If you’ve opted to follow US-50 rather than the Santa Fe Trail tour along US-56, be sure to check out Hutchinson (pop. 42,080), a large and lively city that’s home to the world’s second longest grain elevator (over a half mile long). The town’s old salt mines, some 600 feet below ground, are now used for storage of important archives, including the original negatives of many classic Hollywood films. The mines are open to visitors via the Strataca Kansas Underground Salt Museum (3650 E. Ave. G, 620/662-1425 or 866/755-3450, daily, $19).
Another surprising attraction, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center (1100 N. Plum St., 620/662-2305 or 800/397-0330, daily, $13.50-26 depending on the venue) boasts a great collection of historic air- and spacecraft, including Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules; a Redstone nuclear warhead; and a pair of German V-1 and V-2 rockets, plus two planetarium shows and an IMAX theater.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
The delights of the Flint Hills landscape are pastoral in the extreme, with few roaring waterfalls or towering cliffs to take your breath away or make you pull out the camera, but the unique ecosystem has enough admirers that a section of it was recently set aside as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Located along Hwy-177 about 17 miles south of Council Grove, or 2 miles north of Strong City and US-50, the 11,000-acre preserve protects a large remaining portion of the extensive tallgrass prairie that once covered the Great Plains—most of the present-day Midwest. Native grasses form a naturally insulating sod roof atop the eco-friendly visitors center (620/273-8494, daily) which has exhibits and videos on the natural flora, fauna, and geography of the preserve and the surrounding area. A 1.5-mile nature trail starts here, winding along to the historic one-room Fox Creek Schoolhouse while giving an up-close look at the head-high (or taller) flowering grasses that give the tallgrass prairie its name. Park rangers also guide bus tours of the grassland ecosystem.
The best base for a visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is Cottonwood Falls, two miles south of Strong City and US-50 via Hwy-177. The town boasts the beautiful Chase County Courthouse, the oldest still in use in the state, standing like a French château at the south end of a sleepy Main Street business district. In the business district, you’ll also find a couple of cafés and crafts shops, and the elegant 10-room Grand Central Hotel (215 Broadway, 620/273-6763, $160 and up), which has a fine, subtly Western-themed restaurant.