Content Produced in Partnership with Travel Kansas
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy famously says, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” But she just had to look beyond the surface to find a magical wonderland in her own backyard. With 12 scenic byways crisscrossing the state, basically any road you follow in Kansas (including that famous yellow brick one) will lead to something cool, unexpected, photogenic, or downright surprising.
Armed with my adventure cat Simon (the modern day Toto), I went in search of everything you wouldn’t expect to find in Kansas. (Fun fact: there’s even an Oz Winery because a little liquid courage makes the fairytale that much more real).
So click your heels three times and let’s explore some of the most off-the-beaten-path, unexpected attractions you had no idea were in Kansas.
Meet the Real Locals
While Kansas doesn’t, in fact, have flying monkeys, there are other mystical creatures roaming the area. The buffalo was one of the most sacred for the early Native American settlers who used every part of the animal for everything from ceremonial headdresses to tools and shelter. You can tour Indian Creek Bison Ranch; a working farm built upon Native American burial grounds to see the artifacts that have been uncovered on the property. Their herd of 20 bison frolics in their 150-acre backyard (they have anywhere from 3-60 at any given time) and you can get up close and personal as they feed and nurse their young.
A subterranean experience 650 feet below the earth’s surface, The Strataca Underground Salt Museum was formed about 275 million years ago when the Permian Sea dried up. Remnants of another era entirely, you can tour the salt mines on foot, by train or by tram to get wonderfully lost in the maze of abandoned passageways.
Get in on the Space Race at the Cosmosphere
I’ve frequently mentioned Kansas’ otherworldly landscapes, but the Cosmosphere is actually the place to learn about the space-time continuum. One of the first public planetariums in the Midwest, the Cosmosphere (an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute) holds the largest collection of US and Soviet space artifacts outside of Moscow including the Apollo 13 command center. There are interactive rocket shows, astronaut experiences, and a Cold War and German gallery. Not to be cheesy, but it’s out of this world.
Get INTO Dodge
An ode to the rough and tumble Wild West days, the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City is the place to celebrate the heyday of cowboys and outlaws. Old-timey ice cream parlors, saloons, and blacksmith shops set the scene for whimsical reenactments, which include gunfights, variety shows, and vigilante justice. Toss back a sarsaparilla and celebrate the tales and legends of some of the most notorious (and entertaining) criminals of the era.
Fly into the WWII Era
If you’re noticing a trend that Kansas is a trip back through time, you’re not wrong, and the next decade on display is the pre-war period of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Home of the Stearman biplane, this specially designed aircraft was used as a trainer for WWII fighter jets, which you can actually fly in. The two-seater jet has a completely exposed cockpit so feel the exhilaration of the wind in your hair as you gracefully dive, flip and maneuver. The plane is as iconic for history buffs as it is for av geeks so make sure you get a few shots of the rig blowing smoke through the sky.
Sail into Summer
Sailing is probably the last thing you’d picture doing in the plains, but Kansas actually has over 150 lakes for fishing, boating, and yes, even watersports. The Ninnescah Sailing Association will show you the ropes (literally) with adult and youth learn to sail classes held throughout the summer. You’ll feel miles away from the flatlands and the sweltering midday sun. Just consider it your own little slice of Oz.
Explore the State’s Underbelly
At first glance, the Wolf Hotel in Ellinwood looks like any other antique bed and breakfast. But below the surface, you’ll find an elaborate series of tunnels that once ran for two whole blocks in an elaborate underground network. The tunnels served a number of purposes throughout the decades, as coal storage, war hideouts, and even as a secret reprieve during prohibition. Today, you can tour the tunnels, visit the speakeasy. and imagine what life must’ve been like sneaking underground to get your kicks.
Looking for ultra-unique accommodations too?
Kansas has your standard hotels and home rentals, but why not make the journey a little more interesting? Subterra Castle is the first nuclear missile silo you can actually rent on Airbnb. Located west of Topeka, the estate is an underground cavern in the Flint Hills and has been featured on National Geographic, Oprah, and more. Pretty-Horses is another unique b&b that was created to house both humans and horses. You can also stay at an authentic dude ranch and working farm like Flying W Ranch or Gyp Hills Guest Ranch for access to private hiking, horses, and fishing ponds.
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