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How to spend a long weekend in Hays, Kansas

31 Best Things to Do in Historic Hays, Kansas

Hays, Kansas, is the largest city in Northwest Kansas, about 300 miles east of Denver, 100 miles west of Salina, and 270 miles to Kansas City. The vibrant home of Fort Hays State University, the city of 21,000 people offers fascinating history, architecture, art, and a robust dining scene. Surrounding Ellis County is full of spectacular churches and snippets of Western history. The combination makes the perfect place for a family vacation or business trip. 

If you haven’t visited Hays yet, you are missing out, and this is what you’re missing.

Hays Convention & Visitors Bureau sponsored me, but all opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Table of contents: Historic walking tour | Fort Hays | Bison herd | Felten Gallery | Railroad Cemetery | Battle of Saline River | German Capital | Churches | Cemeteries | Would-be cattle baron | Ellis Railroad Museum | Chrysler Boyhood Home | Merci Boxcar | Sternberg Museum | Recreation | Wild West Festival | Shopping | Dining | Lodging

Kansas Pacific Railway route map, 1873
The 1873 Kansas Pacific Railway route map (Wikimedia Commons/Denver Public Library)

Railroad construction boomed after the Civil War. The railroad was supposed to stop at Junction City, home of Fort Riley, but Denver lobbyists convinced the government to help the Union Pacific Railway Eastern Division, later the Kansas Pacific, to build west. Therefore, the US Army established Fort Fletcher and other military outposts in 1865. The railroad arrived in Hays during the autumn of 1867, and the fort became Fort Hays, named in honor of Union General Alexander Hays. Hays died during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. 

Related: Read 37 reasons to explore exciting Junction City. Fascinating Rooks County is less than half an hour north of Hays. 

1. Explore Wild West heritage in the Historic Hays Walking Tour

Hays, Kansas, was so violent in the 1860s and 1870s that it had to build the first Boot Hill Cemetery at 18th and Fort. In a year and a half, the wild frontier town produced 30 homicides. With a little imagination, you can picture life when downtown Hays City’s historic buildings were new. Bronze plaques hang on the Chestnut Street District self-guided walking tour’s 29 stops (PDF) explaining the history of Hays. The stops include saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, and brothels.

At 12th and Fort, the Town & Country Jail chained prisoners to the basement’s support post. It must have been sturdy to prevent the building’s collapse. White’s Barber Shop stood one block south. John White, a formerly enslaved man, ran the shop. He eventually became a justice of the peace. Tommy Drum’s Saloon, halfway between Fort and Main on 10th Street, was the city’s first saloon. It also hosted the first Hays Baptist Church services.

2. Historic Fort Hays: Bringing Western Civilization to the Great Plains

Eric and Roxie at Fort Hays, Kansas
Playing dress-up at Fort Hays.

More than 600 soldiers called Fort Hays home, including such luminaries as Wild Bill Hickok, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Calamity Jane, and George Armstrong Custer. The Seventh Cavalry and the 10th Cavalry were stationed here. The all-Black 10th earned the name Buffalo Soldiers. The Seventh’s notoriety came later when it was decimated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

Related: Experience the Battle of Little Bighorn in Southeast Montana.

Roxie’s reliable report: In 1990, the movie Dances With Wolves (ad) featured Fort Hays as Lt. John Dunbar’s starting point on his Fort Sedgwick journey. Unfortunately, the film crew shot those scenes south of Rapid City, South Dakota, not in Hays.

Fort Hays blockhouse, Hays, Kansas
The blockhouse at Fort Hays State Historic Site

Visit the fort’s historic site

Fort Hays State Historic Site preserves the guardhouse, blockhouse, parade ground, well, and two officers’ quarters. Start your visit with a video at the visitors center, then walk the grounds. Silhouettes explain activities at the fort. In the guardhouse, see exhibits about life at the fort and try on some uniforms.

Monarch of the Plains, Hays, Kansas
The Monarch of the Plains and officers quarters at Fort Hays State Historic Site.

Indigenous peoples had been forced out of Western Kansas by 1878, but they returned during the Northern Cheyenne Exodus. Fort Hays soldiers could not catch the fleeing Tsistsistas before they raided Sheridan, Decatur, and Rawlins Counties. Their failure opened the door to the Last Indian Raid’s dreadful casualties.

Admire Pete Felten’s sculpture The Monarch of the Plains, a lofty bison near the fort’s entrance. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Sergeant John Denny was a Fort Hays Buffalo Soldier. Later, he earned the Medal of Honor in battle at Las Animas Canyon, New Mexico.

