Last Updated on December 21, 2023
To be honest, I’ve grown tired of vacationing in big cities or at busy theme parks with huge crowds and massive traffic. Of course, I still want to find interesting things to do while traveling, and thankfully, many such opportunities exist “off the beaten path.”
On a recent trip to Kansas, I found places even odder than Dorothy discovered wending her way along the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Oz. Short of going to the moon, you won’t find any place less crowded than the southwest corner of Kansas, but it’s home to a fascinating variety of attractions within the 120-mile drive between Dodge City and Coolidge.
Here, I discovered weird Kansas where there’s much more than just plains.
Dodge City is best known as the one-time home of Wyatt Earp, but it has a strong connection to whiskey. In 1872, George M. Hoover tossed a few whiskey barrels into his wagon and rode out five miles beyond the border of Fort Dodge. There, he set up a tent over his makeshift bar – a board atop two posts, and began selling whiskey in what later became known as Dodge City.
There’s a video about this fascinating man at Boot Hill Museum.
Boot Hill Distillery
Boot Hill Distillery continues the tradition of celebrating local spirits. The Distillery sits on top of a mound that was once Boot Hill Cemetery; the graves have since been moved.
The building was originally a school and then government offices, but by 2001, the dilapidated structure was about to be demolished when the distillery came in and renovated it.
On the distillery tour, our guide showed us some of the old places and of course mentioned the ghost believed to haunt the building.
One strange story deals with a cowboy statue in front of the distillery. The statue was created by dentist O.H. Simpson in 1929 as a tribute to the cowboys who helped create Dodge City. Using a live model, Dodge City lawman Joe Sughrue, Simpson literally created the statue by dumping cement over the marshal’s body which almost proved fatal. The straw Sughrue was breathing through got pinched.
Luckily, someone caught it in time and he survived.
The statue’s inscription reads, “On the ashes of my campfire, this city is built.”
Boot Hill Museum
Boot Hill Museum is filled with fascinating stories and interactive exhibits about the city’s early Wild West days. One interesting fact deals with the former Gunsmoke characters. Some people may know that fictional Marshal Dillon was loosely based on real-life Wyatt Earp, a Dodge City lawman. Miss Kitty may have been modeled after Dora Hand, a saloon singer in town.
The story goes that Slim Kennedy was trying to kill the mayor after a gunfight they’d had at a local saloon which injured Kennedy. Dora Hand was mistakenly killed at the mayor’s home when Kennedy fired into the bedroom. The mayor was out of town, but Dora was in his bed asleep.
The museum also shares Dora Hand’s life in Dodge City.
One of the most fun parts of visiting the museum is the gunfight performance. Visitors sit on benches overlooking the reconstructed Front Street with Long Branch Saloon and many other historic buildings from the Old West town. A group of cowboys fresh from a cattle drive approach the town.
The marshal and his deputy inform them that no guns are allowed in Dodge City and they need to leave them outside before entering the saloons. Of course, a gunfight ensues, leaving the cowboys and saloon girls dead, and the marshal wounded. The performance was quite realistic.
After the gunfight, I dined and enjoyed a variety show in the newly renovated Great Western Hotel, recently moved from the other side of the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. The variety show featured Miss Kitty and some of her girls performing. It also included “Chalkley Beeson,” owner of real Long Branch Saloon, and several other Dodge City characters.
Miss Kitty’s interaction with the audience makes the show absolutely hilarious.
Syracuse Sand Dunes
I had fun riding a 4-wheel drive vehicle across Syracuse Sand Dunes Park. The 1,300 acres of rolling hills and trackless sand comprise the largest sand dunes park in Kansas and one of the largest in the Midwest.
Besides braving the dunes, camping is available at the park’s RV or primitive sites at Sam’s Pond or near the banks of the Arkansas River. When you stand on the riverbank, you’ll find a monument depicting the northern border of the Independent Republic of Texas.
St. Jacob’s Well
Another place worth braving is a descent down a steep hill in the Big Basin Prairie Reserve to St. Jacob’s Well. According to legend, this bottomless water filled sinkhole just south of Minneola has never been empty. It is said to be inhabited by a ghostly cowboy and blind fish that can snatch you into their watery depths.
Scientists have verified that the well is actually a 60-foot-deep spring and since I didn’t see the cowboy or the fish, I can’t verify those elements of the legend. However, from prehistoric times through early settler days, the well was a favorite watering hole for those traveling west.
Another natural phenomenon you don’t expect to see on the plains of Kansas is Monument Rocks, considered one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas. It’s amazing when you’re driving the flat lands along Highway 83 and suddenly see these gigantic chalk monoliths rising up from the sand.
According to geologists, the monoliths formed about 80 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period when the plains were covered by a vast inland sea. This is a fossil-hunter’s heaven and I found shells similar to what you might find near a beach.
