Wrapping up our three-week sojourn in Kansas

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Scissor-tailed flycatcher

As of this writing we have already departed Kansas.  I got behind on my blogging, because for the first time we used up our monthly data allocation on our Verizon plan.  I’ve been surviving on campground WiFi service, but that’s what I get for downloading a huge Mac OS upgrade and eating up all of our data!

We are on our last stretch out of Kansas, inching toward the northeast corner of the state and making our final stop at Sabetha.  As if to remind us again that Kansas is not all flat, our GPS, “Randy”, took the fastest route to our campground and we darn near got stuck in the mud on a hilly dirt road that had been rained on the night before.  What was Randy thinking?  With no traffic in either direction we unhooked the car so I could search for our campground while Steve recovered from the experience of sliding sideways down a hill in a 17-ton motorhome.


Hey, that road doesn’t look too bad, does it? Wrong!

Fortunately the campground was only a mile away, and the owner had spotted us and came over to escort us to our spot.  Steve was very skeptical when the owner guided us into our site, but he drove in and Betsy immediately sank into the mud!  Well, with the rear tires sunk 3 inches we were perfectly level, so we put out the slides and decided to worry about it later.  We were actually laughing about the whole thing, and Steve came up with:

You might be in Kansas if…your campground host says, “Hey, looks like you’re stuck there, I’ll go fetch a tractor and pull you out.”

And that’s exactly what he did when we left 3 days later, as you’ll see below.

The campground turned out to be quiet and beautiful, but a bit crowded over the weekend (Steve’s review is here).  It’s certainly one we’ll remember!


Better times as the sun comes out and the ground dries

We ventured out of the campground and walked up a dirt road to see if there was anything interesting around.  Steve stopped on a bridge and was excited to see a beaver swimming along Pony creek.


On the way up the hill, we spotted a lone deer walking on the road:


The top of the hill rewarded us with a vista of rolling countryside covered with cornfields and occasional dense forest.

Sabetha, Kansas

Sabetha, Kansas

The campground is behind those trees to the right

When Steve left me behind, this beautiful Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flew up and perched on a wire.  It just made my day – this bird has been on my watch list since Dauphin Island in Alabama!

Scissor-tailed flycatcher

Check out that long forked black and white tail!

Back at the campground we enjoyed a non-stop symphony of birds singing and male cicadas serenading the females.  Their buzzing and clicking noises, amplified by the thousands, turned into an overpowering hum.  It got me curious, so I went searching for them in the grasses.


Cicada checking me out

When we weren’t exploring we just sat outside amidst the humming of the cicadas.  It was during these moments that we looked back and contemplated all of our experiences here in Kansas.  We felt fortunate to have seen parts of the state that many travelers never do.  We’ve met friendly people here, visited inspiring natural hidden treasures and experienced historical and educational places.

The state has a sampler of things to do, called the 8 Wonders of Kansas.  It’s meant to help the world get to know the state and to encourage the public to explore it.  We were happy to learn that we had experienced 3 of the 8 wonders, and if you missed our posts they are the Monument Rocks, the Underground Salt Museum, and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Some other wonders of Kansas are architectural and art related; we admired the architecture of the Chase County Courthouse, and the Keeper of the Plains statue in Wichita.  We also enjoyed the John Steuart Curry Murals at the state capitol.  He was a famous Kansas artist whose depiction of abolitionist John Brown was seen as too fierce, as he depicted him holding a bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry

Tragic Prelude – interpretation of John Brown and the anti-slavery movement in the Kansas territory

The Keeper of the Plains sculpture in Wichita  honors the region’s original citizens and has become a symbol of Wichita.

Keeper of the Plains

Keeper of the Plains – Wichita

The five-ton sculpture was placed at the confluence of the Little and Big Arkansas Rivers, which is considered a sacred site by Native Americans and was home to the Wichita tribe for many years.

Keeper of the Plains

Little and Big Arkansas Rivers converge

There were other uncommon structures that we saw along the byways:

Grains elevator in Hutchinson, Kansas

1/2 mile long, this grain elevator is the second largest in the world – Hutchinson

Welcome to Emporia

Porta-potty welcome sign – hey, we’ll do some “business” here!

We still can’t believe we spent three weeks exploring Kansas.  And it sure helped that we didn’t hear a single tornado warning siren!  We won’t complain about the heat and humidity, it’s just a fact of life here.  Our initial plan of making 2 stops morphed into 6 great discovery stops.  So, next time you’re traveling through Kansas, get off that featureless interstate and discover the unexpected pleasures of the state!


Divided regions of Kansas, according to physical geology.  Our stops are marked by the yellow stars

OK, back to our drama of leaving the park.  Even after 3 days of sunshine, Betsy was just too deeply rutted to get out by herself.  True to his his word, the owner got one of his tractors and made quick work of pulling us back onto terra firma.

