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Visit WaKeeney, Kansas: The Best 19 Things To Do

WaKeeney, Kansas, uses two marketing slogans, “The Christmas City of the High Plains” and “Gateway to Cedar Bluff State Park.” However, those titles don’t fully explain WaKeeney’s appeal.

Three reasons explain WaKeeney’s appeal. The Trego County seat is a soothing place during the entire year because you can drive the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway for seasonal wildflowers and scenic views. Because you can walk anywhere in the charming little city, it’s easy to escape the pressures of city life. And because WaKeeney exemplifies rural America’s community values, you should explore the small-town treasure called WaKeeney.

I have visited WaKeeney and Trego County numerous times, but WaKeeney Travel & Tourism sponsored my most recent visit. If you use our affiliate links, including Amazon Associates and Stay22, to make a purchase, we might earn a small commission for our time and website costs (at no additional cost to you).  These links are always disclosed. 

Christmas tree in the WaKeeney courthouse square
WaKeeney’s Christmas tree decorates its courthouse square during the winter holiday season.

How WaKeeney got its name

WaKeeney received its unusual name from its founders, Albert Warren and James Keeney of the Chicago Land Company. They established their city a mile west of Trego Tank, the Kansas Pacific Railway’s windmill, well, and water storage tank.

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The city of 1,800 people sits halfway (4.5 hours) between Kansas City and Denver on Interstate 70, Exits 127 and 128. It’s half an hour west of Hays and an hour and a half north of Dodge City. Fittingly for a city halfway to the Mile High City, WaKeeney’s elevation is 2,448 feet, just under half a mile high, and the upslope to the Rocky Mountains starts in WaKeeney.

Related: Visit WaKeeney’s neighbors, Hays and Dodge City.

Table of contents

Cedar Bluff State Park | Smoky Valley Byway | Shiloh Winery | Christmas City | Tour of Trees | Smoky Hill Trail | Trego Museum | Courthouse | Walking Trail | Eisenhower Park | Kansas Veterans Cemetery | Castle Rock | Speedways | City Park | Golf | Lodging | Western Kansas Saloon & Grill | Hometown Bakery | Soda Fountain | Shopping

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Cedar Bluff Reservoir south of WaKeeney, Kansas
View of Cedar Bluff from the overlook

1. Cedar Bluff State Park, WaKeeney treasure

Nestled in the heart of Kansas, the 12,000-acre Cedar Bluff State Park offers a tranquil retreat for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers alike. The Bureau of Reclamation’s 202-foot-high Cedar Bluff Dam spans the Smoky Hill River, retaining 6,900 acres of water. Its deepest point reaches 56 feet (PDF).

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Anglers should check the state’s site-specific fishing reports and carry a Kansas fishing license. Buy park, boating, and camping permits.

Ad: I featured Cedar Bluff State Park in the Midwest State Park Adventures book.

Bluffton Area

For those craving more adventure, the park’s 350-acre Bluffton Area on the reservoir’s north shore is an outdoor playground waiting to be explored. The area provides two boat ramps, 96 utility campsites, two community shelters, a reservable group utility campground, two large shower houses and dump stations, five modern cabins, and numerous undesignated primitive campsites and picnic areas.

Recreation includes sand volleyball, horseshoes, shoreside basketball, a BMX track, and a swimming beach. Almost all the shoreline and a covered fishing dock are accessible.

Bluffton is also the trailhead for the two-loop Butterfield Hiking Trail (PDF). The southern, 1.25-mile Butterfield Loop overlooks the lake and the park. The half-mile Smoky Hill Loop is a steeper elevation lake overlook.

Look to the west to see the Butterfield Overland Despatch’s Bluffton Station’s former location. The stagecoach line started in 1865 and provided the fastest route between Atchison and Denver. However, fast did not mean safe. The Butterfield route was risky because of indigenous resistance and potential starvation. Markers explain the story of Threshing Machine Canyon, where warriors killed freighters delivering a harvesting machine to Utah. The canyon is now closed.

Page Creek Area

On the south shore, the Page Creek Area sprawls over 500 acres. It is not as developed, but its large shade trees and sandy shores provide some of the state’s finest primitive camping. Page Creek contains 36 utility campsites, a community shelter, two dump stations, two boat ramps, two shower houses, and a pair of vault toilets; one designated primitive campground and numerous undesignated campsites. Boaters, jet skiers, and those seeking solitude prefer this area.

