If the word “Kansas” conjures up images of tallgrass prairies and herds of bison, fair enough. My home state certainly provides the stereotypical scenery that inspired its state song, Home on the Range. But it also has plenty of other experiences for the art, foodie, history, sports, and nightlife loving traveler. Here’s what you should do, see, and eat when you visit Kansas.
To celebrate visiting all 50 states, an accomplishment that just happens to coincide with a milestone birthday of a similar number — WHAT??? I still feel 30 on the inside!!! — this article is the first in a series that will cover all 50 states and Washington, DC, over the next year.
It all started in America’s heartland, in the middle of the contiguous 48 United States. Over spring break of their senior year at Kansas State University, my mom and dad became parents for the first time. I only lived in Kansas for a few months before my parents proudly accepted their diplomas, packed everything they owned into their car, and headed southeast. At Ft. Benning, Georgia, my father began his four-year commitment to the US Army to repay the funding of his bachelor’s degree.
Up to this point in their young lives, my parents had only lived in Kansas. Moving to Georgia was an exciting, new adventure for them. And my dad’s first job out of college would set the stage for my entire childhood, infecting me with a travel bug that still courses through my body today, decades later.
No matter what article you read, you’re likely to find Kansas, along with several other Midwestern destinations, at the top of any “least visited states” list. To some degree, I understand. About as far from any ocean as you can get, Kansas can’t offer beach holidays. And, although Kansas isn’t as flat as you’d think, it also can’t offer a winter ski trip on par with its famous neighbor to the west. From the hustle and bustle of its cities to the amber waves of grain, from oil wells to fields full of grazing cattle, the Sunflower State does possess a unique beauty that can’t be missed if you want to truly experience America and all of her glory.
Whether you’re looking for an urban adventure or something off the beaten path, there is plenty to do, see, and taste when you explore Kansas. Here are the experiences you should add to your bucket list to fully experience the 34th state when you visit Kansas.
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Things to Do and See in Northeastern Kansas
Get Saucy at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que
Recommended by Stacey Billingsley from Love, Laughter, and Luggage
You simply can’t visit Kansas City without sampling some delicious barbeque. Kansas City is known on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas border for their wood-smoked brisket and burnt ends with a tomato-based sauce. The pulled pork and ribs are also wonderful, so no matter what meat you choose, you really can’t go wrong. Throw in some amazing sides like seasoned fries, BBQ beans, or potato salad, and you’ll be in complete barbeque heaven!
Related Article: How to Experience Kansas City Like the Fab Five from Queer Eye
If you happen to be on the Kansas side of the state line, give Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que a try. Multiple “best barbeque” lists place them at the top, and once you sample the melt-in-your-mouth barbeque, you’ll know why. Joe’s currently has three locations in Kansas City, Kansas, and all of them are great with their own special touches to make your experience memorable. I’ve sampled the pulled pork and the burnt ends, and let me tell you–Joe’s does it up right. If you find that you’re a fan of the sauce of the fry seasoning, you’ll be happy to know that you can purchase Joe’s products right there at the restaurant. One word of advice–be sure to get there early if you can. All the restaurants get extremely busy at meal times, and you may find yourself waiting in line, even for take-out. Ask anyone in line, though, and they will tell you that it’s absolutely worth it!
Related Article: 5 Kansas City Barbeque Joints that Prove to Your Taste Buds Why Kansas City is the BBQ Capital of the World
Dig Into Kansas’s Roots at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame
Recommended by Cindy Ladage from Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl
The National Agricultural Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas, was federally chartered in 1960. It honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the establishment, development, advancement or improvement of agriculture, either nationally or internationally. The stop also includes a world class agricultural museum with equipment that will excite anyone into old iron or hands-on educational activities. When you visit, don’t miss the plow on display that belonged to Harry Truman, local farm boy turned US President!
Pro Tip: Looking for more inspiration and advice as you plan to visit Kansas? Check out this Pinterest board focused exclusively on the Sunflower State.