Related: Dan Kelley’s band played “Home on the Range” in Hays shortly after he wrote the song’s tune.

3. View bison at Frontier Historic Park

Cody and other bison hunters supplied meat to the fort, railroad, and settlements. But their near-extermination was not solely because of overeating and drought. Without bison, Native Americans had to accept banishment to reservations. 

Roxie’s reliable report: The US Army issued free ammunition to the bison hunters, but eventually, Buffalo Soldiers guarded the last wild herd in Yellowstone National Park.

James “Scotty” Phillips shipped five bison from his Pierre, South Dakota, ranch to the Hays Experiment Station south of Hays. Six years later, the Hays Normal School, now Fort Hays State, took over the Hays Bison Herd’s care. The herd, including the bull Wild Bill and a cow, Calamity Jane, moved to Frontier Historical Park in 1953. Ghostbuster, a rare white bison, joined the herd in 2017. Look for new bison calves each spring. 

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Remember that the bison are wild animals, and keep a safe distance from them.

Stone Gallery, Hays, Kansas
Detail of the ever-evolving wall around the Stone Gallery.

4. Meet Pete Felten at his gallery of stone in Hays, Kansas

Felten sculptures are everywhere in Hays. For a more intimate artistic experience, visit his two-story Stone Gallery. The self-taught sculptor installed little bits of whimsy around his studio. If Felten is working in the studio, stop and chat with him. His work isn’t limited to sculpture. He paints, makes pottery, and shoots pictures. His work was a finalist in the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 8 Wonders of Kansas Art contest. Tours are available with advance notice.

Union Pacific Eastern Division Cemetery in Victoria
The murdered railroad surveyors that sparked the Battle of the Saline River rest in Victoria’s railroader cemetery.

5. Visit six unfortunate railroaders who rest in Victoria, Ellis County

During the settlement period, numbers determined safety. Seven railroad workers learned that lesson at the cost of their lives. On Aug. 1, 1867, the seven were a detached crew away from the main camp. They were unarmed, and Plains Indians killed six of them on-site. A seventh made it to Fort Hays, where he died. His report sparked the Battle of the Saline River. A little cemetery south of Victoria holds the remains of the six who didn’t reach the fort, plus five stones for the Seth family’s children, who died of typhoid in 1873.

Battle of the Saline River north of Hays in Ellis County, Kansas
The warriors peppered the soldiers from this hill during the Battle of the Saline River.

6. The Battle of the Saline River causes the Buffalo Soldiers’ first casualty

During the Battle of the Saline River on August 4, 1867, the 10th marched 113 miles without rations before the Tsistsistas (Cheyenne) and Hinono’eiteen (Arapahoe)  broke off the battle. Sergeant William Christy became the first Buffalo Soldier to die in battle when a warrior shot him in the head. Christy apparently had fought in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War, and his family believed he had died at the Battle of Olustee, Florida.

Ad: The 1998 movie Glory told the story of the 54th Massachusetts.

Not only was Christy’s identity a mystery, but also the battlefield’s location got lost. However, in May 2021, Kansas State Historical Society archaeologist Nikki Klarmann certified that a site at C2T Ranch fits the battle’s known facts. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Most of the soldiers’ deaths during 1867 came from cholera, and the civilians suffered also. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody founded Rome next to Big Creek, but the 1867 cholera epidemic killed the town. 

Pete Felten statue of  Elizabeth Polly in Elizabeth Polly Park, Hays, Kansas
Pete Felten’s statue of Elizabeth Polly in Elizabeth Polly Park

Roxie’s reliable report: Elizabeth Polly nursed the fort’s patients during the outbreak. When she wasn’t helping the sick and dying, she liked to walk on Sentinel Hill southwest of the fort. She contracted the illness and requested to be buried on the hill she so enjoyed. The hill’s rock was too hard to dig, so the soldiers laid her at its base. Polly is said to haunt the hill. In 1982, the City of Hays dedicated Elizabeth Polly Park, which features Felten’s sculpture.

Polly is said to haunt Sentinel Hill, putting it on our Kansas haunted places list.

Related: Visit Cody’s home in North Platte, Nebraska.

