Recreation, history, and top-notch cuisine come together in Geary County, Kansas, home to Junction City, Fort Riley, and Milford Reservoir. Despite enjoying the state’s largest reservoir, Geary County, on Interstate 70 between Manhattan and Abilene, is an often-overlooked gem. We’re about to rip away the wrapping paper and tear open the box around a glittering destination – Junction City and Geary County. You must visit.
Roxie’s reliable report: Junction City’s name derives from its site at the confluence of the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers, creating the Kansas (or Kaw) River.
Geary County hosted me, but all opinions are my own.
Table of contents: Reservoir | Water trail | Waterfall | Scenic drive | Konza Prairie | Opera house | Murals | Golf | Military memorials | Fort Riley | Museums | Agritourism | Dining | Lodging
1-6. Escape the ordinary at Milford Reservoir
Escape everyone except the fish at the 65,200-acre Milford Reservoir or party in the crowds at Nudie Beach. Or enjoy something between pure solitude and friendly crowds. The reservoir provides a wide range of experiences to satisfy the entire spectrum from extroverts to introverts.
Milford State Park
Milford State Park inhabits the lake’s southeast shore 10 minutes north of I-70. Of course, water recreation takes center stage on the lake. Join the Southwind Yacht Club or watch their races. Boat and swim at Nudie Beach, where clothing is not optional.
Summertime is the park’s busiest season, but each season offers opportunities to recreate. Bald eagles inhabit the park in the winter, attracted by its open water. Attend Eagle Day each third Saturday of January to learn more about the eagles and join an eagle viewing tour. During the spring, watch for migratory birds and listen for bull elk bugling in the fall.
Unwrap beauty when you hike one of the park’s four trails. The easy Wildlife Viewing Tower Trail goes to a 21-foot-tall viewing platform. Nearby food plots attract wildlife. Visit near dawn and dusk or stargaze at night. Bring your binoculars or a camera with a long lens. Look for geodes and deer on the 2.2-mile Crystal Trail and watch bald eagles from November through March. The Eagle Ridge Equestrian Trail provides more than 8 miles of horseback riding.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Equestrians should camp at the park’s Eagle Ridge Campground, which features a corral. Before you go, read the rules and fee schedule.
Related: Cross the lake on the Highway 82 causeway to the Kansas Landscape Arboretum, one of Clay County’s best attractions. The arboretum is most beautiful in the fall, but don’t miss it in springtime when the crabapple trees bloom.
Fishing Capital of Kansas
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) annually ranks Milford as one of the state’s best for blue catfish, crappies, smallmouth bass, wipers, and white bass. Plus, the lake shelters channel catfish and largemouth bass. Fishing is best from mid-March into June. When summer’s heat comes, go fishing early. Fishing improves after September’s first cold front, which warns the fish to prepare for winter.
Milford holds the current Kansas record for smallmouth bass at 6.88 pounds. The reservoir also has hosted some of the nation’s most prestigious fishing tournaments, including the B.A.S.S. Federation National Championship and In-Fisherman’s Professional Walleye Trail National Championship.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Check the KDWP’s fishing forecast for tips and creel limits. Anglers 16 and over must possess a fishing license.
Milford Nature Center and Fish Hatchery
Fish on the wall and snakes crawling in cages greet guests inside the Milford Nature Center’s main building. And when it’s time for a pit stop, a skunk’s business end faces the hapless soul on the throne. Nevertheless, don’t let the potential horror stories stop you. All the dangers are locked away.
Outside, animals in rehab or with permanent injuries live in habitats where visitors can view them. Look for the bald eagles. In the playground, adventurous folks can climb on a spider.
Look for the Milford Fish Hatchery’s fish runs on the other side of the nature center. It’s one of the nation’s few warm water, “intensive-culture” hatcheries. Watch for the feeding frenzy when the keepers toss fish food into the runs.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Call the hatchery for an appointment to see inside.
School Creek ORV Area
Find your motorcycles and ATVs thrills in the School Creek Off-Road Vehicle Area on the lake’s west side. With nearly 300 acres of trails, beginners to experts will find a free experience worth trying. Unwrap your inner thrill-seeker.
