I like to have quests. They give me something to look forward to, help keep me motivated, and break the routine of the daily grind. Maybe this idea started when I saw episodes of the animated series Jonny Quest, but the road trip category started in high school, when I began taking road trips to places I could reasonably drive to and back within a day. There were some family trips as well, and I continued driving around Kansas throughout my college days, including some overnight trips and even as part of an assignment (I was a geography major and wrote a lot of papers about Kansas and tourism). Eventually I counted the counties I’d been to and realized I was fairly close to having been to all 105 of them. I resolved to someday get to the rest of them, but this was decided after I had already moved away from Kansas, so the goal has been long to come to fruition. My last “new” county was almost 10 years ago, and there were only four counties left all bunched together in the southwestern part of the state. My chance finally came during the post-Thanksgiving weekend.
As shoppers around the country were throwing punches at each other in true Black Friday fashion, I was heading west in the pre-dawn darkness, but not for doorbuster deals. As the sun emerged to warm up the hazy pewter sky, I was approaching Mushroom Rock State Park, the smallest in the state and my first planned stop of the trip. Even though this park isn’t too far from the main highway, it’s a bit further from I-70 and either way I think not many people are aware of it. What may also be news to some people, most of central and western Kansas used to be part of an inland sea and these formations are just some of many in the state that result from erosion and sedimentation from the receding waters. Meandering around the toadstool-like chunks of rock in the crisp morning air set the mood for the trip.
Logistics: Mushroom Rock
The tiny park includes rock formations on either side of the road, some of which are the tall mushroom-shaped pillars that give the park its name, and others are rotund balls of layered rock called concretions. Unfortunately there have been generations of initials carved into the stems of the rocks, but their curious beauty remains intact. Be sure to cross the footbridge on the south side of the road to get to the other section of the park. A lone park bench sits atop the hill on the north side, and a flushless toilet facility exists adjacent to the road. Hours are during daylight, but there are no entrance gates or personnel. I didn’t see any road signs from the highway, so be sure to set your GPS in advance (WiFi is equally scarce). The site is south of the near ghost town of Carneiro in Ellsworth County. Bonus spots not visited on this trip: Fort Harker Museum in nearby Kanopolis and the off-the-beaten-track Faris Caves.
The wind nearly knocked me over at the state historical site of Pawnee Rock. One of many stops I made along the old Santa Fe Trail, it was historically important for Native Americans as a lookout for bison or potential enemies approaching as well as a pitstop for settlers heading west along the trail. Looking out over the vast plains from the mound of rock, I could imagine being a weary settler stopping for a break on my journey west, the endless landscape stretching before me as a metaphor for what the future may hold. I pictured buffalo herds grazing in the distance, and hundreds of rickety wagons on similar journeys into the unknown.
Logistics: Pawnee Rock
The park is on top of a hill just north of the small town of the same name. From Highway 56/156, once you enter Pawnee Rock town, turn north on Centre Street and continue for about 4-5 blocks. The park is on the left side just past the end of town. The entrance is a one-way loop that takes you to the top of the hill, where you can park. Bring a picnic–there are tables, and an outhouse. Just hope that the wind isn’t going to blow away all of your napkins. The gate is unstaffed, but is locked after dark. Bonus spots not visited on this trip: Cheyenne Bottoms is a natural wildlife area northeast of Great Bend on Highway 156. Fort Larned National Historic Site is west of Larned.
