Nicknamed for the bright sunflowers that cover the prairie each summer, Kansas is located right in the heart of America. In the fields where herds of bison used to roam, you’ll now see waves of grain and heads of cattle.
Join me on this road trip from urban northeastern Kansas to the flatter but fruitful plains of Hays in the center of the state.
Spreading across the Midwestern states of Kansas and Missouri, Kansas City is known for its saucy barbecue, flowing fountains, and tree-lined streets.
Motorsports fans visiting the Kansas side of the city can satisfy their need for speed by taking in a NASCAR race at the Kansas Speedway. Soccer fans can cheer on the 2013 MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City team, and baseball fans can enjoy a laid-back evening at the ballpark supporting the minor league Kansas City T-Bones.
And you can’t leave Kansas City without enjoying its world-famous barbecue. On the Kansas side of the state line, Joe’s is one of the city’s most notable barbecue joints. Visit its original location in a gas station at 47th and Mission for a slab of ribs, a pound of burnt ends, or a pulled pork sandwich. Or enjoy one of the specialty sandwiches, like the fried jalapeno-topped Rocket Pig or signature Z-Man.
As you hit the road and head west, be sure to stop at this coffeehouse for a cause about 30 minutes outside of Kansas City in De Soto. Inside the cream-colored stucco and native stone building, some of the best baristas in the metropolitan area volunteer their time and talent, and 100 percent of the proceeds benefit the monthly cause posted on the chalkboard near the front door. To date, Cause Coffee has helped provide clean water to a community in Uganda and donated to Kansas City’s homeless community.
Continuing west, the college town of Lawrence, about 30 minutes from De Soto, is home to the University of Kansas. Explore the school’s rich basketball history by touring the Booth Family Hall of Athletics and engaging in the Jayhawk Experience, which includes a glimpse of Dr. James Naismith’s original rules for the sport.
After you’ve explored the campus, stroll along Massachusetts Street, browsing the boutiques and fueling up at one of the many cafes, restaurants, and bakeries. Named after the state motto, Ad astra per aspera, which means “To the stars through difficulties,” the Ad Astra amber ale at Free State Brewing Company is a must try. Across the street, Quinton’s Bar & Deli serves up hearty soups in delicious bread bowls and offers a variety of filling sandwiches.
If you’re visiting Kansas between mid-August and mid-September, stop at Grinter Farms for a beautiful photo op in a cheery sunflower field.
Pro Tip: The Sunflower State gets its nickname from wild sunflowers, a smaller variety that blooms throughout the summer in open fields and along the roadsides, and not the cultivated variety you’ll find at Grinter Farms. This guide to Kansas wildflowers will help you identify the beautiful blooms you’ll see between spring and fall on this Kansas road trip.
Capped by Ad Astra, a Kaw warrior aiming his arrow at the heavens atop a copper dome, the Kansas State Capitol will be one of the first landmarks you notice as you arrive in Topeka. Rising more than 300 feet toward the stars, the Kansas State Capitol is taller than the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., and is the fourth-tallest capitol building in the nation. (The Louisiana State Capitol is the tallest, in case you’re wondering.) Thrillseekers can sign up for a free 40-minute dome tour that allows visitors to billy goat up 296 steps for a close-up view of the 256 glass panels in the dome and panoramic views of Topeka.
History lovers will enjoy visiting the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site housed in the two-story red brick former Monroe Elementary School. In the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision, the American civil rights movement was propelled forward by the ruling that declared that “separate but equal” was far from equal.
A fun stop in Kansas’s capital city is the Evel Knievel Museum. Incorporated into the Historic Harley-Davidson building on Topeka Boulevard, this interactive experience is dedicated to the high-flying motorcycle daredevil with the unusual name. (As it turns out, his momma named him Robert.) At the museum, you can view a timeline of Knievel’s death-defying jumps (and devastating crashes), gaze at his star-spangled costumes, and check out a collection of his Harleys. And at the center of it all is Big Red, the fire-engine-colored Mack truck that hauled Knievel’s gear around the country.
When you’re ready to hit the road again, continue westward on Interstate 70 to Exit 313. The stretch of Kansas Highway 177 that leads you north to the town known as the Little Apple is named after the legendary college football coach Bill Snyder. Although Snyder is now retired from Kansas State University (for the second time), his genuine warmth and incredible class can be felt radiating from his statue on the grounds of the stadium that bears his name.
After exploring the Kansas State campus, head to Aggieville. This six-square-block section of town just southeast of campus is packed with restaurants, bars, shops, and a lot of purple pride. Grab a bite (or a beer) at Rock-A-Belly Bar & Deli or Kite’s Bar and Grill, two long-standing Aggieville favorites. And I never leave the area without a dozen doughnuts from Varsity Donuts.
In downtown Manhattan, the best breakfast in town can be found at The Chef Cafe. Yes, there’s nearly always a wait, but the coffee served on the sidewalk and the colorful chalk help the time pass quickly. And for something a little more upscale than the sandwiches and pub food offered in Aggieville, check out Bourbon & Baker or Wine Dive + Kitchen.
Once you’ve traveled south on the Coach Bill Snyder Highway and reconnected with Interstate 70, your next stop is 30 minutes west. Recognized by Smithsonian Magazine as one of the best small towns to visit, Abilene is full of history and dotted with amazing architecture.
Abilene is best known as the hometown of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Kansas farm boy who attended West Point and masterminded the Invasion of Normandy, often recognized as the turning point of World War II. Visit Eisenhower’s boyhood home, tour the newly renovated presidential library and museum, and pay your respects in the chapel that is his final resting place.
For a filling lunch or dinner, don’t miss the Brookville Hotel. The 2007 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for American classic cuisine serves its crispy fried chicken family style, with creamy coleslaw, fluffy mashed potatoes, creamed corn, and biscuits.
If you need to walk off your fried chicken dinner, stop at the Rolling Hills Zoo in Salina. Just 30 minutes west of Abilene (thanks to the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System), this highly accredited zoo is open seven days a week and features big cats, primates, mammals, and a variety of other creatures.
Pro Tip: While pets are not allowed inside the zoo, this attraction recognizes that many people road trip with their four-legged friends in tow. That’s why Rolling Hills Zoo offers a free, air-conditioned kennel service for your pooch when you visit.
As you continue west along Interstate 70, the rolling hills of northeastern Kansas smooth out into flatter plains. You’ll see more farmland, bobbing grasshopper pumps extracting oil, and tall windmills harvesting the natural power of the wind.
A rough and lawless frontier town that transitioned to a haven for Volga German settlers escaping religious persecution in Russia, Hays is the final stop on this Kansas road trip.
Explore the town’s past, from its Wild West days to its German heritage, by visiting the Fort Hays State Historic Site and the Ellis County Historical Society Museum. Or take a self-guided walking tour to follow in the footsteps of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, and General George Armstrong Custer.
Named after the multigenerational fossil-hunting Sternberg family, Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History lets visitors walk through the jaws of a 60-foot-long megalodon, stand beneath flying dinosaurs, and examine the skeletons of the prehistoric creatures who made their homes here millions of years ago.
In this town shaped by German immigrants, you’ll need to try the beer and bites. The best place in Hays is Gella’s Diner on 11th Street. Try Volga German specialities like grebble, sauerkraut soup, and bierocks. Or just enjoy a craft beer with a jumbo pretzel or basic burger.
From the melting pot of Kansas City through the state’s biggest college towns to historic Fort Hays, this road trip through the Sunflower State has attractions for sports lovers, history buffs, and foodies alike.