Ad: Read about Threshing Machine Canyon and more in Secret Kansas: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

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Sunset on Smoky Valley Scenic Byway south of WaKeeney
The sun sets behind the Smoky Hills south of WaKeeney.

2. Smoky Valley Scenic Byway, WaKeeney scenery

The Smoky Hills typically produce a haze at sunrise and sunset. The blue haze and the river that runs through the hills received their names from the smoky appearance. The Smoky Valley Scenic Byway is a 60-mile horseshoe route. It runs south on Highway 283 from Interstate 70’s eastern WaKeeney exit past Cedar Bluff to Kansas Highway 4 and north to Ogallah Exit 135. Highway 177 uses the dam to cross Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: A short, rugged gravel road just south of the dam leads to an overlook.

Yucca spikes on the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway south of WaKeeney
Yucca and other wildflowers adorn the byway during the spring.

The hills divide mixed-grass and short-grass prairies. In the spring, wildflowers decorate the roadsides. Look for creamy white yucca spikes, blue pitcher sage, purple and yellow coneflowers, and red-and-yellow Indian blanket blooms. The flowers bloom before a backdrop of green wheat that turns gold before harvest and reddish shades of ripening milo in the fall. Chalky limestone laid down by ancient seas peeks out from below.

Zion Lutheran Church, WaKeeney
Volgadeutsch (Germans from Russia) founded Zion Lutheran Church.

Historic buildings

Look for the Zion Lutheran Church and Wilcox School on Highway 283. Volgadeutsch (Germans from Russia) settlers established Zion in Trego Center, 10 miles south of WaKeeney, in 1905. They dedicated their first building on May 3, 1908, then built their current church in 1920.

The congregation held German services until 1947. They began using English then, but English didn’t become exclusive until the 1955-56 church year. Trego Center is now a ghost town with remnants across the road. When Trego Center’s gas station was operational, children would sneak out of the church to buy snacks during vacation Bible school.  

Roxie’s reliable report: The cornerstone reads, “Ev. Luth. Zions Kirche A.D. 1920.”

Wilcox School south of WaKeeney
Wilcox School after restoration

Settlers built Wilcox School with native limestone blocks in 1886, 16 miles south of WaKeeney in Wilcox Township. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The settlers quarried the stone half a mile south of the site, hauling it across bridges and through fords. The citizens made mattresses for the County Cotton Mattress Program (PDF) in 1940-41 to use up excess cotton production. It became the Hi-Plains Gravel Grinders Motorcycle Club’s headquarters in 1947.

Wilcox School before restoration
Wilcox School before restoration

Related: Schamber Historic Preservation helped the byway committee to restore the school. The company’s other projects include the “Home on the Range” Cabin and the Telephone Building in Goodland.

Emanuel Lutheran Church south of Ogallah
Swedes founded Emanuel Lutheran Church south of Ogallah.

Swedish settlers established Emanuel Lutheran Church as the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Emanuel Church in 1902, 7.5 miles south of Ogallah. P.A. Nelson quarried its stone blocks near Threshing Machine Canyon. The church initially included a steeple, but lightning struck and burned it. The church never restored the steeple to its original height. 

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Shiloh Vineyard & Winery wine and cheese
Shiloh Vineyard & Winery wine and cheese

3. Shiloh Vineyard & Winery, WaKeeney joy 

Kirk and Treva Johnston started Shiloh Vineyard & Winery in 2008. The Johnstons’ 50-acre family farm is on M Road south of I-70 Exit 120. They had traveled to Shiloh in Israel and returned with a passion for wine-making. The winery coincidentally (or not) shares the same elevation as the Israeli community. Because of that influence, Shiloh appears in Hebrew on every bottle of wine.

They initially converted the chicken coop into a tasting room. The tasting room’s support poles were cedar trees. The wine comes from their vineyard’s fruit. They also sell cheeses and meats.

The Johnstons have upgraded their operation repeatedly. They turned the barn into an event venue and added a 1,500-square-foot patio to the tasting room. The operation outgrew its production room, so they added a new one.

A three-room shed became a bridal suite or weekend getaway, plus the winery is a Harvest Hosts destination. Self-contained RVers may park beside a small pond with a footbridge to a pergola. 