We’re used to getting helped into our site, but this was the first time we had help getting out!


This tractor had no problem pulling us out

We noticed a lot of very noisy pickup trucks while in Kansas, so Steve wanted to share one other observation:

You might be in Kansas if…the luxury model pickups are the ones that come with an exhaust system!


…and off we went to continue the adventure!

Up next:  Heading into the Cornhusker State!

Of buildings and architectural beauty – Topeka, KS

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Looking down from the balcony
Eastern Bluebird

Eastern bluebird with his snack

From the tall grass prairie we moved closer to civilization and made Lawrence, Kansas our next home base.  The ongoing heat and humidity caused us to limit our outdoor activities somewhat.  We toured a university and the state capitol, enjoyed some Kansas-style barbecue and briefly crossed state borders into Missouri.

Lawrence, Kansas

The University of Kansas, Lawrence campus is located high atop Mount Oread, which earned it the nickname “The Hill”.  Founded in 1865, this major public research and teaching institution is home to 26,000 students.  The University of Kansas (KU) is a public research university.

Fraser Hall

Fraser Hall – KU’s landmark academic building

I learned here that the mascot is the Jayhawk, and the mythical bird with big yellow shoes got its name from the pre-Civil War border wars between abolitionist Kansas (Jayhawkers) and pro-slavery Missouri (Bushwhackers).

Jayhawk, KU mascot

Who has the best pose, the tourist or the Jayhawk?

The university is host to several museums, including the University Natural History Museum.

The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum- of limestone blocks

Kansas University

Beautiful architecture of the Natural History Museum

While at Lawrence, we managed to squeeze in an early-morning hike at nearby Clinton Lake State Park before the heat came on.  Things got off to an exciting start as we encountered two snakes within the first moments of entering the trail.  We were beginning to think this wasn’t going to work out, but there were were no further scaly encounters although we walked through a lot of spider webs, being first on the trail.

Copperhead Snake

Steve nearly stepped on this venomous Copperhead!

Clinton State Park

Using my “web whip” to clear any webs that Steve missed

Clinton State Park

Warding off a swarm of dragonflies

Independence, Missouri

The following day we drove across the state border into Independence, Missouri to visit the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.  We were disappointed to see a “closed” sign upon our arrival, and were told some sort of environmental issue had just occurred.  So instead we watched a short movie about the 33rd President at the Visitor Center, then viewed his home from the outside (tours of the home were booked for the day).

Truman’s hometown legacy was ever-present on the streets of Independence, where his silhouette sporting a hat and cane adorned the street signs.


As we were driving around town, something gleaming on the skyline caught our attention – a twisting silver spire peaking out above the trees.  We drove to it and learned that it is the Community of Christ Temple.  It was one of the most unusual landmarks we’ve seen – the temple supports a ceiling shaped like a nautilus seashell.  We wanted go inside for a look, but it was still closed that morning.  Wow, we were really striking out today!

Community of Christ Temple

Community of Christ temple spire

Community of Christ Temple

Open , open, open!

To salvage the day, we headed back into Kansas City for some finger-licking good barbecue.  Of course, there are hundreds of barbecue joints here, but we wanted to sample a delicacy known as the “burnt ends”.  We shared a burnt ends sandwich and a more traditional pulled pork sandwich.

But my favorite is beef ribs, and this place didn’t have them.  So, off we went to another place known for its beef ribs, and we got an order to go for dinner.  And ohh it was delicious!  I have no pictures because I didn’t want to get barbecue sauce on my camera.

Topeka, Kansas

On another day we drove to the state capital of Kansas to tour the magnificent capitol building.   Taking both the Statehouse Tour and the Dome Tour helped bring life to the story of the construction and architectural history of the place.  From floor to floor we heard colorful Kansas history, and took notice of the array of dramatic art and sculpture.  There are so many beautiful facets to this building that I have far too many pictures to fit in this post 🙂

Kansas State Capitol 1887

Construction of the capitol took 37 years, costing $3.2 million.  It was completed in 1903

The Statehouse Tour covered the first 3 floors of the building.  The recent major renovation to restore it back to its 20th century appearance occurred between 1999-2014, costing $332 million (10 times the original cost for the whole place).

Kansas State Capitol

The lobby, built of local limestone blocks, feels like a catacomb

Notable Kansans who made a significant impact on the state and the nation had a separate hallway near the lobby.

Kansas State Capitol

More copper than we’ve ever seen in one place, including these massive columns that support the dome

Kansas State Capitol

Allegorical murals on the ceiling and pink columns in the state House of Representatives

Kansas State Capitol

Skyward view from the center of the rotunda, looking at the dome chandelier

Kansas State Capitol

The ornate Senate Chamber – decked out in cherry wood, bronze and copper columns

Kansas State Capitol

A mural depicts typical Kansas symbols – a hereford bull, wheat fields, a grain elevator and cornfields

Kansas State Capitol

Bronze balusters

The Dome Tour was an exciting climb to the top, walking along the inner and outer domes connected by a series of stairs and landings.  We scaled the 296 steps, with stops along the way to admire the elaborate architecture.

