Top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas
Northwest Kansas is a hidden gem, but don’t rely on the Interstate to show you the region’s treasures. Escape the dual concrete ribbons to see its marvels. For example, the region appears high and dry, but it was not always so. Instead, a prehistoric ocean buried the region. It left behind secrets that are still awaiting discovery. More treasures await your eyes in the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas. We’ve also thrown in a few bonus attractions.
1. The Sternberg Museum, one of the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas
The moment you walk into the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, you know what the museum is about. Look up to see a smirking predator above you. If you survive the shock, enter the Fossil Gallery. George Sternberg is patiently brushing the overburden above a fossil while his most famous fossil, the Fish Within a Fish, hangs on the wall nearby. In the diorama, a Tyrannosaurus rex turns his head and growls as pteranodons wheel overhead. More terrifying monsters swim in a gallery beneath the diorama.
Meet some intimidating live animals, too. The Rattlersss exhibit includes live rattlesnakes. Fortunately, they are behind glass.
Before you leave, buy a souvenir at the Excavations Gift Shop.
Related: See a strange piece of Kansas meteorology at Codell in neighboring Rooks County. Tornadoes struck Codell on the same date for three straight years.
2. Shop in Downtown Hays
Hays offers the best shopping in Northwest Kansas, which is why it’s one of the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas. But, before you start shopping, stroll the walking tour. Twenty-seven stops explain the story of early Hays. Hays was so wild that it boasts the first Boot Hill Cemetery, three years before Dodge City‘s Boot Hill.
After the tour, buy furniture, home electronics, flowers, gifts, books, and apparel. Downtown also offers numerous dining options. Our favorites? Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing Co., the Paisley Pear Wine Bar, Bistro and Market, and Tiger Burgers.
Related: Spend an exciting long weekend in Hays.
3. Explore wild Kansas rock formations
The 332-acre Little Jerusalem Badlands is Kansas’s newest state park and one of the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas. When pioneers settled in the area, they named the 100-foot-tall Niobrara chalk outcroppings “Little Jerusalem” for the ancient walled city. The “city” is a mile long. Explore the quarter-mile scenic overlook trail and the 1.5-mile self-guided nature trail. The park is home to the largest Great Plains wild buckwheat stand. Ferruginous hawks, other birds, amphibians, and reptiles also call the park home.
More Niobrara rock formations are nearby. Half an hour to the east, Monument Rocks is one of Kansas’s most photographed destinations. It was the state’s first National Natural Landmark. Castle Rock and its Badlands are another 1.5 miles east. Watch for smaller rock formations beside the Smoky Hill River on your drive.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Before you visit Monument Rocks, view the fossils at Keystone Gallery and bring home a souvenir.
Related: Explore more on Western Vistas Historic Byway.
4. Fort Wallace Museum, one of the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas
So much action took place at Fort Wallace that it received the Fightin’est Fort’s nickname in the West. It received the tag because of its soldiers’ battles from 1865 to 1885. For example, the fort had roles in the Kidder Massacre and the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork.
One of its officers, surgeon Theophilus Turner, became entangled in another battle, the Bone Wars. Turner discovered a 40-foot-long fossil. Paleontologist Edward Cope received the giant specimen and named it the elasmosaurus platyurus. When he arranged its skeleton, he placed the head on the end of the tail. Rival paleontologists hurried to point out his error, deepening animosity and damaging the scientists’ careers. A replica hangs in the museum.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The region is literally high and dry. Wallace County’s Mount Sunflower tops 4,000 feet. At 4,037 feet, it’s the highest point in Kansas. Don’t worry; the most difficult part of ascending Mount Sunflower is finding it. We’re happy to help: Download this map.
5. Arikaree Breaks
Somehow Kansas has received a reputation for flatness. The state includes flat stretches, but its overall composition isn’t flat. Don’t believe me? Take a trip to the Arikaree Breaks in the state’s northwest corner. This one of the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas will destroy the flatness notion.
Wind and water have carved gashes in the ground. A two- to three-mile-wide belt of broken country divides the Arikaree and Republican River basins. North of Devil’s Gap, find a bison herd.
