From covered wagons and Civil War battlegrounds to the Old West and Bison, this drive along the Kansas prairie marches along the Santa Fe trail. Lanesfield Historic Site, for example, sits alongside the rocky Dilly road, an original stretch of the Santa Fe trail. In some spots, such as at Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve, you can still see the grooves of the wagon wheels on the hillside before descending into the tallgrass prairie. The trail linked Independence, Missouri, with Santa Fe, New Mexico. During the peak year in 1866, the traffic along the trail had upwards of 5,000 wagons rumbling along the route. This scenic drive will take you from the outskirts of bustling Kansas City to the more Old West-town of Dodge City.
How long? One way is 388 miles or around 8 hours, with stops. It’s the stops that get you—some of these roads twist and turn, and you’ll wind up in some Kansas prairie wandering if you took a wrong turn. (Or a train, lots of trains crisscross this route). Dodge City has plenty of hotels, so it can be simpler to book a hotel there or in Wichita. If you want to only go to Dodge City, you can use I-35 to Highway 50 in Newton, KS and follow it into Dodge City. That takes about 5 hours.
When to go? April through October are great months in which to go. The weather changes quickly, so be sure to check it out before you hit the roads. Winter months can bring lots of snow and ice, so be careful.
This itinerary will start in Olathe, Kansas (or Kansas City, Missouri, which is just up the road on I-35).
Once a bustling stagecoach shop, the Mahaffie Farmstead is the only working stop left on the Santa Fe Trail. The stop is 19th-century living history museum and farm with historical reenactments and era-specific activities. Daily activities can vary from stagecoach rides, living history programming, and a variety of livestock that live on the farm. During Wild West Days, you can visit cowboy camps, hear from Buffalo Soldiers, and take a stagecoach ride.
- Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead (13800 Switzer Rd, Overland Park, KS 66221) has farm animals, gardens, a natural trail, and a full-scale one-room schoolhouse.
- Olathe Prairie Center (26325 W 135th St, Olathe, KS 66061) is a nearby 300-acre tallgrass preserve and education site with trails that wind through the remaining prairie and riparian woodlands.
- Walnut Grove One-Room School (11800 S. Pflumm Road, Olathe, KS 66062 or simply 119th and Pflumm) was established in 1878 in Olathe, Kansas, and in use as a school until 1951.
Note: You’ll turn down Dillie Road, which is part of the original Santa Fe Trail. I think the rocks may be original, as the street is entirely unpaved. As you curve around the bend, the first entrance to the right is to the KP&L Electrical Service. The actual entry into the Lanesfield Historic Site is a little hidden, so think of it as the first right after the KP&L transformer entrance road.
Built in 1869, The limestone Lanesfield Historic Site is the only standing structure from Lanesfield, Kansas. The schoolhouse operated from 1869 to 1963 and is part of the site which also includes four outbuildings and a modern visitors center. Lanesfield served as a mail stop on the Santa Fe Trail and has a marker on the site. Adjacent to the site is a short nature trail with an observation tower that provides a birds-eye view of the 1858 pre-Civil War battle between the Free-State Kansans and the Missouri Border Ruffians.
Note: You’ll be driving down some rocky, uneven roads during this part of the trip. (I guess it’s one way to stay authentic to the Santa Fe trail spirit). Just be sure to go slow and ignore the “uneven road” signs that your car flashes at you (or was that just me?). When you get back on the paved road, you’ll turn right and head down toward Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve.
The actual parking and entrance to the preserve itself are before the rocky road that leads to the Black Jack Battlefield Park. It looks like a rest stop on the left-hand side of the street. However, there are two markers, a circular drive (where you park) and then you walk across a bridge on to the preserve. It can be easy to miss, primarily if you are relying on signs.
Located near Baldwin in south Douglas country, the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve is a relaxing place in the Kansas prairie with wildflowers and narrow swathes of grass that mark the wagon tracks of the old Santa Fe trail. The preserve is adjacent to Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park, which commemorates the pre-Civil War (1856) battle of Black Jack that happened as a result of the Pottawatomie Massacre. In the prairie grass, you can also find an old marker that reads “SURVEY 1825,” a monument erected to honor the Santa Fe Trail and its earlier travelers.
Note: Cell phone service is very spotty in this area, especially in the Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park. I wouldn’t recommend this leg of the trip at any point after dark. (Not because it’s in a dangerous area per se but because it’s isolated and there are no phone signals or road lights).
Council Grove, Kansas
In the rugged, open grassland of the Flint Hills, rests the town of Council Grove, which played a major role in the growth of the Santa Fe Trail. Visitors can take a twenty-one-site historical tour of the town and its Santa Fe Trail sites. The U.S. government signed a treaty with Osage chiefs in 1825 that granted safe passage through the Native American lands. Twenty-five years later, the Kaw Mission is where 30 Kaw boys lived and attended school from 1851 to 1854. The group lived here until the U.S. government removed them to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Kaw Nation still exists as a sovereign, self-governing nation with administrative headquarters in Kaw City, Oklahoma.
