The top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas
South Central Kansas (SCK) stretches from the Flint Hills in the east to the Gypsum Hills in the southwest, and the region offers numerous exciting things to do. The top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas are ahead.
What awaits you in South Central Kansas
Two hundred years ago, the Santa Fe Trail entered SCK in Marion County on its long journey southwest to Santa Fe. Fort Larned was a major landmark on the trail. Like the traders seeking Santa Fe treasure, birds look for Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend on their annual migrations. Bison roam in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.
The barbed wire featured in the Barbed Wire Museum fenced the plains and ended the bison’s range. In SCK, you’ll find world-record attractions at the Big Well Museum and the Cosmosphere. Speaking of holes in the ground, ride Strataca’s elevator 650 feet down to a salt mine underneath Hutchinson. Additionally, explore Ellinwood’s abandoned underground city.
Several of the top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas are in my book, 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.
Let’s explore South Central Kansas!
Related: Wichita, the state’s largest city, is in SCK, but the Air Capital of the World has its own top things post.
Some of these communities have hosted me, but my opinions are my own.
1. Strataca, the Kansas Underground Museum
Investor Ben Blanchard had a checkered reputation, but he did Hutchinson a mighty favor. While digging for oil in South Hutchinson, his drillers found a 300-foot wide salt belt underneath Hutchinson. Legend says Blanchard tried to salt the mine with oil to hoodwink investors, but that claim cannot be proven (PDF).
At Strataca, grab a hard hat, enter an elevator, and ride 650 feet down to the former Carey Salt Mine. When you arrive at the bottom, open your mouth and take a deep breath. When you inhale the scent of salt air, it’s easy to believe you’re on the beach. Instead, a former ocean surrounds you. Strataca offers various adventures, including train rides.
Our favorites were the Permian Room, filled with glistening rock salt crystals, and the UV&S display. If you believe salt is only utilitarian, the Permian Room will change your mind.
UV&S is a secure storage company. It stores many priceless artifacts in the light and climate-controlled salt mine. When we visited, UV&S displayed props from the movie Twister. On our way home, we barely evaded tornadoes around Dodge City. Was the law of attraction in action?
Strataca is No. 70 in the 100 Things Kansas book.
Pro tip: Visit Blanchard’s Salt Discovery Well in South Hutchinson.
2. The Cosmosphere, one of the top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas
3, 2, 1, blast off to the moon! If you remember the Space Race, you probably chanted that countdown. At the Cosmosphere, trace the Space Race from the Nazis’ Vengeance weapons to Sputnik, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. See what living in space is like on the shuttle and the International Space Station. Explore rocketry’s fundamentals at Dr. Goddard’s Lab, but don’t try their experiments at home.
The Cosmosphere holds the world’s most extensive collection of American and Russian space artifacts. The vast collection makes the Cosmosphere one of the top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas.
The Cosmosphere is No. 66 in the 100 Things Kansas book.
Pro tip: Burdett’s Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Explore the solar system in his hometown at the Rediscover Pluto Miniature Golf Course.
Related: The Cosmosphere is one of 18 world records in Kansas. It’s No. 65 in the book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.
3. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Before settlement, the United States had some 170 million tallgrass prairie acres. Within a generation, farmers turned nearly all of it into farmland, except in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The soil is thin in the Flint Hills, so its settlers left the tallgrass alone. They turned the rich grasslands into pasture for their cattle, which had succeeded the vast bison herds. In the wind, the grasses sing in harmony. Congress established the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, No. 60 in the 100 Things Kansas book, to preserve the song. The Nature Conservancy owns the land and co-manages it with the National Park Service.
We love to hike amid the tall grass, which can reach 6 feet high in the fall of wet years. Start your journey at the visitors center, and then continue at the Z Bar Ranch buildings. Ride a tour bus or hike to the bison pasture, but beware. Bison are big, fast, and unpredictable. Keep your distance. Several other trails bisect the preserve. The peaceful preserve, full of wildlife, deserves its top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas.
Related: Enjoy nine things to do in Chase County.
Where to eat and stay
After hiking all day, you’ll be hungry and thirsty. Stay at the Grand Central Hotel four miles from the preserve in Cottonwood Falls, and savor a steak at the Grand Grill.
Pro tip: To see more bison, plus elk and other wildlife, visit the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge. The refuge near McPherson is No. 61 in the 100 Things Kansas book.
4. Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve, one of the top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas
Cheyenne Bottoms northeast of Great Bend surrounds the state’s center point. That’s appropriate because it’s a center point for bird migratory routes. Numerous organizations’ designations attest to the bottoms’ significance. An avian census would count up to 250,000 waterfowl resting and recharging at America’s largest interior marsh.
The State of Kansas and the Nature Conservancy protect nearly 28,000 acres of this crucial habitat. Birds migrate from South America’s southern reaches to the fringes of North America’s arctic tundra. Along the way, flocks of them stop at Cheyenne Bottoms. Spring is the best time to visit because northbound migration is more concentrated. Arrange for guided tours at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center.
Pro tip: Eat at Delgado’s and ask for their half flour/half cornmeal chips. Stay at the Best Western Angus Inn.
Related: Great Bend is one of our 12 favorite cities in Kansas. Learn more about Kansas geography quirks.
Bonus: Underground Ellinwood
When I learned that we would tour Underground Ellinwood 15 minutes southeast of the bottoms, I immediately thought of Indiana Jones. Did I need to bring a fedora and a bullwhip? Would we have to push through webs and creepy crawlies to explore the underground city? The answers? No and no.
The tunnels originally extended much further than they do today. One side hides below the Ellinwood Emporium antique shop and the other below the Historic Wolf Hotel. The emporium’s side is dusty with uneven floors.
The emporium side includes a harness shop and a barbershop. Gluttons for punishment could sit in the barber’s chair, hold an indented pan below their chins, and open wide. Using a gruesome instrument, the practitioner scooped out the offending tonsils. I shuddered.
The passage between the emporium and the hotel is now closed. You’ll have to return topside before returning below the Wolf. As Indiana Jones would expect, the Wolf side holds a speakeasy. In the speakeasy, you can wet your whistle against all that dust. Upstairs is a lovely restaurant in a bed and breakfast.
5. Lindsborg, one of the top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas
Naming a city as one of the top 10 things to do in South Central Kansas may seem overly broad. But Lindsborg has an overarching theme, Little Sweden USA. When Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf came to Lindsborg in 1976, he said that Lindsborg was more Swedish than Sweden. Dive into Swedishness at the Swedish Pavilion. The pavilion held the Swedes’ exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Fill your eyes with Sweden-born artist Birger Sandzên’s work.
Full disclosure: I am a quarter Swede, and my husband is a Bethany College Swede. Because of that, we’re all in on the Swedish theme. But, whether you have Swedish heritage or not, Lindsborg is a great place to visit. The restaurants and shopping are outstanding. You must try to corral the Wild Dala Herd, except that you can’t. The dalas are bolted down; visit them all instead.
Where to eat and stay
Start your day at Blacksmith Coffee. Rent a quadricycle at the Hemslöjd Swedish Gifts and ride around Lindsborg’s shopping district. The quadricycle’s baskets are big enough to hold your shopping treasures. Don’t miss the Small World Gallery‘s fantastic jewelry. Eat a Brent Nelson at the Öl Stuga and enjoy a spot of tea at the White Peacock before you walk the Valkömmen (Welcome) Trail. Afterward, eat Swedish at the Crown & Rye before you slip into dreamland at the Dröm Sött Sweet Dreams Inn.
Lindsborg is No. 86 in 100 Things Kansas.
Related: Shop until you drop in Downtown Lindsborg.
Pro tip: To enjoy one of the state’s best views, drive or walk to the top of Coronado Heights. Explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado searched for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold when he climbed the heights. When he didn’t see them, he turned around. Look for the Coronado marker on the slopes. To learn more about Coronado’s journey, visit the Coronado Quivira Museum in Lyons.
6. Winfield Antiques
Winfield is SCK’s antique shopping center and is No. 97 in the 100 Things Kansas book. With six antique shops in six blocks, you’ve just bet on double sixes and won. Each shop has a specialty: The Emporium requires its dealers to stock its booth with 60 percent antiques. Junk Generation specializes in primitives and windows. The Funky Junky Girls repurpose vintage items. Trunk N’ Treasures is full of consignment items from more than 40 vendors. Grit and Glitter carry home décor, signs, refurbished furniture, and vintage gifts. Virginia Jarvis Antiques’s showroom spreads over 6,000 square feet. If you don’t know what to buy your special someone, let the store’s shopping service help you.
Stop between shops and eat Not Yo Momma’s Meat Loaf at Shindig’s Bar & Grill when you get hungry. Stay at the Winfield Super 8.
