There will be that place in a ride that you feel the pull to stop. Pull over to the side of the highway. Soak in every sight, sound, smell around you because it's just so....much. More than once along the Western Vistas Historic Byway, this had to happen in order to take it all in and not miss a drop, to revel in the awe of the moment.
We started off in Oakley for the Western Vistas Historic Byway ride on a glorious June morning. Blue skies dotted with puffy white clouds overhead was our canopy. Good roads and scenery as far as the eye could see stretched in front of us. Many people drive through western Kansas on their way to somewhere else, not deviating from the interstate. A truck driver at Mitten's in Oakley asked where we were headed. Dressed in Harley orange and wearing a hat from the Badlands of South Dakota, he asked "You mean, there really is scenery in Kansas?" Obviously, this fellow had never taken any of our scenic or historic byways. Before we ever hit the byway, stops at the Fick Fossil Museum and the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center were a must. The entire northwest Kansas region was once covered in water and home to many prehistoric creatures that are featured at the Fick Museum. Our new friend, Kylie, at the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center sent us on our way with warm wishes for safe travel, a byway map and a real enthusiasm for the area we were setting out to explore. This set the stage for the day--every person we encountered along the byway was warm, friendly and happy to share the local history and community to us.
Heading west along Highway 40, the road stretched out smooth and wide. While there were some straightaways, there were also enough curves to make riding fun. The railroad ran parallel to the highway for much of the journey. So did the snow fences, placed to keep the roads clear during the winter months. At one point between Monument and Winona, Zeb pulled over. The scenery around us was so vast, so much to take in, that he simply needed that moment to revel in the new sights around him. Not long after our stop, we encountered antelope in a field--not a sight that these Eastern Kansas travelers see very often!
Our first stop was at the Fort Wallace museum. Kylie had recommended also stopping at the Ft. Wallace cemetery, but it was two long gravel filled roads off the interstate. The museum housed an incredible amount of western history, including letters from the late 19th century between individuals including Buffalo Bill Hickock and George Armstrong Custer, both who had been stationed at this western Army outpost to fight off the Indians and settle the country for white homesteaders.
We headed west to Sharon Springs, the final stop on the northern part of the Western Vistas Historic Byway. If you want to visit the highest point in the state, Mount Sunflower is marked with signage indicating the highest point in Kansas. To get to the southern starting point of the Byway, we headed south to Tribune. (Side note: If you are interested in locally sourced food and beverages, make a stop at Elliott's Gastropub on Highway 96 in Tribune). Highway 96 will take travelers east through Leoti and Marienthal, past feedyards, dryland farm ground and irrigated circles. The land in this area is rich in not only history but also the pioneer spirit that embodies agriculture in Kansas. No matter what direction you look, you'll see grain, hay and cattle. Next time you sit down to a steak dinner with a wheat roll on the side, remember this place and the hands that worked so hard to fill your plate.
Lake Scott State Park is located north of Scott City. Enter from the southwest side of the park and look for the signs shaped like arrowheads showing you the way to Battle Canyon. Located about a mile or so off the blacktop, this was one gravel road worth taking on the bike. According to the Scott City web site:
".....travel to the place where the last Indian battle in Kansas was fought. Punished Woman's Fork is about a mile south of Lake Scott State Park on Hwy 95. A monument overlooks a cave, a canyon, and the bluffs where The Northern Cheyenne hid, waiting to ambush the U.S. Cavalry.
In the battle that followed, Commanding Officer Lt. Col. William H. Lewis was mortally wounded, the last officer killed in military action in the state of Kansas. During the night after the battle, the Northern Cheyenne fled.
This area has been designated a State and National historic site. Conditions have changed since the battle itself. The creek no longer flows as it did in 1878, but one can still sense the historic drama that took place here and can appreciate the desperate situation which led to this battle."
We took some time to hike down into the canyon and visit the cave where more than 240 Cheyenne women and children hid during this final battle between the US Army and the Cheyenne tribes that had escaped from the reservation in Oklahoma. Walking past many varieties of cactus and other plants more common to a desert than what we know of as Kansas, we could see the areas that the Cheyenne warriors may have held their ground against the US troops before escaping to the north. It was a unique contrast to the crop and pasture grounds that we had seen for the 100 miles we had already covered.
Monument Rock was to be our next stop before closing the circle in Oakley. Pulling over at the sign, we saw seven miles of sand roads stretched out before us to get to this National Natural Landmark. We weren't adventurous enough to take this route on the bike. Instead, it's on the list for the next time we are out west.
The Western Vistas Historic Byway proved our friend from South Dakota sorely wrong. The scenery was incredible, the history immense. One could imagine the ruggedness of the countryside 100 years ago, feel the heat and sun beating down in Battle Canyon as we envisioned the historic confrontation, and only imagine what the soldiers, railroad men and settlers of the area encountered as they settled this area of our state.
Sarah Larison lives and works in Holton. When she is not working in quality and risk management, Sarah is an avid reader, amateur gardener and loves to spend time in the kitchen with her chef's assistant, known to most as her daughter "Mini-me". A native of Manhattan, Kansas, Sarah loves to cover miles across the state either in running shoes or on a Harley Davidson Wide Glide with her partner-in-crime, Zeb. Discovering a beautiful view, a local dining experience or a great road to travel upon is a real joy to this riding team.