Wicked witches and yellow-brick roads, pitched battles over slavery and tornadoes powerful enough to pulverize entire towns are some of the more vivid images of Kansas. But the common image – amber waves of grain from north to south and east to west – is closer to modern reality.
There's a simple beauty to the green rolling hills and limitless horizons. Places such as Chase County beguile those who value understatement. Gems abound, from the superb space museum in Hutchinson to the indie music clubs of Lawrence. Most importantly, follow the Great Plains credo of ditching the interstate for the two-laners and make your own discoveries.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kansas.
Possibly the most surprising sight in Kansas, this amazing museum captures the race to the moon better than any museum on the planet. Absorbing displays and artifacts such as the Apollo 13 command module and entire rockets will enthrall you for hours. You'll come to realize why the museum is regularly called in to build props for Hollywood movies portraying the space race, including Apollo 13. It's an easy day trip from Wichita or diversion off I-70 or US 50.
This 11,000-acre national preserve, 2 miles northwest of Strong City, is a perfect place to hike the prairie, with its 40 miles of scenic trails. Bison were reintroduced here in 2009 and now number about 100, sharing the space with prairie chickens (whose mating rituals are legendary!). Rangers give tours of a preserved ranch and offer bus tours from the visitor center, explaining just how rare this ecosystem is (less than 4% of North America's original tallgrass prairie remains).
It took real guts to challenge the segregationist laws common in the US in the 1950s and the stories of these courageous men and women are here. This National Historic Site is set in Monroe Elementary School, one of Topeka's African American schools at the time of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that banned segregation in US schools. The displays cover the entire Civil Rights movement.
Six miles west of town, Fort Larned National Historic Site is a remarkably well-preserved 1860s fort in an evocative setting. It's well worth the trip to learn about the turbulent history of the Indian Wars era. The Santa Fe Trail passed right out front and it's easy to imagine wagons rolling past.
In 1907 Samuel Dinsmoor began filling his yard with enormous concrete sculptures reflecting his eccentric philosophies relating to contemporary life and the hereafter. Tours reveal idiosyncratic stories and his remains in a glass-topped coffin(!).
An open-air museum that re-creates the Wild West (as seen on TV…). Over 50 pioneer-era buildings, staged gunfights (April to October) and guides in cowboy costumes thrill kids. Enjoy the river walks.
Fittingly set against a backdrop of grain elevators, the rather regal Eisenhower Presidential Center includes Ike's boyhood home, a recently redesigned museum and library, and his and Mamie's graves. The interactive exhibits cover the Eisenhower presidential era (1953–61) and his role as the allied commander in Europe in WWII. Don't miss the original script for his landmark 1961 speech where he warned of the 'military–industrial complex'.
The iconic song of the American West, 'Home on the Range,' was written by Brewster M Higley in 1871 at a remote cabin in northern Kansas. Today you can visit the lovely and evocative site of the original cabin. Even if you don't see any deer and antelope at play, you'll easily feel the magic that inspired Higley. Turn off US 36 onto Hwy 8, 1 mile west of Athol, and drive nine sign-posted miles to the north.
Right on the river confluence, this architecturally striking children's museum has no end of cool exhibits, including a tornado chamber where you can feel 75mph winds, and a sublime erosion model that shows water creating a new little Kansas. One gallery details the ups and downs of the local aviation industry.