Pro tip: Enjoy championship musicians during the Walnut Valley Festival during the third weekend of each September.
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7. Fort Larned National Historic Site
Nine historic sandstone buildings cluster around the parade ground at Fort Larned National Historic Site, a remnant of the fort’s mission to protect the Santa Fe Trail. While the trail operated, countless wagons passed the post. Trail ruts are still engraved into the ground near the fort. Start at the visitors center, a converted enlisted barracks.
When you arrive at the officer’s quarters, compare them with the enlisted men’s living conditions. Rank definitely had its privileges, but it also had its risks. When higher-ranking officers arrived, the lower-ranking officers would be pushed down the ladder, even out into a tent. In the commissary, storehouse, and issue room, note how much the fort had to stock to do its job. Listen to Corp. Leander Herron, who earned a Medal of Honor while he was stationed at the fort.
In the spring and summer, look for the post garden. With the soldiers’ limited rations, fresh vegetables prevented scurvy and added much-needed variety to meals. You’ll get a feeling for the soldiers’ plight because the fort does not offer food. However, it does have some pleasant picnic areas. Get a better look at the fort’s operation during its annual living history events.
Pro tip: Before the wagons reached Fort Larned, they passed Pawnee Rock, the trail’s halfway point. Pawnee Rock was originally much higher, but the railroad and the settlers hauled away much of the prominence.
The Woman’s Kansas Day Club saved the rock in 1908, presenting it to the Kansas State Historical Society the next year. Climb the narrow spiral staircase in the pavilion for a beautiful view of the valley below.
8. The Blue Sky Sculpture
The Electric Light Orchestra famously asked Mr. Blue Sky why he had gone away for so long. Obviously, ELO had never visited Newton because, in Newton, Mr. Blue Sky never leaves. Instead, The Blue Sky Sculpture stands 20 feet tall behind two abstract stoneware figures. Three artists and designers, Phil Epp, painter; Terry Corbet; and Conrad Snider, ceramicists; developed the sculpture.
When you visit the sculpture, take your time. Come close and touch the tiles. Back up and watch the sculpted walls reflect the sky surrounding them. Visit throughout the day to experience the changing light across the sculpture’s surface. Imagine the figures’ stories and how their stories include the sky sculpture.
Pro tip: Read the sculpture’s viewing guide. Eat at the Back Alley Pizza. If you can’t decide which pie to try, play Pizza Roulette on their website. Stay at the Holiday Inn Express. Between McPherson and Newton, look for the World’s Largest Chimney Sweep.
9. The Big Well Museum
In 1993, my future husband took me to the Big Well on our first out-of-town date. We walked all the way to the bottom of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well and climbed the stairs back up. We saw the 990-pound Pallasite meteorite, “The Space Wanderer.” It came from a Kiowa County farm. The finders dug a six-foot-deep hole that was seven feet wide to extricate it from its grave.
The museum looked much different in 1993 than it does now. On May 4, 2007, the first tornado to reach EF-5 on the then-new Enhanced Fujita Scale struck Greensburg. The tornado nearly obliterated Greensburg. Eleven people died, and 63 were injured.
After such extreme damage, many places would have abandoned their city. But not Greensburg. The grit that dug a well by hand also rebuilt the community. Exhibits include examples of Greensburg’s horrific damage, but the museum is also a symbol of hope.
Pro tip: Visit the 5.4.7 Arts Center, named for the date the terrible twister struck. The architecture is an ultra-efficient design. Eat at The Crazy Mule Food & Brew and stay at the Best Western Plus Night Watchman Inn. If you have another day, drive the Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway south of Greensburg.
Related: Visit the top five things to do in Greensburg.
10. The Barbed Wire Museum
Before Joseph Glidden invented barbed wire, the range stayed open. When Glildden’s invention spread, the bison could no longer roam. Nor could the tribes hunt them. The cattle trails shut down, and an era ended. See the all-conquering wire at the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum.
The museum displays a 2,100-item barbed wire collection. Track barbed wire’s evolution, and see how cowboys cured barbed wire cuts. The museum’s annual Barbed Wire Festival includes the World Championship Barbed Wire Splicing Contest.
Pro Tip: While in Lacrosse, visit the Post Rock Museum. Instead of using sparse and valuable lumber, creative settlers turned the abundant post-rock limestone into fencing and building materials.
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