At the central-eastern gateway of the Flint Hills, Emporia has become known as the gravel-grinding capital of the world for hosting the annual Dirty Kanza. This premier cycling competition in June consists of several races for the hard-core mountain-biking crowd, with distances of 25, 50, 100 and 200 miles. For the athletes, it can be a grueling, transformative feat of endurance. For spectators, it is a chance to witness physical strength and mental prowess—as well as a reason to enjoy a weekend in Emporia.
Founded in 1857 as the Emporia Town Company by a real estate group and an ambitious young newspaperman, the area grew rapidly after the 1862 Homestead Act brought in settlers and railroad development. First was the Missouri, Kansas and Texas (the “Katy”) line, and then the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. This larger railroad company made Emporia a division maintenance point and built a two-story depot complete with a Harvey House restaurant. The Kansas Legislature passed a bill in 1863 creating the Kansas State Normal School, which later became known as Emporia State University and continues to be widely recognized for its teacher training and glass-blowing programs.
Emporia is small enough that visitors can spend much of their time exploring its downtown region by foot, but it’s large enough to offer several attractions for a busy extended weekend. While the Dirty Kanza should not be missed (beginning on May 30 with the big events over the weekend of June 2–4), any summer weekend spent exploring the town will be time well spent.
1:00 p.m. Arrive early to spend time exploring Emporia State University. Stop in at the Union for an iced coffee and stroll over the bridge at Wooster’s Lake to the school’s William Allen White Library, which houses a rich children’s literature collection with items such as the illustrations of Lois Lenski (best known for her books Strawberry Girl, Cowboy Small and Little Fire Engine). Other attractions include the collections of the Johnston Geology Museum in Cram Hall, which boasts a collection of fluorescent minerals, the bones of a Kansas mosasaurus and the remains of a giant sloth. If you have time, you can also visit the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Visser Hall to see if your favorite teacher is honored in the gallery. emporia.edu/libsv | emporia.edu/~es/museum/museum.htm | nthf.org
4:00 p.m. Preliminary events have been going on all week, but the Dirty Kanza festivities start up on this day, and now is the time to join them. Go downtown to Commercial Street for the All Things Gravel Bicycle Expo. This huge celebration shuts down the town’s main street for the day as sponsors sell and display everything you can imagine (and some things you might never have considered) that can be used for biking on gravel. Dirtykanza.com | emporiamainstreet.com
6:00 p.m. You don’t have to go far for dinner with three great dining choices within 3 blocks of one another on Commercial Street. Radius Brewing Company, a microbrew with a full menu, is a popular choice. You can also opt for Casa Ramos for Mexican fare or Pho’ BannLao for great Asian noodle soups. After dinner, sit outside on the patio at Mulready’s Pub and enjoy craft beers and scotch from around the world.
Overnight Emporia has several hotel options, including Candlewood Suites and Holiday Inn Express—but be warned, rooms are booked well in advance for Dirty Kanza weekend. Start planning now. If you can find an opening, or visit during a different time of the year, consider checking in at the Gufler Mansion.
Designed by Emporia architect Henry Brinkman, constructed of rag brick and trimmed with Algonite stone, the house was built in 1915 for Albert Gufler, manager of the Theodore Poehler Mercantile Company. Though the third-floor ballroom is now an apartment, the grand staircase and much of the original woodwork remain. Gufler Mansion is a fabulous mix of period and modern with rooms available through Airbnb.
6:00 a.m. Be a hero and join the early-rising racers for the starting gun of the big event, the 200-mile race. It takes off downtown, in front of the Granada Theater. You can send off the pack with applause and give special cheers to Kansans such as multiple champion Dan Hughes and 2015 champion Bryan Jensen.
6:20 a.m. Starting gun of the 100-mile race.
6:40 a.m. Starting gun of the 50-mile race.
