I’ve spent much time exploring Kansas from one side to the other along many scenic highways. Hays has always stood out to me as a city with great potential and a feel that makes you want to be there and included. I recently got to spend a little more time there, and granted, I was right. Here are several fun things to do in Hays, Kansas, on my itinerary.
Thanks to Hays CVB for hosting an overnight for my visit and some of my meals. As always, reviews and opinions are 100% mine and unbiased.
An Intro to Hays
Hays is a charming city with around 20K residents in the northwestern part of the Sunflower State. With a rich history dating back to the days of the Wild West, Hays offers a variety of attractions, outdoor offerings, restaurants, festivals, and other points of interest that are sure to delight visitors of all ages.
Pro Tip #1: If you are driving and want a more extended road trip, Wichita is two hours away, and Phillipsburg is an hour away. Wichita offers Botanica, the Keeper of the Plains, the Old Cowtown Museum, the Mid-America All-Indian Museum, and dozens of other great wonders. Phillipsburg, in Phillips County, has the state’s biggest rodeo and the Fort Bissell Museum. This treasure trove will captivate you.
Minutes away is the Dane G. Hansen Memorial Museum, possibly Kansas’ biggest benefactor, and a museum that would dazzle those even from big cultural cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
See where to eat on Kansas 36 in this post.
Sternberg Museum of Natural History
The accessible Sternberg Museum of Natural History features fossils, exhibits, and interactive displays that bring the prehistoric past to life. This wondrous museum, which is off the charts in the paleontology field, is managed by Fort Hays State University. The Diorama (pictured here) invites you to “Take a step back 65 million years ago and see Kansas and Colorado during the Late Cretaceous Epoch”.
Besides the exciting exhibits that include a fossil gallery, bringing fossils to life, and the Ice Age hall, you’ll also find a team of students cleaning up and investigating fossils in the Dane G. Hansen Paleontology Research Center. They are currently working on a huge find.
One of the temporary exhibits, Expedition Dinosaur: Rise of the Mammals, with excellent animatronic dinosaurs and mammals, is top-notch. Kids and adults will totally love it! My favorite museum attractions are the amphibians and creatures—namely the frogs, turtles, and adorable tiger salamander.
This Sternberg Museum is closed on Mondays, October through February. And can you believe it houses three million, that is, a million with an m, paleontology, geology, and zoology specimens? Adult tickets are $10, and youth, ages 4 to 12, are $7.
I love it when I find brick streets in towns, and even more when that feature recognizes an area. The Chestnut Street District (though it runs through Main Street) offers dozens of locally-owned businesses and restaurants. Take a walk through town using a self-guided map you can pick up in the visitor’s office or print from this link.
While there, pay close attention to the fun and whimsical murals around town and the stone sculptures by the incredible nationally-known artist and Hays native Pete Felten. You’ll find more of his treasures at the Stone Gallery on Sixth Street.
A local’s favorite eatery for foodies and craft beer enthusiasts is Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing Co. The inside of the restaurant is so cute, with a retro mural down one wall and a huge bar area on the other. Catch your favorite sporting events or listen to live music as you enjoy the benefits of a local brewpub with great food.
You’ll find a wide variety of tasty dishes at Gellas. I like to stick with the more unusual items that you don’t see on every menu. For starters, the Chips + Dip with creamy bacon horseradish and sweet onion dips is off the charts. I love soup, and a soup I’ve never seen anywhere else is Gella’s Green Bean, Potato, and Dumplings soup, which is simmered with bacon and cream to perfection.
For your main course, you can’t go wrong with a ground steak burger or the fried bologna sandwich with creamy coleslaw and cheddar cheese.
You’ll find more tasty eats along Kansas I-70 in this post.
Hays Arts Center
One of the best things to see in The Bricks neighborhood is the Hays Arts Center, across the street from Gellas. From Monday through Saturday, step inside this small but mighty town gem to see unique artwork in paintings, sculptures, photography, and mixed media.
I never cease to be in awe of the items on display and the fantastic talent of the artists, many of whom are from Kansas.
Pro Tip #2: Enjoy a seasonal Hays Arts Council Art Walk every quarter. See the website for dates.
The Paisley Pear Wine Bar
Another city gem is the Paisley Pear Wine Bar, Bistro and Market, where you can eat, drink, and be merry in an artsy space with merchandise and fun goods for purchase. Sip your favorite wine, or try a flight of new ones while savoring great munchies like cheeseboards, quiche, soft pretzels, Becky’s bierocks, and gourmet cheesecakes. Come for Saturday brunch, served from 9 to 11 AM.
Paisley Pear also has craft beer, mixed drinks, and wine slushes.
