Southwest Kansas Road Trip

Occasionally I do this thing where I look at a map, identify a region I’ve never been to, and a zany road trip commences. The region this weekend was southwest Kansas.


Our first stop Friday afternoon was the home of Carry A. Nation, famous for supporting the temperance movement and smashing saloons to pieces with a hatchet, in the town of Medicine Lodge. Carrie Nation’s militant opposition to alcohol paved the way for prohibition. Her methods were extreme, but she got her point across in a world where usually only men could be heard. Her house included old furnishings and historical items on display. It is right next to an old stockade and local history museum that are included with admission. Before leaving town we stopped at Barber State Fishing Lake and hiked around the lake. It was about 100 degrees F.

From there, we followed the Gyp Hills Scenic Drive. This region, just west of Medicine Lodge, has a rugged landscape of red canyons, cliffs, and interesting rock formations. For the most part, it’s entirely on private property and can only be enjoyed from a distance as you drive by. We got out and briefly snuck onto some rocks to play around and fortunately were not shot. Generally, I would encourage speaking to landowners to try to get permission to explore the hills. We drove from there to Greensburg and camped at Kiowa County State Fishing Lake.

Saturday morning we went into Greensburg, known for it’s big well and monster tornado. We went to the Big Well museum, where you can walk down into the largest hand-dug well in the world. The well was dug in the 1800s and provided water to the city and the passing locomotives. The museum also covers the story of the EF5 tornado which decimated Greensburg in 2007, leaving only three buildings standing. The town has since been rebuilt using energy efficient green technologies, living up to its name. Next we drove out to the Fromme-Birney Round Barn, a small but free and unattended museum on a nearby farm. It’s a big round barn – not much more to say about that.

From there we went to Dodge City and visited the Boot Hill Museum which was chock full of artifacts, recreated scenery, and period-costumed actors from the old west. Some of it was pretty hokey, but there was a lot to learn there as well. For example, famous lawman Wyatt Earp began his career here in Dodge before becoming famous for his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral. We just barely made it in time to watch the shootout in the street and drank a Sarsaparilla soda in the saloon. There is a considerably large Mexican population in Dodge with an abundance of Mexican restaurants that reminded us of our recent trip south of the border. We tried one but left with unsettled stomachs.

From Dodge, we went to Garden City, then Ulysess, and finally on to Cimmarron National Grassland. Cimmarron is not easy to navigate unless you have a good map, but we eventually found our way to the campground and settled in for the night. Cimmarron is the largest piece of protected land in Kansas and from the sounds we heard all night, serves as an important habitat for a lot of wildlife including birds, frogs, and coyotes.

We woke up at 5:30AM to go biking around the grassland before the brutal mid-day heat arrived. We had intended to follow the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, supposedly still clearly visible from the ruts carved by Conestoga wagons over a hundred years ago. I spent about 40 minutes biking around, dodging cacti and looking for said trail and found absolutely nothing. It seems that the abundant growth of grasses and other vegetation and lack of trail maintenance has prevailed. I eventually gave up and we instead biked on the dirt roads crisscrossing the preserve. We saw dozens of jack rabbits zipping across the prairie and walked on the dried bed of the Cimmarron River.

Leaving Cimmarron , we stopped in Liberal to look at Dorothy’s house (it was closed) and eat a pancake from the pancake house on Pancake Blvd. We went to Meade State Park, hiked its only trail and checked out the Meade Lake. Our final stop on the way home was Fort Larned National Historic Park where the buildings of the military fort still remain and are kept in their historic state along with a museum and hiking trail.

It was a pretty productive weekend with a good mix of natural areas, historical sites, and tourist traps. The most useful resource for this kind of trip is the book The 8 Wonders of Kansas by Marci Penner. This book is full of interesting destinations all over the state (there are actually 216 of them despite the title). It doesn’t have everything, but it’s a good starting place. Another strategy is to talk to as many local people as you can and ask them what there is to see. Western Kansas has a bad reputation for not having anything to see or do, but we were easily entertained for a weekend.

Total mileage driven: about 1,000



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