7:00 a.m. This puts things into perspective. The Dirty Kanza is such an amazing showcase of athleticism that the community fun ride that starts at 7:00 a.m. goes on for an entire 25 miles. That’s considered the short, nothing-to-it distance. Send them off with waves and cheers as you plot your breakfast moves.
7:15 a.m. Consider stopping in at the Granada coffee shop and grabbing some pastries or cinnamon rolls from Amanda’s. A bigger sit-down breakfast is possible at the popular Huddle House.
8:30 a.m. Take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures to explore Emporia’s Peter Pan Park. Writer William Allen White (more on this famous Kansan later in the day) used royalties from the obituary for his daughter to create this park as a tribute to her. Designed by Harr and Harr of Kansas City (known for their work on The Plaza), the park is a beautiful, natural site with disc golf, picnic tables, horseshoe pits and a lake. The park’s amphitheater and Monkey Island building (no longer used to house monkeys) were built in the 1930s by WPA laborers who earned 40 cents an hour to create these enduring structures.
10:00 a.m. Downtown Emporia shops are opening for the day. There are several original stores within walking distance, and you will want to choose from your interests. Paper Moon Antiques is delightful find. A small shop with not many open spaces, it features salvaged lighting, Victorian furniture and glassware. Cowgirl Boutique is another fun visit—trendy, funky clothes and accessories.
Noon Go to Amanda’s Bakery & Cafe for fresh homemade bread and soup. For dessert, try the hot and gooey Whoopie Pie.
1:00 p.m. It’s time to get back to William Allen White, a key figure in Emporia’s—and the state’s—history. You can explore the legacy of this original Kansan by visiting his home, Red Rocks, a state historic site. White’s essay “What Is the Matter with Kansas?” propelled him to national fame as the editor and owner of the Emporia Gazette in the 1890s. He went on to become a leading progressive voice who also championed small-town life. A friend of Teddy Roosevelt, White ran for governor in the 1920s with the intention of getting rid of the KKK in Kansas. While he didn’t win the election, White’s campaign helped spur Kansas to became the first state to outlaw the Klan. White’s house, administered by the Kansas State Historical Society, looks much as it did when he lived there and includes many original items. An art fair is held on the grounds during the Dirty Kanza weekend.
3:00 p.m. Consider visiting one or touring all the city’s monuments to war veterans. Emporia honors America’s veterans with an All-Veterans Memorial, a Civil War Veterans Monument, a Hispanic American World War II Veterans Monument, a Spanish-American War Memorial and a memorial to student and alumni veterans of Emporia State University. The Emporia CVB has a full listing of locations and hours for each memorial. visitemporia.com
4:30 p.m. Return downtown to the finish line where riders in the shorter racers have been arriving and the party is in full swing. Commercial Street is closed to traffic, and you’ll be able to find a wide variety of food and drink vendors, including Free State Brewing and the Granada Theater, who partner to put on a beer garden (and to serve a special brew, the Dirty Kanza Kolsch). There is also a climbing wall, inflatables and a lot of good people-watching. Stay around for dinner and the after-race party with musical performances that go until midnight.
10:00 a.m. Start a bit later and grab a light breakfast before heading over to the David Traylor Zoo. It is a smaller park, but fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and dedicated to the well-being of its animals, which include bison, lemurs, pumas, bald eagles and more. Note: If you are traveling with a group that would consider the zoo the primary attraction, consider making an earlier stop by the grounds at Friday, 7 p.m. when the zoo screens a free outdoor showing of the animated 2016 family film The Wild Life.
1:00 p.m. Before leaving town, you have one big choice to make—which Emporia burger joint to visit. Emporia seems evenly divided on its pick for the top burger place. Jay’s offers satisfying traditional burgers with soft-serve ice cream while you wait; Do-B’s offers burgers with toppings such as pastrami, teriyaki sauce or creole mustard. Either one will be a worthy send-off.
Emporia is small enough to spend much of the time exploring its central, downtown region by foot, but large enough to offer several attractions for a busy extended weekend.