Roxie’s reliable report: All riders must wear helmets, and vehicles must be less than 50 inches wide.
Step aboard a 14-passenger bus and visit a Kansas homestead with an elk herd behind it. Acorns Resort offers guided tours on the historic Acorns Wild’s land. Groups must comprise at least six and no more than 14 members to join a tour. Schedules vary seasonally.
7. Paddle the Kansas River Water Trail from Junction City
The Kansas (or Kaw) River begins at Grant Park, Junction City’s northeast corner. During low water, hikers can stand near the confluence by crossing beneath the Republican River bridge.
When the water returns, paddlers may enter the river from a ramp at River Mile 173, about a third of a mile above the confluence. The Republican runs clear, while the Smoky Hill carries sediment from its journey across the state. Paddlers should watch for unusual currents when they cross the confluence boundary on the river’s wildest section.
Novice paddlers require about an hour to go three miles. The next ramp is in Ogden, about 9 miles (three hours) downstream.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Read the Friends of the Kaw River’s tips for a safe trip. Rent a kayak from 360 Kayaking.
Related: The river empties into the Missouri River at Kaw Point, one of our favorite places in Kansas City, Kansas.
8. Admire the waterfall at Geary State Fishing Lake
The 35-foot Geary Falls may be the state’s tallest waterfall. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful. It’s the spillway for Geary State Fishing Lake south of Junction City on Highway 77. The state stocks it with black bass, walleye, saugeye, channel and flathead catfish, bluegill, and crappie. Bring your lunch to eat at the picnic tables.
Roxie’s reliable report: To visit the waterfall, park in the spaces near the State Lake Road entrance. Take the hiking trail across the dam. The trail is flat except at the beginning and the end. Spring is the best time to see the falls because the water flow is at its peak.
9. Ride the Geary County Scenic Drive
Do you enjoy driving through hills and exploring winding roads? If so, take the back way to Geary State Fishing Lake. The Flint Hills scenic drive passes creeks, woodlots, and fields. From I-70’s Exit 299 in Grandview Plaza, drive south on J Hill Road.
Look for the large “J” on the 1,286-foot-high J Hill. The “J” needed repainting in 2011. Because the first coat was blue outlined with white, it caused controversy. A second paint job returned it to its traditional white. The right fork of a rough trail across the road from the radio tower goes to the “J” and a view of the Smoky Hill River.
Looking for Coronado at Logan Park Grove
At Skiddy Road, J Hill Road becomes E. Lyons Creek Road. When the name changes, turn right to Logan Park Grove, a former indigenous campground and the site of Geary County’s first school. Capt. Henderson homesteaded and built a sawmill there. He believed (PDF) that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had camped there and built a granite monument to the explorer.
Roxie’s reliable report: The monument now stands in Junction City’s Coronado Park.
Henderson’s sons, Robert and James, erected the cement Indian Statue in 1920. It marks a feeder trail that runs from the Smoky Hill River to the Santa Fe Trail south of the Lyons Creek-Skiddy intersection. The statue is currently in poor shape. It’s on private property and is difficult to see from the road.
E. Lyons Creek Road becomes W. Lyons Creek at the Highway 77 intersection and generally heads southwest. After the Lyons Creek Bridge, take the left fork to State Lake Road, the state lake’s back door.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The small, battered Geary County Lake sign is easy to miss. Look for it on the fence.
10. Hike the tallgrass at Konza Prairie
Konza Prairie’s unbroken tallgrass runs beside the Interstate for several miles, but once hikers begin trekking its trails, civilization’s traces diminish. The swish of the grass in the breeze, the birds calling, and the insects whispering drive away daily stressors.
Three trails cross the prairie, and they all begin together. The full experience traverses 6.2 miles, while the shortest one covers 2.6 miles. The trails undulate with the Flint Hills, and the hilltop views are a marvel. To reach our favorite hike, go north at I-70 Exit 313.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Bring trekking poles and water. Some of the trails are rough and potholed, particularly in low sections. Allow 2-6 hours to hike the trails. Geary County offers many more trails (PDF).