Kansas State Capitol inner dome

The top of the inner dome has a platform with a winch that lowers the chandelier for maintenance

Kansas State Capitol

Those spiral stairs at the top lead to the outside of the outer dome, and fresh air. It was very hot in here near the top

Dome Tour

Topeka, Kansas

View of Topeka from the cupola balcony of the dome

The statue at the top of the dome is of a Kanza Indian warrior aiming an arrow at the North Star. It is named “Ad Astra”, taken from the state motto – Ad Astra per Aspera – meaning “to the stars through difficulties.”

Cupola balcony, Kansas State Capitol

Ad Astra sculpture at the top of dome – 300 feet up!

Kansas State Capitol

The capitol building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971

Kansas State Capitol

The workers who worked on the original building in 1888.  Hey, where are your hardhats?

Kansas State Capitol

The restoration crew – ok, that’s more like it!

The narratives from both tours and the historic pictures, beautiful murals and relevant artifacts gave us a good glimpse of Kansas’ past.  These are absolute “must do” tours if you’re ever in the Topeka area, and they’re free – as is the parking under the capitol!

I intended this to be my final post about Kansas, but it got so long that I have to stop here and do one more final installment.


Next up:  Wrapping up our three-week Kansas sojourn.

Hiking the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – Strong City, Kansas

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We were alerted to a heat advisory on the day we decided to visit and hike at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  We had only a short time on this stop, so we slathered on the sunscreen and bug protection after getting up for an early start.   We checked out the Visitor Center after our hike, so we could cool down from the heat and humidity.  There were no shade trees on this trek, just pure wide-open space!

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

It was not until recently that the tall grass prairie ecosystem has been represented in the National Park System.  Today, a portion of this rare landscape covering 10,894 acres has been set aside and dedicated to the rich natural and cultural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.  We were happy to be here to enjoy it for ourselves.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

There are some 40 miles of trails to follow here, but we took the modest Scenic Overlook trail which ended at the overlook – about 3.2 miles one way.  The trail was classified as backcountry, but it was actually a gravel road that the park tour buses can travel.  Fortunately, the tours for that day were cancelled so we didn’t have to hike in dust from the buses.  In fact, we saw only 3-4 other folks during our entire hike!  This trail was mostly flat with some very gradual hills.


At first glance the prairie may look empty and lifeless.  As we continued to meander on this lonely road, I realized that the beauty here is subtle and not in your face – especially since the grass isn’t super-tall yet.  Given a good spring and summer growing season, it will grow to an impressive eight feet or higher by fall.  I’d love to come back and see the waving sea of grass at that time!

Four species of grasses dominate here, Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass and Switch Grass.  These grasses account for about 80% of the total plant life, but only around 20% of the area’s total plant species are found in the Flint Hills.


Some of the grasses are already almost as tall as me, but they have a long way to grow

Eastern Gamma Grass

Eastern Gamma Grass

I took time to stop, listen and look closely while Steve was well on his way to getting his exercise.  I could hear and feel the breeze blowing across the open landscape.  The Dickcissels and the Eastern Meadowlarks were competing for my attention as they sang their hearts out from their grassy perches.  And yes, there were lots of them!

The annual prescribed burn happened just two months ago, but we couldn’t even tell as the prairie was already bursting with colors and new grasses covering the chert.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Although we were cautioned about possibly encountering Bison along the way, we only saw a few groups of happy cows grazing and trying to get as fat as possible during their two-month stay.


Hey, get up and eat you lazy cows!

There were millions of insects lurking in and flying around the prairie grasses.  Butterflies fluttered around flowers, dragonflies ate mosquitoes and grasshoppers hopped on wildflower petals.  I couldn’t resist snapping a few pictures of them for posterity, but was careful to keep my distance to avoid any further episodes with chiggers.  I learned that there are about 10 million insects per acre in the prairie, wow!  Here are a few of them:


Not to be outdone, a Texas Horned Lizard stepped out onto the road to strike a pose:


Our stop at the Visitor’s Center revealed that in addition to telling the story of the heartland, they also described the geology of the Flint Hills and the cultural history of the area.  Another display contained an example of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, while an exhibit of the different grass species at their full height during autumn helped me visualize what the prairie would look like then.

Tallgrass display

Next door to the Visitor’s Center is the historic ranch house, barn and outbuildings originally owned by cattleman Stephen F. Jones.  The majority of the land which now comprises Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was originally the property of the Spring Hill Ranch.

