Summer a time to get on the road again and discover Kansas’ treasures
07/01/2014 6:35 AM
08/06/2014 12:09 PM
Mother Nature has saved her best for this time of year: wildflowers and sunsets, rock formations, wildlife and falling stars.
If you believe summer is for road trips, here are a few awesome Kansas adventures close to home.
The names are lyrical and evoke images of an untamed prairie: buffalo gourd, Indian blanket flower, prairie wild rose and purple poppy mallow. Throughout May and June, various groups are offering wildflower tours, which are listed at kansasnativeplantsociety.org.
One of the more popular tours is the Konza Prairie Annual Wildflower Walk on June 1 at Kansas State University’s biological research station near Manhattan. Naturalists lead evening tours on Butterfly Hill Trail, which is normally closed to the public. The cost is $10. While in Manhattan, stop by the Flint Hills Discovery Center, 315 S. Third (admission is $4-$9), which tells the story of the prairie.
If you miss the organized tours, you can still see Kansas wildflowers. Roughly 6,000 species make up the ecosystems and habitats found in the tallgrass prairie. Check out a restored prairie at Chisholm Creek Park near 29th and Woodlawn, or leave the Wichita city limits and travel the back roads. You will see wildflowers in ditches and pastures – almost anywhere you look.
One of the best resources Kansans have to see and study the prairie is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, two miles north of Strong City on K-177. The new visitors center is now open, but the barn and house have been closed for renovation. Visitors can still hike the trails but are advised to avoid Windmill Pasture, because some of the bison are getting a little territorial. In January, the website Green Landscapes rated the Flint Hills as one of the seven best places in the world to view a sunset (along with Finland; Cambodia; Santorini Island, Greece; French Polynesia; San Esteben; the Gulf of California, Mexico; and the Phoenix Islands in the Republic of Kiribati).
The website says, “Watching the sun go down can be a mesmerizing sight. When you’re planning your summer trip, take into account these seven places with the most stunning sunsets in the world.”
For more information, call 620-273-8494.
‘Garden of Eden’ and the big bowl
When residents in the Wilson County town of Lucas decided they needed eccentric, quirky public restrooms for the town’s Main Street, their imaginations went wild.
The town turned to bathroom humor and created a monument making Lucas home of the largest, most blingy toilet in Kansas.
The town of 407 residents is also home to the “Garden of Eden,” which features the peculiar work of S.P. Dinsmoor. He was a retired schoolteacher and Civil War veteran who sculpted 113 tons of concrete into various religious and political figures in his backyard.
In recent years, Lucas has become known as the grassroots art capital of Kansas, in large part because it is home to the Grassroots Art Center dedicated to 20th-century Kansas grassroots folk art.
But now Lucas boasts a big toilet.
The exterior of the giant toilet bowl is sunken so people can sit outside and talk. A giant toilet paper roll sits outside as a conversation starter. The toilet’s 14-foot-tall mosaic lid is up. Always up.
For more information, call the Grassroots Art Center, 785-525-6118.
Mushroom Rock State Park in Ellsworth County and Rock City near Minneapolis, Kan., showcase Dakota sandstone, deposited 100 million years ago and since exposed by the forces of erosion. Mushroom State Park is managed by Kanapolis State Park. It is on K-140, about 20 miles southwest of Salina.
Rock City is near Minneapolis, about 3.5 miles south on K-106. Cost is $3 per person.
The two sites were named among the eight geologic Wonders of Kansas in 2010 by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.
Monument Rocks, also known as the Chalk Pyramids, are near U.S. 83 about 25 miles south of Oakley. The 70-foot-tall chalk formations are considered a national landmark.
Two areas in Kansas claim to be at the center of things.
Lebanon, the geographic center of the continental United States, has the U.S. Center Monument, a small park on K-191 three miles north and a mile west of Lebanon.
It boasts a tiny chapel, a rock monument with a tattered flag whipping in the wind, an abandoned motel once known as the “Exact U.S. Center Motel-Cafe,” picnic tables, benches, a shelter, a trailer and a handful of cedars along with other bushes and trees.
The U.S. Center Monument was dedicated in 1941 as a focal point for tourists, a resting point providing a chance to get out of the car, stretch the legs and contemplate just how far one had traveled.
About 42 miles south of the geographic center in Lebanon is North America’s geodetic center, located on private land near Osborne.
The geodetic center of North America was first established in 1901 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. The survey arcs along the 98th meridian and the 39th parallel.
Neither site is the center of excitement, but they are great places for Facebook selfies.
Wetlands, bird watching
Kansas has boasted sightings of 470 species of birds within its borders, more than surrounding states, thanks to the Central Flyway migratory route.
