Will a Kansas vacation be part of your US road trip? There’s much more to see and do than most travelers realize, including some unique places to visit.
My Itchy Travel Feet featured contributor, Debi Lander (ByLanderSea), takes us on a trip to the Sunflower State. Enjoy her tips for the 8 best places to go on a Kansas vacation.
Kansas rests at the geographical center of the contiguous U.S., bordered by Nebraska to the north, Missouri to the east, Oklahoma to the south, and Colorado to the west. Nicknamed both the Sunflower State and Wheat State, many refer to our country’s 15th largest state as the “heartland of America.”
I truly looked forward to exploring the state on a Kansas vacation. My 7 city itinerary, plus one state park, included some of the best places to go in the Sunflower State.
If, like me, you can’t make a road trip, a flight to Kansas City, Missouri (research them here), makes an ideal place to begin your boomer travel adventures. Kansas City, Kansas, lies just across a bridge. (It must be confusing to have two cities with the same name, but so it is.)
Kansas City, Kansas: race cars and shopping
Kansas City, Kansas, or KCK, is considered a suburb of its Missouri neighbor but at only about one-fifth the size. The Kansas Speedway (official website) became the draw to the area when it opened in 2000.
During the 1980s-90s, residents found their hometown in a downward economic spiral. Luckily, they got a break as plans developed for the $208 million Kansas Speedway. The NASCAR track spun magic, and the surrounding county surged back to life.
Today, racecar drivers zoom around a 1.5-mile oval track and road course. NASCAR presents two main events per year, overfilling the 75,000-seat grandstands. A speedway racecar driving experience remains a thrilling opportunity for those wanting to push the pedal to the floor.
Across the street lies the Legends Outlet Mall, where statues and plaques honor famous folks from Kansas. These include former President Dwight Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, basketball pro Wilt Chamberlin, and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.
My favorite part of the complex was the yellow brick road, and, of course, I followed it.
Wamego: the Oz Museum
If you journey about an hour and a half west, you can tour the official Oz Museum in Wamego. Sorry to say I missed the hand-painted character masks, flying monkey miniatures used in the film, and original movie posters. While the Smithsonian showcases Dorothy’s original ruby slippers, the Oz Museum houses hand jeweled ones created for the 50th anniversary of the movie using 3,500 Swarovski crystals.
Bonner Springs: marbles and agriculture
Before leaving the Northeastern part of the state, boomers might consider a stop at Moon Marble (company website). Wooden board games from the 50s, old toys, and colorful marbles often prove challenging to find. This store stocks hundreds of games and machine-made marbles from pee-wee size to 50mm.
But, watching artisan and owner Bruce Breslow’s marble-making demonstration becomes the compelling reason to go. During presentations, Bruce explains the process of glass working, marble history, and other fascinating facts about glass-making.
The National Agriculture Hall of Fame (website) might not be on your list, but I found it most enlightening. The Hall of Fame honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to farming.
You’ll find familiar names such as George Washington Carver, Thomas Jefferson, Cyrus McCormick, Eli Whitney, and Squanto. Did you know Willie Nelson was inducted for his work with the Farm Aid concerts?
Continue into the Museum of Farming, devoted almost entirely to large antique farm machinery and implements. But, I also discovered a piece of equipment that generally sits out in the field.
Cows enter at will, and somehow the machine mechanically finds and then attaches what I’ll call ‘milking hands’ onto a cow’s teats. The apparatus is programmed to know how long to attend to each cow and then records the information. For a girl raised in suburbia, this seemed amazing.
Outside, but at the same location, sits Farm Town with an old one-room schoolhouse, hatchery, blacksmith shop, and general store. Children love the miniature narrow-gauge Union Pacific train that takes visitors for a ride around the lake. You also stroll around vegetable, flower, and pollinator gardens.
Topeka: the Kansas State Capital and Truckhenge
Topeka is the state capital, and naturally, a tour of the impressive government building, some 17 feet higher than the U.S. Capitol, seems fitting. The 1903 Statehouse includes the working offices for the governor and legislators.
After many years of debate, Ad Astra, a Kaw warrior, stands atop the dome, but he wasn’t placed there until 2002. The name, Ad Astra, comes from the state motto, translated “To the Stars.” The statue honors the state’s American Indian heritage, creates a unique and distinct profile, and conveys the ideas of aspiration and inspiration.
Today you can stand in many locations in Topeka and see Ad Astra from miles away. Or, climb to the top of the dome and stand on the cupola’s railed balcony 23 feet below the magnificent statue.
A tour includes more artworks of famous Kansans and murals highlighting historical moments. The John Steuart Curry mural depicting John Brown and the antislavery movement before the Civil War is considered one of his best. The style of many of the paintings resembles those by Thomas Hart Benton.
I will go out of my way to see roadside oddities and attractions like those larger-than-life cowboys in Texas or giant ice cream cones atop dairy shops. I came across a big rooster in Kansas, but Truckhenge shines as the real jewel.
Ron Lessman, the owner, says that the idea for Truckhenge came partly from Carhenge in Nebraska (old cars stacked in a circle similar to the boulders at Stonehenge) and partly from Cadillac Ranch (partially buried Cadillacs near Amarillo, Texas, where folks add spray paint.) But Ron says the inspiration mainly arose from his anger at Shawnee County bureaucrats.
Ron said, “The county said I couldn’t have any loose metal out here. They told me to pick my trucks up.”
So, Ron upended the vehicles into askew megaliths, turning them into slogan-bearing billboards, and placed them along the road to the gravel pit, on his property. Sure, it’s a bit wacky, but you might want to take a photo or selfie.
