiting my dad bored my children silly, but they wanted to see him. It is poignant that my children felt strongly about this, because my father suddenly passed away just two weeks ago. But we loved on him and spent several days with him and drove to Illinois to see my brother and spend time with the cousins.

At this time in the trip and the fact we were with cousins my kids could just spend time staring at the wall with them; they love them that much. But my brother, sister-in-law and I decided to drive to Warren Dunes in Michigan, just a few hours away. Yes, we backtracked.

Warren Dunes State Park

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The sign said free admissions day! With my budget revived and covered in sunscreen, we hit the beach at Warren Dunes. It was early June, and we played in the in the chilly water and sand.

We climbed the dunes, and we walked up an inlet to a patch of stinky clay. What do you do with stinky clay? You rub it on you! We did, we stunk, and we walked back to the lake a rinsed it all off. After several sun-baked hours, we packed up and headed back my brother's house.

Our time with the cousins ended, and we headed to Devil's Lake State Park just southwest of Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Devil's Lake State Park

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It sounds terrifying "Come on kids, let's go to a lake named after the devil! It'll be fun!" — but I can attest that Devil's Lake is beautiful and stunning. The name, as the park website describes, came from the settlers' misinterpretation of the Ho-Chunk name for the lake: "Spirit" or "Holy" Lake.

We fished, rented a canoe (budget-happy rates), swam in its clear water, had a picnic, walked through trees, fished more, stared at the amazing geology (rocks), hiked along pathways, and looked at bugs, mushrooms, lightning bugs and flowers.

Devil's Lake State Park had it all for us. The main lodge filled us with ice cream and me with a local beer. The staff throughout was friendly and helpful.

Summertime activities at Devil's Lake State Park:

  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Fishing
  • Canoeing/ kayaking/paddle boards
  • Rock Climbing
  • Biking

It is a big, busy place, so reserve ahead of time (click here for information). We reserved a tent site with no electricity, but there are many different sites from which to choose. We did get rained on, but we didn't really want to leave.

We didn't have enough time to do everything. The Ice Age Trail that snakes through Wisconsin goes right around Devil's Lake. I had desired to walk it through the park and keep on going all the way up to Minnesota. Oh yeah, I can't, I'm am a mom, and I had to return to reality.

So, we had a great time. My children and I experienced history, nature, fun in the sun, and friends and family. Sometimes the best plan is to tighten the budget. I think we would have missed all the things we did if I hadn't tried to find the creative and budget-friendly options.