Absorb the Beauty of the Nation’s Last Expanse of Unmowed Tallgrass Prairie
Recommended by Janet Frost from Go! Learn Things
As I worked my way across the country on the Old Santa Fe Trail, I discovered the Flint Hills. Flint Hills conjures up an image of narrow trails cutting through hills of layered rock. This is scientifically correct but not quite a complete picture of the reality. The truth is this 9,000 square mile swath of limestone and shale is covered with the last expanse of tallgrass prairie in the United States. Because the rocky terrain was impossible to plow and tame into farmland, the tallgrass prairie remained mostly intact in this area.
Thankfully, I was in a car and not in a covered wagon when I encountered this beautiful geologic phenomenon. It would have been a wet and rough ride on wooden wheels through the cold misty day I visited. There are three Flint Hills Tallgrass Preserves in Kansas and one in north central Oklahoma.
This day I explored The Tallgrass Preserve in Strong City. The National Park Service maintain the preserve. They work on preservation of the prairie, while sharing the story of ranching, Native American history and the diverse prairie habitat. There are over 40 miles of hiking trails in the preserve which is comprised of the 10,000 acre Spring Hill Ranch established in 1878.
Despite the dreary weather, I loved wandering the original ranch house, limestone outbuildings and one room schoolhouse. The fledgling birdwatcher in me was thrilled with the trills of meadowlarks. The ever faithful park ranger eagerly helped me identify the specific type of birds I had observed.
I could easily imagine the prairie on a beautiful summer day. The Flint Hills would be lush with greening grasses, flitting birds and rolling range.
Take a Ride on the Santa Fe Trail at the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop in Olathe
Recommended by Sage Scott, the Everyday Wanderer
Before the railroad came chugging into Olathe, Kansas, James “Beatty” Mahaffie and his family purchased a 340-acre farm in Olathe, about 30 miles southwest of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and quickly made it one of the most prosperous in the area.
In the mid 1860s, in order to expand their Missouri-based stagecoach line all the way to California, Barlow, Sanderson & Co. contracted with the Mahaffies to provide a stagecoach stop along the Santa Fe Trail. As Americans flocked westward in growing numbers, life on the Mahaffie farm expanded to include feeding hungry stagecoach passengers, tending to the teams of horses pulling the coaches, selling supplies to pioneers headed west, and serving as a campsite for covered wagons.
Studying the 19th century from a modern day perspective, we know that the railroad’s arrival rapidly diminished the popularity of (and ultimately killed) stagecoach travel. Fortunately, the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop remains as the only working stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Visit this living history museum to step back in time and experience life along the Santa Fe Trail at Beatty and Lucinda’s farm.
Other Places in the Northeast to Add to Your Travel Bucket List When You Visit Kansas
- Breathe in the beauty of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens
- Satisfy your need for speed at the Kansas Speedway
- Play outdoors at Shawnee Mission Park
- Stop and smell (or at least identify) the wildflowers in Northeast Kansas
- “Ride” the Pony Express in Washington County
- Test your bravery by touring the most haunted house in America in Atchison
- Break the glass ceiling at 14,000 feet with Amelia Earhart in her Kansas hometown
- Take a bite out of the Little Apple in the college town of Manhattan
- Drink delicious (and cruelty-free) coffee while making a difference in the world at Cause Coffee in De Soto
- See where school segregation started to dissipate at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka
- Share some of the best flavors from America’s Heartland with one of these food gifts from Kansas City.
Things to Do and See in Southeastern Kansas
Snap a Pic with the Inspiration for Disney Pixar’s Tow Mater from the Movie Cars
Recommended by Kylie from Between England and Iowa
Kansas is home to 13 miles of the classic 2000+ mile American road trip that is Route 66. It may only be a small distance compared to the rest of the Route, but in the small town of Galena, Kansas, you’ll find a rusty mining truck which became the inspiration for the much loved Disney Pixar character Tow Mater from the movie Cars.
Tow Mater sits on the forecourt outside the former gas station Cars On The Route (previously known as 4 Women On The Route). It sits next to a replica of Tow Mater himself, making a great photo opportunity for your visit to Kansas.
The owners of Cars On The Route are very proud of their connection to the movie and will happily tell visitors the story of Tow Tater and when the filmmaker and animator, John Lasseter, came knocking at their door. The mining truck in Kansas was the visual inspiration for Tow Mater, however his personality and his love of reversing came from a Route 66 local farther along the route.