Allegawaho Heritage Memorial Park (Dunlap Road and X Avenue, Council Grove, KS 66846) is an outdoor attraction every June during Washunga Days in Council Grove and is considered sacred land by the Kanza people.
Nestled in the Cottonwood River Valley, the Marion Reservoir is surrounded by a network of hiking trails that wander among wildflowers, hardwoods, and water sports. West of Marion, the drive heads into the Mennonite community of Hillsboro. One of the four museums in Hillsboro is the Pioneer Adobe House, built in 1876. Constructed of air-dried adobe bricks, the house was made of local prairie materials and is furnished with articles and displays related to pioneer life. The Kreutziger School House (508 Memorial Dr., Hillsboro, KS 67063) is a one-room schoolhouse that started in 1886 and operated in 1960. You can also view a replication of an original gristmill called the Friesen Dutch Windmill from 1876, that was reconstructed using authentic materials and construction materials.
2565 Pueblo Rd, Canton, KS 67428
Home to one of the few surviving wild buffalo herds, the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge protects about 200 bison that wander 2,200 acres. The herd used to be comprised of some 60 to 75 million bison that roamed the prairies and shared the land with the wagons that roamed along the Santa Fe Trail. A tour costs around $10 for adults and $5 for children under eleven.
Built in 1893, this historic three-story limestone courthouse has a square central bell and a clock tower that rises to 105 feet. The clock was constructed in 1908. Nearby is the McPherson Operate House (219 S. Main Street, McPherson, KS 67460), which held its first performance in 1889. The building also later served as a cultural center for performances, suffrage meetings, movies, political rallies, retail shops, and apartments.
Leaving McPherson, Highway 56 trail descends into many people’s vision of the Kansas landscape. Turning south onto Route 14 toward Sterling, open countryside is dotted with clusters of cottonwoods. The Quivira National Wildlife Refuge is a 22,000-acre home of more than 250 species of birds and includes inland salt marsh and sand prairie. It’s an oasis of the Great Plains and is the transition zone of the eastern and western prairies. What is a sand prairie? They’re sand dunes covered with prairie grass, with elements of the eastern tallgrass prairie and the western short-grass prairie.
The Santa Fe Trail and Research Center is in Learned, which has exhibits that depict how central Kansas was impacted by the effect of westward expansion and the Santa Fe Trail. Here you’ll find authentic displays of prehistoric Native American artifacts, antique furniture, trade items from the Santa Fe trail, and other artifacts that impacted the region. You can also find over 7,000 historical photographs of people and historic sites from the 19th and century 20th century.
Established in 1859 to garrison troops policing the Santa Fe Trail, the stone and sandstone buildings of Fort Larned National Historic Site have a visitor center, heritage gardens, and educational programs. Fort Larned was also the site of the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867. In 2019, the Fort is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Buffalo Soldiers.
Dodge City, Kansas
Dodge City was once called nicknames like the “Wickedest Little City in America” and “Queen of the Cowtowns.” Where Wyatt Earp once worked as assistant city marshal and Bat Masterson once served as under-sheriff after raising a little trouble himself. Named after nearby Fort Dodge, the city once operated as a significant trading post on the Santa Fe Trail as well as a wild frontier town with saloons and old-time dance halls. From the Dodge City War of 1883 to the Long Branch Saloon, Dodge City was a true frontier settlement of the old west.
Today, you can still view those glory days with lively, interactive museums at the Boot Hill Museum. Over 60,000 objects, photographs, and documents from the 1870s through the 1920s can be found at the museum. Several historic buildings have also been moved onto the property, such as the 1865 Fort Dodge Jail, 1879 Hardesty House, 1870s Blacksmith Shop, 1903 Santa Fe Locomotive, a 1930 Santa Fe Depot from Sitka, Kansas, and an early Union Church that had Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson as deacons. Other places to see in Dodge City include:
- Mueller-Schmidt House Home of Stone (112 E Vine St, Dodge City, KS 67801), an 1882 limestone residence that is filled with period antiques.
- Historic Santa Fe Depot (201 E Wyatt Earp Blvd, Dodge City, KS 67801), is a local theater venue that was constructed from 1898 19th-century passenger train station and Fred Harvey Hotel.
- The Santa Fe Trail Rut Site (Highway 50/400, Dodge City, KS 67801) is a site in the gently rolling hills of the Kansas plains with ruts from the wagons that rolled along the Santa Fe Trail. They can be found 9 miles west of Dodge City.
Going back, you’ll take Highway 50 east until you hit I-35. Follow I-35 back up to Olathe/Kansas City area or head south down to Wichita.
Finally, What to Pack?
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