After an unsuccessful lunch stop in Jetmore’s public park where my sandwich was almost carried away by the relentless wind, I ventured off the paved roads for one of my more obscure destinations. I’d been fascinated by the notorious “county seat wars” of Kansas, and one of the classic battles took place in Garfield County. Wait…you can’t find that on the map? That’s because it no longer exists. That’s right, it’s a “ghost county.” And I went to visit two ghost towns in the ghost county. After the county was established in 1887, settlements sprung up and vied for the coveted title of county seat, where the bulk of the money and opportunity would inevitably be concentrated. Ravanna and Eminence were neck and neck, but when Ravanna gained more votes, Eminence challenged the results, claiming voter fraud. Eventually the Supreme Court of Kansas agreed, and the county seat was awarded to Eminence. Ravanna had already built the courthouse and was not going to take that loss lightly. The fight continued, with more accusations and eventually Ravanna decided that if it couldn’t be the county seat, no town would. It petitioned the Supreme Court to disqualify the county itself, as it contained fewer square miles than was officially allowed. In 1893 it was finally annexed to Finney County and the two towns died out.
Some remains of the original Ravanna courthouse and school in a farmer’s field were what drew me to take the dusty roads up to see it, although I got the school and courthouse mixed up. There are some other foundations around that are barely visible. In Eminence, a single farm built up around the old schoolhouse and a nearby cemetery were all that was left to see there. For me, it was the story that drew me to want to visit these places. I could imagine the fierce rivalry and ballot-box stuffing that went on so long ago. In the end, poetic justice won out and only the township name reminds us that there was once a county.
Logistics: Garfield County Ghost Towns
Highway 156 west of Jetmore and east of Garden City will get you to present-day Garfield Township. To get to Ravanna, turn north on the first dirt road west of the junction of Highway 23 and 156, west of Kalvesta (the only inhabited place left in what was Garfield County; their Facebook page has pictures of Ravanna as well). Continue north for about four miles, turn left at the end of the road for a mile, then north again until you reach another perpendicular junction, and you should see crumbling pillars of the school in the field directly ahead. The courthouse and other ruins are to the south, on either side of the road you came in on. There is also a cemetery north of the site if you take the next road to the west. Continuing on to Eminence, head west from Ravanna (I believe it’s Lake Road) until Highway 23, turn left and at the first intersection, turn right. The farmstead with the school building is just before the next road. To get to the cemetery, turn north and then west around the bend, and it’s on the south side of the road, flagpole hoist dinging in the wind. Most of those buried there died very young.
I was eager to get to Kearny County, the first of the final four counties on my list. Of course, it was anticlimactic because there’s not much hoopla to be had from crossing a county line, but it was exciting for me. Soon after making brief stops in Deerfield and Lakin, I detoured off the highway to see another former county seat ghost town. Hartland‘s fate was less dramatic as the Garfield County battles, but it certainly was as unkind. Hardly anything beyond visible ruts of the old Santa Fe Trail and a historical marker summarizing the town’s fate existed. I knew there were some ruins on private property, but with the sun inching its way towards the horizon and certainly no wish to trespass, I headed west along River Road, paralleling the banks of the dry Arkansas River.
The low sun nearly blinded me as I raced westward towards my final few stops for the day and another new county. Although not a ghost town, Kendall seemed on its last legs. There were some grain trucks inching down the gravel street to the elevator, an excited dog, and as I drove out of town, I spotted two possibly feral children running across the lawn of the abandoned school. Turning back onto Highway 50/400, the sun was setting over the cemetery hill. I pulled into the Hamilton County seat town of Syracuse just in time for twilight.
Sudden panic and confusion gave way to relief as I called to confirm my check-in and realized my phone had not automatically changed the time zone to Mountain. With the extra hour at my disposal, I decided I deserved a drink at the local pub. Contrary to its reputation in the late 1800s, there were few watering holes in western Kansas, but I’d researched this in advance and found the Black Bison Pub. With its rustic etched logo on the back of the bench, I found a cozy booth at the back and settled in for a relaxing evening. I ordered the “small” KC strip steak and with an endless salad bar and baked potato, I had to walk around town a bit before waddling back to the truck for the final 15 miles to Coolidge where I would stay the night.
