Landlocked in the Midwest is Kansas, the 15th largest state by land area. Immortalized in the iconic film, The Wizard of Oz (1939), the state is most famous for its vast prairies, sunflowers, wheat fields, and Native American culture.
With a reputation for being one of “the boring states”, Kansas can be amazing if you know where to go and what to do. Reliant on agriculture, most of it features farmland and crop fields. Wheat and corn are commonly grown, as are sunflowers. Tucked within the gently rolling hills are spectacular nature areas like Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Monument Rocks, and Horsethief Canyon.
In the big cities, tourists can dive into the local culture and learn more about this Midwest state. Major metropolitan areas include Topeka, Wichita, Lawrence, Kansas City, and Overland Park. From the plains to the cities, this state will surprise you at every turn and make you fall in love with the Midwest portions of the US.
History of “The Sunflower State”
Pre-colonization, two of the main Native American tribes that lived in the area were the Caddoan Wichita and the Siouan Kaw. In 1541, Francisco Váquez de Coronado, a Spanish conquistador, was the first European to explore the land. However, integration wouldn’t occur until 1763, when Kansas became a part of Spanish Louisiana.
The United States took control of the territory in 1803 during the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the country’s size at the time of the sale. While most of present-day Kansas was included in the purchase, the southwest region of the state remained a part of Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas until 1848.
Most famously, Kansas was used as a route for settlers during the Westward Expansion. Some of the historic trails that passed through the state include the Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and the California Trail. Thousands of settlers passed through Kansas and many made the move permanent once they realized the benefits of the fertile soil.
In 1861, Kansas joined the Union as a free state, the 34th in the nation. Throughout the American Civil War, the state would remain loyal to the Union with more than 16,000 soldiers fighting in battles. After the end of the war, Kansas saw a boom in population and it turned more into a Wild West state.
One reason why the state grew was because of the Kansas Pacific railroad. This led to the development of new settlements and with better transportation, more settlers were drawn to the state. Throughout the 1900s and into present day, the local economy is driven by agriculture. However, tourism is growing each year as more people plan trips to the Sunflower State.
Capital City of Topeka
Set alongside the Kansas River is Topeka, the state capital. Home to 126,587 residents in 2020, the city was first established in 1857. While the name “Topeka” means “place where we dig potatoes”, most people will recognize the city as being the location of the landmark, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, US Supreme Court case. The outcome of the case ultimately ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
After the end of the case, the Monroe Elementary School (one of four segregated schools at the time) was turned into a National Historic Site by the National Park Service. In 2004, it was redeveloped and opened as a civil rights interpretive center.
While the nation shaping case fills more recent memories, Topeka was once a big stop on the Oregon Trail nearly a century earlier. Visitors can learn more about the Oregon Trail by visiting the Kansas Museum of History. Exhibits at the museum recreates many periods of time from early Native American tribes to emigrant trails, frontier days, and more.
For more things to do in the capital, visitors can take a tour of the Kansas State Capitol or stroll through Gage Park or Lake Shawnee. Daredevils will love the Evel Knievel Museum, while plant lovers can marvel at the Ward-Meade Historic Site and Botanical Garden. Finally, the Topeka Zoo and Kansas Children’s Discovery Center are fun activities for the whole family.
A 2020 population of 397,532 residents makes Wichita the largest city in Kansas. Situated in the south-central region of the state, the city was built alongside the Arkansas River. Historically, Wichita began in the 1860s as a trading post on the Chisholm Trail. It was incorporated by 1870 and earned the nickname “Cowtown” for the numerous cattle drives that would pass through the area.
Overlooked by most tourists, the city has emerged to become a major center for culture, art, history, trade, and transportation. Gone are the frontier days and now, there a bustling urban society has taken its place. Whether you’re sticking around or just exploring for a few days, Wichita will surprise you with its diversity and charm.
Local attractions include the Wichita Art Museum, Tanganyika Wildlife Park, Kansas Aviation Museum, Sedgwick County Zoo, Old Town, Botanica, Great Plains Nature Center, Old Cowtown Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House, and Arkansas River Trail. Special events held throughout the year are the Farm & Art Market and RiverFest.
Kansas City, “Heart of America”
Sitting at the border of Kansas and Missouri is Kansas City. Often confused with Kansas City, Missouri, people abbreviate the name to KCK. Technically, KCK is an inner suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, which is its namesake. As of 2020, the local population was 156,607 people, making it the third largest city in the state.