Shiloh's barn event venue
Shiloh has converted their barn into an event venue.

Roxie’s reliable report: I met Kirk and Treva at Shiloh in 2008 and return often. I visit for the wines, to enjoy the scenery, and to fellowship with my friends, the owners. My favorite Shiloh wines are Old Barn, Paisley Pear, Peach, and Aroma. Aroma combines wine with coffee, two of my favorite beverages in the same bottle.

Lighted Christmas tree with stars and garlands in WaKeeney
WaKeeney’s courthouse square turns into Christmas City each winter holiday season.

4. Christmas City of the High Plains, WaKeeney trademark

“Deck the Halls” should be WaKeeney’s Christmas theme song because no city decks the streets like WaKeeney. Two local volunteers and business owners, Art Keraus and J.H. Heckman, started the Christmas City of the High Plains annual event in 1950.

The city strings over 3,000 lights on a 35-foot tree made from real greenery. Four 5-foot ivory stars top the tree, and blue lights form a canopy above it. Additionally, the city drapes the four blocks surrounding the tree with additional greenery, handmade wreaths, bells, bows, and numerous lights. The effect is spectacular. WaKeeney’s wide brick streets fill with spectators for the annual light display.

WaKeeney holds the ceremonial lighting every Thanksgiving Saturday and keeps the lights burning throughout the holiday season until after New Year’s Day.

North Pole Park, downtown WaKeeney
Santa and Mrs. Claus await their eager guests in North Pole Park after the lighting ceremony.

Before the lighting ceremony, look for activities at the Trego County Fairgrounds, the Trego County Historical Museum, and food at WaKeeney’s VFW Hall. Downtown hosts rides and displays before the Christmas tree lighting begins at 6. Santa arrives at 6:15 p.m., then greets children at North Pole Park.

Related: Visit WaKeeney, Christmas City of the High Plains, one of our 12 Nights of Kansas Christmas.

NexTech Tour of Trees, WaKeeney
Nex-Tech garlands its tree with telephone cords.

5. Tour of Trees, WaKeeney legacy 

WaKeeney keeps up its Christmas tree theme all the time.

Methodist Episcopal parsonage on the Tour of Trees, WaKeeney
The Methodist Episcopal Church’s parsonage is a stop on the Tour of Trees.

The Tour of Trees (PDF), advertising businesses and denoting historic homes, is the perfect summer evening walk. The stone from Mr. Warren’s home is still visible at 12th and Junction. The little tree tells each stop’s story.

BOD marker on the Smoky Hill Trail
Look for the Post Rock B.O.D. markers on the Smoky Hill Trail.

6. Smoky Hill Trail, WaKeeney history

The Smoky Hill Trail from Atchison to Denver is worth exploring for two reasons. Its history is one, and its geology is another. The river and prevailing winds have carved bizarre rock formations from the underlying Niobrara Chalk. The Smoky Hill Trail Association has installed Post Rock limestones to mark the trail. The stones are inscribed B.O.D. because the Butterfield Overland Despatch was the trail’s primary user.

Trego County had Bluffton, Downer’s, and Castle Rock stations, but indigenous warriors burned Bluffton below Cedar Bluffs several times. Eventually, the Kansas Pacific Railway rendered stagecoach lines obsolete. Now the railroad, Highway 40, and Interstate 70 follow the trail route.

Related: The Smoky Hill Trail ran near Junction CitySalina, and Hays.

Cowboy gear from Purinton Collection in WaKeeney
The Purinton Collections are a centerpiece of the Trego County Historical Museum.

7. Trego County Historical Society Museum, WaKeeney record

The Trego County Historical Society Museum displays pieces of the infamous threshing machine, but first, examine the Leonard and Irene Purinton and Ray and Leona Purinton Collections. Leonard and Irene had the larger collection. The collections include fossils, guns, rodeo memorabilia, saddles, Purinton Pottery, and more.

Military and World War I poster collection, WaKeeney
The military room includes uniforms and a prized World War I poster collection.

Additionally, look for World War I posters, the Art Deco façade of the Trego-WaKeeney State Bank, an ornate safe, vintage clothing, and military uniforms. 