Spring Hill Barn

Spring Hill Ranch and barn

The barn was built in the 1880’s of hand-cut locally quarried limestone, costing a whopping $15,000. It remains one of the largest historic limestone barns in Kansas at 60 feet wide by 110 feet long.  It contains approximately 19,000 square feet of floor space over its three levels.

Spring Hill Ranch

A few yards away is Mr. Jones’ impressive ranch house, completed in 1881.  The grand four-level structure forms the centerpiece of the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch.  The eleven room ranch house cost $25,000 to build, and Mr. Jones found an abundant supply of limestone on his ranch for it.  In fact, he had enough stone to add over 30 miles of stone fencing!  This stone fencing, which we saw during our hike, actually ended open-range ranching.

Spring Hill Ranch

The house stands as a beautiful example of French Second Empire architecture, a style popular in the late 19th century

After a year and a half of restoration and preservation work, Spring Hill Ranch has been reopened for self-guided tours.  Inside can be found woodwork with faux walnut paint finishes, and much of the hardware on the doors and windows is original. Even a lot of the crown moulding has survived the harsh weather.  Restoration work continues on the house and ranch, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in February 1997.


Each of the site’s historic structures, exhibits, hiking trails, ranch tours and wide-open vistas of tallgrass prairie helped us to experience the natural and cultural history of the preserve, and the Flint Hills in general.  And it was all free!

Check another one off my bucket list!


Next up:  Buildings and architectural beauty – Topeka, KS


Exploring the Flint Hills – Strong City, KS

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My mom gave me a book titled “America the Beautiful”, and one of the intriguing places marked on the map that I really wanted to visit was the Flint Hills of Kansas. Our earlier route planning did not include this stop, as we had thought our drive through Kansas would be quick.  But I was glad that we were able to include this interesting area, which runs north to south in the heart of of the state and spills into Oklahoma.

Flint Hills, Kansas

The tall grass prairie used to cover 170 million acres of North America, but most of it was developed and plowed under during the past couple of centuries.  Today, less than 4% of the original tall grass remains, and much of it is here in the Flint Hills.  The region’s sweeping native prairie grassland remains as the last great preserved area of tall grass in the country.  To find out more, we first drove the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, then visited the Tallgrass National Preserve and hiked the Overlook Scenic Trail.

Flint Hills

We learned some notable facts about the tall grass prairie –

  • The underlying rock strata of the Flint Hills are from the Permian Age (299-251 million years ago).  The layers of limestone have numerous nodules of chert (flint) within them, giving the area its name.  It was Zebulon Pike, the explorer and surveyor, who coined the term “Flint Hills” in reference to these rugged, rocky stair-stepped hills.
  • Because of the presence of flint under the topsoil throughout the hills, the ground is impossible to plow.  As a result, the Flint Hills region remains as the largest unplowed remnant of tall grass prairie in the world, suitable for ranching rather than farming.

Flint Hills

  • We might think it’s just grass and weeds, but the tall grass prairie is actually an endangered ecosystem.  On November 12, 1996, legislation created the 10,894 acre Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve to protect a small part of a once vast tall grass prairie ecosystem.



  • Each spring the Flint Hills go up in smoke when ranchers burn the prairie, a practice dating back to the earliest human occupation of the Great Plains.  Fire controls invasive plants because their shallow roots are damaged by its intense heat.  Native grasses, on the other hand, are protected because of their deep root systems (up to 12 feet long in some cases).  In short, fire is vital to a healthy prairie ecosystem.


  • After the burn, the hills quickly recover and turn a wonderful vibrant green with splashes of purple, yellow, pink and white or orange wildflowers.


Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly Milkweed



Showy evening primrose

Showy evening primrose

  • From May to July the Flint Hills are visited by thousands of four-legged tourists.  Herds of cattle are brought here from as far away as Texas to graze on the new green shoots. This grazing activity serves to stimulate tall grass prairie to grow stronger, which in turn helps to preserve it.  The cattle are rarely moved during their 100-120 day stay, which maximizes their weight gain – up to 2 pounds per day!  You’ve heard that happy cows are from California?  Not all of them!
Flint Hills

Ready – set – graze!

  • Fall is the best time to see the tall grass when it’s really tall – up to 8-12 feet tall!  In this region are mostlybigandlittlebluestem grass, switch grass, and Indian grass.  Trees are rare, usually seen along streams and river bottoms.

    Chase County Grass artwork

    A display of tall grass

2015-06-21-KS-1100371We drove the north-south Flint Hills National Scenic Byway along highway 177.  It stretches 47.2 miles across the Flint Hills between Council Grove and Cassoday.  We made several stops at historical places and buildings along the way.

One stop was at the Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls.  It was built in 1873 from native Flint Hills limestone that was quarried and hand-cut right here.

