Road Trip: Your Guide To Summer Adventures Across Central Kansas
In part one of our road trip series, we explore a place that combines beautiful landscapes, folk art and a whole lot of personality: central Kansas.
This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.
While it may not be first in mind when you think of a road trip destination, the key to a good Kansas adventure is to get off the beaten track — and by track, we mean Interstate 70. The straight shot west makes the whole state seem like an endless track of asphalt and billboards, but that’s hardly the case.
Travel by state routes and back roads to get closer to the scenery. By moving at a slightly slower pace, you can better appreciate the changing environment on your journey.
You'll catch glimpses of wildlife — falcons, prairie chickens, bison and jackrabbits — against the backdrop of farms and wildflowers. And the state is peppered with mini-museums, scenic byways and nature preserves.
Here are a few day trips and some overnight options to explore the great wide west. Or, string these options together for a weeklong sojourn.
Abilene, Kansas — about 150 miles outside of Kansas City — has a handful of interesting sights, but the most prominent is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home. At this time, only the museum is available to visitors, with limited hours and online programming.
But Abilene also shares a Wild West history, with events at the Old Abilene Town, which recently opened a new trail center.
Want to feel centered? Kansas offers a few options. About 130 miles northwest of Abilene lies the Geographic Center of the United States (if you don’t count Alaska and Hawaii) in Lebanon. Learn about what this designation means for the people of the town in this story by KCUR.
From there, the Geodetic Center of North America is about 45 minutes south, in Tipton. (Geodetic relates to the geometric shape of the globe, not a 2D map.)
Kansas has a long history of folk and outsider art, and nowhere is that more prominent than in Lucas: “Grassroots Art Capital of the World.” It’s the home of — among other sights — the United States' oldest intact art environment, Garden of Eden, and the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, which reopens “by chance or appointment” in July.
While you're in the area, why not do a little rock climbing? Located between Abilene and Lucas is Rock City, a field of huge concretions — sandstone spheres deposited 100 million years ago — ripe for exploring by all ages.
Kansas history reaches back millions of years. Once the bottom of a vast inland sea, this history was rediscovered by farmers, scientists and adventurers through the search for fossils. Many of those have made their way into the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays. Hays is about an hour from Lucas and four hours from Kansas City.
Much of Kansas’ story is one of perseverance and the search for a better place. That’s apparent in the history of Nicodemus, an African American community founded in 1877. Today, remnants of the town are part of the National Parks Service as a National Historic Site. The landmark is open 24 hours a day, though the buildings have limited hours.
While exploring Kansas, don’t hesitate to turn off for a town’s small museum or roadside attraction, like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, in Cawker City. Visitors can add twine, too, and contribute to maintaining that world record.
Personal passions and unique perspectives are captured in these out-of-the-way curiosities and serve as testaments to the complex history of the land and people.
Although there are no coasts, no mountains, nor many forests in western Kansas, the landscape is nevertheless breathtaking. Strangely, the state isn’t well known for its geological wonders, but it boasts quite a few.
Opened in 2019, Little Jerusalem Badland State Park is a relative newcomer to the Kansas tourism scene — even though its chalk towers were formed approximately 85 million years ago. Hike the trails to overlook points, or sign up for a guided tour into the formations on select dates and times. A $5 vehicle park permit is required and can be paid at the self-service station, so have some cash on hand.
Nearby, a bit north of Scott City, the famous Monument Rocks (which are on private land, but with allowed public access) were declared a National Natural Landmark in 1968.
Another aspect of the Kansas landscape is human intervention, which converted the prairie and near-desert conditions into farmland. Remember those quirky museums we mentioned? Take a scenic byway to La Crosse and visit the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, located next door to the Post Rock Museum, for more background into the resources and inventions used to subdue the wildlands.
Do some road trip research or learn more about these places in George Frazier’s “The Last Wild Places in Kansas,” which deftly combines the author’s explorations around the state and the history that shaped it to what we know today.
If you think Kansas is just hot, dry and flat, think again. The Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway takes you from Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area (the largest inland wetland in the United States) to the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (a bird watcher’s wonderland). Before your trip, download this audio tour that explains the ecology and history of the area.
The city of Hutchinson — located three hours from Kansas City — offers activities from the stars to the subterranean. The Cosmosphere has artifacts from space exploration, an interactive kids’ area, space movies and more. If you really want to sink deep into Kansas, Strataca is an underground salt mine-turned-museum.
Lindsborg is another interesting town that honors its Swedish heritage with huge Dala horses along the main street.
Not too far away is Coronado Heights, a small castle-like structure built on a hill by the Works Progress Administration in 1936. It’s a great viewing and picnic spot with some surrounding trails (though the outhouse-style restrooms are not great). Coronado Heights was built to commemorate Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s attempt to find the legendary city of gold in 1541.
Of course, Kansas is best known for its prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is one of the last remaining intact prairie lands that used to run from Mexico to Canada. Only about 4% of the prairie remains, with most of it located just two hours from Kansas City.
There you'll find miles of hiking trails, a herd of bison (use caution when in the bison pasture), wildflowers, birds and a sunset you won't soon forget. The preserve is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Although there is no camping or overnight parking allowed in the preserve, it makes an excellent spot for stargazing, with a 360° view of the Milky Way. Ad Astra!
Driving through backroads and byways, you’ll be certain to spot barn quilts — large wooden quilt squares attached to barns, fences and homes. Learn more about these folk art treasures by following the Flint Hills Barn Quilt Trail, and learn how you can make your own, as a testament to your Kansas adventure. No barn necessary.
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