Junction City, Kansas, is like a giant steamer trunk; it’s full of fascinating places to unpack. The trunk holds outdoor recreation, history, culture, and scenic beauty. Pull them out for an enchanting weekend excursion. The city gets its name from the confluence of the Smoky Hill and Republican Rivers joining to become the Kansas (or Kaw) River.
The city sits at the heart of the Flint Hills region of Kansas, one of the areas that disproves the notion that Kansas is flat. Junction City is 2 hours west of Kansas City’s airport. It’s half an hour west of Manhattan and 45 minutes east of Salina on Interstate 70.
Geary County hosted me, but all opinions are my own.
Things To Do In Junction City
Junction City is the county seat for Geary County. Both the city and the county are underrated. But Geary County’s scenery, history, and outdoor recreation options make it a prime candidate for visitors.
Take A Scenic Drive To Geary Falls
Geary County’s maps show its cities — Junction City, Grandview Plaza, Milford, and Fort Riley — in the north with lots of hilly, curvy, beautiful roads to the south. The scenic loop to Geary State Fishing Lake is mostly on gravel roads. If you intend to visit the waterfall’s base, bring your trekking poles and wear hiking boots.
From Interstate 70, take Exit 299 south on J Hill Road, which runs into East Lyons Creek Road. After many squiggles, take the eastern fork after you cross Lyons Creek. The fork is State Lake Road.
Eventually, the winding road passes a small “Geary County Lake” sign on a fence. Turn into the drive. The parking area is on your right with a gate to the trail. The descent to the dam can be tricky, but otherwise, the quarter-mile walk to the falls is easy. Cross the dam to the waterfall. You’ll see the heaviest flows in the spring and after heavy rains. When the weather has been dry, you can see the rock layer cake behind the falls. Climb down to the waterfall’s plunge pool with your trekking poles. Watch for slick rocks.
Before you leave, enjoy a picnic while you’re fishing. The lake has black bass, walleye, saugeye, catfish, bluegill, and crappie.
Fun Fact: Geary Lake Falls is the state lake’s spillway. At 35 feet, it may be the state’s highest waterfall. Spring is the best time to see it. Return to I-70 by going east on State Lake Road and north on Highway 77.
Be A Water Baby At Milford State Park
Welcome to Milford Reservoir, the Fishing Capital of Kansas. With more than 15,000 acres, it’s also the state’s largest lake. If your luck and skill are in, you may haul in a record-breaking catch. The lake stocks catfish, crappie, walleye, and bass. Check the current fishing report before you go. Make sure you have the proper licenses and follow regulations. After pulling your fish from the water, go to the fish cleaning stations at Milford Marina and the South Boat Ramp.
Pro Tip: Try one of our Ultimate Fishing Bucket List adventures for the angler thrill of a lifetime.
Fishing isn’t the only water-based attraction at Milford. Jet ski enthusiasts seek out the dedicated beach. Back your vehicle to the water, unload, and leave it parked while you play. At Sailboat Cove, join sailboat lovers. For some “ooh, la, la,” visit Nudie Beach. No, it’s not clothing optional, but hanging out there is popular.
Birders will want to visit Milford Wetlands on the reservoir’s northern edge. In the winter, bald eagles roost beside the lake. Also, look for deer, quail, and turkeys.
Pro Tip: Bald eagles become Kansas snowbirds during the winter, including at Milford.
Watch A Feeding Frenzy At The Fish Hatchery
Learn more about fish and other wildlife at the Milford Nature Center and Fish Hatchery. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll watch the hatchery staff feed the fish. Afterward, you’ll understand the phrase “feeding frenzy” a lot better. At the adjacent nature center, see dioramas and live animal exhibits. Birds of prey and bobcats are outside.
Pro Tip: Watch for the skunk’s business end when you enter your ladies’ room stall.
Paddle The Kansas River
You can stand where the Smoky Hill and Republican Rivers become the Kansas (or Kaw) River when the river is low. Start your journey above the confluence when the river is ready. The river flows 173 miles from the Junction City Access Ramp to the Kaw Point Access in Kansas City.
Pro Tip: You’re not going to reach Kansas City in a day. The Friends of the Kaw estimate paddling 3 miles requires an hour. Beginners should not plan to go more than 10 miles in a day. Before you go, check the tips on the Kansas River Access Map.
