Looking for a weekend getaway? Here are some Kansas day trips

May 29, 2017

Forget that trip to Disneyland with the family this summer.

Instead, more people should try to see Kansas through Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe’s eyes.

These two Kansas promoters see every town as a unique theme park that folks can travel to this summer.

“For those people who have explorer attitudes, Kansas has an infinite amount of spots to go,” said Penner, director of the Inman-based Kansas Sampler Foundation. “Little things add up to a great adventure.”

For instance, she said, in the little town of Burdett, you can play space-themed miniature golf for free. At Larned, the town’s water fountain displays a underwater colored- light show at night. And instead of a trip to the mountains, one can find Kansas has its own rugged terrain, including the Flint Hills and Gyp Hills areas.

In Waldron in Harper County is the grave of once-famous evangelist and TV talk show host Tammy Faye Bakker, who was known for her teary testimonials and heavy eye and face makeup. Her fans often leave tube of lipstick and mascara at her gravesite.

In Hutchinson, you can take subterranean learning adventure 650 feet below the Earth's surface at Strataca. Or stop by the Cosmosphere and see the historical space artifacts, including the Apollo 13 command module.

“There are so many things to do and see in Kansas that aren’t expensive,” said Penner, who, along with Rowe, recently published their latest Kansas travel book, “The Kansas Guidebook 2.”

“It’s all these things put together that make a Kansas trip interesting,” said Rowe.

Don't know where to start? Here are 10 ideas of day trips to take this summer. 

Coronado Heights

It seems logical that the Spanish explorer would have chosen this hill, which rises 300 feet above the valley floor.

At least, that is what the folks in Lindsborg say. When Coronado went searching for the seven cities of gold, it is thought he stood at the summit here in July 1541, peered across the horizon and realized his search was in vain.

In the late 1800s, a Bethany College professor found chainmail in the area, which was all that local folks needed to prove Coronado’s connection to the hill. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era program, employed area men to build a stone castle atop the hill, along with picnic areas and a restroom.

Coronado Heights has become a popular destination over the years, and recently underwent renovations.

Meanwhile, after picnicking there is plenty to see in Lindsborg, said Penner, who suggests renting a quadricycle at the Hemslojd - where you can watch wood craftsman create Swedish Dala horse signs. She also recommends biking or walking the Valkommen Trail that goes over a railroad bridge.

Other stops: The Old Mill Museum Complex, Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery, Lester Raymer’s Red Barn Studio. There are plenty of places to eat, too, including Ol Stuga and The Swedish Crown, where you can sample traditional Swedish cuisine.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Yes, there are hills here, and they roll for miles - windswept and treeless from spring burning.

The Flint Hills of Kansas is evidence that Kansas is far from flat. It’s also one of the last stands of tallgrass prairie that remains in the world. It’s because of the flint rock that the land was never plowed.

The best place to explore it is Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, a roughly 11,000-acre parcel operated by the National Park Service. It has more than 40 miles of backcountry hiking trails with views of wildflowers, bison and wide-open spaces.

You can also tour the Spring Hill Ranch, built in 1881 and a one-room school. The preserve's hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. There is no entrance fee.

Penner recommends stopping by the historic Clements stone arch bridge while in Chase County. Another scenic spot is Chase County State Lake.

In Cottonwood Falls, check out the 1873 courthouse, the oldest operating in the state.

Meanwhile, the area has several ghost towns with plenty of remains - including Cedar Point, Bazaar and Elmade.

Other unique finds include Ad Astra Food & Drink in Strong City, which has a locally sourced menu and sells Kansas craft beers. Then, head to Matfield Green where there are two contemporary art galleries in the town of 46 people. Not far is where famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne died in a plane crash. For tours of the crash site, which is marked by a monument, call (620) 273-8500.

Santa Fe Trail and Native American history

The county seat of Morris County, Council Grove is one of Kansas’ most historic towns.

This area is known for its rich Native American history. Council Grove is the site of the 1825 treaty with Osage Nation, which allowed for overland wagon traffic through the area on the Santa Fe Trail. The stump of the historic landmark - Council Oak, has been preserved.