Roxie’s reliable report: In 1871, Geary County swapped Ashland Township, which contains the northern part of the Konza Prairie, for Milford Township, which now includes Milford Reservoir.
Related: Hiking the Konza Prairie is one of our recommendations for North Central Kansas.
11. Experience culture at the C.L. Hoover Opera House, Junction City
The C.L. Hoover Opera House hosts live performances. It also holds Junction City’s arts agencies: the Junction City Little Theater, Junction City Arts Council, and Junction City Community Band.
The building began as an opera house but later became a courthouse, fire department, jail, and movie theater. The ornate limestone section was the opera house, and the brick section housed the city offices. Ironically, a fire in the firehouse gutted the building in January 1889. Like a phoenix, the performance venue arose from the ashes in 10 months. It reopened in October 1889.
The Opera House/Colonial Movie Theatre closed in the early 1980s, but the phoenix hadn’t seen its final act. In 2008, the opera house reopened after a $7.5 million restoration as the C.L. Hoover Opera House.
Roxie’s reliable report: Instead of bats in the bell tower, the opera house hosts a resident ghost. She might be Bettina Coover, one of Junction City Little Theater’s founders.
12. Explore vibrant murals in Junction City
Mindy Allen of Mindy’s Murals, one of the state’s top muralists, lives in Junction City. Many of her creations adorn her hometown. The newest murals at Hess and Sons are a tribute to Geary County’s heritage. Other murals honor Junction City Police and the military. More murals are inside the opera house.
13. Tee off at Rolling Meadows Golf Course
Golf Digest assigned Rolling Meadows Golf Course a 4.5-star rating. Richard Watson designed the 160-acre course that opened in 1981. Enjoy the combination of the Flint Hills and prairie views while navigating six lakes and 29 sand bunkers. Mature trees offer welcome shade and increase the course’s challenges.
14-16. Honor veterans at Junction City military memorials
As one would expect from the home of Fort Riley, Junction City honors the military in many ways. Unwrap valor at the city’s memorials.
Heritage Park, the heart of Junction City
Heritage Park in Downtown Junction City is the city’s heart, and many of the city’s signature events happen there.
The park’s memorials honor first responders and military personnel. The Civil War Arch spans the park’s entrance, and markers behind it list the cost of freedom. Nearly 3 million Union soldiers enlisted during the war, and about a quarter of them died. Today’s population equivalent is 6 million souls.
Another monument honors those who fought in Vietnam, the nation’s longest war. Others honor Purple Heart recipients, prisoners of war, and those missing in action, plus local law enforcement.
Junction City Buffalo Soldiers Memorial
The all-Black Ninth and 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, served at Fort Riley between 1887 to shortly before World War II. The men and their families lived in segregated housing near the memorial. The sculptor combined the features of the final five Buffalo Soldiers, Albert Curley, Edwin H. Schoenbeck, James P. Meigs Jr., Samuel G. Kimble, and Turl Covington Jr., to create the nine-foot-high sculpture of a trooper with his mount. Its pedestal and the nearby wall are made from native limestone.
A Fort Riley general decided to bring home an atomic cannon. Unlike the atomic bombs that ended World War II, Annie’s munitions were meant to destroy a small area. The government only made 20 of them and used none of them. The giant cannon looms over Grandview Plaza at Exit 301. World War II-era howitzers and a command track vehicle join Annie in Freedom Park. The park trail is unmaintained.
17-19. Visit Fort Riley
In 1852, Capt. Robert Chilton chose the Kansas River’s confluence as the site for a new fort to protect the overland trails. The Army named the fort after Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Riley, the leader of the first Santa Fe Trail’s military escort in 1829. Troopers began escorting mail trains in the spring of 1853.
Kansas became Bleeding Kansas when factions fought to make the territory safe for slavery or for freedom. The Army had to police the conflict until the nation ruptured. The regular Army soldiers left to fight back east. Militia units then used the fort as a base.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Read the fort’s entrance requirements before arriving at the gate.
