10 fascinating things to do in Dodge City
For 20 seasons, the TV show Gunsmoke brought Dodge City to viewers. Marshal Matt Dillon told a lot of criminals to “Get out of Dodge.” Don’t follow the marshal’s advice. You should get into Dodge and enjoy our top 10 things to do in Dodge City, one of our 12 favorite places in Kansas.
If you’re a Gunsmoke fan and have never visited Dodge City, prepare for a surprise. The real Dodge City doesn’t look like the TV version. The studio filmed the show in several locations, none of them in Kansas. Even though the show’s producers didn’t film the show in Dodge, the city has plenty to offer its guests.
1. Follow the Dodge City Trail of Fame
Dodge City is grateful for the show. The Dodge City Trail of Fame honors Gunsmoke, plus more TV and movie stars, Western heroes, and Dodge City dignitaries. Gunsmoke’s biggest stars are on Gunsmoke Street. Dennis Weaver, who portrayed Chester Goode for nine seasons on Gunsmoke before leaving to star on McCloud, was the first honoree. His medallion and handprints are on Front Street.
2. Survive a (fake) shoot-out at the Boot Hill Museum
In 1874, John T. Lytle drove the first herd of longhorns to Dodge City. Lytle didn’t stay in Dodge; he continued his journey to Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Lytle’s route soon became one of the busiest American trails. At Dodge City, cattle owners sent their cattle east on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Or, like Lytle, continue north. Dodge City was the first city the trail cowboys had seen for weeks. With full wallets, they wanted to enjoy life. Businesses, some of them unsavory, mined the cowboys’ wallets.
At the Boot Hill Museum, head back in time to Dodge City’s glory days as the Queen of the Cowtowns. The museum owns over 60,000 artifacts telling Dodge City’s history. Summers are the best time to visit because all of the museum’s activities are available, including can-can lessons, gunfights, the Long Branch Variety Show, country-style dinners, and the Beatty & Kelley Ice Cream Parlor.
Pro tip: Across the street, gamble with Doc Holliday. But beware. Doc has his hand on his pistol. Don’t think of cheating!
3. Join longhorns and cowhands on the Great Western Cattle Trail
El Capitan, the giant longhorn, looks south over Wyatt Earp Blvd., watching for the next large longhorn herd arriving from Texas. Look for trail markers next to the huge bull at the Dodge City Raceway Park entrance and the Point of Rocks west of the Dodge City Iron Cowboys sign on Highway 50. See live longhorns in Longhorn Park at W. Hwy. 50 and Airport Road.
4. Honor teachers at the Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame
The Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame has honored more than 400 teachers since its inception. I worked with two of them, 2020 inductees Jackie Elliott and Duane Unger of Goodland High. The Dodge City hall is the only teachers’ hall of fame.
Curiously, the hall of fame and the Gunfighters’ Wax Museum share the same building. Maybe that’s not so curious. I worked for eight years as a substitute teacher, and I sometimes felt as if I’d dropped into the chaotic Old West.
5. Join Coronado’s search for mysterious Quivira
Pueblo-dwelling indigenous people sent Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado on a fruitless search for gold deep into Kansas. During his wanderings, Coronado crossed the Arkansas River near Dodge City on June 29, 1541. Father Juan de Padilla held Mass on the hills above the river, the first Christian service held in the interior of the North American continent.
In June 1975, the Ford County Historical Society installed a 38-foot-high pressed concrete cross at the crossing six miles east of Dodge City on Highway 400.
Pro tip: Kansans pronounce the Arkansas River as Ar-KAN-zus, not the name of that other state.
6. Guard the Santa Fe Trail at Fort Dodge
In 1864, the army established Fort Dodge, where the Santa Fe Trail‘s Dry and Wet Routes intersected. Because it carried traffic from both trail branches, many teamsters camped there. When the native peoples learned that, the camps became their target. The fort’s troopers protected trade. After the Civil War, the army used the fortification to prepare for campaigns against the natives.
During the 1878 Northern Cheyenne Exodus, troops from Fort Dodge confronted Cheyenne warriors at the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork. Their commander, Col. William H. Lewis, died from his battle wounds. Lewis was the last soldier to die on a Kansas battlefield. The troopers continued to chase the Cheyennes but did not catch them until they had reached Nebraska. Their failure enabled the Last Indian Raid in Kansas.