The old trail is now part of Main Street, and there are 25 other historical sites around the town, including the Kaw Mission and the Hays House, which opened in 1857 and is the oldest continuously operating restaurant west of the Mississippi River.

Other stops include a Aldrich Apothecary, which has a 1920s soda fountain, and nearby Council Grove Lake

Meanwhile, just outside of town is the Allegawaho Heritage Park. It was once part of the original Council Grove Kaw Reservation. The Kaws were forced from the reservation in 1873 and relocated to Oklahoma. It’s named after Chief Allegawaho, who protested the move of his people.

The park includes a hiking trail, which takes hikers to the Monument of the Unknown Kanza Warrior, whose remains are interred in the monument base.

"Little House on the Prairie"

For Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, the outlay of this landscape just south of Independence is still much like Ingalls Wilder wrote about in "Little House on the Prairie" - one book in a series about her life as a pioneer girl in Kansas nearly 140 years ago.

Any given day, a steady stream of cars pulls off the two-lane roadway to Little House on the Prairie Museum near Independence, which is 100 miles from Wichita. According to a Wichita Eagle story, more than 20,000 people visit the site each year. Officials are trying to raise money to preserve the cabin, which was built in 1977 to specifications listed in Wilder’s book - “Little House on the Prairie.”

Also at the site is the Sunnyside School, the Wayside Post Office and the well that Pa dug is still there. Cost is $3 for adults and $1 for children. The site is open daily during the summer, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Penner said Wilder fans should stop by the Mount Hope Cemetery in Independence and find the gravestone of Dr. Tann, the Ingalls’ doctor who is mentioned the the book.

Meanwhile, Riverside Park also has activities for children. Take a 5-cent carousel ride, a miniature train excursion for a quarter or play miniature golf for a dollar. There is also a “Kiddy Land.”

Also, check out the American Soda Fountain - circa 1947 - and the Independence Historical Museum and Art Center, which honors the town’s famous citizens, including Alf Landon, William Inge, Wilder, Bill Kurtis, Vivian Vance and a space-traveling chimpanzee named Miss Able.

A Big Well

A decade ago, the claim to fame in Greensburg, Kansas, was a really big hole in the ground.

But these days, the little town that refused to vanish after an EF5 tornado is more than just a stop to see the world's largest hand-dug well.

Not that The Big Well - which has come a long way in 130 years - isn't a good reason to tour Greensburg.

At 109 feet deep and 32 feet, The Big Well is a world record setter.

The engineering marvel has been luring visitors off the highway since 1937. The well was completed in 1888 as the city's water source. It was used by the city until 1932.

The well itself survived the tornado, but the well museum was severely damaged. The well was closed until May 2012, when the well’s new visitors center was complete. The new museum features a vortex design with The Big Well in the center. A spiral staircase leads to the bottom.

Also while in town, check out the numerous buildings built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design specifications, including the hospital, school and city hall. You can borrow one of the city’s bicycles to do this, as well. A new app also can guide folks to the different sites. Visit visitgreensburgks.com to find it.

Penner recommends taking the drive to nearby Mullinville for a few more unique finds. Built in 1912 to house draft horses, the 16-sided Fromme-Birney Round Barn near Mullinville is open to the public at any time, with free admission. Also, find the work of folk artist M.T. Liggett that line U.S. 400 just outside Mullinville.

We like Ike

One of the greatest sources of pride for Abilene – which also enjoys a place in history as a cattle-trail town of the Old West and the first stop for Wild Bill Hickok as a lawman – is that President Dwight D. Eisenhower never forgot his hometown. He chose it for the site of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

It's here, amid 22 acres on the southern edge of Abilene, that a collection of buildings surround his boyhood white-frame home. This includes the library, which houses the presidential papers and other research resources, a museum, a visitor's center and the meditation chapel where the former president and his wife, Mamie, and their 3-year-old son, Doud, are buried.

Like every presidential library, Eisenhower's depicts pictures of a great man. Here he is seen as a boy, playing baseball for Abilene High School. Another is of a kid in overalls, posing with his elementary school class. Years later, he waves to a crowd of Abilene residents in the wee hours of the morning of June 24, 1945, not long after World War II ended. 

Check out the website for admission prices - www.eisenhower.archives.gov. Hours in June and July are 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.

