When I moved to Kansas years ago, I heard two things from my friends back East. First, “Should we call you Dorothy now? Are you buying a Toto dog?” And second, “Kansas is flat and dull.”
My answers? “No, I’m not Dorothy, and I’m not getting a dog named Toto.” (If you are determined to equate Kansas to Oz, the state has plenty of Oz-themed attractions.)
And, “I’ve lived in Kansas for more than 30 years, and it is neither flat nor is it boring.” What does flat mean, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines flat as “having a continuous horizontal surface,” as in “the flat landscape of the prairie.” Oops. That’s not helpful to our cause.
The Midwest generally has an undeserved reputation for flatness. And Kansas takes that reputation to its highest plane.
An infamous 2003 study compared a pancake’s surface to Kansas’s surface. The study proclaimed that, yes, Kansas is flatter than a pancake. In the study, a graph compares Kansas to a pancake. The pancake has steep cliffs on both sides with some ridges interrupting the flat plane. Compared to the pancake, Kansas slopes sharply upward from east to west. This isn’t helpful, either.
A University of Kansas professor took exception to this study. He said that the famously mountainous Colorado would be flatter than a pancake if the pancake were the size of the state. He determined that Florida is the flattest state. Florida’s highest point, Britton Hill, is only 345 feet above sea level. Kansas was seventh with its highest point, Mount Sunflower, reaching 4,039 feet. This is more like it.
Dueling scientists may publish competing studies until they break the internet. What is Kansas like in the real world? Like most other states, Kansas has areas that are somewhat flat and alternate with hilly regions. Let’s head to the Kansas hills.
1. Little Switzerland, White Cloud
The state’s northeasternmost county, Doniphan County, acquired the nickname Little Switzerland because of its hilly topography, and immigrants from France, Germany, and Switzerland that chose to settle there.
For the best experience, drive Highway 7 north from Troy. In White Cloud, visit the Four-State Lookout. The four states are Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa. The weather is exceptionally clear if you’re seeing Iowa because Hamburg, Iowa, is 60 miles away. If you’re a tri-pointer — a person who collects the places where three states meet — the lookout counts.
If you don’t mind climbing, continue on Highway 7 north of White Cloud. Pull into the turnout at the Nebraska historical marker. The marker commemorates the 40th parallel surveyors. Across the road and a bit to the north, cross the pedestrian bridge and climb to the summit. While climbing, be careful of the loose railings. At the top, the Cast Iron Monument shows where the Kansas-Nebraska boundary begins.
Pro Tip: Doniphan County is the northern end of the Glacial Hills Scenic Byway. Head south to the Doniphan Cemetery for a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. Continue southward to Atchison and Leavenworth. Both cities are excellent day trips from Kansas City.
2. Konza Prairie Natural Area, Manhattan
The Konza Prairie Natural Area near Manhattan is my favorite Kansas hike. The best time to hike is in the fall when the tallgrass is at its height and some wildflowers are still blooming. When you summit the hills, the rolling Flint Hills spread out before you. Look for the Kansas River’s blue ribbon to the north and Manhattan beyond it. Bring trekking poles and watch your footing.
Pro Tip: Learn more about the Flint Hills at Manhattan’s Flint Hills Discovery Center. After your education, explore the two byways that meander through the region — the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway and the Native Stone Scenic Byway.
3. Coronado Heights, Lindsborg
When I’m driving Interstate 70 from the west, I always look forward to entering the Smoky Hills west of Salina. Seven sandstone bluffs extend south to Coronado Heights northwest of Lindsborg. In 1541, the explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado climbed the heights and looked for the Seven Cities of Gold. Seeing none, he turned around in defeat. Coronado failed to foresee that the land would one day be covered in golden wheat. In 1915, a Bethany College professor uncovered Spanish chainmail armor in the area.
You may picnic in the castle atop the hill or on one of the outdoor tables. No, Coronado did not build the castle. Instead, the Works Progress Administration created it.
Pro Tip: Learn more about Coronado’s visit to Kansas at the Coronado Quivira Museum in Lyons. Continue west on the Prairie Trail Scenic Byway to Mushroom Rock State Park and canyon-filled Kanopolis State Park.
