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When you picture Kansas, your mind may instinctively drift to the Sunflower State, golden wheat swaying in the breeze, or the Yellow Brick Road. Despite what we’ve been conditioned to believe, shades of yellow are not even close to the only color you’ll find in Kansas. In fact, there’s a view with every hue of the rainbow on full display. Kansas wildlife and parks will surprise you at every turn.
You may also think flatlands. It is in the Midwest, after all. While it is generally accurate that farmland lines the highways, byways and main thoroughfares, get a little off the beaten path and you’ll find landscapes you never dreamed possible.
I love finding gems hidden in plain sight and nowhere was this more apparent than the high plains. Most of these spots locals don’t even know about. Some aren’t in Google Maps. Some take you down unmarked country roads. But you know what Rodney Atkins says about taking a back road – put a little gravel in your travel and get lost in the right direction with me.
Here are a few amazing views to lookout for:
St. Francis, Kansas
The Arikaree Breaks are located in the extreme northwest corner of the state right across the Colorado border on the Land & Sky Scenic Byway (America’s first agriculturally focused drive). Named one of the eight wonders of Kansas, the Breaks are lush deep green ravines jaggedly cutting through the plains and extend for 36 miles. There are three distinct geological sections of the Badlands: Horse Thief Cave (which requires crawling under a barbed wire fence to access), Devil’s Gap and Three Corners.
How to Do It: There is a self-drive map available online and from the visitor’s center, but it’s better to have the Cheyenne County tourism office point you in the right direction. Some of the markers and signage are missing or faded. Be respectful as it’s mostly private land and don’t attempt the drive after bad weather, as the roads can be rough. Make sure to sign the guestbook in the mailbox!
Historic Lake Scott State Park
Scott City, Kansas
The only known archaeological ruins in Kansas are contrasted by a stunning mirrored lake, boat launch, and fishing dock. An oasis in the western prairie, pack a picnic to enjoy by the water before exploring the historic site. Uncovered by excavations in the late 1800s, it’s believed to be one of the earliest areas of pueblo settlement.
How to Do It: There are two main ruin areas on the trail map – Steele’s House of Stone and El Cuartelejo Indian Pueblo. The house is accessible with a steep hill climb. Ascend for the best photos, but don’t forget to pack water as the summer sun can be punishing. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Boot Hill Museum
Dodge City, Kansas
Kansas’s Old West Town is kitschy in all the right ways. A replica Front Street has been recreated a few blocks down from it’s original location, reliving its heyday as the wild, west frontier. There are over 30 buildings you can walk through to experience everything from the country jail to the dentist’s office. It’s located on the original site of the old cemetery with headstones that highlight entertaining vigilante tales of the prostitutes, gamblers, and thieves that made the area famous, and you can’t help but wonder if the stories are true or fabricated. The area documents the rough and tumble clashes between the Native Americans and the rowdy settlers and buffalo hunters. Grab a sarsaparilla (Root Beer meets Cream Soda) and get to exploring.
How to Do It: Time your visit around one of the gun fight reenactments at high noon or 7 p.m. when Miss Kitty and the can-can girls put on a show. Don’t forget to swing by the Boot Hill Distillery for a swig on your way out of town. It is housed in the former municipal building, which was once city hall, the town firehouse, police station, and jail all in one. If walls could talk, you’d hear the whole story here. Still, the tour will give you plenty of insight into the distilling process and the local legends. It’s also listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Medicine Lodge, Kansas
Gypsum Hills is one of Kansas’s most dramatic landscapes. Rich red rolling hills, deep buffs and buttes, and abundant wildflowers make this one of the most stunningly beautiful places in the Midwest. Gypsum crystals sprinkle the area like a shining beacon of hope as the area survived one of the worst wildfires in U.S. history in 2016. It still looks like a glorious reprieve from the hustle and bustle of big city life. Neighboring Medicine Lodge is famously where five Indian Tribes signed the peace treaty with the U.S. government in 1867.
How to Do It: You can drive the Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway for a taste, but to really get to know the area, stay at the Gyp Hills Guest Ranch for access to private hiking, fishing ponds, and trail rides. Depending on the season, you can help with various aspects of country life from herding cattle to harvest, while having the area virtually all to yourself to get your cowgirl on.
Geary Lake Falls at Geary State Fishing Lake and Wildlife Area
Junction City, Kansas
Bet you didn’t know there were waterfalls in Kansas. A secret hideaway for those hot summer days, this waterfall is only active after a bit of rain. The path will take you to the top of the falls, but if you’re feeling brave, you can scamper down to the base for better photos. Feeling extra adventurous? Climb up the waterfall a bit for a natural water slide.
How to Do It: Put the fishing lake in your GPS, but then drive past it and continue down State Lake Road. It required a bit of Googling, but this map is helpful for where to park and how to get there. You’ll walk about ¼ of a mile to the top of the falls, but to get down to the bottom requires a bit of rock-hopping through a creek (dress accordingly).
Horsethief Canyon at Kanopolis State Park
Kansas’ first state park, Kanopolis has over 27 miles of prairie trails skating along riverbeds and bluffs, but it’s the hidden caves that are the must-see. Part of the Buffalo Track Canyon Nature Trail, getting there requires fording a river and following a very narrow jungle-like path through tall shrubbery that may have you feeling like a bushwalker. Once used for walking wild horses and water buffalo, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife (two deer came right up to me).
How to Do It: Follow the colored cloth markers dangling from the trees. It’s still easy to get off track, as the grasses are almost as tall as you are. Keep your phone handy as there is good service in the area and you can use the GPS to ensure you’re still on route. If you have a few extra hours to kill, Mushroom Rock State Park is also next door with crazy stone monoliths.
Monument Rocks (Oakley) and Castle Rock (Quinter)
Gove County, Kansas
Another one of the eight Natural Wonders of Kansas, these ancient fossils and chalk beds eroded into fascinating shapes and spheres that are great for photo opps (especially at sunrise or sunset).
How to Do It: Both sites seemingly come out of nowhere 10-15 miles down county roads. They are about 45 minutes from each other in western Kansas.
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