A Flint Hills Journey
Tall grass stretches as far as you can see in the Flint Hills of east-central Kansas, an area of rock knolls and prairie that extends roughly from Wichita north to Abilene and east to Emporia. Winds play across the nearly treeless landscape, creating swaying patterns of wheat and grass that roll on for miles. The region, one of the last true prairies in North America, is a rare reminder of the time when open grasslands covered vast expanses of our continent.
Native Americans learned to survive in this unsheltered countryside. Today, Flint Hills ranchers still follow the ancient Indian custom of burning off their pastures to encourage the new growth. Flames cast an eerie orange glow in the skies during spring burns. Rains transform the blackened landscape into vibrant shades of green.
Towns steeped in Old West lore put out the welcome mat for visitors. Some of these communities such as Council Grove owe their origins to the historic Santa Fe and Chisholm trails, which once passed through the Flint Hills. Marshall "Wild Bill" Hickok kept an uneasy peace in Abilene, end of the trail for countless cattle drives.
German-Russian Mennonites settled Hillsboro, and Swedes migrated to Lindsborg. Descendants of both groups still reside in the towns, proudly keeping their Old World traditions alive.
Just north of Junction City along US-77, Fort Riley serves as the home to brigades from the Army's First Armored Division and its highly decorated First Infantry Division, the "Big Red One." The post's military traditions began in the days of the Old West. Soldiers from General George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry first rode out from Fort Riley more than a century ago.
The U.S. Cavalry Museum depicts the life of those elite horse soldiers. Many of western artist Frederick Remington's works are on display here, too, along with uniforms and weapons dating to the U.S Calvary days. You also can tour Custer's 1855 home.
Drive 2 miles south to I-70, then 3 miles east to State-57 and 34 miles south.
A tree-shaded farm town, Council Grove claims a prominent place in American history. Hundreds of trading caravans rendezvoused in Council Grove before proceeding west with their goods on the perilous 550-mile journey along the legendary Santa Fe Trail. A self-guided driving tour includes 18 stops at historic sites.
The Last Chance Store sold sowbellies, beans and other supplies to those hitting the trail. Though it closed long ago, you still can drive by the stone building at Main and Chautauqua, two blocks west of the downtown.
Pioneers left letters for their friends beneath Post Office Oak, which is located downtown. The Council Oak Shrine commemorates another tree, the site of an 1825 treaty signed with the Osage tribe. The treaty ensured European settlers safe passage south. The Kaw Mission State Historic Site once served as a school for Native American and white children.
Drive 16 miles south on State-57/177, through open farm country.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Established in 1996, this preserve saves a rare remnant of the vast expanse of tallgrass prairie that once covered much of the nation's midsection.
Cattle baron Stephen F. Jones established his Spring Hill Ranch on this land in the 1880s. View a video about the preserve and his grand home.
The nearly 2-mile-long Southwind Nature Trail takes you along a glistening stream to overlooks. You can climb a nearby hilltop to a one-room schoolhouse, where prairie vistas spread for miles.
Drive 4 miles south on State 57/177.
Chase County's imposing French Renaissance-style courthouse—still used today—stands at the center of this prim little town. The Roniger Memorial Museum just behind the county courthouse is devoted to Indian artifacts and hunting trophies. The Chase County Historical Museum and Library chronicles the area's past.
But the best way to experience the history and lore of this region is on a self-guided driving tour. It takes you through Cottonwood Falls' sister community, Strong City, immediately to the north, and along scenic backroads. Get free maps at the chamber of commerce office in downtown Cottonwood Falls.
Drive 7 miles west of Strong City on US-50 to State-150 (which merges with US-56) and continue 31 miles west.
Hillsboro resembles many other small Midwest communities. But it's in the heart of Mennonite country. The Adobe House Museum in City Park typifies the building style these immigrants of German descent adapted when they arrived via southern Russia about 120 years ago. You also can view an enormous replica of a windmill. The farming town is home to Tabor College, a Mennonite school and site of a historic Mennonite church.
Drive another 6 miles west on US-56 to State-15, then 8 miles south.
A large, white wood frame church marks the outskirts of Goessel, another mostly Mennonite farming community. For generations, Mennonites have contributed to the Flint Hills. Their strong work ethic helped tame the frontier. When they brought Turkey Red wheat to the plains from Russia, they turned Kansas into America's breadbasket. The Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum in town tells their story.
Drive 13 miles south on State-15.
Newton has long served as a hub for the Santa Fe Railroad. But away from the tracks, the town holds still more Mennonite history. One town founder, Bernhard Warkentin, influenced thousands of his fellow Mennonites to emigrate here. Tour the Warkentin family's 16-room Victorian mansion (Warkentin House Museum). View wildflowers and native grasses at Bethel College's living prairie.
Drive 33 miles west on US-50.
Some of the nation's largest grain elevators stand at the edge of this important central Kansas commercial center. Hutchinson, location of the Kansas State Fair, also is known for aircraft manufacturing.
This bustling, small city boasts a unique attraction: the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. Among its highlights, the center features original NASA capsules marking every phase of America's space effort, the world's largest collection of spacesuits, along with a planetarium and Omnimax theater.
Drive 28 miles northeast on State-61 and 13 miles north on I-135. Take exit 72 and follow Business-81 west for 4 miles.
Visitors from Scandinavia say Lindsborg looks more Swedish than Sweden. You'll find Old World-inspired shops, galleries, inns, bakeries and restaurants downtown, which resembles a European village. Many shops carry Swedish imports.
You can learn more about Lindsborg's Swedish heritage at the Old Mill Museum. The displays also include pioneer and Native American artifacts, a re-created pioneer town, and the Swedish Pavilion from the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
Drive 9 miles west on State-4, then 1 mile south on State-175.
Metal trimwork that's painted in a Scandinavian motif decorates buildings in this downtown, designated a Kansas Historic Site. The 1880s Opera House Block is home to City Sundries, which serves sodas and sundaes from its old-time soda fountain. Just south of downtown, tour the Range School Museum, a restored one-room country schoolhouse.
Drive 8 miles west on State-4 and north about 13 miles on State-141. You'll cross the Kanopolis Reservoir dam. Fishing boats and pleasure craft bob on Kanopolis Lake below. Drive 21 miles east on State-140 to I-135 just north of Salina. Go 3 miles north on I-135 and 24 miles east on I-70.
Chisholm Trail cowboys herding longhorns from Texas knew their work was done when they reached Abilene. Saloons, card parlors and dance halls greeted trail riders bent on celebrating—under the eye of lawman "Wild Bill" Hickok. You can glimpse the town's frontier beginnings at the Dickinson County Historical Museum's pioneer village.
Eventually, Abilene was transformed into the quiet community that would mold Dwight D. Eisenhower, its most famous son. The former general and U.S. president's boyhood home is part of the Eisenhower Center, which includes the presidential library, museum and gravesite.
Grand homes line the main street and several others in town. You can tour the ornate 1905 Seelye Mansion, with a ballroom and bowling alley. Also, save time for two of Abilene's most unusual attractions: the Antique Doll Museum, and the Greyhound Hall of Fame, celebrating the sleek racing dogs.
About 280 miles amid the pastures, wheatfields and historic towns of central Kansas' Flint Hills region, including communities with Mennonite and Swedish roots.