Chase County Courthouse

Some early roads and streets in Kansas were made of brick, and they have such a cool look

Chase County Courthouse

It cost $40,000 to build the courthouse in 1873, and it was placed on the National Historic Register in 1971

The moment we stepped inside, our attention was grabbed by the original three-story black walnut staircase.

Chase County Courthouse Staircase

This is the oldest operating county courthouse in Kansas, and the courtroom had a beautiful embossed tin ceiling.  But the most interesting feature, and the one that really brought a smile to Steve’s face, was the jail.  He was totally excited to see how everything worked in this old place.  What a find!

Chase County Courthouse Jail


But I’m innocent! Really I am! Oh well, what’s for dinner?

Continuing down the Scenic Byway, we traveled over the hills for more panoramic views of the ranches in the area.  According to the locals these endless vistas have remained unchanged for thousands of years, and a variety of people, plants and wildlife call the Flint Hills home.


Next we stopped at the north end of the byway, in the town of Council Grove.  It received its name on August 10, 1825, when several U.S. Commissioners met with chiefs of the Great and Little Osage Indian tribes beneath a tree later named the “Council Oak”.  They signed the first treaty establishing the right-of-way for the famed Santa Fe Trail.


Council Grove was once a bustling point of rendezvous on the Santa Fe Trail.


Council Grove, Kansas

Taking a break on quiet Main Street in Council Grove

The open sky, open land and unobstructed vistas can give one the perception of the Flint Hills as nothing but lots of cattle fodder with copious views.  For me, having seen and experienced everything here as it’s been for eons, I think maybe Dorothy had a pretty good thing going before she was swept away!



Next up:  Hiking at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve


Taking life with a grain of salt – Hutchinson, KS

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Well, we somehow managed to get out of Dodge without facing any gunfights on the streets, although Steve was afraid there might be a little gunplay with me after his moment with the saloon girl.  But it all worked out, and down the road we went to Halstead, Kansas!

We find underground activities to be fun and educational.  Be it in caves to admire formations, or in a subterranean river or in copper or gold mines, we always jump at a chance to learn and be amazed by these kinds of excursions.


Surrounded by walls of salt!

In Hutchinson, known as “Salt City,”  a portion of the Hutchinson Salt Mine was opened to the public several years ago to tell the salt story in the form of an underground museum.  Salt was found here accidentally in 1887, when folks drilling for oil to increase land sales discovered salt instead.  The salt bed  beneath the plains is approximately 400 feet thick and stretches 150 miles by 200 miles, containing something like 30 trillion tons of salt.



Strataca, formerly known as the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, is located 650′ beneath the plains of Kansas.  It exists within the active Hutchinson Salt Company mine, which began operation in 1923 as Carey Salt Company.  There are over a dozen salt mines in the U.S., but only here is access given to the public – and they brag about it.  We were intrigued by this unique experience and paid for two additional tours – the Dark Ride and the Safari Shuttle – in addition to seeing the museum and taking a short tram ride.

Strataca double decker hoist

Waiting for our ride to the bottom

Our trek to the museum 650′ below began with a ride on a double-decker hoist and was a pitch-black descent.  For anyone with claustrophobia, the 90-second ride down in the dark is more than enough reason to skip this adventure (they will turn on a small light if you insist).  When we arrived at the bottom we noticed how different this tour was from others we had taken.

The first thing we noticed as the docent was telling us the rules of the mine was that something resembling snow was falling all around us.  He explained that it was “salt hair”, tiny tufts of salt that fall off the ceiling only happens when the hoist arrives at the bottom of the mine during humid months.  The humidity brought down the shaft moistens little patches of salt and it falls as fine flakes from the ceiling.  It stops falling after a few minutes, then the process starts again when the next hoist arrives.  Cool!

We learned that this mine implements the “room and pillar” mining method, where salt is removed in a checkerboard pattern.  This creates uniform large square open areas that alternate with square pillars of un-mined material 40′ thick, left intact to support the ceiling over the corridors and rooms.


Totally cool place, and I mean cool – it was almost 90º outside, but it remains a constant 68º down here!


The Narrows – this section was blasted out in 2004 to connect the mined areas with the lift shaft

Most of the ceiling was as flat as the prairies above.  We did not feel closed in, as the area looked a lot like a dimly lit parking garage – quiet and with plenty of room to roam about.


Main gallery with a museum area, and of course a gift shop

We wandered through the galleries that tell the story of salt mining and the geological history of the area.  We learned how these vast salt caverns under Hutchinson are also used to store over seven million documents and items for companies requiring safe, long-term storage at a constant temperature and humidity.


Learning about the mining equipment that has been used through the years

We read that once in a while pure salt crystals are found in the mine.  These are formed when fresh water intrudes, then subsequently the salt and sediment liquefy.  This process forces the heavier sediments to settle, leaving pure salt behind.  The salt crystals are usually mined along with the rest of the material, but the chunk below was saved as a display.