The defining lines of the two Kansas Cities can get muddled, with most people in favor of visiting the Missouri side. However, the Kansas side of the city has plenty of its own attractions and activities to keep visitors occupied. One of the best features of KCK is its mix of urban and natural. Through the heart of the city, the riverfront provides access to fields of wildflowers and walking trails, while Downtown KCK has everything you need to shop and dine.
The best attractions to see are the Kansas Speedway, Zip KC Zipline Park, Richard Petty Driving Experience, Kaw Point Park, Clendening History of Medicine Museum, Cider Hill Family Orchard, and the KCK Legacy Trail.
Overland Park, A Kansas City Suburb
Supporting 197,238 as of 2020, Overland Park is the second largest city in the state and it is a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas. Founded by William B. Strang Jr. in 1905, the city was named “Overland Park” because of its abundance of parks and trails. To this day, the cityscape has plenty of green space to keep it close to nature.
Vibrant green spaces in Overland Park include the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead, Indian Creek Hike and Bike Trail, Roe park, Tomahawk Creek Trail, and the Forest Park Trailhead.
Additionally, some of the must-see attractions are the Museum at Prairiefire, American Royal Museum and Visitors Center, American Jazz Museum, the Farmers’ Market in Downtown Overland Park, and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. With most of the venues open daily, the Farmers’ Market only operates from spring to fall.
Sometimes called “Larryville”, Lawrence is a small city in northeastern Kansas, just 41 miles west of the Missouri border. Home to 94,934 people as of 2020, the city is often called a college town because it’s home to both the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University. Visitors are proud to support the college teams, especially KU’s Jayhawks.
Acting as a main street for Downtown Lawrence and the most popular place to go is Massachusetts Street. It showcaess historic architecture and it has been revitalized with shops, restaurants, galleries, cafes, and bars. Located on the street are the Watkins Museum of History and the Lawrence Arts Center.
More attractions in the city include the University of Kansas campus, Spencer Museum of Art, Allen Fieldhouse, Clinton State Park, Liberty Hall, Prairie Park Nature Center, South Park, and the Lawrence Rotary Arboretum.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Located in the Flint Hills region, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve protects 400,000 square miles of some of the state’s most endangered habitat. With less than 5% of tallgrass prairie remaining in the country, this preserve is dedicated to preserving not just the plant, but also the history of Native Americans and ranching in the United States.
Within the park are more than 40 miles of trails, which take visitors through spectacular scenes of prairie, as well as to some historic buildings. For easier access, there are trails for walking and driving. During the summer months, bus tours are offered to view the prairie. Also living in the tallgrass is a herd of bison.
Made of chalk, the Monument Rocks boast incredible features like large buttes and arches. Many fossils have also been found in the formations, which are located in Gove County. The land where the rocks are located is privately owned, but public access has been granted during daylight hours. Staying after dark is strictly prohibited.
A multi-use trail for hikers, bikers and horseback riders, Horsethief Canyon follows a stunning landscape where the open prairie meets the rolling hills. Technically, there are two trails that lead visitors through the canyon.
One is more challenging because it weaves through narrow canyon slots. A second trail is shorter, but can be just as difficult because it has three water crossings. Visitors should head to the trail, well-equipped and aware of the weather report.
Keeper of the Plains and Mid-America All-Indian Museum
In Wichita, the Keeper of the Plains is a large sculpture made by Blackbear Bosin, a Kiowa-Comanche artist. Standing over the confluence of the Little Arkansas and Arkansas Rivers, the statue honors the history of Native American tribes in the state. Displays at the base of the statue educate visitors on the local tribes.
A short distance away from the Keeper of the Plains is the Mid-America All-Indian Museum. Housed in exhibits are authentic artifacts and contemporary artwork. Visitors can also partake in a powwow to learn more about Native American culture.
In the small city of Wamego, the Oz Museum is filled with all things Wizard of Oz. Though the most popular vision of the story was told on screen in 1939 with Judy Garland, the museum pays tribute to anything from the book to Michael Jackson’s remake.
Visiting the museum can take up to 2 hours, as there are more than 2,000 artifacts filling the exhibits. Tourists can also extend their stay and watch the 1939 film in the Columbian Theatre.
Series of World’s Largest
Visitors who happen to be on a road trip through Kansas might spice up their drive by stopping by some of the “World’s Largest” things. Interesting, there are quite a few objects throughout the state that claim this title. Some of these include the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, Easel, Spur, and Czech Egg.
Not often the first place that comes to mind as a vacation destination, Kansas might just astound you with its list of attractions. Dominated by the prairie, farming and settler history, attractions in this state can be fun and educational. For those that are sticking to the big cities, you’ll find terrific food and lively communities that add a little spark to the Great Plains.
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