Yucca plant off Smoky Valley Byway

An endless horizon that stretches to infinity in every direction. Vast grasslands filled with wildflowers of every color. Historic traces of pioneers’ quest to tame the prairie. Rugged bluffs and stone outcrops that punctuate a rolling prairie. And a crystal blue sky that covers everything like a canopy. 

These and more await the traveler along Kansas’ Smoky Valley Scenic Highway, a 60-mile loop that starts and returns to Interstate-70 near the western Kansas towns of WaKeeney and Ogallah.

It has become, however, an overused sentiment expressed by travelers who mistakenly consider Kansas a “drive-through” state, that there is nothing of interest to see from the interstate highway in the western half of the Sunflower State. The Smoky Valley Scenic Byway exists to put to rest this myth. So named because of the hazy appearance of the land during the moments of crimson sunrise and sunset, the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway introduces the traveler to the marvels of the high plains. Too often, travelers mistake the wide-open vistas of the high plains for a static, empty landscape. Such is not the case.

Certainly, voyagers sometimes fail to appreciate the intricate landscape of the high plains, or short-grass prairie, as they only zip across the state by interstate. Through the windshield of a speeding vehicle, visitors will see the lack of trees and interpret the openness as only emptiness. Instead, the high plains are filled with a huge variety of grasses and ground-hugging wildflowers, which create a landscape as intricate as any in the world.

To really appreciate the subtle beauty of these plains, therefore, visitors need to get off the fast lane and take to smaller highways, like the Smoky Valley Scenic Highway. A stop along the byway – there are several great locations to pull off the road, exit the car, and take in the scenery – will allow visitors a chance to connect with the vastness of our world.

Here is what to do when you get out of the car: Do not think the wide-open vistas mean the landscape is devoid of beauty. Look down amid the many grasses like Buffalo Grass and Little Bluestem. There you can gaze upon the intricate pattern of the white flowers of Western Yarrow, study the crisp yellow flowers of the Curly-cup Gumweed, or admire the tall white spikes of the Yucca plants. Then look to the horizon and realize how vast and expansive the American plains really are. This is how one connects to the prairie along this byway.

Then you can visit Cedar Bluff State Park, with the many steep chalk and limestone bluffs along the reservoir. Here you can bike, hike, camp, or fish. You can also visit Threshing Machine Canyon along a trail near the park and learn about the settler’s early efforts to bring industry to the prairie and the challenges they faced. Then stop at the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, just north of the state park, and feel the stonework of this historic church built over a century ago. Stay for a sunset, and watch the sky transform to crimson through the rising haze over the Smoky Hill River Valley.

It will change your perception of the plains and help you feel at home in the wide-open prairie under the Kansas sky.

Dennis Toll is a native of Kansas — his Swedish ancestors settled in Wallace County in the 1890's — and graduated from Kansas State University in 1980 with a degree in landscape architecture. Then Dennis and his wife Amy, a Manhattan native, went to Indiana where Dennis got a master’s degree in theology and then to France. They returned to Kansas with four daughters in 2000 and settled in The Little Apple. Dennis enjoys writing for various publications about the Sunflower State and wishes he had more time to spend hiking the prairie.