The only salt we were allowed to touch – a 6,000 pound crystal beauty found in 2004

Salt Stripes at Strataca

The mine walls (this one is in the women’s restroom) are well-defined horizontal lines of salt intermixed with sediment

The salt mine has a natural temperature of 70°F while the average relative humidity remains an ideal 45%.  What a great place to store valuable documents!  In a secured area within the mine is the storage facility for Underground Vaults and Storage, a company that offers 1,660,000 sq. ft. of storage for millions of items.  Access is obviously restricted, but a display showed what it looks like.  The docent told us that the master prints for Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and thousands of other Hollywood films are stored there.

Underground Vault and Storage

Underground Vault and Storage display

After perusing the various displays, we took the brand-new hour-long Safari Shuttle ride, followed by the 1/2 hour Dark Ride.  The Safari Shuttle took us into areas that were mined some 55 years ago, and left virtually untouched since then.  With flashlights they supplied, we went through a maze of chambers beyond the museum area to learn many more interesting facts about the mining environment.

We saw trash, abandoned dynamite boxes and other artifacts that had been left behind.  “Everything that comes down here, stays down here,” the docent said.  That’s because it’s simply too expensive and labor-intensive to take things back out of the mine.  Every machine here had to be cut into little pieces to come down the 5′ x 4′ hoist, then welded back together in the mine.  Amazing!


Retro-trash left from the 1950’s

Naturally occurring geologic formations were pointed out, such as this salt crystal.  We’re only seeing the mined face of it, but it could be hundreds of feet long.

Unmined salt crystal


A re-assembled and modified underground vehicle.  No doors, windows or roof needed down here!

This life-size photo shows mining inspectors looking at the sagging ceiling and raised floor in a chamber.  Salt is pliable, like plastic, and will slowly sag before it breaks.  Some floors buckle due to the incredible weight of the columns pressing down from all sides.

Kansas Underground Salt Museum

Near the end of our tour we stopped at a pile of salt crystals and got to pick up small salt crystal souvenirs to take home.


“No licking or picking” allowed, except at this little pile

Streetcar Underground Museum

I finally found one I like!

The salt mined here is not for human consumption.  The 500,000 tons mined each year is used for industrial purposes – 70% for de-icing roadways, and the remaining 30% used for tanning cattle hides with large chunks relegated to duty as cattle salt licks.

Kansas Underground salt mine

Piles of rock salt

Camping near Hutchinson (in Halstead) gave us a good opportunity to visit this interesting underground museum.  It’s also a great place to be on a hot day, or if a tornado happens by!  We really enjoyed the experience of learning about salt and how it’s mined.  Who knew there’s a huge salt bed beneath Kansas?


Next up:  The Flint Hills






We’re getting the heck into Dodge!

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Wyatt Earp Sculpture

Dodge City, known as the “Queen of the Cow Towns” and the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” had a reputation as a hostile, lawless town where the “fastest gun” ruled.  It is the source of the idiom “get the hell out of Dodge,” meaning pack it up and move along NOW.  On this stop we were getting “into” Dodge instead.  “Why,” you may wonder?

Dodge City, Kansas

Now, that’s how you announce a city to tourists!

The TV series Gunsmoke was based on life in and around legendary Dodge City, Kansas.  The timeframe was the years between 1872 when the Santa Fe Railroad reached town, and 1885 when local farmers forced the end of the Texas cattle drives along the Western Trail.

Gunsmoke was an extremely popular TV series for many years, and is still in re-runs today. Hubby happens to be a fan of the show and Marshall Matt Dillon.  Since we had a few days to kill and Dodge City wasn’t far out of our way – what the heck!

James Arness of GunSmoke

Steve posed for this shot back in 2012 at Lone Pine, CA

The show opens with U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon drawing down against a gunman in the streets of Dodge City.  Dillon was modeled after the real lawmen who “tamed” this city, one of them being U.S. Deputy Marshall Wyatt Earp (1848-1929).  The series initially ran nine years on radio before being turned into a television series that was broadcast an amazing 20 years and 635 episodes – making it one of the all-time longest running prime-time shows ever.

Pole banner art in Dodge City

Gunfights on the streets of Dodge

Upon our arrival on an overcast and rainy day, we joined an historic trolley tour to learn more about what made Dodge City the wickedest little city in the west.  We heard about the evolution of Dodge from a dusty trail town to a bustling cattle and agricultural oasis in Kansas.

Dodge City Trolley Tour

We really enjoyed the narrated trolley tour. The driver filled in and answered questions between the recorded narrations

The first few years of the town’s existence was marked by a complete disregard for law and order.  During this time Bat Basterson and Wyatt Earp were hired to establish order (on a side note, the same Wyatt Earp and his brothers were involved in what came to be known as the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona – but once again I digress).  Local lawmen such as Earp became legends as they fought to bring law and order to Dodge City.