7. Experience Hays, the German Capital of Kansas

In the 1870s, the Volgadeutsch (Germans from Russia) left their century-long homes along the Volga River, where they had been invited by Catherine the Great. The current Tsar had revoked the privileges that had attracted the Germans to move, and they looked to Kansas for a new home. From 1870 to 1907, the Volgadeutsch lived in various communities in Ellis County. Since wood was hard to find, many settlers built their homes from sod blocks.

See Ellis County’s German heritage at the Volga German Haus on the Ellis County Historical Society Museum grounds. While at the museum, stroll through the Catharine Model Buildings Display.

Basilica of St. Fidelis, Victoria
Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan named St. Fidelis the “Cathedral of the Plains.”

8. Marvel at Ellis County churches

The Volgadeutsch loved their churches, and they built breathtaking houses of worship. The buildings’ creativity and beauty are astounding. The Basilica of St. Fidelis in Victoria, 10 miles east of Hays, won 8 Wonders of Kansas status because of its grandeur. At its 1911 dedication, it was the largest church west of the Mississippi.

South of Victoria, the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Pfeifer won 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture recognition for its Gothic splendors.

But don’t stop with those two churches. Enjoy a daylong excursion through parishioners’ devotion with this download.

Iron crosses in the St. Fidelis Cemetery, Victoria, Ellis County
Local blacksmiths created ornate iron grave markers, including these in Victoria.

9. Search for ornate metal crosses in Ellis County cemeteries

Ellis County cemeteries are dotted with metal crosses. When the settlers came, wood was scarce and eventually rotted, while buying a tombstone was expensive. Instead, the settlers began marking graves with ornate metal crosses. Many of the crosses’ inscriptions were written in German. As you visit the cemeteries, note the different cross styles.

George Grant's Angus memorial, Victoria, Ellis County
This sculpture of an Angus stands near George Grant’s former home in Victoria.

10. Meet George Grant, a would-be cattle baron from Victoria

In 1873, George Grant arrived with a vision for Victoria. He intended to create a cattle and sheep ranching paradise for English nobility in Ellis County. A hunt club, cricket pitch, and a racetrack appeared near Victoria, while Grant moved into a fine English-style home. But the nobility didn’t show a lot of interest in work. Eventually, the noble Britishers returned to Great Britain, and Grant lost his fortune. His home still stands. Nearby, a small monument honors Grant as the man who brought Aberdeen Angus cattle to the United States. However, that status is controversial.

The model Ellis Depot at the Ellis Railroad Museum
While away the hours as you watch the model railroad in the Ellis Railroad Museum.

11-12. Travel through transportation time in Ellis

The Kansas Pacific Railway laid out the City of Ellis in 1873. Later, the city 13 miles west of Hays became the dividing point between the railroad’s Kansas Division and Colorado Division. The Ellis Railroad Museum holds a minutely detailed model railroad and a plethora of railroad memorabilia items. During the summer, the museum operates a miniature railroad. A large doll collection fills the museum’s upper floors.

Walter P. Chrysler Boyhood Home, Ellis
An amazing amount of Chrysler personal and corporate memorabilia fills the Walter P. Chrysler Boyhood Home.

Explore Chrysler’s roots

Walter P. Chrysler grew up in Ellis, where his father was a railroad engineer. The younger Chrysler became a railroad mechanic, later turning his skills into automobile manufacturing. The Chrysler home in Ellis is now a museum holding numerous personal and corporate memorabilia items. We had no idea that the Chrysler Corporation had contributed so much to the space race until we visited.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Drive Old Highway 40 between Hays and Ellis. It’s more scenic than Interstate 70.

Ad: My book Secret Kansas: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure tells the Merci Boxcar’s, Polly’s, Christy’s, and Chrysler’s stories.

Merci Boxcar in Veterans Memorial Park, Hays
Merci Boxcar in Veterans Memorial Park, Hays

13. Thank the French for the Merci Boxcar in Hays, Kansas

In 1947, columnist Drew Pearson asked Americans to donate goods to French citizens hurt by World War II. He hoped for an 80-car Friendship Train. Instead, the train grew to 700 cars with more than $40 million worth of clothing, food, and medicine. Kansas donated more than 40 boxcars. Two years later, the French reciprocated with a 49-car Merci Boxcar Gratitude Train. “Merci” means “thank you” in French. Each state received a boxcar, while the Territory of Hawai’i and Washington, D.C., shared one. 

Because the Wichita Eagle had coordinated the southwestern states’ response, Wichita became the boxcar’s distribution point, and then the boxcar toured 150 Kansas communities before arriving in Hays on November 11, 1949. 