This one of Kansas’ eight wonders is manmade. The Big Well, the world’s largest hand-dug abyss, resides in Greensburg, a town rebuilt after a 2007 tornado nearly wiped it from the map. The massive, 109-foot-deep well with a diameter of 32-feet was dug in 1888, serving as the town’s water supply until 1932.
In 1939, it was opened as a tourist attraction. Visitors can now descend to the base of the well.
The museum surrounding the well tells the story of the tornado leveling 95% of the town and how residents rebuilt using the most sustainable materials available. They salvaged and reused as much of the destroyed homes and buildings as possible, achieving distinction as the most LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings per capita in the U.S. All the electricity in the city is generated by wind energy.
If you visit, don’t miss the 1000-pound Pallasite Meteorite on display here.
Lake Scott State Park
One of the finalists for the Eight Wonders of Kansas is El Cuartelejo Pueblo Ruins, the most northeastern pueblo ruin in the United States, located at Lake Scott State Park. Archaeologists believe the site was in use until around 1727 when it was abandoned. The area’s earliest white settler, Herbert Steele, “discovered” it in the mid-1890s, when he found a slight mound and some irrigation ditches he used for his garden.
I kayaked on lovely Lake Scott which also offers primitive camping, cabins, and RV sites. This is a great place to explore the nature trails next to the site of Punished Woman Fork.
The Fork is where the last Indian battle in Kansas was fought between Cheyenne warriors trying to escape the U.S. Army from exiling them to Oklahoma. The name comes from the cave where the women and children hid during the battle.
Finney County Historical Museum
Finney County Historical Museum isn’t weird in itself and tells the history of the Garden City area of Kansas. But you’ve got to admit seeing the world’s largest hairball right after lunch was more than a little strange.
The “C.J. “Buffalo” Jones: Last of the Plainsmen” exhibit chronicles the life of Garden City’s most flamboyant founding father. Jones began as a buffalo hunter and somewhat untruthfully claimed, “I have killed more buffaloes than any other man ever did.”
Eventually, he saw the error of his ways and began to try to preserve these iconic figures of the West. Jones began gathering buffalo and tried to start a breeding business by cross-breeding cattle with buffalo to produce livestock able to survive the high plains. He called them “cattalo,” but the business failed because the cattalo like the crossbred mule could not reproduce.
He then tried starting a buffalo herd in Yellowstone. Perhaps because of Jones, buffalo are not extinct. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Yellowstone’s first game warden. “Buffalo Bill” Cody called him “King of the Cowboys.”
The museum also includes the historic 1884 Fulton House, Century Pleasant Valley School and an adjoining small zoo.
M. T. Liggett Museum
One of the weirdest folk-art exhibits in the world is M. T. Liggett’s ingeniously incorporated old farm machines, road signs, car parts and railroad equipment into art on his farmland in Mullinville. His work represented “anti-everything.”
Many were political pieces, and it was obvious he hated politicians. He is quoted as saying, “You always got to remember one thing. I can’t insult you unless you let me, and if I piss you off, maybe I’m intending to.”
If you go to Mullinville stop in the small museum and browse his fascinating artwork displayed along the road.
I spent one night in The Trail City Bed and Breakfast that was once a saloon and gambling hall in tiny
Coolidge. According to Lori Lennen, the town mayor and owner of the bed-and-breakfast, Coolidge has a population of only 93 residents. Guests can also stay in charming log cabins.
Lennen additionally owns Cousin Eddie’s Visitor Center and Antique Shop. Yep, that’s the Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Vacation. The movie put Coolidge on the world’s radar when the Griswold family stopped in Coolidge to visit Ellen Griswold’s Cousin Catherine and her eccentric husband, Eddie.
Dining in weird Kansas
I enjoyed some great food on this trip!
Two gems in Wichita include Doo Dah Diner, where I loved their Chicken Fried Steak and eggs, and Sabor Latin Bar and Grill, with their Caribbean Coconut Fried Shrimp served with Cuban Coleslaw and Orange Habanero Sauce.
Garden City offers diverse dining like La Cabana Mexican Grill. Paleteria Tarahumara serves delicious Mexican-style ice cream treats. Poa Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant is the most famous Vietnamese restaurant in Kansas, bringing the taste of Vietnam to Garden City. Try their Stir-Fried Shrimp with Mixed Vegetables.
Also in Garden City, Pinky’s Grilled Cheestro lives up to its name where cheese dishes are delicious and the décor is of course – pink.
Hidden Trail Brewing in Garden City is a fun, family-friendly brewery.
From burgers to steaks, you can’t go wrong at Black Bison Pub in Syracuse. If you happen to drink too much, there’s a bed-and-breakfast located upstairs.
My favorite breakfast on the trip? French Toast at Crazy Mule in Greensburg.
Kansas roads are not yellow brick, but they certainly lead to surprising adventures.