Wyatt Earp Sculpture

Memorial to local hero Wyatt Earp

We continued on our own walking tour and quickly noticed several custom pole art banners hanging in the downtown area.  These cool banners depict the city’s history, and it’s easy to see what they are trying to convey.

Pole Banner Art in Dodge City

Front Street, where the cowboys hung out

Pole Art banner in Dodge City

Commemorating the railroad in Dodge City

We encountered a Longhorn statue celebrating cattle drovers between 1875 and 1886.  During that time Texas cowboys drove over 4 million longhorn cattle from Texas to Dodge City.  They spent fourteen to sixteen hours a day in the saddle, and for $30 a month drove the cattle 1,500 miles to the Santa Fe Railhead here.  Upon reaching Dodge City, they spent their earnings on liquor, women and card games – the rest, they wasted 🙂

El Capitan monument in Dodge City

The statue El Capitan is a tribute to those longhorn cattle leaders that gave Dodge City its place in history

There were 16 saloons for the men to choose from, and that’s at a time (in 1877) when the city’s population was just over 1,000!  With all of those cowboys in town drinking and gambling, disagreements were usually settled in gunfights.

Next we stopped at the Boot Hill Museum, located next to Dodge’s original Boot Hill Cemetery. We had previously visited another Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona, but this one is the original.  The term refers to the fact that many of its occupants were bad guys who were actually buried with their boots on.  No less than fifteen men were planted on Boot Hill, then eventually removed and reburied in the city’s first official cemetery.


We perused thousands of artifacts and a variety of exhibits portraying the culture of the city’s early years.  The museum included a partial reconstruction of downtown Front Street as it existed in 1875.

Historic Front Street, Dodge City

Boothill Museum

The re-created Front Street

After a western skit that was performed in the Long Branch Saloon, Steve happily posed with the “saloon girl”.

Long Branch Saloon

Steve hasn’t smiled like this since the last time he watched Gunsmoke!  Hey, where’s his right hand?


It would take many hours to read every display in this museum

Today, Dodge City is promoting its western heritage.  Its history has loads of entertainment riches, and the name Dodge City is synonymous with the west.  Hence the lives of their local heroes and its wild history is the basis of the fictional “Gunsmoke,” although we learned that this place was much wilder than was portrayed on the show.

To complete our experience, we even stayed at – where else – Gunsmoke RV Park!  It was actually a nice campground (Steve’s review here), and Steve was happy to discover that our site was located on Miss Kitty Lane 🙂

Gunsmoke RV PArk

Even if you aren’t a fan of Gunsmoke, Dodge City is a fun place to spend a day or two.  The history here, and the way the town presented it, definitely made for a worthwhile stop.


Next up:  Taking life with a grain of salt


Oh we parked our home where the buffalo (bison) roam – Scott City, KS

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A pigmented Bison

While out here in rural Kansas, we had an opportunity to get up close and personal with some magnificent bison.  We learned about a “bison ranch tour” that Duff Ranch offered, just up the road from our home base at Lake Scott State Park (Steve’s review here).  It definitely sounded like something unique and interesting, so we jumped in the car and headed up there one morning.

When we arrived, we got to sit in the back of their flatbed truck so we could get an unimpeded view of the huge bison.  We learned several facts about these animals from Gentry, our rancher/tour guide.  For one, they are often mistakenly referred to as buffaloes.  These imposing specimens are American Bison, symbolic animals of the Great Plains.

Richard Duff

Richard Duff, the boss, with his guest in the front row seat and cameras at the ready!

Once upon a time, bison roamed in massive herds all across the Great Plains of the United States and into Canada.  They were critically important to the Plains Indian tribes as a source of food, clothing and other needed items.  Then, when the Euro-American settlers came onto the scene, they were slaughtered by the millions to intentionally starve the Indians out.

Herd of American Bison

Here’s something we don’t see every day in our travels!

Today, the bison have made a comeback through good management, and approximately 500,000 exist mostly raised as livestock on ranches.  About 30,000 are managed for conservation in private and public herds, in national parks, preserves and tribal lands.  The popular herd in Yellowstone National Park is one of the few that remains genetically free of cattle genes.

Duff Buffalo Ranch

How do you get bison to follow you around?  Easy, just spread some tasty pellets behind the truck as you drive along!

A surprising fact that I learned during the tour was that bison can be raised as livestock – silly me, where did I think that bison ribeye steak I had in Denver came from, somebody spearing it from a running horse on the prairie?  You see, the first time I’d seen these majestic animals was in the wild at Yellowstone NP.


Hey, that’s close enough big girl!

