Chase County title

11 best things in Chase County, Kansas

Chase County’s twin cities, Cottonwood Falls and Strong City, are nestled in the Cottonwood River Valley, and the Cottonwood River runs between them. No Chase County community tops 1,000 population, so space is plentiful. The serene valley surrounded by the soothing Flint Hills invites visitors to unwind. You have not lived until you visit Chase County, Kansas, the perfect place in the Heart of the Flint Hills. These are our 11 best ways to experience Chase County.

William Least-Heat Moon put Chase County on the nation’s mental map with his book PrairyErth, a deep map of the Flint Hills. Then Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum-Baker championed the creation of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The attention turned Chase County into a destination.

Chase County is welcoming and relaxing. Expect a calm, unhurried vibe and close contact with nature.

Related: Chase County is one of our 12 best Kansas places.

Table of contents: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve | Chase County Courthouse | Chase Fishing Lake | Pioneer Bluffs | Elmdale | Clements | Mill | Flint Hills Byway | Chase County Museum | Roniger Museum | Emma Chase Music | PrairyArt Path | Shop | Eat and Stay

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is Chase County’s signature attraction.

1. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

If you’ve heard Kansas is flat, the Flint Hills will show you otherwise. Experience the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairie’s last major segment at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve north of Strong City. While hiking through the preserve, stop, close your eyes, and listen to the grass and the birds singing. Watch for the 100 bison who live in the preserve. The Southwind Nature Trail to the Lower Fox Creek School is our favorite hike. 

Before settlement, the United States had some 170 million tallgrass prairie acres. The tallgrass could grow 6 feet tall in wet years. When the wind blew, the grass looked like ocean waves. Farmers turned nearly all of it into farmland within a generation, except in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Flint Hills soil is thin, so its settlers could not plow it. Instead, they turned the rich grasslands into pasture for their cattle, which had replaced the vast bison herds. Their cattle grew fat on Flint Hills grass, and their actions saved a segment of the native habitat.

Bar Z Ranch house at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas
The Z Bar Ranch preserved the tallgrass prairie as pasture.

Start your journey at the visitors center, then continue at the Z Bar Ranch buildings. Ride a tour bus or hike to the bison pasture, but beware. Bison are enormous, fast, and unpredictable. Keep your distance. Several other trails bisect the preserve.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is No. 60 in my book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.

Related: The peaceful preserve, full of wildlife, deserves ranking in the top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas.

Chase County, Kansas, Courthouse
The delightful Chase County Courthouse

2. Chase County Courthouse

The Chase County Courthouse attracts all eyes in the county seat. The lovely cream building with a red mansard roof is the oldest Kansas courthouse and the second oldest in continuous use west of the Mississippi River. The French Renaissance (Second Empire) structure stands 113 feet tall and is visible for miles.

While Lawrence architect John G. Haskell used an elaborate design, the 1873 courthouse blocks are Flint Hills limestone. Workers cut the blocks by hand; then, horse-drawn wagons brought them to the construction site. Some stones weighed nearly seven tons.

Jail in Chase County Courthouse
The original Chase County Jail was this cage in the courthouse.

Artisans created the three-story spiral staircase from walnut trees growing by the Cottonwood River. The top floor contains the vintage jail, which is a metal cage. Before air conditioning, it must have been a hellhole in the summer. The courtroom features an original pressed tin ceiling.

Roxie’s reliable report: In 1894, George Rose, a printer, desired to become postmaster in Cottonwood Falls, but the assistant postmaster, Karl Kuhl, got the job. Rose was incensed and shot Kuhl dead.

Rose never went to trial. Instead, a mob, including the town’s “best citizens,” forced the sheriff to release Rose into their hands. They lynched Rose and hung him from a railroad bridge northeast of the city. A thousand people allegedly watched Rose drop 10 feet toward the Cottonwood River, where the body remained until morning.

View from the courthouse tower
Downtown Cottonwood Falls from the courthouse tower.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Before you leave the top floor, stand on the stepstool to view Cottonwood Falls from the clock tower.

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Chase County waterfall
The middle of the three Chase County waterfalls.

