In the same vain as our Southwest Kansas road trip and our South central Kansas road trip, I bring you our official Southeast Kansas road trip! Who honestly hasn’t glanced at a map of the US and not immediately wondered what lies in this obscure sector of the country?
At Fort Scott, Kansas we wandered through the well-preserved buildings of the historic frontier fort that was established in the 1830’s to ease tensions between European settlers and relocated Native Americans. Fort Scott (the fort) is immediately surrounded by Fort Scott (the quaint town), making it difficult to imagine the surrounding landscape during the frontier days of the 19th century. We walked into the city where we stumbled upon the Lowell Milkin Center for Unsung Heroes and discovered the amazing story of Irina Sendler. In Nazi-controlled Poland, she secretly smuggled Jewish children out of Warsaw, putting herself in serious danger and saving thousands of lives. Sendler was still living in Poland until she died in 2008 and her story would be entirely unknown if not for the efforts of the students and researchers of the Lowell Milkin Center. The center now runs an exhibit about Sendler in Fort Scott. Additionally, they perform plays based on Sendler and organize international trips to see the sights associated with this story. Enriched with history, we left Fort Scott and camped at Crawford State Park.
We watched the morning sunrise from the Mined Lands, a rugged landscape of canals and berms that was a byproduct of mass strip mining for coal. These mines are distributed over a large region which would probably be pretty interesting to explore by kayak. We had to settle with a drive-through tour and quick hike. The next stop was Big Brutus – the largest known electric coal shovel in the universe. For $8 per person, we were allowed to run amok on and inside this unusual decommissioned behemoth that produced many of the mined lands we had explored that morning. The nearby city of Frontenac offers an interesting Italian Market with freshly baked bread which we were sure to try before heading out.
At Shermerhorn Park we hiked around the most northwestern reaches of the Ozark Mountain range. We peeked inside Schermerhorn cave (it’s gated off) and at the visitor we looked through some historical documents with old photos of our KSS caving friends. We drove from there to the city of Baxter Springs, poked inside some random antique stores, and then moved on to Elk City State Park to camp. We had a second night of unseasonably perfect weather.
On the final day of the trip, we hiked the Elk River Trail. Reviews by several native Kansans called it the best hiking trail in the state. Whether or not its the best is arguable, but it certainly lived up to the hype. Over the course of the fifteen miles, we encountered high bluffs along the river, lots of rock outcroppings, canyons, and relatively rugged hiking. We breezed through it at a fast pace since we still had a long drive home ahead of us. I biked 8.5 miles to get back to the car and we started the ride home. On the way we stopped at Fall River State Park to cook dinner and check off yet another Kansas state park.
As with any trip, another day or two would have been useful. There’s always more stuff to explore and while some people might not see the appeal in walking up and down quiet streets of tiny rural Kansas towns, interspersed with hiking, camping, and cooking rice burritos, I like it. The world is diverse. Pick a region on your own local map and spend a weekend exploring it.