Why You Should Vacation In That Small Midwestern Town

When deciding to take a vacation, it’s easy to feel the need to go the distance. Fly to Italy, a long road trip to one of the coasts or maybe just a trip to another state. But sometimes, the best vacation is right in our own backyards. Which is why my partner and I decided to make the journey to a small town in western Kansas and why it probably won’t be our last.

The Dining Room at the Teller Room in Oberlin, KS

The Teller Room, Oberlin KS

When I decided to ask my girlfriend if she wanted to drive nearly six hours to the middle of nowhere Kansas, I wasn’t sure what she would say. The reason for the trip was to visit The LandMark Inn located in Oberlin, KS. The only reason I had heard about the bed and breakfast was thanks to my Kansas Public Radio MemberCard. The card offered a discount at the adjoining restaurant, The Teller Room.

After our initial trip was cancelled due to a weekend of freezing weather in March, we opted to change the trip to a date in May. Where, hopefully we’d be able to enjoy warmer weather and we would both be vaccinated from COVID-19. Thankfully, both were true. And we set out on a Friday afternoon to Oberlin, Kansas.

The FS4 Room at The LandMark Inn

Our bedroom at the bed & breakfast

It takes just under six hours to get from Kansas City, MO to Oberlin, KS. For the drive there we decided to take I-70 to 23 Highway. Leaving Kansas City in the mid-afternoon, we made it to Hays by 5:00 pm and were into Oberlin by around 8:00 pm. If you are unfamiliar with driving through western Kansas, some call it boring. But you would be hard pressed to find an area that offers such wide open views and a place where the sky seemingly touches the land.

When we arrived in Oberlin, we were greeted by a classic Kansas community. As someone who grew up in a town with single grocery store and no stoplights, even a town of 1,700 doesn’t feel like a small. But, Oberlin is a small town with a quaint Main Street. Gary, the Inn Keeper, pointed us in the direction of some good eats which ultimately led us to the Re-Load Bar & Grill.

Exploring Oberlin and the Surrounding Area

When thinking about a community in western Kansas, you may be wondering what there is to do. But, Oberlin and the surrounding area have quite a bit to offer. After a delicious breakfast at the Teller Room, we decided to walk around and see what we could find.

Breakfast at The Teller Room

We started our day at a local museum. Specifically, The Last Indian Raid Museum on South Penn. We easily spent a couple of hours at this museum because it covered quite a bit. From a one room schoolhouse to old Commodore computers, there’s a lot to see and read at this museum. Our favorite part was outside, where you were able to explore a variety of old buildings and learn about the history behind them. Those that have an appreciation of Kansas history are sure to enjoy this amenity.

After our time at the museum we spent a bit of time walking around downtown Oberlin. There are a variety of shops to checkout and the area is simply relaxing to be in. Then, we decided to explore the unique environment offered by western Kansas. I’ve written before about spending time in this region of Kansas. And it is a beautiful place to be.

Located under an hour away is the Prairie Dog State Park. As its name suggests, there is a fairly large prairie dog population. But there are also some great walking trails with plenty of informative signage along the way. By far, our favorite part was watching the prairie dogs run around and play together. It is rare to see such a large prairie dog town, and this state park is the place to do it.

Prairie Dog State Park

Prairie Dog State Park is located on Keith Sebelius Lake and is right near Norton, KS. Because of this, we opted to stop by Norton to pick up some lunch and experience a different small town. It is just as worth a visit as Oberlin is.

Sinclair gas station in Norton, KS

The Journey Home

After a couple of days in Oberlin, it was time to head back to Kansas City. But, the journey home would not be without its own adventure. On the way back from Oberlin lies Lebanon, KS. The home of the Geographic Center of the United States, and the Center Chapel. Instead of heading back down to I-70 a short detour on Highway 36 can be taken. Which will lead you to this exciting part of Kansas.

The U.S Center Chapel

The geographical center of the lower 48 states

The point of this trip was to simply take advantage of my KPR MemberCard. But as a native, rural Kansan, I always feel a deep connection to towns like Oberlin. I can’t promise you that same feeling, but I can say that the members of these communities appreciate visitors. And that is something that makes the journey worth it.

Two Scenic Views on Kansas Highways Worth Stopping At

It’s no secret. In the state of Kansas, we have a vast and sprawling system of highways. In fact, as a part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, a portion of I-70 was one of the first completed highways. Needless to say, it is clear that Kansans love their roads. And this love isn’t just limited to Kansas. If you’re from the Midwest, chances are a 10-hour road trip seems like a walk in the park.

A major benefit of taking these long road trips is the ability to get out of the car, and truly take in your surroundings. With plenty of Kansas Historical Markers located throughout the state, as well as scenic views, finding a place to stop and rest while road tripping in Kansas is not a difficult task. And I’ve picked two of my favorite spots that are worth stopping at if you’re in the area.

