When people think of the Kansas countryside, they often picture scenes from Little House on the Prairie or other shows where people roam through pastures of tall grass and wildflowers dotting the landscape. The Flint Hills of Kansas is a region that typifies this image. Drive about two hours northwest of Topeka and start your tour of the historic junctions that dot the Flint Hills region.
Here’s your bucket list trail from north Kansas to Wichita following the highlights of the Flint Hills. The first group will start on Rte. 243, stay primarily on KS 177 until you hit I35.
Once you’ve driven from Topeka to the start of the trip, the tour should take approximately 210 miles, or 5 hours if you take your time. If you’re tired, you can always spend the night at nearby Wichita or Andover. Better yet, drive back up the hills and stay the night in Manhattan, Kansas.
Want a link to download the Google Map on your phone? Try this one.
2889 23rd Rd, Hanover, KS 66945
The Hollenberg Station was established in 1857 as a store, tavern, and an inn on the Oregon-California Trail and operated as a Pony Express station from 1860 to 1861. A nature trail also connects the visitor center and the historic station where you can view native plants and grasses.
5800 River Pond Rd A, Manhattan, KS 66502
Tuttle Creek Lake is nestled between grassy hills and has four segments that make up the 1,200-acre park. The park is a birders dream, as bald eagles spend the winters nesting in this area as are pelicans and other birds. FYI: search for the park. When you arrive, you can follow the road down to the lake. My smartphone just dropped us off in front of a house and we followed the road out of curiosity to see where it lead. I should have a post called adventures in losing signals.
315 S 3rd St, Manhattan, KS 66502
The Flint Hills Discovery Center is an interactive museum that allows people to explore over 10,000 feet of exhibits and prairie-inspired outdoors plazas. It explores the geology, ecology, and cultural history of the Flint Hills.
The Konza Prairie Biological Station and Nature Trail is a native tallgrass prairie preserve that explores research, conservation, and education. At the highest point of the trail, you can enjoy views of the Flint Hills and the Kansas River Valley. The nature trail is 2.6 miles long, while the Kings Creek Loop is 4.6 miles long and the Godwin Hill Loop is 6.2 miles long. One word of warning: when you drive in, the parking area is fairly small. You cannot pass with your car as it is authorized cars only. I simply walked the trails and took pictures of the flora.
Now we’ll take a short detour off KS 177 a few miles southeast of Manhattan, Kansas. If you like to hike, you can explore the area and find the Deep Creek Waterfall, which is a 60-feet long and 5 feet waterfall. Pillsbury Crossing is a low-water river crossing, so if it has been raining hard, wait to take this exit. Kansas has been in a drought in 2018, unfortunately, so the pass will be low, and the flow at the waterfall will be limited.
As you meander down KS 177, you will pass low ridges blanked with native grasses and few signs of habitation apart from ranch fence lines that dot the road. You will drive along the eastern shore of the Council Grove Lake, which has plenty of turnouts for enjoying the view. Visit the historic town of Council Grove, which was once a supply point along the Santa Fe Trail. The town has 13 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Post Office Oak, a tree that sits on the site from 1828 to 1847 and the building from 1864.
KS-177 Scenic, Cottonwood Falls, KS 66845
The Tallgrass Nature Preserve has nearly 11,000 acres covered by tall grass. The historic buildings are open every day, except for major holidays, and the hiking trails are available year-round. No private vehicles are allowed on the prairie itself, so be prepared to walk if you want to go exploring the preserve.
Erected back in 1873, the Chase County Courthouse is the oldest country courthouse still in use in Kansas and is one of the most recognizable buildings with its steep red roof, intricate ironwork, and clock-tower cupola. The city has five listings on the National Register of Historic Places, including the courthouse, the Cartter Building, Chase County National Bank, Cottonwood River Bridge, and the Samuel N. Wood House.
695 KS-177, Matfield Green, KS 66862
Pioneer Bluffs is an old family farmstead with a farmhouse, restored 1915 barn, and distinctive mile-long limestone fence. You can also hike along Crocker Creek and explore the countryside. On your way to Pioneer Bluffs, drive by Cassoday, Kansas. The grasslands around the area are known as the “Prairie Chicken Capital of the World” due to the endangered prairie chickens annual dance in the area. You most likely won’t see them, but the grasslands make for a beautiful drive.
From Cassoday, let’s curve around to go east on Interstate 35 towards Emporia, Kansas. On mile marker 111 on Interstate 35 about 16 miles southwest of Emporia, you’ll find the Bazaar Cattle Pens and overlook area where you can park and view the hills. This overlook is new, but it provides a safe place for you to stop and see the Flint Hills (and the cattle drive if they are occurring).
After stopping at the Cattle Pens, you are now on I-35, which can take you anywhere you wish to go. Where to next?
Travel time: this road trip takes a good full day if you stop and explore the areas. I would recommend getting a hotel in Emporia or somewhere nearby before heading to your next destination.