3. Chase State Fishing Lake

Late spring is the best time to visit Chase County State Lake. The triple Chase Lake Falls are at their peak water flow when snowmelt and spring rains swell Prather Creek. The easy walk from Lake Road is just under a mile to the upper fall. The middle and lower fall hike is a bit more strenuous but not difficult. However, footing may be slippery.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Bring an adjustable camera and a tripod for the best images. Set your shutter speed to a slow setting and use a low ISO. Trip the shutter with a remote if possible.

The state stocks the lake with channel catfish, largemouth bass, saugeye, spotted bass, black bass, bluegill, and crappie. The lake’s website offers advice about which bait and location to use, plus creel limits. Anglers over 16 must possess a fishing license.

Roxie’s reliable report: Zebra mussels infest the lake. Please clean, drain, and dry all potential lake water sources. Use this guide to wildlife at the lake.

Pioneer Bluffs barn
Pioneer Bluffs is a popular wedding venue.

4. Pioneer Bluffs in Chase County, Kansas

Experience life as a pioneer rancher at Pioneer Bluffs. The ranch’s original owner Charles Rogler walked from Iowa to Chase County, Kansas, in 1859, two years before Kansas became a state. He homesteaded a ranch a mile north of Matfield Green. His ranch featured rich bottomland near a limestone bluff. Rogler expanded the farm until his untimely death at age 52.

After Rogler’s death, his son Henry and daughter-in-law Maud took over the ranch. They named it Pioneer Bluffs for the limestone cliff and their pioneering ancestor. They replaced the original cabin with a new home. The house included running water, which was a novelty at the time. Then they built a huge wooden barn. A year later, they added a combined granary and carriage house. The Rogler’s son Wayne ran the ranch for another generation, and then his heirs sold the ranch.

The Pioneer Bluffs Foundation bought 12 acres with part of the original homestead, the barn, and outbuildings. The foundation aims to honor the region’s ranching heritage with education and events. Events include ranching heritage prairie talk series, field trips, and other cultural, music, history, and art events. It’s also a wedding venue.

Vines crawling on ruined stone building in Clements
Vine-covered ruin in Clements.

5. Ghost Towns Scenic Drive

Merriam-Webster defines “ghost town” as “a once-flourishing town wholly or nearly deserted ….” This drive explores three Chase County, Kansas, places with declining populations, but only one, Clements, is unincorporated. The road roughly parallels the Cottonwood River’s winding course through the Flint Hills of Chase County.

Roxie’s reliable report: Zebulon Pike’s 1806-07 expedition followed the Cottonwood River along this route.

Bummie's Grocery
Bummie’s Grocery is ingeniously shaped to fit its irregular lot.

Flood-battered Elmdale

From Cottonwood Falls, drive west on Highway 50 to Elmdale, population 40. The Cottonwood River devastated Elmdale in 1951. The city built levees to protect the remaining small town, but the 1998 flood overtopped the levee.

Be sure to find Bummie’s Grocery. The store’s unusual shape follows the lot bounded by the highway and the railroad. Unfortunately, it closed in 2013 after 66 years of business.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: For a unique experience, stay in the Elmdale Treehouse Airbnb.

Clements Stone Arch Bridge
The Clements Stone Arch Bridge is now open solely to pedestrians.

Clements Stone Arch Bridge

Clements is 7.5 miles southeast of Elmdale on Highway 50. Less than 30 people live in the settlement, but it does boast a beautiful bridge. The 1887 native limestone Clements Stone Arch Bridge spans the Cottonwood River. It’s 127 feet long, and 57 feet span the river. The camelback design is humped so steeply that drivers could not see what was approaching. For the best river view, visit in the spring.

Ruins of the Schriever-Drinkwater Mill in Chase County
Cedar Creek once powered the Schriever-Drinkwater Mill.

Schriever-Drinkwater Mill

Cedar Point is 6 miles southwest of Clements. Look for the Drinkwater & Schriver Mill. Constructed in 1875, the mill ground wheat into flour for many years. Eventually, it became a feed mill. In 2007, the mill joined the National Register of Historic Places, but neglect has caused it to become an impressive ruin.

Roxie’s reliable report: Because Marion County did not want to pay for an expensive murder trial, the commissioners donated a slice of land one section wide by 18 sections high to Chase County, Kansas. The transfer, which included Cedar Point, ensured that the murder had occurred in Chase County. Therefore, the Chase County taxpayers got stuck with the bill.