Related: The Breaks is Land and Sky Scenic Byway‘s northern anchor.
6. St. Francis Motorcycle Museum
Examine 145 vintage motorcycles from 40 manufacturers at the St. Francis Motorcycle Museum. Thirty of the motorcycles are pre-1929. One of them is a 1902 Orient motorcycle. Orient was the first company to name the machine a “motorcycle.” Only one other model is known to exist.
7. The World’s Largest Painting on an Easel, one of the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas
Goodland’s Giant van Gogh Painting sits on an 80-foot-tall easel. The painting and easel together weigh 45,000 pounds and are visible from Interstate 70, nearly a mile away. A steady stream of visitors sign the guest book.
Related: The world-record painting is one of 18 world-record things in Kansas.
Painter Cameron Cross intended to paint a different Vincent van Gogh sunflower painting in seven places across the globe, but the project has stalled at three. The other two are in Altona, Manitoba, Canada, and Emerald, Queensland, Australia.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: After taking your selfie with the painting, drive north on Cherry to the High Plains Museum. The museum’s gem is America’s First Patented Helicopter. Press the button and give the blades a whirl.
8. The Prairie Museum of Art & History
At the Prairie Museum of Art & History in Colby, the international Kuska Collection intertwines with Thomas County history to create a fascinating museum. Colby native Nellie Kuska operated a private museum in California. Her vast and varied collection earned the nickname “the Smithsonian of the West.” When she died, she willed it to Thomas County. The combination means that you experience Northwest Kansas in a microcosm in one stop, with the world thrown in.
Outside, visit the Cooper Barn, the largest one in Kansas, plus a sod house, a one-room schoolhouse, a 1930s homestead, a sod house, and a church.
The combination of local and international makes the Prairie Museum one of the top 10 things to do in Northwest Kansas.
9. Two Kansas icons in Smith County: the “Home on the Range” Cabin and the Center of the Lower 48 States
If you’re not from Kansas, can you sing your state’s official song? Many people can’t. But in this state, we love our state song, “Home on the Range.” Dr. Brewster Higley wrote the song, then titled “My Western Home,” on the banks of Beaver Creek north of Athol (pronounced AY-thole). As “Home on the Range,” it became a worldwide hit. Unfortunately, neither Higley nor his family ever received a penny in royalties. Visit the restored cabin with the original “My Western Home” lyrics engraved on an exterior wall.
Related: An icon of Kansas geography, the Center of the Lower 48 States, stands half an hour east of Higley’s cabin.
10. Lucas completes the top 10 things in Northwest Kansas list
No Northwest Kansas list could be complete without including Lucas, one of Kansas’ best places to visit. You can’t get more quirky than Lucas, home of an extraordinary combination of grassroots art installations. They started with S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden, a combined exhibition of political philosophy and showmanship. To the citizens’ dismay, he designed his entwined creations to attract visitors’ attention. Dinsmoor defied his detractors. Watching him, his artistic descendants confirmed the town’s identity as a home for artistic innovation.
When you arrive in Lucas, enjoy a pit stop at the world’s quirkiest public restroom, Bowl Plaza, and then visit the Garden of Eden. Next, go to the Grassroots Art Center, and continue from there.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: While it’s technically not in Northwest Kansas, visit the World’s Largest Czech Egg in Wilson.
Our favorite places to eat
Don’t miss these standout Northwest Kansas restaurants. Eat the best steak at Crazy R’s Bar & Grill, Goodland; Big Ed’s Steakhouse, Bird City; and the Western Kansas Saloon, WaKeeney. On weekends, start your evening at Westport on Main and continue next door at Terra Bona Hawai’ian Shaved Ice and Coffee Company. We look forward to dinner at El Dos de Oros, Colby. Reserve your spot early at The Elephant Bistro & Bar in Hoxie, Northwest Kansas’s ultimate date night restaurant. Eat and drink at Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing and the Paisley Pear Wine Bar, Bistro & Market in Downtown Hays. Savor the region’s best pizza at Destination Kitchen, Norton. In Lucas, snack on Brant’s Market‘s sausages.