Things can get rocky in northwest Kansas, where the chalky pillars and craggy canyons of Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, Arikaree Breaks and Monument Rocks interrupt the panoramas of plains. Set out from the college town of Hays and its bustling downtown. Just off Interstate-70, Hays forms the perfect eastern gateway to the region’s untamed vistas. Beyond, discover small towns that boast an assortment of dining options; museums that recall Buffalo Bill and cavalry forts; and those jarring, jutting rocks that resemble castles on the vast horizon.
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Monumental rocks, waterfowl flocks, fossil finds and frontier history play out at these prairie places.
Legendary for his buffalo hunting skills (which he used around here to feed railroad crews), William “Buffalo Bill” Cody still looms larger than life in a 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture. Snap a photo with the folk hero, then head inside the center for interactive kids’ displays and more.
The striking former 1887 Logan County Courthouse showcases the Butterfield’s Overland Despatch (sic) stagecoach line that rolled through here en route to Colorado gold fields. A replica stagecoach, fossils and exhibits tell the story of the treacherous trail.
This turreted, castle-like spire stands out as a blondish beacon on the prairie south of Quinter. Wind and water weathered Niobrara chalk into Castle Rock and an impressive stretch of badland formations farther south.
Completed in 1911 to serve the influx of German immigrants, the limestone Basilica of St. Fidelis and its 141-foot-tall twin towers draw parishioners and tourists. Self-guided audio tours detail the construction of what was once the largest church west of the Mississippi.
At the 1860s “Fightin’est Fort in the West,” stroll the facades of general stores, officers’ quarters and a sod school. A statue of “Medicine Bill” Comstock, General Custer’s favorite scout, oversees the spot where Custer, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and “Wild Bill” Hickok were stationed.
Land at the Visitor Center to learn about the wildlife and habitats here in the heart of the Central Flyway. Then hike, bike or drive around the 11,000 acres to spot migrating waterfowl. (More than 100,000 pass through in fall.)
Left behind by an ancient inland sea, these 50-foot-tall monoliths jut above the flatland prairie. You’re welcome to hike around these chalky pyramids and spot marine fossils on this private property shared with resident cattle, but no collecting or climbing is allowed.
Kansas’ largest barn, the 114-foot-long Cooper Barn, looms large on the Western prairie. Also step inside a furnished sod house, one-room school and country church. A modern museum building chronicles High Plains life.
The Buffalo Bill Cultural Center is a Community Travel Information Center offering regional and state-wide brochures, maps and travel…
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These small towns serve up big treats at a pharmacy soda fountain, farmstead winery and road trip-worthy restaurants.
Nebraskans and Coloradans cross the border for these hand-cut ribeyes, fillets, T-bones and prime rib seasoned with a secret recipe. Customers like to gather around the cook station to watch their beef trimmed, cut and grilled among the restaurant’s menagerie of wildlife mounts and rodeo photos.
This downtown eatery lives up to its name as a landing place for a lunchtime crowd craving gourmet sandwiches, brick-oven pizza and pastries. Request a slice of dark fudge Tuxedo Cake for a definitely-worth-the-calories dessert.
A nod to elephants that lead other animals to watering holes, The Elephant draws its own hungry following with a made-from-scratch lineup of locally sourced beef, bison and dry-aged steaks. Owner Emily Campbell left her Seattle chef career to open this spot in one of her hometown’s oldest buildings.
In this pharmacy and hardware store, sit on the soda fountain’s red-vinyl bar stools and watch the soda jerk create the Cookie Monster. It features ice cream inside chocolate chip cookies, drizzled with hot fudge and caramel.
Taste vintages in a converted redbrick chicken coop at the family farm-turned-winery, then roam and sip some more at the covered patio, gabled barn (an event center) and gazebo. You can tour the surrounding vineyards too.
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On your trek across the Great Plains, count on a quiet night’s rest in a restored bank, remote bunkhouse or RV park.
A remote 12 miles from town, pull down the two-track lane to the rustic, tin-roofed bunkhouse nestled in the trees. Walk through pastures on this third-generation farm to shale bluffs for fossil and wildflower exploring.
Just north of I-70, hook up your RV, stake a tent or rent a basic cabin at this KOA campground. Guests can romp at the swimming pool and kids’ playground while four-legged friends enjoy the campground and nearby dog park.
Seven suites in this graciously restored 1886 bank stay true to Victorian roots with 14-foot-tall ceilings and walnut furniture. Two suites also feature fireplaces. Wake to complimentary hot breakfast in the Teller Room Restaurant.
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Much tamer now than when Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill roamed the town, Hays still struts that frisky frontier spirit in its reborn downtown and at sites that recall prehistoric and Army fort days. Upscale renovations brought brick streets and century-old buildings back to life. Aptly called The Bricks, the historic district teems with inspired cuisine, boutiques and culture. At Big Smoke Barbecue,order ’cue for breakfast (try brisket and gravy) as well as lunch and dinner. It’s all smoked on-site with house sauces.
Like the name says, get a triple treat at Paisley Pear Wine Bar, Bistro and Market: a flight of vino with Kansas-sourced cheese, the bistro’s Turkey Apple Brie sandwich, and jam and bread mix from the market. Just down the street, fill up on regionally inspired cuisine (like house-made Bierock smothered in cheese sauce) and tasty brews at Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing Company.
Spend the night in two-bedroom apartments at The Buffalo Haus, an 1893 limestone home. Get a roaring start the next day at Sternberg Museum of Natural History, featuring animatronic ancient beasts, a rare fish-within-a-fish fossil and other prehistoric discoveries. March on to Fort Hays State Historic Site, where four original buildings and a visitors center recall this 1865 Army fort and the frontier it protected.
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Many German immigrants arrived by trainloads, and cattle from the south reached Ellis to continue their drive by rail. At the Ellis Railroad Museum, memorabilia and a model train display track the pioneering Kansas Pacific Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad (which still runs through town). Outdoors, ride a restored miniature train and visit the caboose and depot.
Walter P. Chrysler moved to Ellis with his family when he was 3 and, at age 14, helped his dad and brother build their 1889 home. The original white clapboard house, the Walter P. Chrysler Boyhood Home, features a museum in the back with Chrysler’s artifacts and a 1924 Chrysler car. Chrysler honed his mechanical skills working for locomotive and car companies before founding Chrysler Corporation.