If you head west, about 90 miles, you can tour another important Kansas attraction in Abilene. Learn about Ike, a five-star general who became the 34th president at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home. (I need to return to visit this one.)
Wichita: sunflowers and Old West history
I traveled onward to Wichita in hopes of finding sunflower fields and stories about the Old West. Along the way, I passed many farms and discovered some more unexpected and quirky delights.
The state’s largest city, Wichita, sits on the historic Chisholm Trail, a rural highway used by cowboys driving cattle north from Texas. The Delano district (now incorporated into Wichita) was once a Wild West stop-over, where weary cattlemen found so-called rest and recreation. Hence, an area with many saloons and brothels.
Across the Arkansas River, the proper city, Topeka, insisted on tighter and tamer rules. Today many restaurants and bars fill those old watering holes.
In Delano, don’t miss Hatman Jack’s, the third-largest hat shop in the country with a client list that reads like a who’s who of the entertainment and music industry. Hatman Jack’s still uses many original pieces of equipment, and I became enthralled with the steamer and hat molds.
Hatman Jack’s remains one of the few hat stores that employ experts to customize hats to all head shapes. They even give recommendations for styles based upon a customer’s face shape, complexion, and other physical characteristics.
Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum, a colorful living history museum, reflects life on the frontier from 1860- to the 70s. One can easily spend an entire day in the complex that covers 23 acres.
Stroll down the lively main street, passing and entering over 60 historic and recreated shops with costumed interpreters. You’ll see an apothecary, general store, doctor’s office, milliner, blacksmith, and saloon complete with dancing girls.
Children and adults anxiously wait for the gunfight that happens twice a day. Wear your walking shoes and continue along to see the 1880s farmhouse, windmill, and farm equipment.
The Plains Indians inhabited the Wichita area before the settlers arrived. In tribute to the Native American tribes, Wichita’s icon, the Keeper of the Plains, rises above the banks of the Arkansas River. While the statue and surrounding monument appear impressive during the day, visit in the evening when oil drums are ignited around three sides of the figure.
You can learn more about the 44-foot steel sculpture and artist Blackbear Bosin in the nearby Mid-America All Indian Museum (website). I know some of you may think I am politically incorrect using American Indian. But, I was told the museum name was chosen by Bosin. The museum also displays artifacts, artworks, and rotating exhibits.
I desperately wanted to visit a sunflower farm blooming at its prime, but that calls for an early awakening on a summer’s morn. It’s worth the effort.
I passed bedraggled cornfields before arriving at glowing, golden yellow pastures exploding in light. I photographed the glorious blossoms from many angles trying to capture their beauty.
Sunflowers exude happiness, and seeing so many in one place felt reaffirming. The sunflower fields remain my most vivid memory of Kansas.
Hutchinson: salt mines
Plan ahead and save about three hours to tour the surprising attraction named Strataca. It’s a sprawling salt mine museum located within one of the world’s largest rock salt deposits. And the only salt mine open to the public in the U.S.
A long, 90-second elevator ride transports you down 650-feet to the former work area. Don’t worry about getting claustrophobic; the museum area is wide open. Other sections of the mine remain in operation but are closed to visitors.
Numerous video stations and displays explain the history and mining techniques as they progressed since the 1923 opening. Visitors hop onto two trains to ride through older, more confined areas of the mine.
Your driver narrates and helps promote an understanding of the challenging conditions of working underground. You’ll remember the place when needing rock salt next winter for snowy sidewalks or freezing roads and bridges.
Strataca maintains a constant temperature of 68 degrees and dry air, resulting in an excellent place for safe underground storage. Although I’d never heard about it, the movie industry sends many films, props, and costumes there for safeguarding.
Lindsborg: Little Sweden
About an hour’s drive north from Wichita lies Lindsborg, a small town founded by Swedish immigrants, nicknamed ‘Little Sweden.’ Today, thirty percent of the 3,500 population claim Swedish descent.
You can’t help but adore the local mascots – 28 large Dala Horses. The Swedish-style stout wooden animals each depict a theme in brightly colored paint.
For example, the horse outside the senior center wears glasses, the one in front of the wine shop is covered with grapevines. Stop into the small factory where you can see woodworkers making the traditional horses in all sizes and colors.
Lindsborg, a very walkable town, naturally offers many restaurants and shops to keep tourists happy. Christmas items are plentiful all year; most feature Swedish-inspired decorations.
Visitors also are drawn to watch residents dance in seasonal festivals wearing traditional costumes.
Take a drive up a winding road to a bluff overlooking the flatlands around Lindsborg and visit Coronado Castle. The native stone structure looks like a small castle but, in reality, stands as a mere shell with one great room and staircase up to a lookout and tower.
The WPA built the structure as a Work’s Project during the Great Depression. Residents like to picnic there; others are attracted to stargazing and astral photography.
The castle’s name comes from the belief that the famed explorer Coronado visited in the 1540s during his hunt for the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold.” Many say the site marks where Coronado may have ended his ill-fated expedition and returned to Mexico, disappointed.
Mushroom Rock State Park
My last quirky Kansas find revealed itself not far from Lindsborg, within a five-acre park: Mushroom Rock State Park (official website). As the name implies, some of the limestone rock formations look like giant, 25-ft tall mushrooms. It’s rather fun to feel you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.
Clearly, my visit to Kansas whirled with surprises and opened my mind to its rocking wonders. But, it was time to click my heels and head home. Still, there was much I missed.
I’d return to see the Eisenhower Presidential Library, the Oz Museum, and in the western part of the state, Dodge City. Consider visiting the Sunflower State and see what you find in the heartland.