Unique Northern Kansas Road Trip Itinerary

Unique Northern Kansas Road Trip Itinerary: Rocks, Ruins, Raids

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Let’s be honest, most people think of Kansas as a no-man’s land. If you find yourself road tripping across the state, you’re likely on your way to somewhere else. Travelers brace themselves for miles upon miles of nothing and commit to gunning it across vast swaths of flat, windy prairie as quickly as possible, eyes and mind fixed on the opposite border so they can make a grateful “we’re not in Kansas anymore” joke.

I’ve taken reluctant journeys like this across the Plains myself, but on my latest road trip from Colorado towards Cahokia in St. Louis and then down the Natchez Trace Parkway, I was determined to make more of an effort to experience what Kansas has to offer. Of course, it turns out I’d been doing the state a disservice all these years.

You’ve likely heard of Little Italy and Chinatown locations across the States, but did you know Kansas is home to “Little Sweden”? What about towering rock formations not unlike those you’d expect to find in Utah or Arizona? How about roadside oddities, including a strange found-art palace in the vein of Bishop Castle in Colorado or Nitt Witt Ridge in California?

Buckle up and head for I-70 or US-40, because this time we’re looking past Kansas City and giving the rest of northern Kansas its due on this west-to-east itinerary. It turns out there are plenty of reasons to take a Kansas road trip – on purpose!

There are additional suggestions sprinkled throughout the post that are not given their own headings in the Table of Contents.

Click the icon in the top left corner of the map to choose additional map layers, such as bison viewing locations in Kansas, free campsites in Kansas, and more road trip stop suggestions in far north or southern Kansas.

Mount Sunflower

Peakbaggers who make an effort to summit the highest natural points in every state will be relieved to find that they can simply drive to Mount Sunflower in Kansas. It sits at 4,039ft, which may sound significant, but the surrounding flatlands look to be about 4,038.5ft in every direction. The state of Kansas gradually rises in elevation from east to west, and sitting at the border with Colorado, “Mount” Sunflower is as far west as you can get.

Mount Sunflower is on private land, but the owners allow visitors. From the Welcome to Kansas sign on US-40 E, you’ll drive on dirt roads for about 13 miles to reach it. In winter, these rutted roads may be slushy from snow; four wheel drive could be useful. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the monument by the tall metal sunflower sculpture surrounded by a fence. There’s also a signpost showing the mileage to faraway places like Stockholm, Sweden, and Bigfork, Montana, and closer destinations like Holcomb, Kansas. Open the mailbox onsite to find a guest logbook where you can write your name and the date, and trade books via the honor system at the “little library” on the picnic table. 

Wheat Jesus Billboard and Giant Van Gogh Easel

Wheat Jesus billboard roadside Kansas

I’m sure the artist who painted the Wheat Jesus billboard in Colby, Kansas did so with sincerity, but it’s made its way onto Roadside America’s list of oddities because it’s endearingly arbitrary. Jesus is pictured emerging from a field of wheat, his expressionless head popping up from the crops as he clutches a single wheat frond in his hand. There is nothing written or advertised on the billboard, and Jesus looks like a ‘70s hippy, or Jared Leto. The intended takeaway is that Jesus says “eat wheat-based products,” I guess? ‘Merica!

If giant paintings are your thing, there is also a reproduction of one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings in a giant easel in Goodland, Kansas, part of Cameron Cross’s Big Easel Project. If you venture this way, you might check out the High Plains Museum in Goodland, too.

Monument Rocks and Other “Chalk Pyramids”

Together, the duo of Monument Rocks and the Castle Rock Badlands make up one entry on the 8 Wonders of Kansas list. I figure Little Jerusalem Badlands, a new Kansas State Park as of 2020, ought to be added to this category for a triple threat.

About 28 miles south of Oakley, Kansas, Monument Rocks flips our commonly held impression of the Great Plains on its head. Erupting out of the ground are towering and unusual arches, buttes, and spires formed of fossil-rich Niobrara Chalk. This location is a photographer’s dream; as you walk around the rock formations, new angles twist into view with every step. 