The Duff family has been raising bison since the owner’s grandfather leased about 3,500 acres of land for the herd to graze.  They can roam great distances as they graze, since they don’t require water with the frequency that cattle do.  Bison mainly eat grasses and sedges, but their favorite is Buffalo Grass, a short grass that’s abundant on the prairie.  Gentry told us the average lifespan of these animals is 20-25 years.

Buffalo Grass

Buffalo Grass, the preferred food of the Bison

Buffalo Grass

A close-up of Buffalo Grass

Gentry helped us distinguish the cows (females) from the bulls (males), as both have horns. The cow’s horns curve inward, while the bull’s stick out straighter and have a thicker base.

He also mentioned that in 1994 one of their cows gave birth to a bull with white markings.  DNA testing confirmed that the sire was a bull they had purchased from Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  The test showed no sign of cattle genes, and they have always considered the white coloring to simply be a unique pigmentation.

A pigmented Bison

A descendant of a white pigmented bison

As we drove around the pasture we noticed that the calves were hanging close to their moms. They have a light reddish/brown coat and look more like a regular cow, since they lack the distinctive hump and horns of the adult bison.


This “little” guy stayed close to mama as we went by


After we ran out of snacks for them, the herd pretty much ignored us.  Maybe they knew our one-hour tour was about over?  We were ready to leave anyway, as the mosquitoes were feasting on our arms and legs by then.


Obviously they only work for food!

We were also surprised to learn that although the family sells bison meat to consumers through their website, their main income source is through selling yearlings to people who want to raise their own animals.  In fact, they sell the meat of only 2-3 bison a year.  We bought a couple of their grass-fed bison steaks, and I can tell you it’s probably the most fantastic meat that’s ever come off our barbecue!

Duff Ranch Tour

Gentry points toward the horizon to show Steve how far the bison roam

Duff Ranch

Resting place for one of Mr. Duff’s nephews

Duff Ranch

I came back later that day to capture a sunset over the Duff Ranch

The bison we saw may not be wild, but it was still really cool and a bit scary to be so close to them.  I’m sure glad I didn’t fall off the truck!  This was one of those little side-trips that turned out to be a great way to meet local folks who actually run a large ranch.  We asked a lot of questions and got a feel for what life is like out here on the plains.  What an exciting and interesting morning we had on the ranch!


Next Up:  We’re getting the heck into Dodge!


The Chalk Pyramids – Scott City, KS

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Monument Rocks

We’ve often heard that because of the flatness of the Sunflower State and the monotony of driving through it, it’s best to just breeze through and be done with it.  And the fact that we’re traversing Tornado Alley can produce some anxiety, too.  But like every state in our great nation, there are many things to see and do if you just get off the main routes and look for them.

It’s true that the great western plains of Kansas consist of seemingly endless stretches of flatness, but did you know that the state is actually ranked as the 7th (with Florida being #1) flattest state?  Florida also ranked first in the highest average number of tornadoes per 10,000 square miles – Kansas comes in at #2.

Monument Rocks

The long gravel road to Monument Rocks

Several times we’ve been asked questions such as, “What are you going to do in Kansas”? Heck, we don’t know, but we’re here to find out!  With a constant eye to the sky we’ll be exploring the state for the next 3 weeks or so.  Some suggestions from one of our followers, aptly named Dorothy, will get us started (thank you, Dorothy).  Plus, John and Pam gave us a heads-up about some cool rocks we had to investigate.  With that, and some of our own research, off we go across the 41st state of our adventure!

Outcroppings on Western Kansas

A dramatic outcropping

Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and called “the badlands of Kansas”, is an area of chalk bluffs, chalk flats and chalk pinnacles.  Several outcroppings of these features from the Cretaceous Period, scattered where Niobrara Chalk and Dakota Sandstone are exposed, made for a dramatic display as we approached from the west.


Monument Rocks

Eighty million years ago this region was an open ocean brimming with calcium-shelled microscopic animals (foraminera), giant oysters, sharks, bony fish, and reptiles swimming and flying overhead.

One of the best-known of these formations is the one called Monument Rocks, sometimes referred to as the Chalk Pyramids.  It is officially recognized by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark.  These chalk formations tower above the surrounding prairie, sculpted over hundreds of thousands of years via erosion by the waters of the Smoky Hill River.

Monument Rocks

Tea Kettle rock behind me

Eye of the needle- Monument Rocks

Eye of the needle

Some new-to-me feathered friends were also out there enjoying the badlands, posing and just waiting for me to snap their picture.  So far, birding has been surprisingly good in Kansas!

Keeping its distance, the pronghorn was curious about our presence.


Since Monument Rocks are on private rangeland, we also saw some man-made structures dotting the prairie.  But thanks to the landowners, the rocks are open to the public for closer inspection.

Monument Rocks

We were the only ones around on the morning of our visit, so we had ample time by ourselves to check them out.  We thought these amazing formations were definitely worth the drive!


Next up:  Riding with the bison