Far from the wooded areas of eastern Kansas, the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway traverses west-central Kansas in the Smoky Hills. The Smoky Hills provide visitors with the opportunity to view experience the transition from the mixed-grass prairie more like the grass from the Flint Hills from the short-grass prairie of the plains. A variety of native wildflowers, such as red-and-yellow Indian blanket flowers, coneflowers, yucca, and sky-blue pitcher sage dot the area that is named for the hazy, blue-gray appearance at dusk and dawn. For people from central and western parts of Texas, the area also has a striking resemblance to parts of this region (the oil rigs only add to the impression).
In addition to the colorful prairie, travelers along this byway can view the historic windmills and other sites such as Castle Rock, rock outcroppings made of tall chalky limestone formed around 80 million years ago. Historical sites such as Zion Lutheran Church, Wilcox School, and Fort Hays dot the isolated landscape as do scenic locations such as Wildcat Canyon, Castle Rock, and Cedar Bluff State Park.
If you find yourself crossing the heartland along I-70 going west of Hays, Kansas, going towards Denver, Colorado, here is an excellent detour to explore the Smoky Valley of western Kansas. The primary route will take you from I-70, down into the Smoky Valley and back up to Wakeeney. The more adventurous route will also take you deeper into the Smoky Hills off-road near Castle and Monument Rock.
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Smoky Valley Scenic Byway Itinerary
This itinerary assumes that you are traveling west on I-70 between Kansas City (or Hays) going West towards Denver. If you are heading east, just reverse these steps. The total amount of miles is 71, so estimate up to 2 hours for the scenic byway alone. If you want to go exploring on the more adventurous path (to the rocks, for example), estimate up to four hours.
The Simple Directions. If you only want to stay on the Scenic Byway with no detours, follow these steps.
- From I-70, take KS-147 South
- Follow KS-147 South to the Cedar Bluff Park, just to see more of the trail
- Keep following KS-147 S to KS-4 E in Brownell. Head West (take a left)
- Follow KS-4 to Ransom and then take US-283 North toward Wakeeney.
- Once you hit I-70, you’re finished and can continue to Denver!
Now, for the Fun Directions
While heading West I-70, turn south on KS-147 just south of Ogallah, KS.
This limestone church was constructed in 1902 quarried near Threshing Machine Canyon on the Smoky Hill Trail. The steeple was struck by lightning and burned and was never rebuilt, so that adds another interesting feature to this historic church. The church is 7.5 miles south of Ogallah on KS-147.
Cedar Bluff State Park, Ellis, KS 67637
Cedar Bluff State Park and reservoir is named for the 100-foot-tall limestone bluffs that rise along the southern portion of the lake. The northern part of the lake is more developed and provides 350 acres for visitors, while the south part of the lake is more wild and undeveloped. However, its large shade trees and shorelines are beautiful.
From Cedar Bluff State Park, head south on KS-147 S toward Brownell, Kansas and KS-4 E.
Brownell, Kansas is an old small town that only had 29 residents as of the 2010 censuses. It was created as a stop on the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1880. There are no historical sites to see in Brownell, but you do need to turn east in this town toward the city of Ransom. Head west (take a left) onto KS-4.
Heading west on KS-4, you will head into the city of Ransom, Kansas. From there, turn right on US-283 North and head up to the Wilcox School Historic Site outside of town.
One of the few remaining rural schoolhouses in Trego County, the limestone school, was built in 1886. The school closed in 1947 and was used for a variety of community events before being placed on the state and national historic register of historic places.
Zion Lutheran Church & Trego Center (outside of WaKeeney)
The Zion Lutheran Church was formed in 1905 by Volga-German immigrants nine miles south of WaKeeney in an area known as Trego Center. Trego Center used to have a church, cemetery and a general store, but the general store is now abandoned.
From there, continue heading up US-283 North toward Wakeeney.
If you want to put the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway into a historical perspective, I suggest that you top at the Trego County Historical Society Museum. You can view information about the (now abandoned) Trego Center village and see an original one-room schoolhouse on the grounds. Other exhibits include farming and medical practices on the prairie vintage clothing that dates to the early 1800s.
Up for an Adventure? Go off-road after WaKeeney
The following sites are also a great way to go deep into the Smoky Hills and see some stunning, isolated places. Castle Rock, Monument Rock, and the Badlands can be found off I-70 heading west. The sites are on rough roads, however, and are relatively isolated so I would only take them if you have great tires and a couple of hours to spare. You can also head south on 23 to Dodge City, Kansas, to explore more of the Wild West.
El Quartelejo or El Cuartelejo are the archeological remains of the northernmost Indian pueblo and the only known pueblo in Kansas. The remains are tucked into Lake Scott State Park, north of Scott City.
Who says western Kansas is entirely flat? Castle Rock is a large limestone pillar landmark amidst the nearby stunning badlands. The chalk formations are about 11 miles south of I-70 near Quinter, Kansas, and are worth a trip. The structure is fragile, and with the changing climate and environment, it may not last many more years. The badlands areas are also an exciting place to explore, but again, only if you have some spare time and a car or SUV that can go off-road for a bit. Just be careful that you stay on public roads and don’t venture off into any private roads.
Near the Castle Rock Badlands are the Monument Rocks. These 70-foot tall rocks are a series of large chalk formations that are rich in fossils. The stones, a national landmark, are on private land but are open to the public. They are not as isolated as the Castle Rock, and you will see plenty of signs indicating where the rocks can be found. You can also see them off in the distance.
Even further west from Monument Rocks is Wildcat Canyon outside of Wallace, Kansas. Wildcat Canyon is an extensive exposure of chalk that is part of the Niobrara Formation. These chalky shales are an excellent source of finding old fossils, such as fish, sharks, turtles, pterosaurs and other marine vertebrates that lived in the Cretaceous sea. It is surrounded by private land, so don’t be too surprised if an entrance is temporarily blocked off. Just turn around and head back to I-70.
Did you enjoy your western Kansas adventure?