Bazaar Cattle Pens

If you’ve driven the Kansas Turnpike between Emporia and Wichita, you’ve likely noticed an exit sign for the Bazaar Cattle Pens. What was once used for loading and unloading cattle in the Flint Hills is now a beautiful overlook with access on both sides of Interstate 35. The area is located about 15 miles southwest of Emporia, and will provide you with a beautiful view of the Flint Hills.

When you visit, you can likely expect heavy wind and maybe some cattle. Some say Kansas is where the land meets the sky. And with the expansive view of the Flint Hills you can get at the Bazaar Cattle Pens, you are likely to agree with that sentiment. Parking is plentiful, with space to walk around for different vantage points.

K-177 Overlook

Located about three miles south of Manhattan, KS on K-177, this spot will also give you a unique perspective of the Flint Hills. It overlooks the Kansas River Valley and is on the northeast corner of the Konza Prairie Biological Station. The station is a joint project, and it is one of the largest stretches of land dedicated to the preservation and research of tallgrass prairies. With over 8,600 acres, the Konza Prairie Preserve is something all Kansans should experience.

Whether you are driving to Manhattan, or cruising down I-70, the K-177 Overlook is a stop worth making. The location has benches and a small shelter. Which makes it ideal for a brief snack break, all while taking in the open landscape that Kansas has to offer.

Why You Should Visit the Largest Electric Shovel in the World

Kansas is a state filled with odd quirks and interesting history. Part of that includes a rich legacy of mining in the Southeast region of the state. And while mining in Southeast Kansas is no longer an industry, many of the relics remain. Both in the landscape, and in old mining equipment, like Big Brutus.

What is Big Brutus?

Big Brutus, located near West Mineral, KS is the world’s largest electric shovel. Operating from 1962 to 1974, Big Brutus worked 24 hours a day, moving massive amounts of earth. The shovel stands at 160 feet, or 16 stories, and weighs 11 million pounds. And each bucket load of dirt and rock could fill three railroad cars, allowing access to coal.

When mining operations ceased, it was too expensive to dismantle Big Brutus. So, Big Brutus was simply parked, and it’s been in the same spot ever since.

From Mining Legend to Museum

In 1985, through the hard work of many people, Big Brutus was dedicated as “a Museum and Memorial Dedicated to the Rich Coal Mining History in Southeast Kansas.” And seeing this testament to Kansas history is something that is worthy of consideration.

From the Kansas City area, Big Brutus is roughly a two hour drive. But you will see Big Brutus miles before you arrive, because this machine towers over the plains. The bright orange paint job doesn’t hurt visibility either.

Before you get to Big Brutus itself, you will enter the museum. The building is filled with information, old equipment and exciting pieces of Kansas mining history. As of this posting, masks are required along with social distancing protocol.

Once you check out the museum, you can go outside where you will find Big Brutus and other large mining equipment. This area is self-guided, with plenty of signage explaining different machinery. On a nice day, you could easily spend a few hours exploring everything.

If you’re like me, you prefer to save the best for last. I walk the park, looking for any new equipment that may have been added, before I climb the stairs into Big Brutus. That’s right, visitors are allowed to explore the massive interior of Brutus to experience what it may have been like when the world’s largest electric shovel was fully operational.

Wandering the inside of Big Brutus is truly an awing experience. Everything is on such a large scale, you may find yourself wondering how everything worked. Plaques are located throughout, which give detailed insight into the various jobs that needed to be completed in order to keep Big Brutus functional.

Camping is allowed at the site, with prior reservations. And while it is primitive, I would recommend it. There are a number of other interesting attractions in the area. Including Erie Dinosaur Park, located just about 40 minutes away from Big Brutus in Erie, KS. Plus, how often can you camp with a giant, orange electric shovel nearby?

In addition to the Erie Dinosaur Park, Southeast Kansas is known for fried chicken. And while you’re in the region, I suggest placing an order at Barto’s Idle Hour, some of the best fried chicken in the Pittsburg area.

So, looking to experience a new part of Kansas? A trip to Big Brutus makes for an ideal weekend getaway. When you visit, not only will you get to see an awesome piece of machinery, but you will learn about an era of Kansas history shaped by hard-working individuals and families.

Why Should You Camp at Public Use Areas?

Looking to plan your next camping trip? If so, considering a public use area may be the right call. Public use areas are designated sections of land that are open to the general public. And just an hour away from the greater Kansas City area lies a public use area that is truly worth the trip, Woodridge Public Use Area.

Sitting near Clinton Lake, Woodridge Public Use Area is one of those places that I am constantly suggesting to people when they ask me where to camp. The location offers trails, multiple camp sites and basic amenities. Better yet, it is free to use.

To get to the campground, you will have to drive up a gravel road that does have a steep incline. Be warned, during inclement weather the gravel road can be difficult to navigate. Once you get to the campground, you’ll be greeted by a public restroom and plenty of campsite equipped with fire pits. If you are looking for more isolation, consider hiking down one of the many trails. There are primitive campsites located throughout.