Related: Learn more about Kansas geography oddities.

Cottonwood Dam
The Cottonwood Dam Walking Bridge is near the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway’s route.

6. Flint Hills National Scenic Byway

To feast upon the beauty of the Flint Hills, drive the Flint Hills Scenic Byway from Cassoday to Council Grove. The rolling hills offer gorgeous vistas on the entire 47-mile route. Watch for the scenic overlook between Bazaar and Cottonwood Falls.

My book Midwest Road Trip Adventures features the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway.

Knute Rockne exhibit at the Chase County Museum
Knute Rockne exhibit at the Chase County Museum

7. Chase County Historical Society Museum

The Chase County Museum includes displays of military uniforms, barbed wire, the book PrairyErth, and more. But its most famous exhibit is the one about Knute Rockne. The Hall of Fame coach from Notre Dame University was flying to Hollywood aboard TWA Flight 599 to help with the movie production Spirit of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish had just won consecutive national titles. The plane crashed a few miles west of Bazaar on March 31, 1931, killing the coach and seven others. The crash buried parts of the engine two feet down.

Roxie’s reliable report: The Chase County rest area on the Kansas Turnpike has a memorial for Rockne. The actual site and monument are on private property near Bazaar.

Related: The turnpike runs north from Chase County to Emporia, a hub for disc golf and gravel-grinder bicycling.

8. Roniger Memorial Museum

The small Roniger Museum on Cottonwood Falls’s courthouse square is filled with two Native American artifact collections extending from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Numerous stone tools will astound visitors. The Smithsonian Institution begged the Roniger Brothers for their collection, but they refused. The Kansas collection should remain in Kansas, the brothers said. The museum then added the Lemke collection. The museum also includes other early-day artifacts, plus taxidermy animals and birds.

9. Emma Chase Friday Night Music

On every first, third, and fifth Friday night, head to downtown Cottonwood Falls for Emma Chase Friday Night Music. Join in the concert or sit back and enjoy. During inclement weather, Prairie PastTimes hosts the weekly event. Check out the variety of art and craft items for sale.

Bring your lawn chair and sit outside the Symphony in the Flint Hills Gift Shop & Gallery during warm weather. (Make sure to examine the local artists’ works in the art gallery.) Check for location updates.

Related: Emma Chase Friday Night Music is No. 28 in my book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die. Buy a copy.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Stroll through the antique shops before the music begins.

PrairyArt Path, Matfield Green, Chase County
Matfield Green’s Prairie Art Path contains Chase County’s answer to Stonehenge.

10. PrairyArt Path

Explore the intersection between nature and art on the PrairyArt Path in Matfield Green. The four-mile path winds through dramatic views, remnants of historic cattle pens, and sculptures.

11. Shop Chase County

Flint Hills Rodeo royalty owns the Jim Roberts & Son Western Store. I entered intending to take some pictures. I left with a custom-fitted cowgirl hat.

Flint Hills Rodeo grounds, Strong City
Flint Hills Rodeo grounds

Roxie’s reliable report: Strong City hosts the Flint Hills Rodeo every June.

The “Local Honey” sign beckons honey-lovers to Strong City.

Look for the “Local Honey for Sale” sign in Strong City, then buy some honey from the Kelly’s Bees kiosk in their yard.

While downtown, shop for art and antiques at the Flint Hills Gallery and Tallgrass Antiques. Shop for books, art, and Kansas products at Symphony in the Flint Hills. The gallery holds the Symphony in the Flint Hills Signature Event each spring when the Kansas City Symphony performs in a Flint Hills pasture.

Grand Central Hotel sandwich board
Welcome to the Grand Central Hotel.

Where to eat and stay

After exploring Chase County all day, you’ll be hungry, thirsty, and tired. Stay upstairs at the Grand Central Hotel in Cottonwood Falls, and savor a steak at the Grand Grill on the first floor.

Relax at the Doghouse Saloon, then start the next day with coffee and pastries at HeBrews CoffeeHouse.

Roxie’s reliable report: The Grand Central Hotel is featured in my book Secret Kansas.

After a few days in Chase County, you may never want to leave.

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