A Road Trip Through the Flint Hills of Kansas
My visit to Kansas turned into a photogenic road trip as I left the city of Wichita en route to visit Kansas City. Taking K-177, I found myself driving across the illustrious Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, adorned with amber waves of grain, lovely barns, farmhouses, and limestone bluffs. Wild native sunflowers, the state flower of Kansas, grew by the thousands across the fields that made up my scenery for nearly four hours. Oh, corn and wheat were certainly prevalent as well.
The Flint Hills, two-lane roads twisting and turning through the beautiful Kansas scenery is breathtaking! It is hard to imagine that the landscape has not changed much in thousands of years. This was where Plains Native Americans lived on the prairie. Later, the Wagon Train Trail came through the area pulled by oxen and mules, stopping in Council Grove to regroup and rest. This was part of the Sante Fe Trail, a must on your road trip through the Flint Hills.
In nearby Strong City, you will find the ecosystem Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. At the prairie, take a self-guided tour or hike a native trail amidst the 40 species of grasses found here. Called “Jewel of the Flint Hills”, this scenic 11,000-acre preserve will instill a peaceful feeling like that of which mountain or beach lovers experience. It is hard to imagine that only 4% of the country’s tallgrass still exists, and half of that is in Kansas. The Tallgrass Prairie is formed on limestone rock underneath the topsoil, making the ground impossible to plow. Big Blue Stem, the famous grass that grows here, can withstand the demanding climate and winds of Kansas.
Hikers should be cautious and excited about the possibility of seeing hawks, rabbits, bison, foxes, and coyotes. Herbs grow sporadically throughout the prairie, so be prepared to be intoxicated by the sweet and sensual scents of blue Sage and fetid Marigold. Occasional bursts of color dot the landscape in wildflower forms and lovely flowers such as the Scarlet Beeblossom and Ironweed. The solitude of Tallgrass Prairie is unparalleled to anywhere I have been in the country. At only 20 years old, it is one of the youngest state parks.
Council Grove’s claim to fame is that it was a highly traveled wagon trail and train area, carrying pioneers settling in the West. The town was a local trade route for the enormous groups of travelers, each wagon train consisting of roughly 15 wagons and 15-20 people on each. Today, it upholds the historic factor but also has plenty of things to do and see for a town its size. Points of interest around town are the City Calaboose (jail cell), Mission State Historic Site (school for kaw Indian boys), and the modern Neosho Riverwalk, an ADA accessible waterfront spot where travelers once crossed the river on their journey between towns.
Other sites include Custer Elm (Seth Hays house), the post office, Cowboy Jail, and several historic trees. In fact, Council Grove was named a Tree-City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. The historic trees are marked with plaques and at one time, travelers would leave notes for visitors. You can learn more about that at the Morris County Historical Society, an interesting museum in town.
The Madonna of the Trail, a statue of a pioneer woman holding a baby and another young child clinging to her leg, is one of the 12 statues erected by each state that the National Old Trails ran through. Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated the statues in 1928.
Hays House Restaurant
One of the highlights of my Flint Hills road trip was a stop to the historic Hays House Restaurant. Owned by Seth Hays, Daniel Boone’s great-grandson and the first resident of Council Grove, the restaurant has been in operation since 1857. It touts being the oldest continually operating restaurant West of the Mississippi and is a national historic landmark. Tourists and locals flock to Hays House for the tasty food as well as friendly service and incredible pies. Chicken Fried Steak is one of the popular dishes that pair well with a visit to Hays House’s well-stocked salad bar. Two noteworthy dressings grace the buffet, a homemade dill dressing (house specialty) and Dorothy Lynch, a dressing I discovered in Kansas that is mouth-watering good!
On my visit, I had the Sunday buffet, a darned good option. The menu was plentiful but I opted for the skillet fried chicken, BBQ green beans, cauliflower casserole, and a salad. Oh my, my lunch was so good that I ended up buying the Hays House cookbook to take home with me. Don’t miss the sweet tea; it is perfection!
Upstairs, is a warm and welcoming tavern with live entertainment and modern flair. There is also patio seating available which overlooks the downtown area.
I immediately recognized the sense of community and loyalty that the people in Council Grove displayed proudly. On my next visit, I would like to stay at the Cottage House Bed & Breakfast, open for business since 1867. Council Grove, the only city with this name in the world, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
When I arrived in Topeka, the first thing I had to do was drive around the Kansas State Capitol. To be honest, I had never even seen a picture of it. It was late in the evening so I did not stop, but it was definitely worth the detour. My stop did include exploring the Brown vs. Board of Education site, a part of the National Park Service. This landmark commemorates the end to segregation in public schools as a result of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. Touring the Brown vs. Board of Education (Monroe Elementary School) is heart-wrenching but educational. Videos show interviews and footage of civil rights issues while classrooms are perfectly preserved in time for viewing. I only had a short time there but was fascinated by the collection displayed.
I arrived in Lawrence and had no idea this was such a fast-paced college town. My hotel was the TownePlace Suites Lawrence Downtown (a Marriott brand), the newest hotel in the heart of downtown. It was magnificent. I loved my accommodations, especially the fully equipped kitchen and stylish multi-functional desk/command center work area. I appreciated the high-quality Paul Mitchell toiletries. The TownePlace Suites lobby area was always abuzz with guests enjoying the restaurant, pool tables, and intimate seating arrangements. There was even an outdoor courtyard with a fire pit and barbecue area. Free breakfast is included AND the property is pet-friendly.
Hitting the streets before everything closed, I made my way to a local Indian restaurant (India Palace) and man, did I hit the jackpot! After eating Samosas, Naan, and Chicken Tikka Masala, I left totally stuffed. This was a delicious Indian eatery. Afterwards, I went back to my hotel and crashed.
The next morning, I spent a few hours roaming around Lawrence. Several streets lined with quaint cafes, international eats, and locally-owned boutiques made up the landscape. I browsed fun stores and found really unique gifts and home accessories. Massachusetts Street is the really popular one in downtown Lawrence so don’t miss it.
Nourishment for the Mind, Heart, and Soul on My Road Trip Through the Flint Hills
My road trip through the Flint Hills filled my heart, mind, and soul. I learned so many things, not only about Kansas, but about ecotourism, history, and nature, while meeting some wonderful people. If you have the chance to explore middle America’s beauty, I highly recommend it.
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