Fort Riley Driving Tour
Experience a Fort Riley overview on the Fort Riley Driving Tour (PDF). Some of the highlights include the Fort Riley National Cemetery, the Wounded Knee Memorial, the Great War Memorial, and the remnants of Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood’s Camp Funston headquarters. Three Medal of Honor recipients, Sgts. George Loyd, James F. Ayers, and John E. Clancy, rest at the national cemetery.
Roxie’s reliable report: Seventy-three German and Italian prisoners of war rest in the national cemetery. The POW’s tombstones face the Americans’ grave markers. A few Confederate soldiers also rest in the cemetery. Their stones have a point on the top instead of the usual rounded military stones.
The Seventh Cavalry erected the Wounded Knee Memorial to honor their comrades who fell in the controversial battle that killed at least 150 Lakota.
Camp Funston trained numerous soldiers for World War I, but it also is infamous as a Spanish flu outbreak site. The Spanish flu was the last pandemic before COVID swept the world.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The First Family Overwatch and Outdoor Chapel overlooks the fort and Junction City. Visit at sunset for beautiful views. All faiths are honored here.
First Territorial Capitol Museum
Territorial Gov. Andrew Reeder wanted to insulate the legislature from the violence along the Missouri border. Therefore, he moved the capital to Pawnee next to Fort Riley. Reeder’s motives weren’t pure; he owned land in Pawnee. Pawnee’s territorial capital tenure lasted just four days. The disgusted legislators then decamped to Shawnee Mission.
The Kansas State Historical Society maintains the restored capitol building. It’s open seasonally.
Related: Follow the Territorial Capital Trail.
George Armstrong Custer was the West’s most famous – or notorious – soldier. Before his demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer commanded the Seventh Cavalry at Fort Riley. The Custer House portrays the life of a frontier officer and his family. A kitchen fire consumed Quarters No. 24A, the Custers’ home, but Fort Riley restored it to the period. Look for the “frontier-friendly” piano. The piano’s legs detached so the body could slide into a wagon.
Roxie’s reliable report: Arrange for tours in advance.
Related: Custer commanded Fort Abraham Lincoln in Mandan, North Dakota, when he rode to his fate at Little Bighorn in Southeast Montana.
20-22. Dive into history at Junction City museums
The Geary County Historical Society preserves the former Junction City High School as its main museum. It also preserves a merchant’s home and a one-room schoolhouse. Contact the museum for house and school tours.
Geary County Historical Museum, Junction City
The Geary County Historical Museum inhabits the former Junction City High School. Visit the shops in Junction City’s historic downtown. Grind coffee beans in the kitchen and “send” Morse Code messages at the Union Pacific depot.
However, the most interesting displays are the Geary County alphabet. “C” stands for Celebrity Sightings. Roy Eisenhower, President Dwight Eisenhower’s brother, owned the pharmacy at 622 N. Washington St., now NetQuest. The pharmacist died in May 1942, a month before his brother became the commanding general in World War II’s European Theater. The future President and his wife visited Roy and his wife Edna. Edna retained the pharmacy for another two years after Roy’s death.
Related: Walk in Dwight Eisenhower’s footsteps in Abilene.
“E” is for an epidemic, the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 that swept around the world. Because of the crowded conditions, Fort Riley’s Camp Funston was a super spreader site.
“G” is the infamous Goat Gland Doctor, John R. Brinkley, who claimed to cure male issues by implanting goat parts. His powerful radio station KFKB (Kansas First, Kansas Best) spawned musicians’ careers but also led to his downfall.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Another drug store, Sargent’s, was the first Coca-Cola distribution site west of the Mississippi. The “Coca-Cola Senate” gathered at the store. Look for vintage Coke bottles.
Several generations of jewelers lived in the Starcke House, which grew from a four-room house with a lean-to kitchen to the current spacious residence. The Geary County Historical Society opened the house in December of 2000. It contains the society’s furniture and household goods collection.
Spring Valley Heritage Site
Return to one-room schools at the Spring Valley Heritage Site, where District #21 provided education from 1871 to 1958. In 1957, Spring Valley was the sole Geary County school that lacked power and indoor toilets. In those days, education was not for the faint of heart.