Friday night today in Coolidge pales in comparison to what its legendary twin Trail City—known for limitless debauchery, trigger-happy cowboys, and occasional nude prostitutes on horseback—would have exhibited in the late 1880s. However, for a village of less than 100 souls, Coolidge boasts a restaurant, the “Cousin Eddie Visitors Center” named after the notorious character in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, a soon-to-be-restored opera house, and the Trail City Bed & Breakfast, where I would be resting my weary head that night.
Looking up at the curved façade of the bed & breakfast, I could almost picture it as a saloon. It had been moved from Trail City following its demise, and tonight was backlit by a full moon and the silhouette of a stationery windmill. The bed called to me with its crisp linens and down pillows, a portable heater toasting the room against the chill settling over the town. I woke up with the sun and took a stroll around the frost-covered town. An occasional car or semi whizzed down the highway, and the grain elevator was already starting its busy day, but otherwise the tranquility blanketing Coolidge was palpable.
I thoroughly enjoyed the hearty breakfast of French toast, scrambled eggs, and potatoes, and a couple mugs of coffee, single-handedly prepared by the hostess. Chatting her up yielded a free gift of a booklet her mother had written about Trail City, endearing me to this place even more. Time was still of the essence, since I’d end up losing an hour heading back eastward, and I made my way west across the Colorado line to Holly, south through another ghost town called Lycan and back to Kansas, the Central Time Zone and my third new county. Saunders is less of a town and really a locale with a grain elevator on the state line, but it was my entry point into Stanton County. I stopped at the rest of the county’s populated places: Manter, Johnson City, and Big Bow before entering my fourth and final county, Grant. and its towns of Ulysses (delicious coffee at Bear Creek), Hickok, and Ryus. I continued on to Newton with a few requisite stops along the way, but most places I had already been. I enjoyed kicking back with some friends who lived in the area and anticipated an interesting return trip with the impending snowstorm predicted for Sunday. It appeared that my plans to visit the Hutchinson salt mines and other sites on the way home would have to be postponed for another trip.
In drastic comparison to the first two days’ weather, Day Three began with the threat of an oncoming blizzard. The initial forecast downplayed the impact it would have on Newton as well as the amount of snow expected, so I had planned to just leave in the afternoon. However, the situation had changed by morning and I received a call in the morning from my worried aunt that it had already started snowing there and was windy. My decision to leave then was prudent, although it would have been much more fortuitous had I left several hours earlier. What should have been a two-hour drive turned into a 4.5-hour sludge through blowing and drifting snow and slow traffic. I fishtailed on the interstate and hit a small pole near the shoulder, which ended up saving me from going off of the road and getting stranded. The remainder of the drive was just tediously slow, with wipers that had to be deiced by cranking the heat up to an unreasonable level and constantly adjusting the speed. I pulled into a quiet and messy looking downtown Saint Marys and was happy to relax for the rest of the day.
While I didn’t have any breathtaking discoveries on this trip, I consider it wildly successful and would happily do it again (sans blizzard, please). In fact, I hardly did these places justice having traveled so far to just drive through them so rapidly, but I did stop at each place and made sure to capture a moment, albeit small, that I can encapsulate as part of my larger quest to visit each town in Kansas. But I’ll have to save that for maybe the next decade.
Logistics: Kearny, Hamilton, Stanton, and Grant Counties
Highway 400 runs through Kearny and Hamilton west of Garden City to the Colorado line. Nearly everything of interest is within 10 miles of that highway, including the Kearny County Museum in Lakin, River Road / Hartland / Santa Fe Trail ruts, and the Hamilton County Museum in Syracuse. Highway 160 runs through Stanton and Grant County from Southeastern Colorado to the Haskell County line. Johnson City has a county museum. The Historic Adobe Museum is in Ulysses, which is also the largest town in the four-county area. The townsite of Old Ulysses is commemorated with an iron sculpture on the south side of the highway heading east out of Ulysses. The rusted out ruins of the large Carbon Black plant and its former employee housing development site are just south and east around the bend in the road (Hwy 190) past Ryus. Wagon Bed Springs is south of Ulysses off of Highway 25 along the Cimarron River.