In 1890, Fort Dodge became the Kansas Soldier’s Home, six miles east of Dodge City. The dignified buildings named for famous military heroes are far different than the fort’s original dugouts. Visit the library and walk the self-guided tour.
Pro tip: Visit clearly defined Santa Fe Trail ruts at a Highway 50 overlook nine miles west of Dodge City.
7. Visit Dodge City, Nuevo México
The Adams-Onís Treaty defined the United States-Mexico border after the Louisiana Purchase. The boundary stair-stepped northwest from the Gulf of Mexico to where the 100th meridian crossed the Arkansas River. United States territory was north of the border, and Spanish territory was south. Therefore, Dodge City south of the river used to be Spanish and then Mexican territory. When Texas gained its independence, the new republic also claimed the area. Including Old Glory, five flags have flown above Dodge City.
Cross the Second Ave. Bridge to enter the former Mexican state of Nuevo México.
Pro tip: The Santa Fe railroad depot grounds include markers explaining the 100th meridian’s role. Look for the sundials showing Central and Mountain Time. When the nation established time zones in 1883, the 100th meridian was the Central-Mountain Time boundary. Straddle the meridian at the marker near the sundials. During the early 20th century, the railroad imported Mexican workers, who lived in the Mexican Village south of the railroad tracks. A marker at the depot explains their story.
8. Commemorate 9/11 in Dodge City
Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day? Most Americans remember their precise location and activities at the moment we heard about 9/11’s events. In Dodge City, the Twin Towers still stand in Liberty Garden. Each 110-inch tower replica stands in a reflecting pool, an inch for each of the tower’s stories. A four-foot piece of twisted steel from Ground Zero stands on the flagpole’s base. The garden also protects parts of the Pentagon’s limestone and sandstone from Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed.
Pro tip: After visiting Liberty Garden, take a short walk to the Wright Park Zoo. Animals include bison, longhorns, emus, cougars, and more. See the longhorns’ successors at the Dodge City Feedlot Overlook east of the city, but be prepared for the smell of money. During the summer, cool off in the Long Branch Lagoon Water Park.
9. Dare to do dirt at Dodge City Raceway Park
Dodge City Raceway Park is the state’s premier dirt track in Kansas. The park seats 3,500 people and hosts numerous motorsports events. If you love the roar of engines, DCRP is where to be. The track hosts International Motor Contest Association races, Sooner Late Models, the United Rebel Sprint Series, flat-track motorcycles, and a National Tractor Pulling Association event. Each season finishes with the three-day Steve King Memorial sprint car and midget class races.
The Steve King Foundation supports dirt-track drivers, pit crew members, racing officials, operations personnel, and immediate families who suffer severe illness, injury, or death.
10. Drink to Dodge City on Booze Hill
Boot Hill Distillery stands where Boot Hill Cemetery used to be. Farmers turn their crops into high-quality whiskey. We appreciate the straight wheat whisky and the barreled gin. Make sure to spend some time in their tasting room. Try their delicious Amaretto sour.
Before you enter the distillery, examine the monuments at Boot Hill Monument Park in front of the distillery. A pair of yoked oxen commemorate the patient animals who pulled the wagons on the Santa Fe Trail. Pioneer dentist O.H. Simpson modeled his Cowboy Sculpture on cowboy and U.S. Marshal Joe Sughrue.
Down the hill, drink Dodge City brews at Dodge City Brewing Co. Try the 1872 Lager, the Sundance Gose, and the Spruce Street IPA. Accompany your brews with a Pizza with No Name.
Where to eat and stay
You have to eat at Casey’s Cowtown Club. No visit to the Queen of Cowtowns is complete without a steak at Casey’s. Mexican food lovers should try El Charro Mexican Restaurant. Bring home some of their house-made salsa. Refresh yourself with a Captain Cranberry cold brew at Red Beard Coffee.
Boot Hill Casino keeps visitors occupied. Attend events at the United Wireless Arena, and stay at the on-site Hampton Inn & Suites. Check the casino’s partner deals.
Camp at Riverside RV Park.
More to explore
Soldiers from Fort Scott passed future Dodge City on their way to the Mexican War. Pawnee Rock west of Great Bend was the Santa Fe Trail’s halfway point. Some say that Coronado turned back toward Mexico City after he climbed Coronado Heights in Lindsborg. Garden City, Southwest Kansas‘s second-largest city, is an hour west of Dodge. Read more about Kansas and the Midwest.
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