The chalk beds first became famous in the 19th century for fossils of giant swimming reptiles called mosasaurs and plesiosaurs, gliding pterosaurs, aquatic birds with teeth, 20-foot-long fish, clams up to six feet in diameter, and many types of smaller marine animals.

University of Kansas Geological Survey

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park is only 20 minutes from Monument Rocks, so it’s worth combining both in one trip. It has two designated hiking trails, or you can join a guided tour to get off-trail. The Keystone Gallery museum showcasing local Kansas fossil finds is near both Monument Rock and Little Jerusalem.

Castle Rock is about an hour east of Monument Rocks, or 30 minutes south of Quinter, Kansas. Like at Monument Rocks, exploration is always self-guided. Do not climb on or touch the fragile rock formations! It’s such a shame when something survives millions of years, only to be damaged by one careless tourist.

Monument Rocks and Castle Rock are both on private land, but visitation is free and allowed from sunrise to sunset. Little Jerusalem is a State Park. If you don’t have an annual Kansas State Parks pass, a day pass is $5.

Interested in seeing bison in Kansas? Try Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Lake Scott State Park, or the Big Basin Prairie Preserve Wildlife Area (where nearly 300 Cheyenne camped during the Northern Cheyenne Exodus). Don’t forget to check out the legendary, possibly haunted St. Jacob’s Well in the Little Basin while you’re at it.

El Quartelejo Museum, Pueblo Ruins, and Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

The El Quartelejo Museum and Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection in Scott City, Kansas tells the story of local history through fossil discoveries and Native American, pioneer, and cavalry artifacts. This is a good informational primer before visiting the El Cuartelejo (or Quartelejo) Pueblo Ruins at Scott Lake State Park and the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork National Historic Site just south of the park.

The reconstructed 1600s seven-room pueblo is the northernmost pueblo in the United States. A historical marker notes that “According to Spanish records, Indians from Taos and Picuris Pueblos, fleeing Spanish rule, joined their Apache allies at a place the Spanish called El Cuartelejo…Later Herbert and Eliza Steele owned this property and in 1898 invited scientists to investigate a low mound where they had found artifacts and burned corn.” While you’re in Scott Lake State Park, you can also visit the Steele Homestead Museum.

The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork National Historic Site is where the last skirmish between Native Americans (the Northern Cheyenne) and the United States Army in the state of Kansas took place. Hundreds of Cheyenne, mostly women and children, had escaped the Oklahoma reservation and tried to flee back to their homelands. This push is referred to as the Northern Cheyenne Exodus. They were confronted here at Punished Woman’s Fork by soldiers following Colonel William H. Lewis, who was wounded in the battle and died en route to Fort Wallace (the Fort Wallace Museum is another Kansas road trip stop). 

The Cheyenne were able to slip away into Nebraska after the battle. Some were later captured and imprisoned, but most were able to join up with relatives in Montana. 

Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas

When I set out to visit the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things in Lucas, Kansas (which is sadly only open April-October “most days”), I thought I was going out of my way to see one weird, random museum in the middle of nowhere. Then, on social media one person after another kept DMing me to ask if I had seen the other roadside oddities in Lucas. It turns out there are tons of random weird things in the same middle of nowhere! I wonder why Lucas became a folk art hotbed, often referred to as the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas?

I actually drove past the Garden of Eden by chance and thought about pulling over when I saw the outdoor sculptures, but I was too confused and a bit creeped out. It’s a giant art project built in and around the artist Samuel Perry Dinsmoor’s early 20th century home, and without knowing about it in advance, I wasn’t sure if it was open for tours. It turns out the exterior sculptures are always open to viewing, and interior spaces, including the home and the mausoleum containing the artist’s on-display remains, can be viewed via $9 guided tours with different hours seasonally.