During migration from March through May and again in the fall, native Kansas birds mingle with millions of migratory birds.
Nearly half of the shore birds migrating through the eastern United States stop at one of the two large refuges located within a two-hour drive from Wichita.
Among the species: ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, orioles, great horned owls and herons, northern shovelers, kingfishers and scissor-tailed flycatchers.
The Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway is considered the gateway to a panoramic displays of birds and wildlife. It curves around Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge for 76 miles.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge is in central Kansas, southeast of Great Bend and west of Hutchinson. Cheyenne Bottoms is about five miles north of Great Bend in Barton County.
If birdwatching makes you thirsty, check out Mo’s, a microbrewery owned by Len and Linda Moeder, at 1908 Elm St. in Beaver, an unincorporated town in Barton County.
There is no sign advertising it; the homemade beers are advertised by word of mouth. To get to Beaver, turn north off K-4 at Redwing and go roughly eight miles. Mo’s is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Call 620-587-2350 for more information.
The Great U.S. 36 Highway Treasure Hunt stretches across 14 counties and three states, including northern Kansas. This annual garage sale of quirkiness runs Sept. 19-21 and is sponsored by the U.S. 36 Highway Association and local tourism and chambers of commerce along the route.
For more information, go to www.ushwy36.com.
The Kansas-Oklahoma 100-mile Highway Sale is set for Sept. 12-13 and follows Highways 75, 169 and 166 in southeast Kansas and continues into northeast Oklahoma. Check the group’s Facebook page for updates.
For people who are into sewing and quilting, there is a growing group of Kansans who take day trips, hitting some of their favorite fabric shops in the smaller towns across the state. Prairie Flower Crafts in Alden is now owned by Paula Royer. She bought the store last year from 96-year-old Sara Sleeper, who bought the Alden Mercantile Store in 1970 and made half of it into a grocery store and the other into a fabric shop. Over the years, it evolved into a three-building enterprise in downtown Alden, population about 160. It houses 5,000 bolts of fabric, a cafe and a post office.
Store hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, with the cafe offering daily specials on Thursdays through Sundays.
Each October, there is a Central Kansas Shop Hop in which quilters are encouraged to visit 11 shops throughout the state.
Some of those shops include Cottonwood Quilts in Hutchinson; Charlotte’s Sew Natural, Newton; Hen Feathers, Wichita; Kessler Kreations, Hillsboro; Itchin’ to Stitch, Severy; Material Girls Quilt Shop, Wichita; Needle in a Haystack, Severy; the Quilting Bee in Salina; and the Stitches Quilt Shop in McPherson.
Maxwell Game Refuge
Head east to Maxwell Game Refuge to see about 200 bison grazing the prairie. The 2,500-acre refuge is home to one of the largest herds for the public to view.
A road cuts through the refuge, allowing visitors to view the buffalo from the safety of their cars. To get a closer look at the buffalo, take a tram ride through the open range. Reservations are required for the tram tours, which are usually offered on Saturdays. Call 620-628-4455 for information. Maxwell is six miles north of Canton and about 50 miles north of Wichita.
The refuge is next to the McPherson State Fishing Lake, which offers campgrounds and a 46-acre lake.
It sounds strange, but sometimes the best places to explore in Kansas are the cemeteries along forgotten back roads.
With 105 counties, there are hundreds of places – each telling its own story and offering insight into how past Kansans lived and died.
When the area that would become Kansas was first settled, the sign of a thriving community was not a sculpture or a fountain somewhere in its city limits. More often than not, it was the local cemetery where those monuments were placed.
Marysville and Waterville erected the state’s first sculptures in 1885 to honor Union soldiers who homesteaded the area. Marysville has a marble soldier statue; Waterville’s is a granite obelisk.
Dozens more Civil War monuments soon followed, and by World War I, the majority of small towns in Kansas had statues.
In Hiawatha, John Milburn Davis built a memorial to his wife, Sarah. The 25-by-25-foot stone memorial, sculpted by Italian craftsmen, depicts a dozen life-size marble and granite sculptures of the couple. The memorial is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In Abilene, the Place of Meditation Chapel at the Eisenhower Center is the burial place for the nation’s 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower; his wife, Mamie; and their first-born son, Dowd.
At the chapel, check out the stained-glass windows by Odell Prather, originally of Wichita. She was asked to do something abstract so as not to offend a person of any faith. She based her artwork on the Kansas Plains.
Underground salt museum
Drop 650 feet in 80 seconds by elevator to one of the world’s largest underground salt mines, near Hutchinson. Exhibits include the types of transportation and tools miners have used through the decades. Visitors learn about the explosives and drills used to blast salt from cavern walls.