Related: Explore nine places in Wichita.

The City of Hays installed the 40-and-Eight boxcar at Veterans Memorial Park in 1993 and shielded it with a metal pavilion. The park also features a circle of flags, a miniature Washington Monument replica, and an M-60 A1 tank from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. 

Roxie’s reliable report: The boxcar was rated to carry 40 men or eight horses, so 40 and eight. Call the numbers posted on the boxcar’s exterior for an interior tour. 

Eric with B. lucasi in Hays, Kansas
Be prepared: The horror movie begins the moment you enter Sternberg Museum.

14. View Hell’s Aquarium at Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Hays, Kansas

In the Cretaceous Period, Kansas was covered with an ocean, the Western Interior Sea. Many terrifying creatures swam in this ocean, nicknamed Hell’s Aquarium, and eventually became fossils. As you walk in the door, look up to the Brachauchenius lucasi dangling from the ceiling. Its head is 5 feet long. Gee, B. lucasi, what big teeth you have! More toothy monsters await you in the museum’s fossil collection.

Sternberg excavation, Hays, Kansas
George F. Sternberg excavating the Fish-Within-a-Fish.

George F. Sternberg excavated the museum’s most famous fossil, the Fish-Within-a-Fish, while he was the museum’s curator. The 14-foot Xiphactinus audax had eaten a six-foot-long Gillicus arcuatus fish for its final meal. Mr. X must have had a serious case of indigestion. 

Related: See rich fossil-bearing rocks in the Kansas Rocks Tour.

While Mr. X’s final meal is a spectacular find, the museum’s greatest spectacle comes under the dome. A Tyrannosaurus rex stalks a herd of hadrosaurs as pteranodons fly above them. The dinosaurs move and roar. For those who have little children, please prepare them. We’ve witnessed screaming children who believe the T. rex is real and ready to eat them.

Bears in the Ice Age exhibit, Sternberg Museum, Hays, Kansas
Which is scarier? The grizzly bear, polar bear, or their Ice Age ancestor in the middle?

If the toothy dinosaurs and scary Ice Age mammals don’t scare you away, visit the museum’s rattlesnake exhibit. Over 40 rattlesnake species populate the world. Twenty-two species inhabit the United States. The staff changes out the individual snakes, so return to see a snake of a different color.

Ad: Watch Ice Age: The Complete Collection.

Roxie’s reliable report: The museum is fully accessible, and wheelchairs are available at the admissions desk. Download a gallery map. If you come late in the day, visit the gift shop first; it closes before the rest of the museum does.

15-19. Recreate in Hays, Kansas

The City of Hays provides numerous recreation opportunities. 

Hiking and biking trails

City parks offer a pair of walking trails. 1.7-mile Big Creek Nature Trail passes 14 interpretive panels in Frontier Park. The 1.1-mile Vineyard Park Nature Trail encounters various environments and wildlife viewing possibilities. The Hays Bike Plan includes eight routes through the city.

​Auble-Bickel Optimist Park

This park offers a skate park, baseball and softball, volleyball and basketball courts, picnic areas, and a shelter house. 

Dog Park

The free, seven-acre dog park is part of the Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex. It’s divided into separate areas for small and large dogs.

Seven Hills Park

Seven Hills features the Accessible Recreation Complex (ARC) Playground and the Splash Pad. The playground encourages inclusive play in a farm-themed structure with various freestanding motion and sensory play options. The seasonal splash pad has 27 nozzles that mist, shower, and shoot water streams.

Disc golf

The city park system has three disc golf choices. Frontier Park has an 18-hole disc golf course, and Rolling Hills Park has a nine-hole course. Practice your short and long games at Kiwanis Park.  

Hays Aquatic Park

When spraying is not enough, beat the heat at Hays Aquatic Park. The seasonal park delivers water slides, a lazy river, a competition pool, diving boards, and places to lounge.

20. Party at the Wild West Festival, Hays, Kansas

Hays celebrates Independence Day for an entire weekend during the Wild West Festival at Municipal Park, Fourth and Main Street. Enjoy a huge fireworks display, concerts, carnival, craft booths, a fishing tournament, baseball games, a parade, and free stage entertainment with national recording artists.

Hays, Kansas, streetscape
The Madd Matter and Hays Art Center

21-24. Shop in one-of-a-kind boutiques in Hays, Kansas

In the song Downtown, Petula Clark sang, “…You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, so go Downtown….” Clark’s lyrics apply to Downtown Hays, including the Chestnut Street District. You’ll love the entertainment, food, art, and local shops in Downtown Hays.

