The Flint Hills of Kansas, an area wedged wedged roughly between Topeka and Salina that extends down to Wichita, is one of the few places where you can still see the tallgrass prairie as it was in the 1800s, thanks to a layer of chert (flint) below the soil that made farming impossible. The gently rolling hills contain sections of wildflower-covered grassland, the landscape that greeted early pioneers. This region contains some of the richest grazing land in the world, managed through regular spring prairie burns.
The following circle tour covers some of the highlights of the area and could be completed in two or three days, depending on how much you linger along the way. It provides a good introduction to the state's small towns and majestic prairie landscape. In mid-June, the hills come alive with the sound of music in the Symphony in Flint Hills, with a performance by the Kansas City Symphony on the prairie.
Beginning in Topeka, head southwest on Highway 4 to Highway 177, the heart of the Flint Hills. Take time to see Council Grove, once an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail. What's left of Council Oak, the tree under which the U.S. government and the Osage chiefs signed a treaty, is preserved in town. Another historic oak served as a mail drop for settlers heading west. Look for the Madonna of the Trail statue, a memorial to pioneer women.
You'll also find the Last Chance Store, where travelers stocked up on supplies before returning to the Santa Fe Trail; Kaw Mission State Historic Site, a Christian mission for the Indian boys who were forcibly removed from their parents to learn the white man's ways; and the Hays House, said to be the oldest operating restaurant west of the Mississippi. Be sure to see the Old Calaboose, which was the Santa Fe Trail's only jail. The Neosho Riverwalk connects many of the city's sites.
As you head south on Highway 177 (which is a National Scenic Byway), you'll pass the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, a tract of more than 10,000 acres/4,000 hectares that visitors can explore by bus tour or self-guided hike. In addition to the natural beauty, an impressive 1880s limestone mansion, a massive limestone barn and other features make this a worthwhile stop. Continue south on Highway 177 until you reach Cottonwood Falls. The town has the state's oldest working courthouse, built in 1873 in French Renaissance style. It's a much fancier structure than you'd expect on the frontier. Especially impressive is the three-story, black-walnut spiral staircase.
Keep heading south on Highway 177 all the way to Highway 54, then go a few miles/kilometers west to the town of El Dorado. The Coutts Memorial Museum of Art contains a surprising fine-art collection, including works by Frederick Remington, Thomas Hart Benton and more. The 10-acre/4-hectare Kansas Oil Museum describes the history of the oil industry in the state.
From El Dorado, head west to Wichita, then north on Interstate 135 to Newton (you'll be following the same route as travelers along the Chisholm Trail). Once the rowdiest railroad town on the prairie, Newton has settled into a more peaceful existence as an agricultural community. Newton Station was constructed around 1930 to resemble Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon. One of the other 19th-century depots once served as a famous Harvey House Hotel, where the wholesome Harvey Girls lived and worked as waitresses.
The Kauffman Museum in North Newton explores the history of the region's Mennonite settlers. The Russian Mennonites brought their famous Turkey red wheat to Kansas, which has helped the state become the nation's major supplier of winter wheat. The museum, which also displays regional Indian artifacts and includes an 1870s farmstead with heritage flower and vegetable gardens, is surrounded by a living prairie with more than 15 species of prairie grasses and more than 100 wildflower species.
Continue your journey north on I-135 through Salina and the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure, then east on I-70 to Abilene. The next stop on your way east is at Fort Riley, established 1853 to provide protection to travelers and immigrants and still an active military base. The post is home to the U.S. Cavalry Museum, which tells the story of the soldiers who played a major role in the Native American wars of the 1800s, and Custer House, officers' quarters named for Gen. George Custer (he didn't fare so well in the campaigns).
From Fort Riley, take Highway 18 to Manhattan. Sunset Zoo there is one of a number of quality zoos in the state. If the prairie has really captured your curiosity, go south of town to walk the trails of the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, a fascinating tallgrass preserve that has its own bison herd. Konza is divided into strictly managed tracts to measure the effects of various burn frequencies and grazing conditions on the prairie. The results help ranchers better manage their property. From Manhattan, end your tour by returning to Topeka on Highway 24.
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