Out in the Flint Hills, everything you ever heard or learned or read about the big prairie sky suddenly makes sense. It's immense and domed, ever-changing and never-changing, soothing and a little scary. You watch the sun (seemingly) travel each day from east to west, and the horizon surrounds you like a giant circus ring.
Europeans flock here to experience this landscape; you can just hop on Interstate-35 and drive southwest to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, where free bus tours take you out into the 3-foot grasses that once covered much of the Midwest. The historic cowtowns of Council Grove and Cottonwood Falls are perfect bookends to the prairie. Stay at the restored Grand Central Hotel and groove to a jam session at the Emma Chase Cafe. But don't overbook your vacation. There's nothing wrong with coming here just for the tingly feeling of realizing how vast the world is.
WHAT TO DO
Emma Chase Cafe The ever-popular jam sessions get rave reviews (as do the Friday fried-catfish dinners). (620) 273-6020; emmachasecafe.com 
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (pictured at left) Rangers offer free daily guided 1881 ranch house tours and 90-minute prairie bus tours May-October. Hiking trains are open year-round. (620) 273-8494; nps.gov/tapr 
WHERE TO EAT
Grand Central Hotel and Grill The restaurant in the Grand Central Hotel is known as one of Kansas' best places for steak. (800) 951-6763; grandcentralhotel.com 
Hays House This 1857 eatery specializes in fried chicken. (620) 767-5911; hayshouse.com 
WHERE TO STAY
Grand Central Hotel Stay in an elegant inn with an on-site restaurant, in Cottonwood Falls. From $160. (800) 951-6763; grandcentralhotel.com 
For information: Flint Hills Tourism Coalition (866) 660-2622; kansasflinthills.travel 
Independence, Missouri: 10 miles east of Kansas City Once you get past the big-box stores, historic Independence Square doesn't feel a bit like suburban sprawl. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum (pictured at left) has impressive exhibits. The Truman home offers an intimate glimpse of the 33rd president, and Ophelia's serves inventive fare such as a grilled shrimp Cobb salad. (800) 748-7323; visitindependence.com 
Fort Scott, Kansas: 94 miles south of Kansas City Kansas' Civil War history spirals around Fort Scott, where today, a national historic site preserves 20 buildings. (Look for 170-year-old ax marks on the beams.) Try to time your visit for a special event, so you can chat with reenactors. Also, don't miss the nearby National Cemetery. (800) 245-3678; fortscott.com