4. Chalk Hills Scenic Drive, Lucas to Hoxie
From Prairie Trail’s western end in Ellsworth, head north on Highway 232 to Lucas on the hilly Post Rock Scenic Byway. If you’re a mountain biker, ride the Epic-rated Switchgrass Mountain Bike Trail in Wilson State Park. Join the Chalk Hills Scenic Drive, one of our seven best Kansas scenic drives, on Highway 18 in Lucas. Head west to the Highway 24 junction north of Bogue, and then on to Hoxie. Numerous rock formations rise from the ground beside the road. The brick mural on Morland’s Citizens State Bank commemorates the fossils found nearby. Reserve a place at the Elephant Bistro & Bar, Hoxie.
5. The Arikaree Breaks, St. Francis
The Arikaree Breaks are a narrow 36-mile-long band of Kansas canyons. Wind and water have carved deep gashes in the earth. Before you leave St. Francis, pick up a driving tour brochure at the Roadside Park information kiosk. In the beginning, the Breaks tour will seem like an ordinary country drive. That is until you crest a hill and witness panoramic badlands. Wander around the enchanting canyons all day. Look for a bison herd near Devil’s Gap. Tripointers may stand in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska.
Pack a picnic to enjoy at Sue’s Picnic Table near Devil’s Gap. Spring is the best time to visit when the grass is green. If you prefer paved roads, drive Highway 161 north from Bird City to experience the Breaks’ eastern edge. All the land is private; please be respectful.
The canyons are Land and Sky Scenic Byway’s signature attraction.
6. Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, Oakley
Spires tower above the Smoky Hill River Valley in the 332-acre Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park. Some of the formations reach 100 feet tall. Hike the two trails. The Overlook Trail is shorter and paved with crushed rock. The Life on the Rocks Trail is partially rocked and is slightly more difficult.
Pro Tip: Little Jerusalem is only one of the numerous rock formations in the Smoky Hill Valley. Monument Rocks — a National Natural Landmark — and Castle Rock are the largest and most famous of these formations. Look for more rock formations like Monument Rocks on the Western Vistas Historic Byway.
7. Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway, Medicine Lodge
At first glance, visitors of the Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway might confuse them for Utah red rocks. But, gee, Toto, you’re still in Kansas. The Gyp Hills, also called the Red Hills, are rock layer cakes. The red comes from iron oxide. The whitish rock is gypsum.
Choose from two options to see the hills. The byway follows Highway 160 from Medicine Lodge to Coldwater. For a closer view, try the unpaved 22-mile Gyp Hills Scenic Drive. Much of the scenic drive goes through the open range; watch for cattle.
Savor a steak at Buster’s in tiny Sun City. Arrive early to enjoy a pie at Don’s Place in Protection. In Medicine Lodge, visit Carrie Nation’s home. Every year on the last weekend of September, Medicine Lodge commemorates the 1867 peace treaty signed there.
8. Point of Rocks, Elkhart
The Point of Rocks, approximately 10 miles north of present-day Elkhart, is an anxiously awaited landmark for Santa Fe Trail travelers. The 3,485-foot formation pointed the way to Middle Spring — the first reliable water source for many miles. Look for trail ruts around the formation.
Park at the bottom and hike to the top. The view includes the Cimarron National Grasslands and the Cimarron River. River water only shows above ground during wet periods, but the view is beautiful whether the river is visible or not. The steep trail is not accessible. Eat your picnic lunch at Middle Spring.
Elkhart’s Point of Rocks is one of several prominent points on the Kansas Santa Fe Trail. Additional Points of Rocks are near Pierceville and Dodge City. Look for Pawnee Rock above the town of Pawnee Rock, while Indian Mound stands near Lakin.
The Kansas-Colorado-Oklahoma tri-point is southwest of Elkhart at Eight-Mile Corner.
Many of these destinations are on unpaved roads in areas with poor cell phone service. Fill up your gas tank before you leave, check road conditions, and carry a paper map.