Where and how to enjoy Kansas in the fall

Sand hill cranes fly as the sun sets over Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. (2013)
Sand hill cranes fly as the sun sets over Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. (2013) File photo

Autumn is former Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker’s favorite time of year.

It’s time for football, jackets and long walks on the prairie, she says.

The fall migration – beginning with the butterflies and following through with thousands of sandhill cranes, ducks and geese – is former Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden’s favorite.

And former Gov. John Carlin’s favorite? “My first thought: Any field of any good milo with me in the combine, seeing the bin fill up so fast.”

Kassebaum Baker, who lives in Morris County, finds “the beauty from different colors of grass and terrain. ... Walking up to the mail box the other evening, it was so amazing to see the light changing, that bronze look and the gold on the tops of trees.”

The Eagle asked prominent Kansans to name their favorite places to go in the fall. Here’s what else they said – plus information on how to go to some of the same places yourself.

Fall festivals and traditions

Fall is about festivals and gatherings.

“Lindsborg’s Hyllningsfest,” Carlin said of the festival honoring Swedish immigrants who settled the area. The two-day event, Oct. 13-14, celebrates Swedish heritage with dances, foods, arts and other activities. Depending on the weather, the event has been known to swell the population of Lindsborg by 10 times its year-round residency of 3,200.

Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, along with co-author WenDee Rowe spent four years going to every one of the 626 incorporated cities in Kansas to do research for the new Kansas Guidebook 2 for Explorers. One of Penner’s favorite places is Hiawatha.

“That’s the town where, in 1918, T.H. Corthanke and his wife planted stately maple trees. They would share seeds from the tree with anyone who cared to grow mature maples,” she said.

The town is also known for hosting one of the nation’s oldest Halloween parade celebrations, the Hiawatha Halloween Frolic.

Some of the fall festivals in Kansas are so popular they have become ingrained in American culture. Independence native William Inge featured Neewollah in his 1953 Broadway play “Picnic.” It’s so well known that Independence’s population of 10,000 residents swells to 60,000 during the nine-day event. This year’s Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards) is Oct. 20-28.

And the 86th annual Arkalalah Festival in Arkansas City is Oct. 25-28.

The unspoiled Flint Hills in Kansas can soothe the soul on a long hike, especially if the coyotes serenade you with song. (Video by Roy Wenzl/The Wichita Eagle)

The changing prairie

Some Kansans prefer their home places in the fall.

“Well, one of my top favorite places is my own prairie,” said Jim Gray, director of the National Drover’s Hall of Fame in Ellsworth. “It is in the Smoky Hills and it’s there I feel most at home. I’m a grass and prairie person.

“I think we tend to overlook the importance of our own surroundings. From my own pasture, I can look across the terrain for miles and see the bluffs of the Smoky Hill River. It takes me back 150 years to the time of the Cheyenne and the whole changing culture taking place.”

Kassebaum Baker loves to watch football.

“I dearly love football,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it is K-State, KU or even Centre High School,” which serves Marion and Morris counties.

“You find a lot of homecomings and gatherings in the fall and that’s why I think it is special.”

She is also a fan of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, two miles north of Strong City on K-177, and was instrumental in its creation.

(FILE VIDEO -- AUGUST 2017) Thousands of pelicans at the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, near Great Bend, along with numerous shore birds.

Migrating birds, scenic drives and hills

Penner recommends a trip to the state’s best known wetlands during the fall migration.

Cheyenne Bottoms in Barton County and Quivira in Stafford County serve as major stopover points for sandhill cranes and whooping cranes. Whooping cranes are the tallest species of North American birds, at 5 feet. The sites are designated international wetlands of importance and serve as migratory stops for North American waterfowl and shorebirds.

“For me, getting to go anywhere when there is beautiful weather is awesome,” Penner said.

Particularly scenic places with steep, wooded hills include Linn County near Mound City and Carnahan Creek Drive near Olsburg in Pottawatomie County.