23-29. Agritourism: How food reaches your table from Geary County
Experiencing farm life is fun. Learn more at these agritourism attractions.
Hildebrand Farms Dairy
Hildebrand Farms Dairy is one of my favorite Kansas places. Their milk is superb, coming from the family’s cows. The glass bottles provide nostalgic echoes of the milkman delivering fresh milk each morning. The Hildebrand family started their dairy in 1930 but opened their micro-creamery in 2008. The cattle graze outside the dairy. During tours, guests can visit the adorable calves.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Return your clean milk bottles each visit for a discount.
Rainbow Meadows Equine Rescue & Retirement
Rainbow Meadows is all about horses. It’s not a horse zoo where people gawk at the animals. However, volunteer horse lovers are welcome to help care for the horses through an application process.
Rock Springs Ranch
Rock Springs Ranch has hosted Kansas children since 1946 with hiking, swimming, and horseback riding options, plus more. The ranch is more than a camp for children, though. Any group may enjoy the ranch’s meeting spaces.
Geary Community Farmers Market, Junction City
From May to October, buy fresh produce and crafts at the Thursday farmers market at the JC Naz Church parking lot.
Thomas Mini Farm grows plants in its greenhouse from May to November. They also sell their eggs and honey. Their lavender patch and beeswax produce lip balm. Each year, the farm sells goat kids and lambs.
30-34. Dine like a Geary County local
We rate Geary County as one of the four greatest cuisine centers in Kansas, with Wichita, Kansas City, and Leavenworth. Fort Riley has brought an international influence to its surroundings, especially its dining options. Here are four restaurants that we adore, but Geary County offers many more.
Negril Caribbean Restaurant
Warm your mouth with hot sauces, spice rubs, and marinades, then cool it with a soothing rum drink in a cozy atmosphere. We recommend the oxtail and the Jamaican carrot cake.
JC’s BBQ & Grill
Enjoy the taste of Kansas City barbecue in Junction City with easy access from Interstate 70. While you’re watching the game, eat JC”s smokehouse mac n cheese and the caramel apple pie.
Bella’s Italian Restaurant
Bella’s pasta sampler makes menu decisions easy. In one meal, you’ll get lasagna, manicotti, and cheese ravioli with marinara sauce topped with mozzarella.
Four Seasons Asian Restaurant
I was completely ignorant of Korean cuisine when I walked into Four Seasons. I walked out as an eager convert. We recommend Korean-style sweet and sour pork. Koreans don’t have courses, so the sides come out with the entreé. Everything was delicious, and I am eager to return.
Bonus: Kabayan Sari-Sari Store in Downtown Junction City
If the delights of Asian cuisine inspire you, craft your favorites at home with products from the Kabayan market.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: For more options, check Geary County Convention & Visitors Bureau’s restaurant page.
35-37. Where to stay around Junction City
Where else should a person stay but beside Milford Reservoir? Unwrap relaxation when you stay by the lake.
You might not want to leave Acorns Resort after you stay a while. Cabins, yurts, and RV sites all await your stay. The resort’s lake location provides fishing, boating, hunting, biking, hiking, and wildlife watching. Guests may even dock boats at The Cove Bar & Grill. We recommend the Elk 104 Burger, named for the meanest elk on the adjoining elk farm.
Flagstop Resort & RV Park
Flagstop is next to Milford, the reservoir’s namesake town. Hang out in a cabin or your RV.
Thunderbird Marina & RV Resort
If you don’t own an RV but want to try RV life, rent one from Thunderbird on Milford’s southern shore. Park your boat at one of the slips at Milford’s largest marina and eat at the Anchor Out.
After you open the Geary County box, your life will never be the same. You’ll want to return again and again.
4 thoughts on “37 reasons to see exciting Junction City”
The fire that gutted the Opera House happened in January of 1889. It was rebuilt and reopened in October 1889, just 10 months later. The Opera House/Colonial Movie Theatre,
closed approximately 1982. In 2008 it reopened after an amazing 7.5 million dollar restoration as the C. L. Hoover Opera House.
Thanks for the clarification. I have updated the article to include your info.
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