‘Cars On The Route’ is a gift shop and restaurant which is open 7 days a week between 9am – 9pm but Tow Tater can still be enjoyed outside of opening hours.
Other Activities in the Southeastern Region to Add to Your Travel Bucket List When You Visit Kansas
- Stop in West Mineral to say hello to Big Brutus, the largest electric shovel in the world
Things to Do and See in North Central Kansas
Tour the 34th President’s Boyhood Home at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene
While New York is the home of seven presidents, Kansas is the home of just one, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The hard-working farm boy graduated from West Point and helped end World War II by directing the largest amphibious assault in history on D-Day. A few years later, the five-star general became the nation’s 34th commander in chief. Tour Ike’s boyhood home, explore his presidential library and museum, and pay your respects at his gravesite in Abilene when you visit Kansas.
Pro Tip: A $10 million renovation of the museum won’t be completed until Fall 2019, but here is a sneak peek of the newly renovated Eisenhower Museum.
Pro Tip: Looking for a place to stay in Abilene, Kansas? I recommend the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Abilene.
Other Activities in the North Central Region to Add to Your Travel Bucket List When You Visit Kansas
- Enjoy some of the best fried chicken in the midwest at the Brookville Hotel in Abilene
- Admire the Kansas murals that decorate the town of Abilene
- Roam Where the Buffaloes do in the Song Home on the Range
Things to Do and See in South Central Kansas
Play with the Animals at Tanganyika Wildlife Park
Recommended by Melody Pittman from Wherever I May Roam
Being a huge fan of animals, I was thrilled to find Tanganyika Wildlife Park, a hands-on animal lover’s dream attraction, only minutes from Wichita, Kansas. Here you experience animal encounters which may include learning about sloths, swimming with penguins, hanging out with Stacks (an Indian rhino), and feeding lemurs. The park has a multitude of fun, family-friendly experiences and adventures. Tanganyika has a most impressive big cat breeding program. If you’ve ever seen Jack Hanna do a show featuring cats, chances are he borrowed them from Tanganyika. Same goes for Disney’s Animal Kingdom as they frequently do business with Tanganyika.
Pro Tip: If you plan on seeing the USA in an RV, be sure to check out the best RV road trips in the US.
Other Activities in the South Central Region to Add to Your Travel Bucket List When You Visit Kansas
- See why Wichita is an up and coming US travel destination
- Say hej to Little Sweden in Lindsborg
- Experience why Wichita is the air capital of the world at the Kansas Aviation Museum
Things to Do and See in Northwestern Kansas
Marvel at Monument Rocks
Recommended by Tonya Prater from Travel Inspired Living
Monument Rocks may be a bit of a trip off the interstate, and you may wonder if you’re lost a time or two, but I promise you it will be well worth the effort. These massive rock outcroppings are not typical of the landscape you’ll find in Kansas, which is one of the reasons this attraction is so spectacular. Listed as a National Natural Landmark, and located on private property, the rock formations that tower over 70 feet in the air are thought to be the remnants of an ancient seabed.
Look closely at the rock and the ground you stand on and you’ll see dozens, if not hundreds of fossils embedded in the layers of wind-carved chalk pinnacles that raise from the flat Midwestern terrain. Climbing and camping are prohibited but plan ahead and pack a picnic to enjoy in front of this magnificent backdrop. Just make sure to pick up your trash and take it with you when you leave. One word of caution, the dirt roads leading to Monument Rocks may not be so easy to traverse in snowy or rainy weather so this is pretty much a warm weather attraction and while you’ll find plenty of parking at the site, I’m not sure I’d want to take a large RV either.
Relive the Old West in Hays
Recommended by Nicky Omohundro from Little Family Adventure
Quiet little towns aren’t always what they seem. The central Kansas town of Hays is one of those places. Step back in time to the days of the Old West and you’ll find that here outlaws and stagecoaches once dotted the landscape. For a time, Hays was the “end of the track” and it brought with it railroad workers, lawmen, military, and criminals. This expansion brought the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, George Custer, and others to Kansas.