Museum's Trego County history mural, WaKeeney
The back-wall historic Trego County mural

A mural on the back wall displays Trego County’s history, including an indigenous warrior, settlers, and the railroad. It also honors WaKeeney’s founders, Collyer’s founder, the Rev. Robert Collyer, and Captain Edgar P. Trego, who died in battle at Chickamauga. Trego County (pronounced TREE-go) bears his name. 

Before you go, tour the Pleasant Valley School outside. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Trego County Fairgrounds Historic Exhibit next to the museum displays early communications gear, and medical, dental, and optometric equipment.

Trego County Courthouse welcome sign
The Trego County Courthouse welcomes visitors.

8. Trego County Courthouse, WaKeeney symbol

The 1889 Trego County Courthouse featured cupolas and a bell tower. Crews quarried the stone in Trego County but finished with stone from Manhattan. However, in the early 1950s, the Trego County Commissioners repaired the courthouse roof. To modernize it, they removed the roof, cupolas, and tower. Consequently, the structure became known as “the courthouse that lost its top.”

The 2012 commissioners decided to restore the courthouse’s peaked roof. They found some original limestone and the original capstone, which they restored. However, the courthouse did not regain its cupolas or bell tower. The courthouse retains its original woodwork, court furniture, transom windows, and decorative vaults.

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for the old-fashioned white porcelain drinking fountain on the courthouse grounds. It operates during warm weather, and its water tastes refreshing.

Ad: The movie Paper Moon includes several scenes filmed in the courthouse in June 1974.

Multiple shades of yarrow on the Main Street Walking Trail
Spring brings exuberant flowers to the Main Street Walking Trail.

9. Main Street Walking Trail, WaKeeney centerpiece

The lovely half-mile Main Street Walking Trail surrounds the Main Street railroad crossing. WaKeeney is walkable, but this trail takes walking to a different level. Enjoy benches, a gazebo for lunching, sidewalks, and beautiful native wildflowers.

Ornamental grasses in winter on the Main Street Walking Trail
Ornamental grasses remain beautiful even during the winter.

The grasses decorate the walk even in winter. Two tour trees on the trail explain WaKeeney’s history and the byway.

Top Gun Tomcat in Eisenhower Park
This F-14 Tomcat jet once rocketed through the sky. Now the Top Gun alum has landed in Eisenhower Park, WaKeeney.

10. Eisenhower Park, WaKeeney landmark

Eisenhower Park, adjacent to Interstate 70 (Eisenhower Highway), fittingly honors the man behind I-70, President Dwight Eisenhower. The park has picnic tables and a dog park. An F-14 Tomcat fighter plane is the park’s centerpiece. It’s 62 feet long, weighs 40,000 pounds, and flew in the blockbuster movie Top Gun. It arrived on a pair of trucks, and four military retirees rebuilt it downtown. When they finished, the Tomcat moved to its permanent home.

Ad: Watch the Tomcat perform in Top Gun (Special Collector’s Edition). Note that driving to the soundtrack is dangerous without Cruise control.

Patriotic decorations at Kansas Veterans Cemetery
Patriotic decorations honor fallen veterans at the Kansas Veterans Cemetery on Memorial Day.

11. Kansas Veterans Cemetery, WaKeeney honor

Honor Kansas veterans at the beautiful Kansas Veterans’ Cemetery. WaKeeney honors the fallen’s final resting place during a special Memorial Day program and with Wreaths Across America during the holidays.

Related: Visit Fort Scott, home of National Cemetery No. 1.

Castle Rock from Castle Rock Badlands
Get in gravel-grinding gear to view Castle Rock and hike the Castle Rock Badlands.

12. Castle Rock, WaKeeney monolith

Enjoy a scenic drive southwest of Collyer to encounter Castle Rock, one of the state’s geologic icons. The rock stands alone in a pasture, but the Castle Rock Badlands rise behind it. It was a Smoky Hill Trail landmark but is also a fossil hunters’ haven. Inoceramus (clams) are the most common fossil finding.

The monolith and badlands are on private property, so please be respectful. The roads are rarely maintained, so drive a high-clearance vehicle. Bring water. Because of rattlesnakes, do not reach into any place where you cannot see.