For other Eisenhower stops, eat at Mr. K's Farmhouse, which was formerly known as Lena's. The hilltop restaurant hosted President Eisenhower. Also, Eisenhower's parents, David and Ida, are buried in Abilene Cemetery.

Other sites in Abilene: Old Abilene Town, Russell Stover, Seelye Mansion, Lebold Mansion, Greyhound Hall of Fame and the Brookville Hotel.

Fort Larned

It is one of the best preserved frontier military posts in the American West. Nine of the buildings are original.

Fort Larned began as a place to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.

Used from 1859 to 1878 as an infantry fort, soldiers would walk alongside the wagon trains that passed within a few hundred feet of the fort, protecting them from attacks.

As the trail traffic dwindled, the fort was no longer needed and it eventually was sold at public auction and operated as a ranch site.

In August 1964, Fort Larned became Fort Larned National Historic Site and a unit of the National Park System.

Fort Larned is open daily and is free. Visitors can walk around the site and also see live re-enactments on certain days.

Garden of Eden

Eighty-five years after his death, folks can look through the glass-sided tomb and see the decomposing creator of Lucas' Garden of Eden.

S.P. Dinsmoor’s body preserved, yet decaying body is a tourist attraction Lucas. Dinsmoor died July 21, 1932.

He used 113 tons of concrete to form the Garden of Eden - one of Kansas’ most famous works of art in this little town of 400 people.

At least, it is the most unusual. A concrete Adam and Eve greet visitors. Above them, the devil, storks and frolicking children reside. Cain murders Abel, angels, serpents and a watchful eye of the all-seeing deity also are among the 150 sculptures in his garden, which surrounds Dinsmoor’s little limestone house.

The site attracts the curious from around the globe, and Dinsmoor is still there, on display for the world to see if they choose.

Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran, schoolteacher, farmer, Populist thinker and a forerunner in grassroots art. He started building the limestone cabin home in 1907 at the age of 64, working 22 years on his project until he could no longer see. Eden's hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily during the summer. Cost is $7 for adults, $2 for children 6 to 12 and youth 5 and under are free.

Lucas is the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas. Besides Dinsmoor, stop by Miller’s Park to see the miniature town of Lucas made out of rocks; Florence Deeble’s Sculpture Rock Garden, Grassroots Art Center and Bowl Plaza - where a public restroom is a work of art.

Gyp Hills

Like the Flint Hills, the rugged Gyp Hills are far from the supposed flat Kansas landscape.

The Gyp Hills are part of an official Kansas scenic byway, which runs along a 40-mile stretch of Highway 160 from Medicine Lodge to Coldwater. But to see the area's real beauty, you have to take the backroads.

Gyp Hill Scenic Drive is a 22-mile route that winds through the open range, cutting through some of the country’s most dramatic scenery.

Then head north to Sun City where you can stop at Buster’s - the iconic cowboy town saloon that serves beef and brew. For other sites, head into Medicine Lodge to Carry Nation’s home, the Stockade Museum and the Peace Treaty Monument, which commemorates the 1867 treaty between the U.S. government and five tribes of Plains Indians.

Lake Scott

In semi-arid western Kansas, Lake Scott State Park is like a prairie oasis.

The 1,020-acre park is surrounded by the 100-acre, spring-fed Scott State Fishing Lake. Also, it includes deep-wooded canyons and Ogallala limestone bluffs, along with early American history. National Geographic named it one of the 50 must-see state parks.

One can walk by the remains of the northernmost pueblo in North America – a remnant built by a group of Taos American Indians in the 1660s that is now a National Historic Landmark.

Or take a tour of the Steele house and garden, the dwelling of a family who homesteaded here in the late 1880s.

Just a mile south is Battle Canyon – the location of the last Native American battle in Kansas, which occurred in 1878.

The park is more than history, however, and provides a majestic setting for all outdoor recreation. Fishing is popular, and nature trails provide naturalists the opportunity to view native plants and animals.

Penner said that while in the area, stop at Keystone Gallery and the Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection in Scott City. Sometime this summer, the region’s newest attraction will open - The Nature Conservancy’s Little Jerusalem - a mile long chalk formation in Logan County.