Situated in central Kansas, Great Bend sits where the Arkansas (pronounced Ar-KAN-zus) River takes a significant turn, hence Great Bend’s name. The town is about two hours from the middle of Kansas, so you’ll frequently hear people talking about “meeting in the middle.” The closest airport to Great Bend is Manhattan, Kansas, but the drives from the larger airports of Kansas City and Wichita make for excellent road trips.
Great Bend is an inexpensive, multigenerational family-friendly vacation. Many attractions are free, while others are under $5 per person. Photographers, birdwatchers, and hunters could spend at least half a day at Cheyenne Bottoms. History buffs will enjoy their time at Barton County Historical Society Museum and Village. If you happen to bring along the kiddos, a couple of hours at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo will be in order.
Here are seven fun things to do while you’re in Great Bend, Kansas.
Note: My visit to Great Bend was a hosted trip by Great Bend, Kansas. The opinions offered are based on my experience.
1. Tour The Kansas Wetlands Education Center And Cheyenne Bottoms
Kansas Wetlands Education Center features a panoramic view of the migration marsh. The viewer allows you to look outside and see the birds as they recharge before continuing their migration.
The Education Center offers many interactive exhibits. One of my favorites instructs about watersheds and topography using sand and a computer.
At 41,000 acres, Cheyenne Bottoms is the most extensive wetlands in the interior of the United States. Two times a year, migratory birds make their journey. Some fly distances from central Chile and Argentina to as far north as Alaska. The peak spring migration at Cheyenne Bottoms is from the last two weeks in April through the first week in May.
To get the best views, photographers should be sure to take their long lens and birdwatchers should bring their binoculars.
The Kansas Wetlands Education Center offers two types of guided van tours of Cheyenne Bottoms. One is a 30-minute general “Get to Know Cheyenne Bottoms Tour,” while the other is a 90-minute interpretive view of Cheyenne Bottoms focusing on bird and wildlife identification. While admission to Cheyenne Bottoms is free, a small charge applies to the guided van tours.
You can pick up brochures inside the entrance to the Kansas Wetlands Education Center to identify various birds. In addition, they lend binoculars to those wanting to get a closer look outside.
Pro Tip: Rattlesnakes are common in this area in the summer months, so use caution when walking outside. As the birds make their fall migration, they have replaced their breeding plumage from the spring with less colorful autumn feathers. Since the fall migration lasts a longer time, the number of birds present at any one time is fewer. If you’re deciding between visiting during the spring and autumn migration, weigh the pros and cons of each season.
2. Tour Barton County Historical Society Museum And Village
The Barton County Historical Society Museum and Village has a lot going on. It features various vignettes through the decades, from dental and medical offices to barber and beauty shops. Visitors can also view an old-time general store and a Victorian parlor. They have a significant textile collection that showcases wedding dresses, lacemaking, and quilts.
One room features over 300 dolls, some dating back to the 1850s.
Once you’ve taken in the museum, visit the village, which includes about a dozen authentically furnished period buildings that tell the story of the Great Bend area from the Paleo Period through World War II. You’ll find everything from a blacksmith’s shop to a more modern Lustron home. Lustrons were built from metal panels and were promoted as a modern development in post-World War II housing. Farm enthusiasts will also enjoy the antique tractor and agricultural implements exhibited in the Village.
The Santa Fe Trail starts in Missouri and goes through Kansas to Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico. The Barton County Historical Society Museum has also received a certificate from the National Park Service as an official Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Site. In addition, 2021 is the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail, so their interpretive information is something to investigate here too.
Pro Tip: Take time to view both the museum exhibits inside and the village outside.
3. Attend A Race At The Sunflower Rod And Custom Association (SRCA) Dragstrip
The SRCA Dragstrip was once a runway for training those who flew the B-29 bombers during World War II. In 1946, the military made the airfield surplus, and the City of Great Bend secured it. In 1955, the SCRA held the first National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Nationals. The first nationals started with 219 cars and 15,000 spectators. Today, it’s the longest straight-track dragstrip in the United States, where races run from May through September.
To discover more about the track’s story in Kansas and the United States, check out the exhibit at the Historical Society, where they maintain an assortment of memorabilia, memoirs, and artifacts.
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for convenient lodging, the Best Western Angus Inn is at the top of the list for those participating in races.
4. Have An Animal Encounter At The Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo
The Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo and Raptor Center features about 120 animals from approximately 80 species.
Some of the zoo family’s newest additions are the bison and capybaras. Binturongs, typically found in Southeast Asia, are small mammals that spend most of their time in the canopy of trees. But Poppy the binturong is probably the most unusual animal at the zoo. Poppy got her name from the popcorn smell that comes from a binturong’s scent glands.
The zoo staff offers two animal encounters, one with an opossum and another with a three-banded armadillo. The three-banded armadillo is a fun encounter because this is the only species that can roll itself into a complete ball for protection.
The zoo also runs a Raptor Rehabilitation Program. Rehabilitation refers to treating animals so they can return to the wild. The zoo has trained staff that cares for the injured raptors, where broken wings are the most common injury. After the veterinary team clears each raptor for more concentrated physical therapy, the staff prepares them for release.
Pro Tip: Entrance to the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo is free for everyone. The zoo has manual wheelchairs, motorized scooters, and wagons available for rental.
5. Shop Downtown
Downtown Great Bend has focused on making its shopping area special. My favorites include the Heart of Kansas Mercantile Store and Miss Pretty Pickles and Rosewood Wine Cellar. Both of these shops offer gifts made in Kansas, which will make them unique when you take a few home to your family so they can experience a bit of Kansas with you.
Pro Tip: If you need a quick lunch or a caffeine recharge while shopping downtown, stop in at RePerks, a locally-owned coffee shop that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you’re looking for a snack, they also have pastries. They also have a complete prime rib special for Saturday night dinners.
6. Tour Santas Around The World
While Santa’s journey around the world happens in a single night, he most likely has some help from Santas Around The World. Located in downtown Great Bend, local artisan Loretta Miller hand-crafted each of the 24 life-size Santas to represent the country’s unique Christmas traditions. The multi-cultural exhibit offers regular hours beginning the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but visitors who observe Christmas in July need not be disappointed. Call for an appointment and you can see this exhibit any time of the year.
Pro Tip: Admission to this attraction is complimentary; however, they suggest a free-will donation.
7. Enjoy Dinner At Lizzie’s Cottage
Flavored Celebrations at Lizzie’s Cottage, a private restaurant, opens when owner Kat King has reservations. She doesn’t have a set menu. Instead, you call ahead, discuss what your party would like to eat, and she makes it happen. Everyone in the group eats the same meal; however, she does make accommodations for dietary restrictions. While a meal here requires some planning, it’s worth it. The meal we tried, a garlic Parmesan-crusted New York strip steak, Hasselback potatoes, and roasted asparagus, is the number one seller at Flavored Celebrations.
Pro Tip: Make a reservation at least 24 hours in advance.
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