13. WaKeeney Speedway and Mini-Speedway

The area’s best sprint-car drivers gather at WaKeeney Speedway, a 3/8-mile clay semi-banked dirt oval track. Race classes include IMCA Modified, IMCA Stock Cars, IMCA Hobby Stocks, IMCA Northern Sport Mods, IMCA Sport Compacts, and the United Rebel Spring Series 305 sprints.  

Check out go-cart action at the 1/7-mile WaKeeney Mini-Speedway.

14. WaKeeney City Park

Sit in the shade, picnic in a shelter, walk a trail, play basketball or volleyball, or supervise kids on playgrounds at WaKeeney City Park. During the summer, swim at WaKeeney Water Park, a zero-entry-access pool with splash buckets. Don’t want to get wet? Dip your feet into a shady pool instead.

Boy Scout Park sign
Boy Scout Park, home of WaKeeney’s disc golf course.

Roxie’s reliable report: Play nine holes of disc golf at Boy Scout Park.

15. Big Creek Golf Club

No tee times are required at Big Creek Golf Club south of Exit 127. The nine-hole course features buffalo grass fairways, Pencross bent grass greens, and native roughs. Cart rentals and a driving range are available.

1909 Cottage Garden House front aspect
The Cottage Garden House is across the street from the courthouse.

15. 1909 Garden Cottage House

The Cottage House (ad) is the perfect lodging option whether you’re a solo traveler or with a family. I loved it from the moment I drove into the driveway. The Garden-Cottage moniker perfectly encapsulates what this property offers. Everything is spotless, and floral themes are everywhere. Look for the adorable Farm Friends Oneida stoneware in the dining room’s built-in china cabinet.

Cottage Garden House's backyard arbor
The lovely arbor welcomes guests to the backyard.

It’s surrounded by lovely flowers, and the décor is vintage farmhouse. Staying in this five-bedroom, three-bath gem is like putting on your favorite slippers. It has a spacious kitchen, dining room, and living room, with an adorable sunroom. The sunroom has a rocking chair, games, and toys. I didn’t want to leave.

I have also stayed at WaKeeney Inn & Suites (ad) many times. The hotel has an exceptionally friendly staff. Campers should stay at KOA Journey.

16. Western Kansas Saloon & Grill

At Western Kansas Saloon & Grill, you can indulge in hearty meals that capture the essence of authentic Western cuisine. Sink your teeth into their mouthwatering steaks grilled to perfection, or savor their signature burgers made with locally sourced beef. The menu also features an array of delectable appetizers like jalapeño poppers and loaded nachos, perfect for sharing with friends over drinks.

17. Hometown Bakery

Eat mouthwatering cinnamon rolls at the Hometown Bakery. Your first bite sends you to heaven with its soft and fluffy texture, combined with exactly the right sweetness. Couple them with classic breakfast dishes, while friendly staff and locals make you feel at home.

Limeaide at Gibson's soda fountain
Enjoy old-fashioned treats like limeades and Green Rivers at Gibson’s soda fountain.

18. Gibson’s HealthMart Pharmacy Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain

Step back in time at Gibson’s HealthMart Pharmacy and indulge in the old-fashioned charm of their 1892 soda fountain. This beloved establishment is a local favorite for those seeking a taste of nostalgia. From classic Green River to refreshing limeade, their soda menu offers many delightful options that will transport you to simpler times.

One sip of their iconic Green River will instantly transport you to the 1950s. Generations have enjoyed this sparkling lime-flavored soft drink, and it continues to be a Gibson’s staple . The perfect mix of sweet and tangy, it provides a refreshing burst with every sip. Don’t forget the fountain’s famous shakes and malts, plus their famous 5-cent cups of coffee.

Keyser Hardware storefront
Shop Downtown WaKeeney.

19. Shopping

The 1909 Cottage has all the food preparation tools. To use them, head to Malay’s Market, a family-owned grocery store. With its spotlessness and wide selection, it doesn’t feel like a small-town grocery store. However, the service does feel like small-town America because the staff will carry out or deliver groceries. Buy hunting and fishing licenses, lottery tickets, postage stamps, and more. 

Gadget lovers will find plenty to suit them at Keyser Hardware and Nex-Tech. Relax on a comfortable recliner or sofa from Newcomer Furniture. Dress for success with fashions from Azalea Avenue and Malay’s Outlet.

You’ll find all you need or want in delightful WaKeeney, Kansas.

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