Photograph by Bruce Dale
For more of the world's greatest driving tours, get National Geographic's new book Drives of a Lifetime.
Two towns virtually synonymous with the Wild West are the highlights of this drive through Kansas wheat and cattle country.
The names Wichita and Dodge City conjure visions of frontier-day cattle drives and rough-and-tumble cowboy life in the southern plains of Kansas. Our route encompasses both towns and sights in between. Wichita has emerged from its bustling cow-town era as a progressive, attractive community touting some nationally significant sights, including the Old Cowtown Museum, where 19th-century Wichita is re-created, and the Wichita Art Museum, with its important collection of works by Charles M. Russell. Legendary Dodge City, television home of Marshal Matt Dillon, has metamorphosed at least twice—from bison-hunter outpost to wild cattle-trail terminus to sedate agricultural community. The route between these towns features such hometown attractions as the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area—notable stopover for North American shorebirds—and sites related to the old Santa Fe Trail.
This 240-mile (386-kilometer) drive leaves from Wichita, travels north to Newton, then cuts west and north to Hutchinson, Lyons, and Great Bend before dipping back south to Kinsley and Dodge City. Highlights: Old Cowtown Museum, Mid-America All-Indian Center, Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, Fort Larned National Historic Site, Boot Hill Museum and Front Street.
Start in Wocjota
Your first stop in this Old West town on the 19th-century Chisholm Trail—which made it a destination for cattle drives headed north to railroads to eastern markets—is the Old Cowtown Museum. Located in Sim Park, this 17-acre (7-hectare) living history museum re-creates the Wichita of the 1870s, right down to plank sidewalks. The time frame follows the arrival of trader Jesse Chisolm, who in 1864 brought some 3,000 cattle north from Texas, establishing the Chisolm Trail and Wichita as a major shipping point. Today, visitors can tour a five-acre (two-hectare) living history farm featuring animals and period farm machinery, and watch demonstrations of such daily activities as gardening, milking the cow, and harvesting corn; ride in a horse-drawn wagon; and quaff a glass of sarsparilla in the museum's saloon. Native American culture, art, and technology are the focus of the nearby Indian Center Museum at the Mid-America All-Indian Center. Traditional artifacts and contemporary art are combined with information on the history and culture of the Wichita, who guided Coronado into Kansas in 1541 and gave this city its name. The Wichita called themselves Kirikirish, "real people," and lived here only a short time. Across the street, the Wichita Art Museum houses an excellent collection of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century American art. The M.C. Naftzger Collection of Charles M. Russell's works includes Russell paintings of Western scenes and some of the handwritten and illustrated letters he sent to friends. Around the corner lies Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, where you can wander through a formal Elizabethan garden, tracts of sunflowers (the Kansas state flower), and a wildflower plot with prairie grasses. Downtown, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum presents Wichita's history from the days of bison hunts to the modern era. Joan Miró's huge mosaic mural "Personnages Oiseaux" greets visitors at the entrance to the Ulrich Museum of Art. This museum features changing exhibits of contemporary artists and an absorbing collection of 20th-century and modern (mostly American) art.
Leaving Wichita, head north on I-135 to North Newton. Here the Kauffman Museum tells the story of the Mennonite settlers who came to the area from Europe in the 1870s. Also here: a period homestead and a prairie restoration. Next, take U.S. 50 west to Hutchinson and perhaps the best air and space museum outside Washington, D.C.: the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. You're greeted by a full-size model of the space shuttle, complete with a clear explanation of how the heat shield works. Hanging from the ceiling is a glamorous black SR-71 Blackbird, a U.S. spy plane that endured flying temperatures greater than 1000°F (538°C). The museum also offers a live rocket science demonstration, a planetarium, a space museum with lots of space suits, and the Apollo 13 command module. For a more earthbound attraction, head south on Plum Street to the small but attractive (and free) Hutchinson Zoo. Displays here focus on Kansas wildlife, such as American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, bobcats, and coyotes. Particularly entertaining: the prairie dog town, which kids can crawl through.
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area
From Hutchinson, head west on Route 96 then north on Route 14. At Lyons, bear west on U.S. 56 and keep an eye out for a roadside marker for the largest village of the fabled Quivira. In 1541 a Pawnee Indian known as "the Turk" told Francisco Vásquez de Coronado that in Quivira "there was so much gold . . . that they could load not only horses with it, but wagons." With 30 horsemen and Father Juan de Padilla, Coronado came looking for the golden city. He found instead the large Indian settlement of Quivira. The Turk, who admitted to lying about the gold, was strangled for his trouble. Father de Padilla returned to Quivira as a missionary and eventually gained dubious distinction as the first martyr within the boundaries of the present United States. Continue west on U.S. 56—which follows the old Santa Fe Trail—to Kans. Route 156. Proceed north on 156 to the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. This large natural sink is a critical migratory-bird stopover where some 45 percent of the North American shorebird population lands each spring. Climb the observation tower for an overview of the area, then drive the nine-mile loop through the refuge's wetlands and pools. Nearby is the town of Great Bend, home to the Barton County Historical Society, which presents a nine-building pioneer village and displays from the Victorian period.
Fort Larned National Historic Site
Continue on U.S. 56 to Larned, taking Kans. Route 156 west to the Santa Fe Trail Center to learn more about the trail and its history. Unlike the other major western trails, the Santa Fe Trail was a two-way route, taking goods from U.S. territory into Mexico and bringing back gold, silver, and other trade wares. Farther down Kans. Route 156 lies Fort Larned National Historic Site. Established in 1859, Fort Larned was important in the protection of the Santa Fe Trail. Nine original stone buildings remain, along with a reconstructed blockhouse and a barracks. Interesting exhibits at the museum offer an overview of the fort's history. Back in Larned, the Central States Scout Museum claims the world's largest collection of scouting memorabilia.
End at Dodge City
Follow U.S. 56 southwest to Dodge City, at one time the baddest town in the West and home of Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp, William "Bat" Masterson, and a host of other Western good and bad guys, real and imagined. The main venue here, Boot Hill Museum and Front Street, presents Dodge in its legendary boomtown era. At one corner lie the remains of a famous Boot Hill Cemetery, where both miscreants and victims were buried in shallow graves. The museum clears up the confusion between a sheriff and marshal, and discusses the careers of Assistant Marshal Wyatt Earp and undersheriff and sheriff Bat Masterson. In summer, shootouts and other entertainments are on tap, or catch the Dodge City Trolley for an overview of the town's western heritage. Across the street, characters from the long-running Gunsmoke TV series and a few U.S. presidents live on at the Gunfighters Wax Museum.
—Text by Dan Whipple, adapted from National Geographic's Driving Guides to America: The Heartland
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.