Hike The Flint Hills
The Konza Prairie Nature Trails are my favorite Kansas hikes. And I’m not alone in that estimation. Fellow TravelAwaits writer Mike Owens listed Konza as his number one of the Most Scenic Hikes in Kansas. But Geary County offers more trails than the Konza.
Go Off-Roading At School Creek
If School Creek Off-Road Area sounds like a “school’s out for summer” kind of place, you’d be right. After riding at School Creek, you won’t come back at all. Not with 300 acres to ride — for free. The trails range from beginner to expert, so you’ll be able to graduate at your own pace. Download a brochure (PDF).
Learn About Power Games At The First Territorial Capital
Kansas was troubled in 1855. During the legislative elections, Missourians illegally flooded Kansas. The massive fraud heavily tilted the new legislature in favor of slavery. Governor Reeder moved the territorial capital to Pawnee, beside Fort Riley, to minimize the Missourians’ influence and profit from his land purchases.
When the legislators arrived, Pawnee only stayed as the capital for 4 days. After that, the legislature moved the capital to Shawnee Mission. The legislature created some new counties during their short stay, including Davis County. The county around Pawnee got its name from then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.
Davis wasn’t impressed. Instead, he ruled that Pawnee’s land belonged to the fort, despite surveyors’ results that proved otherwise. As a result, the army destroyed the town, but the capitol building survived.
Six years later, Davis became President of the Confederate States of America. After the Civil War, public pressure convinced the legislature to change Davis to Geary County. The name change was a bit of revenge for Pawnee’s few residents.
The First Territorial Capitol is now a seasonal museum.
Pro Tip: The capitol building is only one of the museums on Fort Riley. Fort Riley’s historical society runs the First Infantry Division Museum, the U.S. Cavalry Museum, and the Custer House. The fort also has a national cemetery. For the easiest fort access, submit a day pass request 24 hours ahead of your visit.
Soak In Culture At The C.L. Hoover Opera House
The C.L. Hoover Opera House occupies a hybrid building. The ornate limestone back was the original theater. The clock tower-crowned front section housed city offices, including the fire department. Ironically, a fire started in the firehouse and gutted the building. Eight months later, the theater arose from the ashes and rubble. In 2008, it reopened after a $7 million renovation.
The opera house hosts live performances and holds the headquarters for Junction City’s arts agencies: the Junction City Little Theater, Junction City Arts Council, and Junction City Community Band.
Pro Tip: The Geary County Historical Society is two blocks southwest of the opera house. Look for the exhibit on John Brinkley at the museum. He was the infamous “goat gland doctor” from Milford. He transplanted goat testicles into men to improve their virility. Eventually, investigators discovered his “training” came from diploma mills.
Best Restaurants In Junction City
Because of Fort Riley’s military personnel, Junction City offers many cuisines to sample. Here are two of my favorites.
I had never tried Korean cuisine before I visited the Korean Garden. At the restaurant, I confessed my ignorance. The waitress tapped her finger on the third page’s top option and said, “order this.”
A bit later, she brought out a relish tray and stew. I cautiously sampled each item. Then she returned with steaming beef barbecue and rice. Everything was delicious. The portions were huge, and I ate three meals of leftovers. Eventually, I learned what I’d ordered, barbecue beef with vegetable wrap and soybean stew combo. I’m a fan.
Negril Caribbean Restaurant
Holes in the wall have the best food. Negril’s is a hole in the wall near the opera house. Need I say more? The staff is friendly and the restaurant feels like the owners are serving you in their kitchen at home.
Pro Tip: Do not visit Geary County without going to Hildebrand Farms Dairy. Turn into the west Hildebrand driveway. Schedule a tour and see the adorable baby calves. At the end, you’ll receive a free ice cream cone. But even if you don’t tour, you must shop at the farm store. Save your clean bottles and get a discount when you return.
Best Hotels In Junction City
I stay in a cabin at the Acorns Resort in Milford. The Cove restaurant onsite is excellent, and who can beat lakeside accommodations? The resort also accepts RVs. For a hotel, stay at the Hampton Inn or the Best Western.
Pack your suitcase for Junction City, so you can unpack all that’s in the county’s trunk.