They can tour a replica of the underground vaults Hollywood has used for decades to store original copies of movies, including “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.” Visitors are asked to wear hard hats and carry self-rescue units in case they’re needed, although no one in 50 years has had to use one.
The salt museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the week and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
For more information, call 620-662-1425 or go to the website http://underkansas.org/explore-strataca.
Louisburg Cider Mill
Located about 20 miles south of Kansas City on U.S. 69 and three miles west on the Louisburg exit, the Louisburg Cider Mill has gained a national reputation not only for its cider but also for its Lost Trail soda flavors: root beer, sarsaparilla and orange, cherry and strawberry cream. Other products include jellies, dips, vinegars, snacks and sauces.
Owned and operated by Tom and Shelly Schierman, the Louisburg Cider Mill has been in production since the late 1970s.
It is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
For more information, go to http://www.louisburgcidermill.com or call 913-837-5202.
Carousels of Kansas
He was called the “Carousel King” and the “Napoleon of Amusement Devices.”
But in truth, Charles W. Parker made merry-go-rounds.
He crafted works of art on his wooden-horse ranch, then shipped them around the world at the turn of the 20th century.
Working out of Abilene, he began designing and building his own shooting galleries and merry-go-rounds.
In 1898, he built his first “Jumping Horse Carry-Us-All,” a term he coined because his carousels were different from others in the way they were made and operated. His machines featured finely-carved and detailed wooden horses and mechanical organs. As his amusement company grew, he moved it to Leavenworth in 1911. His son operated the business until 1955.
The company produced more than 1,000 carousels. At least 16 are still in operation today. The C.W. Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth has two of them.
The museum, 320 S. Esplanade St. in Leavenworth, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Prairie dog towns
Kansas has its share of prairie dogs. Any traveler on I-70 knows about the 8,000-pound concrete prairie dog at the intersection of U.S. 83 and I-70 near Oakley. You can read more about it on the signs leading up to that prairie dog town.
But if the furry little creatures that yip and scurry are more to your liking, you can see them along the backroads of Kansas.
One of the most famous prairie dog towns is on the east side of Hutchinson off of 11th and 17th streets near the mall.
There also are large prairie dog towns at 190th Street at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford County and one near St. John along the K-19/Sterling Road about a half-mile east of the U.S. 281 intersection on the south side of the road.
This summer, 21st-century Kansans will get to touch and sift through “Bleeding Kansas” soil.
The annual Kansas archaeology training program field school will be May 30-June 14 at the original site of the Samuel and Florella Adair cabin in Osawatomie. Participants must go through training but can dig for a few hours or days. The cabin was frequented by John Brown, Florella Adair’s half-brother, and was used as part of the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves.
Excavators must be members of the Kansas Anthropological Association. Children can participate but must be at least 10 years old, must bring their own tools and must be accompanied by a parent or responsible adult. For information, call Virginia Wulfkuhle at the Kansas Historical Society at 785-272-8681, ext. 266.
The registration packet is available at kshs.org/14622.
Stars and meteors
The night skies in Kansas offer some incredible displays of stars and meteor showers.
The Lake Afton Public Observatory near Goddard is open every Friday and Saturday from 9 to 11 p.m. In mid-August, the Perseid meteor shower offers spectacular displays. There’s no charge if people bring their lawn chairs and blankets to watch the stars and meteors. But there is a charge for going into the observatory and viewing the meteors through the telescope. Cost is $5 for adults and $3 for ages 6 to 12.
Lake Afton Public Observatory is on MacArthur Road at 247th Street West.
For more information, go to http://webs.wichita.edu/lapo.
Free local attractions
If you are expecting out-of-town visitors, show them a few of the free sights in Wichita. The Fountains at WaterWalk, which are sometimes referred to as liquid fireworks, are part of shows at noon and 8, 9 and 10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. The 10- to 15-minute shows incorporate music, lights and water. The fountains are at 605 N. Wichita St., east of Gander Mountain. The fountains do not operate during windy weather.
The fire pots surrounding the Keeper of the Plains statue, which pays tribute to American Indians, are lit for 15 minutes at 9 p.m. nightly. Parking is available at the far end of the Exploration Place lot, 300 N. McLean, or in a small lot off Central near Seneca. Pedestrian bridges lead to the Keeper of the Plains plaza at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers.
Admission to the Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd., is free on Saturdays. On the last Friday of the month, take in Final Friday, Wichita’s popular and ever-growing art gallery crawl. Check The Eagle’s Go section on Fridays or Kansas.com for a list of participating galleries and other events.