You know what surprised me most about my Kansas road trip? The abundance of Sonic Drive-Ins. They were everywhere.
I had assumed most of Kansas was way too rural to support such iconic fast food establishments, but they kept popping up during my road trip around the state in late March.
I also wasn’t expecting to see funky college towns and fascinating museums, but it’s the Sonics that really caught me off guard. (Of course I stopped in for some onion rings and milkshakes. So much for eating healthy while traveling.)
The week-long Great Plains trek throughout Kansas and Oklahoma was my first real road trip in a while. Those may not be the most common states for a road trip, but that’s exactly why I wanted to go!
It was great to get back on the road and head through tiny towns and seek out quirky and unusual sights.
My Kansas Road Trip Route
This was a short road trip focusing on three of the state’s biggest cities, all located in the eastern side of the state: Lawrence, Topeka, and Wichita.
There are certainly lots of interesting small-town spots to see if you travel throughout the entire state. But on this particular occasion, I stuck with this section of Kansas.
The route for this trip was almost exactly 200 miles and three hours of driving. It’s a quick and easy drive.
I suggest giving yourself 1-2 days in each city to have time to dig in to the activities and attractions of each location.
Start of the Road Trip: Visiting Both Kansas City cities
So I began this Kansas road trip in Missouri. That sounds weird, I know. I spent a couple days checking out the points of interest in Kansas City, Missouri.
Highlights there included the Toy & Miniatures Museum, the world’s largest shuttlecocks, the National Airline History Museum, and the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th & Vine District.
And then I walked from my Airbnb right into Kansas City, Kansas. If you’re confused, there are two Kansas City cities. The one in Missouri is bigger – that’s the one which is home to the Chiefs football team.
But Kansas City, Kansas is a big city in its own right, with more than 150,000 residents. It’s one of the only spots in the U.S. where you can walk directly from one urban area across a state line into another.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to linger in Kansas City, Kansas. But if you have a chance to stay here, consider visiting spots like the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail, the Cider Hill Family Orchard, and the Kansas Speedway.
Lawrence, Home of the Jayhawks
The next stop on the Kansas road trip was Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas Jayhawks.
Lawrence is a typical university town with bars, music clubs, and lots of touristy stores selling university clothing and memorabilia.
The bars and restaurants seemed cool. Kansas City is only an hour away, so that’s evidently where students go to see the bigger concerts, but the cooler, smaller indie shows happen right in Lawrence.
Two odd stores worth noting: An Urban Outfitters inside an old theater, and a cupcake shop called Billy Vanilly.
Snow from a late-season storm remained on the ground as I headed toward Topeka, stopping only to take in this historical marker about the Kansa Indians.
Like most stories regarding the treatment of Native American tribes, this one isn’t very uplifting.
Topeka Highlights: Capitol, Rainbow House
From Lawrence, it was on to Topeka, which allowed me to add another state capitol building to my tally. This one was undergoing heavy construction.
At this point, I’ve seen so many state capitol buildings (about half), that seeing all 50 has become a goal. I don’t even have a particular affinity for these structures; but now that I’ve come this far, I feel I must see them all.
Stopping at the Westboro Baptist Church was a must. Not because of the church itself, which is well known for spewing hate, but because of the house across the street that was painted in rainbow colors.
Known as the Equality House, the home serves as a stark contrast to the notorious church.
Snowpeople for equality!
Brown vs Board of Education Site
From the site of a modern-day civil rights clash, I moved on to one of the most important historic civil rights sites in the U.S., the former Monroe Elementary School, one of four schools in Topeka black children were allowed to attend in the 1950s.
Monroe is now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, which documents the case that finally led to the end of legal school segregation with the immortal words, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Immediately upon entering the facility, visitors are hit with a sobering reminder of the history with the “white” and “colored” signs.
The displays inside included video presentations, clips from old newspaper coverage of the Brown decision, and analysis of how Brown changed American history.
There was also an exhibit featuring famous protest songs from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.
You can feel the history in the building. Because of its historic significance, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site was easily the highlight of the first leg of the road trip.
The Kansas Road Trip Continues: Wichita
After cruising through Lawrence and Topeka to begin my Kansas road trip, I moved along to Wichita, Kansas, all the while humming the Soul Coughing track “True Dreams of Wichita.”
First stop was the Museum of World Treasures, which houses one of the most bizarre collections I’ve ever seen, just in terms of scope.
Imagine a world history museum, natural sciences museum, archaeology museum and sports museum all rolled into one. That’s how you get a piece of the Berlin Wall, ancient Egyptian mummies, and George Foreman’s boxing glove on display in the same facility.
For someone like me, who enjoys such a wide range of topics, the museum’s collections were interesting. But I could see a lot of visitors being flummoxed by the seeming lack of focus.
Here’s another example: The random placement of General George Custer’s underwear next to a bison skull. Both of these items are fairly ridiculous, but placing them together in the same display case is accidental genius.
Other highlights included Marilyn Monroe’s purse and fossilized dinosaur poop (not together in the same case, unfortunately.) Suffice it to say that I walked out of there thinking, WTF was that?
Before leaving Wichita, I had to check out the Keeper of the Plains, a 44-foot tall statue along the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers that honors Native Americans.
Wikipedia says it’s one of the top 30 highest free-standing statues in the country, and the cool thing about the Keeper of the Plains is that every night, the statue is illuminated with fire pits.
As the dozens of geese and ducks hanging around started to close in around me so tightly that I feared becoming trapped inside a waterfowl mosh pit, I decided to move on to the next attraction.
After its closing, Joyland became a somewhat popular destination for urban adventurists who like spending time in abandoned buildings.
I got to see the old Joyland sign and some forgotten wooden coaster tracks. It was so strange seeing them completely abandoned.
For some incredible footage from the inside of Joyland, check out the compelling No Joy video on Vimeo.
In the years after my visit, the abandoned Joyland park was hit with vandalism, fires, and damage. Eventually, the carousel and parking lot sign were taken down and donated. Other remaining structures were demolished.
So these days, there isn’t much left of Joyland. You can ride past the old location if you like, but sadly, you won’t see the old rides that I saw on my road trip.
This was a brief Kansas road trip, but it was a lot of fun. There’s another interesting spot I recommend visiting in Kansas, although it’s quite off the path of this road trip: The exact center of the continental United States.
You can find that marker in the town of Lebanon, Kansas, in the north central part of the state, up near Nebraska.
Do you have any more suggestions to add to a Kansas road trip itinerary?