Bowl Plaza is a public restroom in Lucas that local artists elaborately decorated with mosaic patterns made of shells, beads, toys, hubcaps, and other found objects. The door to the restroom looks like a giant open toilet lid, and visitors have to walk across the “toilet bowl” to get inside. The paved walkway is the unspooled bit of a giant toilet paper roll. Check out Scott Jones’ pictures; he’s the one that gave me the heads up about Bowl Plaza when all I knew about Lucas was the World’s Largest Things museum.

Other attractions in Lucas include the Grassroots Art Center, Miller’s Park, Florence Deeble Rock Garden, the World’s Largest Travel Plate, and Switchgrass Art Co-Op

Historic Wolf Hotel Underground Tunnels

The 1894 Historic Wolf Hotel in Ellinwood, Kansas is a unique bed & breakfast and events center that hosts murder mystery dinners and comedy shows, but the main draw is the underground prohibition era bar and tunnel tours. 

“Downstairs, which was part of the underground tunnel system that ran through Ellinwood, was the Drummer’s room and Joe’s Snack Counter. The downstairs changed many times over the years, becoming Weber’s Sample Room, the local library, a gym, and an underground bar and card room.”

Historic Wolf Hotel and Events Center

Tours are $12 and must be reserved in advance. They do not run on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, or most Sundays. Unfortunately, I arrived in the area on a Tuesday and was leaving on a Wednesday, so I didn’t plan well – don’t make the same mistake!

Kansas Motorcycle Museum

The small Kansas Motorcycle Museum near Lindsborg is packed full of bikes from dozens of collectors. I thought it was more informative than other motorcycle museums I’ve visited. Did you know tire rubber is actually white, and they just dye it black so it won’t look so dirty, and because the carbon makes it heavier? How about that the big headlights on the front of vintage motorcycles and cars used to explode because the heat of the lamp combined with the type of metal used basically made it into a torch? That’s why old car garages were built so far from the house.

There is also the St. Francis Motorcycle Museum in the far northwest corner of Kansas, but it would be quite the detour off of the main route we’re taking for this itinerary. On my Google Map above, checkmark the “FAR north Kansas” or “Southern Kansas” layers for more road trip stop suggestions that are off-route.

Lindsborg aka “Little Sweden”

Lindsborg, Kansas was settled by Swedish immigrants in 1869 and their heritage is still celebrated there today. Some of the most prominent markers of Swedish influence in Lindsborg are the many wooden craft Dala horses that decorate the main shopping street and local porches. Tourists can purchase them as souvenirs and watch them being made at Hemslöjd Swedish Gifts. 

Lindsborg’s main street is lined with other Swedish gift shops like Anderson Butik Scandinavian, art galleries like Small World Gallery (where I found jewelry made out of Swedish coins from the 1630s), and restaurants like Happy Swede Restaurant, Öl Stuga, or Crown and Rye (where the menu features Swedish meatballs!). There are two highly-rated coffee shops, which I found impressive for such a small town – get your caffeine fix at White Peacock or Blacksmith Coffee Shop and Roastery. Blacksmith is located inside an actual restored blacksmith shop, where an antique wagon has been converted into an espresso bar and patrons can still see the original forge and anvil. The adorable Rosberg House Bed & Breakfast is just off main street, but there are a lot of hotels to choose from in Lindsborg.

My favorite sights in Lindsborg were the Lindsborg Old Mill & Swedish Heritage Museum and Coronado Heights Castle

The Heritage Museum has four separate attractions, including an artifact museum with information about Swedish immigrants in America, the restored old mill that highlights the importance of flour production for this pioneering community in the late 1800s and early 1900s, an 1870 homestead cabin, and “Heritage Park,” a collection of historic buildings including the 1904 World’s Fair Swedish Pavilion. A $10 general admission ticket gets you into all four.

While driving around Lindsborg I saw a Cantilever Barn similar to the one I’d seen in Cade’s Cove in the Smoky Mountains. This stood out to me because I remember learning that this architectural style came from German, Irish, and Swedish settlers.