“Travel east of Olsburg 1/4 mile and head south on Carnahan Creek Road approximately 11 miles to K-13 to enjoy overlooks into the Blue River Valley,” Penner writes in her guidebook.

Carlin suggests driving through the Flint Hills at either sunset or sunrise.

Larry Hatteberg, former KAKE TV anchor, agrees – and suggests taking a camera.

“In the autumn, the texture of the grass changes yet again to the brown tones,” Hatteberg wrote in an email to The Eagle. “Yet, there just isn’t ‘one’ brown. There are many hues of that color that always make photography exciting. Adding to that is the kaleidoscope of leaves whose colors are a powerful accent to the brown grasses.”

One of his favorite places is Sharp’s Creek Road in Chase County.

Explore 83,000 miles

Hayden suggests branching out from traditional sites for fall trips to explore other parts of the state,. The state has roughly 83,000 square miles — and the Flint Hills and eastern Kansas tend to get the most attention.

He suggests going west.

“One of my favorites is the Cimarron National Grasslands,” in the far southwestern corner of the state. “It is one of the few places in Kansas to have expansive public land. It is beautiful in the fall and you’ve got the old Santa Fe Trail running through it and the historic Point of Rocks and other sites. And, it is uncrowded — a place that few Kansans have ever seen. I think everyone should get out there at least once.”

And like others, he recommends a trip to the Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms – but there are other wetlands, as well.

“One place often overlooked is the McPherson Valley Wetlands,” he said. “It is a place most Kansans drive by without realizing what a great place it is to hunt teal and early season waterfowl. And, it’s got all the colors of fall. It’s a real good place to go in October and November.”

But he saves one of the best places for last – the Arikaree Breaks in the far northwest corner of Kansas. The breaks are a rugged landscape of canyons, caves, valleys, creeks and mesas. They are only 2 to 3 miles wide but stretch miles from Rawlins County into Cheyenne and parts of Colorado and Nebraska.

“It is like no other place in Kansas,” Hayden said. “It is really unique and not that many people visit it. There is very little public land but most landowners out there welcome public participation.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

Five places to go in the fall

Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve — Drive on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway, which is 48 miles on K-177 and considered the gateway to the tallgrass prairie. Visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, two miles north of Strong City on K-177. To find out more about the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, go to The preserve is about a 90-minute drive from Wichita.

Svensk Hyllningsfest — in Lindsborg was first staged in 1941 and has grown to become one of Kansas’ most popular small-town festivals. Depending on the weather, the event has been known to swell the population of Lindsborg by 10 times its year-round residency of 3,200. The festival is celebrated with crafts, Swedish folk dancing and a parade. The festival, in downtown Lindsborg, 70 miles north of Wichita on I-135. This year’s festival is Oct. 13-14. For more information, go to

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge —It’s a little more than an hour’s drive northwest of Wichita in Stafford County. Cheyenne Bottoms is in Barton County. The Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway curves around Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Quivira is 90 miles northwest of Wichita. Take K-96 to Hutchinson, then go west on U.S. 50 approximately 14 miles to K-14. Go 5 miles north to Fourth Avenue, turn left and go 17 miles west to refuge headquarters. For more information, and

Cimarron National Grasslands — The U.S. Forest Service manages 108,175 acres in the grasslands, an area 30 miles long and 10 miles wide of shortgrass and sandsage prairie. The grasslands are more than a four hour drive from Wichita in Morton and Stevens counties in southwest Kansas. The district office is at 242 East Highway 56, Elkhart.

Arikaree Breaks — On the extreme northern edge of Cheyenne County, beginning at St. Francis, you can drive the backroads to explore the Arikaree Breaks, on Parks Road, CR-BB, CR-15 and CR-117. The breaks are two to three miles wide and 36 miles long. For more information, contact the St. Francis Area Chamber of Commerce, 785- 332-2961 or the Cheyenne County Museum, 785-332-2504. St. Francis is a five hour drive from Wichita.