Speaking of trails, that is the main highlight of Woodridge Public Use Area. The George Latham Trail is a 3.9-mile loop that circles the park. The trail features wooded areas, a couple of meadows and also goes alongside the shore of Clinton Lake. The trail is rated as easy, and is great for hiking as well as bird watching. Even if you are not planning to camp, I would suggest making the visit just to experience this well-kept, and interesting trail.

It can be easy to think that you need to drive hours away in order to decompress from city life. But with camping locations such as Woodridge Public Use Area, escaping the hustle and bustle of your daily routine is less than an hour away. Whether you are looking for a multi-day excursion or an overnight camping trip, this campground at Clinton Lake is one to consider.

Exploring Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park

Finding adventure in Kansas is not a difficult task, especially when you consider the 28 State Parks that dot the map. In 2018, a new State Park was opened in western Kansas, but the contents in the park are anything but new. Because Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park contains a Niobrara Chalk formation that was established millions of years ago.

In late July, some friends and I decided to visit this treasure to see a landscape that you may not expect in Kansas. And after a roughly six hour drive with a stop in Hays, KS, we arrived. Because of the length of the road trip, we opted to do a two-night camp at nearby Lake Scott State Park. This park offers a range of amenities, but we decided to keep it simple with a primitive camping site adjacent to the lake.

Not to detract from the beauty of Little Jerusalem, but Lake Scott also offers some awesome views. We were also pleasantly surprised to find a complex systems of trails that provided decent elevation above the camping area. So, shortly after setting up camp we gathered some water, and started to explore the trails that surrounded the lake.

While we hiked roughly a few miles, there were trails on all sides of the lake. Had we chosen to camp on a cooler weekend, we may have been able to explore more. But be advised, on a hot day, shade is hard to come by in this region of Kansas. So plan accordingly with plenty of water and snacks to help with the heat.

When hiking these trails, you may be surprised by some of the terrain. We found the trails to be well-maintained, but there are certainly some steep and rocky areas. So be sure to hike with care, there were a few times where I found myself having to focus on balance more than I expected.

As the sun set, the campground we were at was relatively quiet. There were some groups who were partying but also a fair amount of families. From what we could tell, Lake Scott is a favored fishing location for locals as well. I wish I would have brought along my pole and tackle box!

On our second day at camp, it was time to enter Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, which is roughly 20 minutes from Lake Scott. And to say we were impressed would be an understatement. The formation itself was priorly a part of McGuire Ranch for five generations. And it is astonishing how well-preserved this location is. In order to continue this, hikers are required to follow strict rules, that way the park can remain in pristine condition for more to enjoy.

The rock formations tower nearly 100 feet above the plains. This, combined with the wide-open skies make for a sublime feeling. And needless to say, it made the cross-state drive worth it. With temperatures reaching into the mid-90’s we spent about three hours in the park itself. Various wildlife can be spotted, as can plant life unique to the area. There is also plenty of informative signage throughout the park.

On our final day of camp, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise with some welcomed cloud cover. And on the return home, I believe we all felt a deeper connection to the state of Kansas.

So, should you make the trip to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park? If you are looking for a new side to Kansas, I think so. We are lucky to have public access to a place like this, and once you visit, that is something you are sure to feel as well.

Hiking The Elk River Trail

In terms of outdoor experiences, Kansas has quite a bit to offer. Especially if you are someone interested in camping and hiking. A prime example of this is the Elk River Trail located near Elk River, KS. A 15.3-mile point-to-point trial, the Elk River Trail offers unique landscape, awesome views and more.

In 2020, a friend and I decided to tackle this hiking trail over a two day period, camping roughly seven miles in. We started out early Saturday morning, and were immediately impressed with the upkeep of the trail and how quickly its characteristics changed. While many recommend starting the trail at the east end, we opted to start on the west side near Highway 160, parking another vehicle at the end of the trail.

The beginning of the trail is relatively flat, but as you progress you will find yourself consistently going up and down hills. Overall, the Elk River Trail has an elevation of 977 ft, which makes for some intense hiking for Kansas. In terms of water, a major benefit we found on this trail was the abundance of filterable water. If you plan to hike the Elk River Trail on a hot day, that is something that you are sure to appreciate.

By starting on the west end of the trail, we hiked along the Elk River for about seven miles before setting up camp. The trail starts off in a heavily wooded area with interesting limestone walls throughout. There are plenty of primitive campsite located throughout the trail, making an overnight excursion an easy task.

About ten miles into the trail, you will finally arrive at Elk City Lake. And if you were not impressed by the views prior, you are going to appreciate the atmosphere that this area provides. I suggest taking the final 5 miles slowly, to fully take in your surroundings. Enjoy the landscape and all of the wildlife, especially the waterfowl. After all, that’s the point of this hobby, isn’t it?

If you are interested in The Elk River Trail, check it out on All Trails. The trail is well marked, but it is nice to check your progress on the map.