Looking to cowboy up, satisfy a history craving or stroll through small towns? The Sunflower State delivers astonishing variety across its vast open prairie.
MidWest Living has brought us 21 of our favorite experiences in Kansas, from hiking through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to exploring aviation history at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. See what Kansas has to offer you!
Flint Hills Prairie
The country’s largest tallgrass prairie dominates the east-central section of the state and includes 22 counties. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, established in 1996, is the only unit of the national park system dedicated to the rich natural and cultural history of this kind of ecosystem. Trails wind through scenic vistas, prairie grasses, wildflowers and rugged terrain. Rangers offer daily guided tours of an 1881 ranch house, as well as bus tours of the preserve, May-October.
Other ways to enjoy the Flint Hills’ 4.5 million rolling acres: slip on a Stetson and go to a rodeo, spend a couple of days at a ranch, take an afternoon trail ride, embark on a covered wagon trek, drive or pedal the 47.2-mile Flint Hills Scenic Byway, or listen to an outdoor concert. Check the Flint Hills Tourism Coalition website for information.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
Abilene (population: 6,700) was once a cow town at the end of the Chisholm Trail (a cattle trail from Texas). Most people know it now as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s hometown. Five buildings make up the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, including his boyhood home, museum, visitors center (a 23-minute film gives an intro to the site), library and Place of Meditation gravesite.
Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center
The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center’s amazing collection in Hutchinson (population: 40,000) includes the Liberty Bell 7, the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey, a moon rock and a German V-2 rocket. Interactive exhibits let kids sit at the Mission Control desk and climb aboard the White Room, where astronauts enter the capsule. Shows in the Justice Planetarium complement free public astronomy viewings on selected nights.
Another cool tour in Hutchinson: Visitors can go 650 feet below ground to visit the Kansas Underground Salt Museum.
Great Bend Wildlife Refuges
The wild side of Kansas is home to two of North America’s most crucial wetlands, both near the Arkansas River town of Great Bend (population: 15,000). Each spring, nearly 25 percent of North American shorebirds migrating east of the Rockies stop over at the Cheyenne Bottoms State Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
Trails, causeways and backroads provide opportunities to view pelicans, pintails, herons and gulls. Both areas have driving tours with brochures available at the entrances. The 77-mile Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway connects these two important preserves.
Wichita’s Cowboy Heritage
Before the aviation industry took off in the south-central Kansas community of Wichita, cattle reigned. The Old Cowtown Museum captures the rowdy mood of Wichita’s early days, when more than 1 million longhorns were herded to Chisholm Trail railheads. Located in downtown’s museum complex (on the Old Chisholm Trail), Old Cowtown re-creates an 1880s town. For the most interesting visit, come during special activities such as old-time baseball games, shoot-outs and chuck wagon dinners.
Sedgwick County Zoo
Come face to face with the wildest animals from around the world! See eye to eye with endangered chimpanzees and orangutans. Get to know the gorillas of The Downing Gorilla Forest. Spend the day with colorful birds, playful penguins, poison dart frogs and more than 3,000 other individual animals of all sizes, shapes and colors. Sedgwick County Zoo is the No. 1 outdoor family tourist attraction in Kansas.
Lawrence’s Eclectic Vibe
Just west of Kansas City, the college town of Lawrence is known for arts and culture; sports (Jayhawk basketball!); and a lively, eclectic downtown, with restaurants, coffee shops and a historic hotel.
A raid led by the infamous William Quantrill destroyed much of Lawrence during the Civil War, but you’ll see a few surviving Victorian homes in Old West Lawrence.
Among the attractions here: the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, with displays that include Comanche, the stuffed remains of the horse believed to be the only survivor from Lt. Col. George Custer’s Seventh Calvary detachment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, on the KU west campus, where exhibits chronicle the life of this Kansas native and KU grad.
Lindsborg’s Swedish Heritage
Settled in 1869 by Swedish immigrants, Lindsborg (population: 3,300) celebrates and offers all things Swedish: traditional works of art, festivals, historic sites and food. At Hemslojd, find colorful Dala horses, a Swedish tradition, and browse for other handcrafted Scandinavian gifts and imported foods.
Buildings at Old Mill Museum chronicle life from pioneer days through the 1920s.
And Svensk Hyllningsfest, Lindsborg’s biennial tribute to Swedish pioneers, features arts, crafts, folk dancing, ethnic music, smorgasbord and entertainment.
Botanica, The Wichita Gardens
More than two dozen themed gardens spread over 9 acres at Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, showcasing 3,600 species of plants. Sculptures, fountains, waterfalls and streams dot the grounds. Among the areas to explore: the Butterfly Garden, Woodland Walk, Garden on the Rocks, Sally Stone Sensory Garden and the Jayne Milburn Aquatic Collection.