In 1936, Coronado Heights “Castle” was built atop a 300 foot peak outside of Lindsborg after evidence of early Spanish exploration was found there, including chain mail from Spanish armor. It’s thought that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado looked out over the prairie from this elevated natural point. There is no fee to visit the peaceful picnic area or to go inside the castle to climb the steps up to the viewing platform.

If you can, try to time your visit to Lindsborg with Våffeldagen, their celebration of waffles! Lindsborg Våffeldagen is held every March. Lindsborg also hosts a Midsummer’s Festival in June, a Smoky Valley Classic Car Show in August, Svensk Hyllningsfest every other October (odd years only), and other events year-around. 

Rock City Park and Mushroom Rock State Park

Rock City Park in Minneapolis, Kansas features over 200 massive spherical boulders that oddly rest atop a grassy plain as if accidentally dropped there. They remind me of the “cracked eggs” at Bisti Badlands in New Mexico.

Visitors are allowed to climb and jump all over the rocks, unlike at Monument Rocks, Castle Rock, or Little Jerusalem. Entrance is $3/adult at the gift shop.

Mushroom Rock State Park is another similar, but smaller 5 acre park in Marquette, Kansas near Kanopolis Lake that also has interesting spherical Dakota formations. Entrance to Mushroom Park is free.

Oz Museum

The Oz Museum in Wamego, Kansas is an easy detour on the way to Topeka, so it’s a bit of a “why not?” stop. That said, unless you’re really a huge Wizard of Oz fan, you may not find it worth the $10 admission. A lot of the exhibits are about the success and marketing of the books and the film, looking at the cultural impact of the Wizard of Oz. There are first editions of books, vintage toys and posters, and costumes worn by some of the side characters on display, but there are not many artifacts or costumes related to Judy Garland or the other lead actors from the 1939 movie. I did enjoy a hand painted storyboard created by the MGM team and a prop weapon from the film that was loaded with flowers instead of bullets. 

While you’re in Wamego, don’t forget to walk down the Yellow Brick Road across the street from the Oz Museum to check out some murals and statues related to the movie.

The Lessman Farm and Truckhenge

“If you see a guy in a knit cap wandering around setting fires, that’s the artist.”

That was how Linda described her husband Ron Lessman when she gave me the rundown on what to expect while exploring the grounds of their home in Topeka, Kansas. I was sold on the site long before that, though. Upon entering their driveway, visitors are instructed by a stop sign to wait and honk in order to beckon the owner to come out and greet you. While I waited, two peacocks ambled across the driveway in front of me.

Linda appeared on a raised platform porch above my head and explained how the Lessmans stuck it to the man by turning their vintage trucks into art instead of getting rid of what the county considered to be junk. Over the years they’ve expanded their art park by adding a “boathenge” and other curiosities. The property also has a shooting range, a 30 acre fishing pond, and, based on the giant plywood signs with arrows pointing to “Hip-Hop” this way and “EDM” that way, has functioned as a festival ground.

You can either drive the path or park and walk; I opted to walk so I could better take in all the little details. Entrance to Truckhenge is free, but an ice cream carton hanging down from the porch on a string serves as a receptacle for donations.

If you haven’t gotten “strange and unusual” out of your system yet at Truckhenge, as you arrive in Lawrence keep an eye out for The Museum of Odd.

Watkins Community Museum

Thirty minutes east of Topeka is Lawrence, Kansas, best known as the massacre site of Quantrill’s Raid. On August 21, 1863 during the Civil War, a Confederate guerrilla group led by William Quantrill rode into Lawrence and killed over 150 unarmed men and boys while burning the town to the ground. This was the culmination of ongoing conflicts related to “Bleeding Kansas” or the “Border War” between free-staters in Kansas and pro-slavery Missourians.

My great-great-great grandfather was murdered in Quantrill’s Raid. His name is listed amongst the victims in this newspaper clipping from 1863. His widow wrote an eyewitness account of the raid for The Westport Historical Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1 in 1965, which my family has a copy of. Read her story in the photos above. If her young children had not been saved, particularly little Eddie, I wouldn’t be here today.