After the Civil War, the railroad ushered in a wave of settlers to Kansas. New towns popped up along the tracks: Junction City, Salina, and Hays. The railroad moved on, but the town remained. It has served as a frontier town, a military outpost, agricultural community, and today is home to the Fort Hays State University. If you are interested in searching out the Wild West, you don’t have far to look. Whether you are just passing through or are looking for a destination, Hays is the spot you should make. Here are three destinations to see while you are here.
Fort Hays State Historic Site
Fort Hays was a frontier outpost set up to protect settlers traveling the Santa Fe Trail and stagecoaches riding along the Smoky Hill Trail. Today this site houses a few original buildings, parade grounds, and a visitor center. Exhibits provide a glimpse of the fort’s history and daily life. Nearby you can also view the resident bison herd.
Historic Hays Walking Tour
Hays is no longer the frontier town filled with outlaws, but there are glimpses of its past. The city set up a self-guided walking tour with 30+ points of interest. 25 bronze plaques serve as tour markers and tell the story of people, buildings, and events that shaped Hays and the “Wild West”. While on the tour you can also find many of the stone statutes created by local artist Pete Felten.
The First Boot Hill Cemetery
Hays not Dodge City, Kansas, is the first site for the Boot Hill Cemetery. It’s also one of the oldest west of the Mississippi. Located north of Hays, Boot Hill was the finally resting place for many outlaws and bandits. It’s actually how it got it’s name. Many of the outlaws buried there died in their boots. Many of the graves were relocated to Mount Allen Cemetery, but the site is marked by another of Pete Felten’s stone statute, “The Homesteader”.
Hays, Kansas, is more than a quiet little town along Interstate 70. It has a rich western history and so much more. Other area attractions will take you back to prehistoric times up to modern immigrants influencing local foods. Go see for yourself.
Other Activities in the Northwest to Add to Your Travel Bucket List When You Visit Kansas
- Experience the first black community west of the Mississippi River in Nicodemus
Things to Do and See in Southwestern Kansas
Experience the Wild, Wild West in Dodge City
Recommended by Janet Frost from Go! Learn Things
History is all about the famous and the infamous. Every time period has people and places of considerable notoriety. Dodge City is one of those notorious places filled with infamous people. From Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday to Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty, Dodge City abounds with history and characters. Some of the names are real, and some are fictional characters. Dodge City has a “checkered” past and they are proud to share it with you.
For history buffs, Dodge City is home to Fort Dodge, built in 1868, Boot Hill Museum, an 1875 replica of Front Street, and the Santa Fe Railroad Depot/Harvey House of 1888. Dodge City has been positioned as a vital crossroads of commerce and transportation, for 150 years. There is just enough actual history mixed in with long-held legends to keep things interesting. Residents all know the infamous histories and relish the chance to share them with visitors.
Today, Dodge City balances the historic and the contemporary. Dodge City Days, in late July, relive the wild days of cattle drives and rowdy cowboys. In contrast, trendy startups are investing in and restoring historic downtown buildings. Boot Hill Farm Distillery calls the old City Hall and fire station home. Right down Boot Hill from the Distillery sits Dodge City Brewing. The saloons full of swaggering gunfighters have been replaced by a classier, stylish clientele.
Their motto in Dodge City is: “Get the Heck into Dodge”. I heartily agree, Dodge City knows how to put fun into their history. Be sure to check in with the staff at Visit Dodge City for help with your visit. They are waiting and ready to help you enjoy their little slice of history.
Other Activities in the Southwest to Add to Your Travel Bucket List When You Visit Kansas
- Soar through hundreds of airplanes at the Mid-America Air Museum in Liberal
- Follow the yellow brick road to Dorothy’s House and the Land of Oz in Liberal
To Plan Your Trip to Kansas
Start with the Travel Kansas website where you can:
- request a free visitor guide,
- create a travel itinerary using their interactive map,
- sign up for updates and special offers, and
- find other useful information to plan your trip.
Have You Had a Chance to Visit Kansas?
What did you like most about the Sunflower State? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
Want to See More of the USA?
Here are the other articles in this See the USA series:
Please note: Photos not watermarked by me or clearly attributed to a specific photographer or organization are from the community of talented photographers over at Pixabay.