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
Exhibits at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka explore the context and legacy of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end segregation. You can easily spend an hour or more strolling the building, which once served as Monroe Elementary School, one of the four former African-American elementary schools in Topeka.
Boot Hill Museum and Front Street
Once known as the wildest town in the West, Dodge City (population: 28,000) connects legend and lore at museums and rodeos. Stop at Boot Hill Museum and Front Street for a drink in the Long Branch Saloon, gunfights by the boardwalk, a walk through the Boot Hill cemetery, nightly variety shows, and exhibits on cowboys, gunslingers and lawmen.
If you’re in town in early August, the annual Dodge City Days has more than 50 events, including a rodeo, barbecue contest and Western parade.
Fort Scott’s Frontier Roots
Kansas’ frontier history spirals around Fort Scott, where today, Fort Scott National Historic Site preserves 20 buildings. (Look for 170-year-old ax marks on the beams.) Try to time your visit for a special event, so you can chat with reenactors.
The nearby National Cemetery is one of a handful of national cemeteries designated by President Abraham Lincoln.
Narrated trolley tours give visitors an introduction to local landmarks.
Fort Scott (population: 8,000) sits along the Frontier Military Scenic Byway, which traces Civil War history along US-69 as it winds south from Kansas City along the Kansas-Missouri border to Oklahoma.
Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure
See two destinations in one location just west of Salina (population: 49,500): a zoo and a wildlife museum with cool animatronics. Tram rides at Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure take visitors through the 65-acre preserve, with more than 100 species. The museum features hundreds of mounted animals in native settings and animatronic human robots.
McPherson Opera House
Take a guided tour to learn how a spectacular renovation brought this crumbling palace back to life, 121 years after the McPherson Opera House opened in 1889. If you can, catch one of the shows; $3 from each ticket goes toward the ongoing preservation of the hall. McPherson (population: 13,300) is in central Kansas.
Once a stop on the Oregon Trail, the town of Wamego (population: 4,400) in northeast Kansas is known for its Oz Museum, one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of Oz memorabilia from the classic 1939 movie.
Also worth a stop: The Columbian Theatre Museum and Art Center, a renovated 1800s opera house, and Oz Winery, which sells award-winning wines with fitting names: Run Toto Run and Witch in a Ditch.
Kansas State Capitol
Construction began on this copper-domed Topeka building in 1866 and took 37 years to complete. Today you can take free historic tours or dome tours (296 steps to the top—no elevator). The Kansas State Capitol is famous for its giant murals depicting events in Kansas history and includes a controversial unfinished set of paintings by John Steuart Curry.
With its past as an Old West cow town and a launchpad for the aviation industry, Wichita—Kansas’ largest city (metro population: 357,000)–strikes an interesting historical balance, reflected in the city’s mix of museums.
Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman were among the adventurers who launched the city’s aircraft industry in the early 1900s. Visitors can learn more about the area’s high-flying heritage at the Kansas Aviation Museum, the former terminal of the Wichita Municipal Airport, built in the Art Deco style of the 1930s.
Kansas City Sports
The Missouri and Kansas Rivers meet at Kansas City (population: 150,000), home to the Kansas Speedway and Kansas City T-Bones. NASCAR visits the speedway in summer and fall; track tours are available by reservation throughout the year.
For minor-league baseball fun, the T-Bones play at retro Community America Ballpark.
Atchison’s Aviation History
Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart helped put her hometown on the map. Visit the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum—the famed aviator’s grandparents’ home, a Gothic Revival cottage.
For more town history, board the trolley at the restored Santa Fe depot for a narrated 45-minute tour (offered April to October). Guides tell stories behind Atchison’s stately Victorian homes and historic sites.
Atchison (population: 10,000) also draws visitors eager to shop at Nell Hill’s, Mary Carol Garrity’s nationally acclaimed home-accessories shop.
Cimarron National Grassland
Download a brochure for a self-guided, 50-mile “Sea of Grass” driving tour of this short-grass prairie preserve in the southwest corner of Kansas. Stops along the way highlight wildlife, oil production, sand dunes, a prairie dog town, Santa Fe Trail ruts and scenic overlooks.
Cheney State Park
Cheney Reservoir (35 miles west of Wichita) serves three summertime essentials—water, sand and sunshine. Hidden swimming coves punctuate the shoreline at Cheney State Park, and strong winds make for one of Kansas’ most striking (and surprising) sights: sailboats zipping across bright blue water…under the bright blue dome of the prairie sky.