Fort Hays State Historic Site
Years ago, this fort protected railroad workers and those traveling the Smoky Hill Trail. Today, the Fort Hays State Historic Site serves as a series of four buildings and a visitor center that are interesting, educational, and well cared for. Exhibits include uniforms, weaponry, and personal items, as well as a few extraordinary things that tell the tale of a 19th-century frontier era fort. I enjoyed the officers’ quarters best.
Admission is free, but only part of the grounds are handicap accessible. They are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Fun Fact: The famous Buffalo Soldiers served here.
Frontier Park and Others
If you’ve ever wanted to admire the beauty of American bison, this is your chance. Frontier Park is free to enjoy as you stroll around the double-fenced area where a couple dozen bison live. There are benches to sit and soak up the setting. The most famous of the herd is a white bison and her adorable calf.
Other things to enjoy at Frontier Park are disc golf, hiking and biking trails, tennis, and pickleball courts. The city of Hays also proudly boasts an ARC-accessible playground at Seven Hills Park with a splash pad.
And why stop there? You’ll find a dog and skate park across town.
Hays’ Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex is another fantastic place to spend time outdoors. It features soccer fields, softball diamonds, and even a sand volleyball court.
There are few mushroom growers in the country, but the powerhouse couple behind Jensen Farms does this and dabbles in locally harvested honey and a full-service restaurant. Try their products, including the yummy signature honey lemonade, at Professor’s Classic Sandwich Shop & More on 11th Street. Please note the restaurant is closed on Sundays.
While I didn’t get to try the food, it sounds and looks terrific! While Jensen Farms grows a variety of mushrooms (in their basement), oyster shrooms are their specialty. Try them in dishes like the mushroom chili, mushroom taco burger, and mushroom stir-fry.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to be in the know to be privy to certain local items. I was just that for my delectable bread items from Cathy’s Breads, in a local house open for pick-up pre-orders only. This home-based micro-bakery provides a stellar list of artisan-style breads and sweet treats, including sourdough, marbled country rye, orchard bread (my fave!), croissants, biscotti, and caramel pecan sticky buns.
Pick-up is on Fridays from 3 to 5:30 PM.
Ellis County Historical Society Museum
If you’re a history buff, the Ellis County Historical Society Museum is a must-visit. The museum, open Monday through Thursday (off-season hours), boasts an impressive collection of artifacts and exhibits that tell the story of Hays and its settlers.
There is a main gallery, plus outbuildings, including the Harness Shop, Volga German Haus (pioneer home), and Firehouse Museum.
Hays Aquatic Park
For the summer months, visitors can join the locals at the awesome Hays Aquatic Park, with water slides, a competition pool, diving boards, a dump bucket, and a lazy river. Admission is $4.50 for those over age 2. Check the schedule for days when you can bring your dog to swim.
These parks are no strangers to the Kansas landscape, and if you were to follow I-70 across the state, you could make a two-week vacation just by going to a different park each day.
El Dos Mexican Restaurant
Pick up really tasty Mexican food or take out, as shown here, from El Dos Mexican Restaurant. I can attest to how delicious the chicken fajitas are, and the Mexican rice, refried beans, and queso. I also tried their horchata, being an addict in Nevada (where I live!), and it gets a thumbs up.
Premium Festival Offerings
Throughout the year, Hays hosts various festivals and events that draw locals and visitors alike. The Ellis County Fair includes 4-H shows, barrel racing, tractor pulls, the KPRA Rodeo, and Races at RPM Speedway in mid-July at the fairgrounds.
The Wild West Festival celebrates the city’s pioneering spirit with three days of live entertainment, food vendors, activities for all ages, and fireworks leading up to Independence Day. Join the Volga German Society to showcase a favorite time of year — Oktoberfest. And during the Christmas season, Hays transforms into a winter wonderland along a half-mile walking trail, complete with cocoa and beer (for purchase) with Christmas at Creekside.
Pheasant Run Pancake House
Locals told me I must have breakfast at Pheasant Run Pancake House, and I’m so glad I did. With a family-style environment and friendly servers, I thoroughly enjoyed my pancakes and sausage patties. Pheasant Run is a must when visiting Hays.
A Special Day in Hays
I lived out a dream by riding on some farm equipment on my first visit to Hays, Kansas. This city girl had a blast and literally had one of the best travel days ever on this unique experience.
Where to Stay in Hays
The newly opened Avid Hotel Hays has teeth in the lodging world. This brightly colored and fully functional modern hotel offers comfy rooms with all the bells and whistles, a great swimming pool, and a lovely space to enjoy throughout the lobby and dining area. Breakfast, Wi-Fi, and parking are complimentary.
I loved that the Avid Hotel (an IHG property) didn’t stick to a typical continental breakfast but rather unique items that ranged from packaged cereals, fresh fruit, and yogurt to portable hot breakfast sandwiches, burritos, and energy bars. Two other noteworthy items are the 24-hour gym and 24-hour bean-to-cup coffee service.
This is a brand I intend to look for when booking my accommodations in the future.