Photograph by Bruce Dale
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.
Allow three to four days for this drive, which is best enjoyed May-September. For more information, log on to www.travelks.com, www.gowichita.com, and www.visitdodgecity.org
—Text by Dan Whipple, adapted from National Geographic's Driving Guides to America: The Heartland
Photo Gallery: U.S. Road Trips Part 1
The Ozarks, Arkansas
Photograph by Peter EssickBathed in moonlight and swollen with floodwater, the rush of Haw Creek Falls announces the return of spring to Arkansas's Ozark National Forest. These rugged mountains, which daunted early travelers, now serve as the backdrop for a deciduous forest that, in autumn, bursts into a kaleidoscopic palette of colors.
Did You Know? In 1861, Arkansas seceded from the Union to join the Confederate States of America.
Vermont Cheese Trail
Photograph by Jean Snide, My ShotAutumn colors tint the land around a hay barn in Berkshire, Vermont. Almost 1.5 million acres (610,000 hectares) of Vermont land are dedicated to agriculture. Dairy farming is the primary agricultural industry here, but Vermont is also the largest producer of maple syrup in the U.S.
Did You Know? Calvin Coolidge's father and namesake, John Calvin Coolidge, opened the Plymouth Cheese Factory with other local Vermont farmers in 1890.
Mount Hood, Oregon
Photograph by Marc Muench, Getty ImagesClimbers approach the peak of Mount Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon at 11,245 feet (3,427 meters) and the second most climbed mountain in the world, after Japan's Mount Fuji.
Did You Know? Mount Hood's last major eruption occurred in the 1790s, although residents reported minor explosive activity in the mid-1800s.
Maui's Hana Coast
Photograph by Chris JohnsOn the Hana Highway in Maui, Hawaii, nearly 60 bridges lead visitors from rushing waterfalls to limpid pools, patches of taro plants, and luxuriant jungles of bamboo and fruit trees. This coastal road's 600 curves were dug using hand tools.
Did You Know? Hawaii was annexed by the United States after a long struggle between the native Hawaiian government and American businessmen with competing interests. Take our quiz on the U.S. West
San Luis Valley, Colorado
Photograph by Bruce DaleDunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park can reach a height of 750 feet (230 meters) and are continually reshaped by winds that can top 40 miles an hour (64 kilometers an hour). The park, part of southern Colorado's San Luis Valley, was established in September 2004.
Did You Know? San Luis is home to a Stations of the Cross Shrine, called La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia (the Hill of Piety and Mercy). Take our quiz on the San Luis Valley
The Big Island of Hawaii
Photograph by Helena Ruffin, My ShotThe Big Island of Hawaii is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined; it's also the only one still volcanically active.
Did You Know? Babe Ruth, Cecil B. DeMille, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt planted banyan trees along Hilo's Banyan Drive.
Alaska's Seward Highway
Photograph by Kate Lynn MorrillThe smallest of Alaska's eight national parks, Kenai Fjords lies just outside Seward and includes the Harding Icefield, which covers almost 700 square miles (1,800 square kilometers).
Did You Know? Seward was officially named the Mural Capital of Alaska in April 2008. The city's public places and streets contain more than 13 large murals, and the Seward Mural Society produces at least one new mural each year.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Photograph by John Rennie, My ShotNobska Point Lighthouse is one of 14 lighthouses, many still in operation, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Cape Cod National Seashore features miles of white-sand beaches, sea cliffs, and dunes.
Did You Know? In 1970, Massachusetts selected cranberry juice as its official drink.
Rocky Mountains of Wyoming
Photograph by Lara Love, My ShotRanch hands wind down the day at Arapahoe Ranch in Hot Springs County, the smallest county in Wyoming. It also includes Hot Springs State Park, where visitors can take a dip in the State Bath House.
Did You Know? Butch Cassidy spent time in Wyoming Territorial Prison for stealing horses but was released after he promised to leave Wyoming and never return.
Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania
Photograph by Troy Marden, My ShotLongwood Gardens, three miles (five kilometers) northeast of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, features 1,050 acres (425 hectares) of indoor and outdoor gardens, woodlands, and meadows. Commissioned and designed by Dupont magnate Pierre du Pont, who reshaped the family company for the 20th century, this popular attraction in the Brandywine Valley is also known for its extravagant fountain displays.
Did You Know? Marquis de LaFayette, a French military leader, was only 19 years old when he fought on the side of the colonists against the British in the Battle of Brandywine.
California's Pacific Coast Highway
Photograph by Spencer Bawden, My ShotA cypress tree overlooks the Pacific Ocean along the Monterey Peninsula in California. The town of Monterey served as California's capital under Spanish, Mexican, and American flags and by the early 1900s boasted an important sardine industry.
Did You Know? Monarch butterflies travel up to 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) from Mexico to the central California coast for the winter.
The Borderlands of Texas
Photograph by Derek Solis, My ShotThe 3,293-foot-high (1,004-meter-high) butte of Cerro Castellan towers over its surroundings in Big Bend National Park, Texas. The butte is also referred to as Castolon Peak because it looks down upon the historic border town of Castolon.
Did You Know? The 1950s movie Giant, starring Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor, was filmed in Marfa, Texas.