The Watkins Community Museum in Lawrence, Kansas has a lot of information about Quantrill’s Raiders and the Civil War, as well as the Territorial days and the struggle for equality during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement. Admission is free and the museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

If you continue just over the state border into Missouri, you can visit the Jesse James Birthplace Museum as well as Jesse James’ gravesite in Kearney, MO. It’s possible the notorious outlaw’s brother and fellow James-Younger gang member Frank James was one of Quantrill’s guerillas on the day of the Lawrence Massacre.

Bonus: Southern Kansas and Northern Oklahoma

The Big Well Museum

If you find yourself routing southward at any point during your Kansas road trip, you probably have your heart set on visiting Dodge City in honor of Gunsmoke and Wyatt Earp. If that’s the case, be sure to check out The Big Well Museum in Greensburg, Kansas too! It’s such a cool stop that I can’t help but throw in the suggestion, despite it not quite fitting with the rest of the itinerary geographically.

Other road trip stops in Southern Kansas, such as the Dalton Gang bank robbery site, are listed on the Google map above.

If you need more Kansas road trip ideas, research stops along the Western Vistas Historic Byway, Smoky Hill Trail, Butterfield Overland Trail, Post Rock Scenic Byway, Land and Sky Scenic Byway, and Prairie Trail Scenic Byway.

Upended Truck

About an hour south of Wichita, Kansas and just over the state border in Tonkawa, Oklahoma is one of my favorite roadside attractions in the country, the Upended Truck. This 18-wheeler was somehow turned vertically upwards to stand on its nose as an advertisement for Wilkins Oklahoma Truck Supply. There’s not much to do here besides look at it, but for some reason this spot really captures my heart and imagination. Maybe it’s my tenuous grasp on the concept of gravity?

Across the street is a must-stop: Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pies. I remember it fondly because many years ago when I was sporting a full vagabond look, I sat in the car for a second before I went in. When I finally stepped inside the cashiers told me the prior customer had paid for my pie! They said they noticed my license plate and that I looked like a traveler (translation: I looked dirty and homeless). The pie was great and then as I went to leave, the cashier offered me $20. I tried to politely refuse but she insisted. Southern hospitality isn’t dead, but maybe they thought my future was.

If you’re headed into Tulsa from here (and thus through Stillwater – do you think the fake band from Almost Famous is named after this town?), my favorite thing to do in Tulsa is visit The Gathering Place and its Cabinet of Wonder.


Considering my ancestors are from Kansas, I really should have given it a fair shake from the outset. A northern Kansas road trip is full of strange and unusual roadside attractions, gorgeous geological wonders, important Native American history, pristine wildlife preservation areas, and countless cultural heritage sites.

Even the desolate miles of seemingly untouched prairie begin to grow on you the longer you spend in Kansas. I couldn’t help but pull over to photograph lonely ruins, or admire distant windmills illuminated by the sunset. Sometimes the things we think we’ll dislike about a place end up making the biggest impression.

If you’re headed into Missouri from here, I’ve written about Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, MO and the Native American earth mound city of Cahokia near St. Louis. If you’re headed south, check out my road trip itinerary for the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. If you completed my Kansas itinerary backwards and ended up Colorado, you might enjoy my guides to Colorado Springs, Twin Lakes, or Leadville.

Related:

Secret Kansas City A Guide to the Weird Wonderful and Obscure
Secret Kansas City: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure
The Vincent in the Barn: Great Stories of Motorcycle Archaeology
The Vincent in the Barn: Great Stories of Motorcycle Archaeology
Nils Olsson Hemslojd Ab Traditional Wooden Swedish Dala Horse
Nils Olsson Hemslojd Ab Traditional Wooden Swedish Dala Horse – Red 5″
The Wizard of Oz movie
The Wizard of Oz movie
Kansas Bucket List Adventure Guide Explore 100 Offbeat Destinations You Must Visit
Kansas Bucket List Adventure Guide: Explore 100 Offbeat Destinations You Must Visit!
Hidden History of Kansas
Hidden History of Kansas

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