(UPDATED ON February 3, 2020) 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 rolling hills, the 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 undoubtedly prevalent as well.
An Incredibly Scenic Drive
The Flint Hills, 35 towns across the state, features two-lane roads twisting and turning through beautiful, breathtaking Kansas scenery! In some areas, the tall grasses are waist high, and in others, five to six feet tall. 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. You can still see a million heads of cattle along the Flint Hills, and occasional herds of bison.
At one time, the world had 170 million acres of tall grasses, but now only 4% of those remain, with the majority in Kansas and some in Oklahoma.
This area is part of the Santa Fe Trail, a must on your road trip through the Flint Hills.
In 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. This makes it perfect for cattle grazing. Big Blue Stem, the high 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. The most popular hiking trail is Scenic Overlook Trail, at 3.2 miles, which is home to the bison herd.
Occasional bursts of color dot the landscape and vistas 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. It is one of the unique eco-systems in the world. At only 20 years old, Tallgrass Prairie is one of the youngest state parks.
Junction City has to be one of the most patriotic towns I’ve ever visited. It is worth hopping off Kansas I-70 even if to just see and admire the Veteran’s Memorials and parks. Two attractions I recommend seeing are the C.L. Hoover Opera House, circa 1882, and the Geary County Historical Museum, a three-story limestone building containing a bunch of local treasures. You could easily fall down the rabbit hole in this museum for hours! Junction City also has a 9 foot Buffalo Soldier bronze statue that is remarkable.
Enjoy a top-notch meal at Munson’s Prime Steakhouse, with award-winning steaks and a reasonably priced daily lunch buffet. The food is delicious, and the restaurant is really charming. Homemade ice cream follows each meal, so be sure to save room. Your jaw is sure to drop when you see the homemade contraption that churns the creamy treat.
One of the most diverse cities in Kansas, with an arsenal of attractions, is Abilene, home of 34th US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. You will find the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home in town.
Step back in history at the Old Abilene Town, where you can watch interpreters in a gunfight and friendly banter that involves the audience. From this location, you can catch a ride on the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad, which takes you on a ten-mile journey through gorgeous farmland. Be sure to stop by the C.W. Parker Carousel, one of the oldest (1901) and a National Historic Landmark.
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 large 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. Council Grove was named the Tree-City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. The landmark 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, a fascinating museum in town.
The Madonna of the Trail, a statue of a pioneer mother of the covered wagon days holding a baby and another young child is clinging to her leg. It is one of the 12 statues erected by each state that the National Old Trails ran through. Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated the figures in 1928.
Set aside time to dine at 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. Go with the lunch buffet (think BBQ green beans, fried chicken, tons of veggies) and don’t miss the Dorothy Lynch salad dressing, a house specialty.
This adorable town is complete with local boutiques, eateries, and a spectacular historic theater. The Emporia Grenada Theatre is one of the oldest in Kansas, dating back to 1929. It is Colonial Revival style and features a packed calendar of local productions, concerts, and classic movies year-round.
Hungry? Pop into The Sweet Grenada for really good flavored popcorn (including chocolate drizzled), fudge, truffles, and candies, or Casa Ramos for your favorite Mexican dishes.
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. It even looked lovely against the gray skies.
My stop did include exploring the Brown vs. Board of Education site, a part of the National Park Service. This landmark commemorates the end of 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.
Okay, we’re definitely in Kansas with this friendly stop. Wamego is home to the Oz Museum, an adorable treasure trove stuffed with memorabilia from the movie, book, and overall Wizard of Oz fame. From stuffed monkeys to well-executed movie scenes, this museum is excellent for the whole family. Whether you pay admission to go through the museum or not, you can still enjoy browsing the extraordinary gift shop.
After visiting the Oz Museum, walk over to Friendship House Bakery to have a tasty bite or dessert. You can also enjoy a pleasing glass of wine in the themed Oz Winery right down the street.
Lawrence has a few special attractions you won’t want to miss, including the Washington Creek Lavender Farm, University of Kansas campus, and Massachusetts Street, the main artery downtown lined with cafes and locally-owned boutiques.
I stayed at the TownePlace Suites Lawrence Downtown (a Marriott brand), in the heart of town. I loved the accommodations, especially the fully equipped kitchen, and stylish multi-functional desk/command center work area. I also appreciated the high-quality Paul Mitchell toiletries.
The TownePlace Suites lobby area was always abuzz with guests enjoying the restaurant, pool tables, and special 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.
Having been a repeat visitor throughout Kansas, Wichita is the place that has my heart. I love this town so darned much. From world-class museums to adult-hipster clubs and offerings, this is the town I recommend anyone and everyone to visit traveling the Midwest.
History lovers will enjoy Old Cowtown Museum, chock full of historical buildings, living history interpreters, and an adorable cow. I also recommend seeing the Wichita Art Museum (with a killer piece of Dale Chihuly glass) and the Mid-American All-Indian Center and Museum. It is one of the most thorough museums I think I’ve visited in my whole life, and I felt so full of knowledge leaving there and attending my first Pow-Wow. Kids will love the Sedgwick County Zoo.
For great dining options in Wichita, consider Old Mill Tasty Shop, a 1932 retro soda fountain with delicious comfort foods, chili, soup, and phosphates. A few other hotspots for a great bite are Doo-Dah Diner, The Anchor, The Monarch, and The Donut Hole for scrumptious sweet treats. Quench your thirst at Reverie Coffee Roasters or Nortons Brewing Company.
Dinner is included with a show at Mosley Street Melodrama, an audience participation theater with class acts, and a guaranteed fun time. Conclude your Wichita visit by seeing the stunning 44-foot Keep of the Plains statue that is lit each night on a dramatic pedestal. The sight is breathtaking!
Who knew there was another Manhattan outside of New York City? In fact, this is one of the most sophisticated cities in Kansas, no surprise there. The premier city attraction is the Flint Hills Discovery Center. I’m grasping for words on how to describe this educational offering because it is nothing short of remarkable. Start your visit by watching the Disney-esque interactive movie that explains the particular Flint Hills region. Don’t miss Midwest Dream Car Collection, too, while you are in Manhattan. This museum is chock full of gorgeous rides from modern to vintage.
There is no shortage of really delicious restaurants in Manhattan. I recommend an exceptional donut from Varsity Donuts, followed by a hearty lunch at Coco Bolos, a Southwestern restaurant with a fun vibe, impressive menu, and gratifying margaritas. Another tasty choice is Radina’s Bakehouse, with several locations around town. They are perfect for yummy coffee, teas, pastries, and dozens of breakfast and lunch items.
End your perfect day with a yummy glass of wine from Liquid Art Winery and Estate, with 360° views overlooking the marvelous Flint Hills. They also feature craft ciders.
The Flint Hills: Nourishment for the Mind, Heart, and Soul
My road trip through the Flint Hills of Kansas 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.
Disclaimer: Part of my travels through the Flint Hills were sponsored by Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism and the mentioned CVB offices. All opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
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