Un-ordinary and well designed: Be Made Mercantile

For fun and quirky apparel and home decor items, make Be Made your first stop. Discover items in the Farmhouse, Boho, Eclectic, and Plantastic styles, and be sure to check out their match selection. You’ll be amazed by how hot and fun matches can be.

Share the joy of creation at The Niche

At The Niche, instructors lead students as they create step-by-step painting and crafts projects. Or take home a kit. Your kids will enjoy their own projects.

Get framed at Madd Matter Frame Shop & Gallery

Madd Matter is one of my favorite stores anywhere. Browse their original artworks and prints and admire their elegant framing. I always enjoy seeing how their framing accents their customers’ precious objects.

Examine art at Hays Art Center

The Hays Art Center Gallery sponsors rotating events and several competitions annually. Pick up an artwork to enhance your home.

Beef stroganoff and creamed spinach at Gella's Diner, Downtown Hays, Kansas
Beef stroganoff and creamed spinach at Gella’s Diner, Downtown Hays, Kansas

25-30. Eat in Hays, Kansas

The list of excellent Hays eateries is long, but the best are downtown or near 27th and Vine. Deciding which to recommend is difficult, but these are our favorites.

Gella’s Diner leads the way

Downtown Hays was in bad shape when Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing Co. started. Downtown had only a few businesses, and many buildings were in disrepair. What would become Gella’s had a collapsed roof. Three months after the brewpub opened, Lb.’s Oatmeal Stout won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Fest. The traffic to Gella’s revitalized downtown. My favorite brews are their Hefeweizen and their raspberry wheat. I always order creamed spinach. Try the smothered bierock, which is a round meat pie, and the Brewben.

Ad: Gella’s, Downtown Hays, and Sternberg are all numbered in my book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.

Tiger Station Fish and Chips, where the décor says Route 66

Thirteen miles of Route 66 bisects the very southeast corner of Kansas, a long way from Hays. But when you approach Tiger Station, you’ll feel the pull of the blue highways. The restaurant is in a converted vintage gas station, and the decor is filled with neon, vintage tin signs, and petroliana. Their menu offers twists on diner classics, with names from The Wizard of Oz. Try the Shrimp Po’Boy.

Related: Drive Kansas Route 66.

Guiterrez, Trio Tap House, and Popt: Three eateries in one building

Take your pick of three divine eateries in the same building. The first one, Guiterrez Cocina Mexicana, is a Hays institution. They have served their authentic family recipes for 50 years. Start with queso de capa, continue with the Bandera enchilada platter, and finish with the cherry tortilla cheesecake. Drink a shaken black raspberry margarita.

TRIO Tap House feels like a neighborhood pub. Start with the bacon cheddar potato skins. Choose one of their dry-aged steaks and finish with their bananas Foster cheesecake. Drink the Ol’ 48 Prohibition Lemonade. Why 48? Kansas didn’t end Prohibition until 1948, 15 years after the national experiment with banning alcohol had ended.

A short walk will bring you to Popt, heaven for popcorn lovers. Buy a tin to bring home. Add some fudge to your order.

The Paisley Pear, Hays, Kansas
Eat, drink, and shop at the Paisley Pear.

A three-pronged delight: Paisley Pear Wine Bar, Bistro, and Market

Starting your meal at the Paisley Pear with a bourbon queso followed by a grilled Margarita panini with your choice of wine. After you eat, buy a Let It Rise beer bread mix.

Breathe Coffee House: Savoring coffee and conversation

Drink a root beer latte and hang with your friends at Breathe Coffee House. Or maybe make a new friend.

Thirsty’s Brew Pub & Grill: Hays’ Premier Sports Bar

Hays is far from an ocean but try the Crusted Orange Roughy anyway. The restaurant tops the grilled fish with toasted almonds and a Parmesan panko crust. It rests on a bed of rice. Enjoy a brew and watch your favorite team.

Hilton Garden Inn in Hays
Hang out at the Garden Grille & Bar in Hays.

31. Stay in Hays, Kansas

Hays’ growth has attracted numerous chain hotels. Stay at the Hilton Garden Inn and enjoy a tasty snack at their Garden Grille & Bar. The potstickers are delicious. The Hampton Inn is nearby. For a historic experience, stay at the Bissing House Bed and Breakfast. Camp at Hays’ newest RV park, Creek Side Resort.

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