Looking for a taste of the Smoky Hills? We have pulled together ten of our favorite destinations.
Some of these stops are along I-70. If you are just passing through, by all means, take a minute to stop and see what Kansas has to offer. You’ll be glad to get out and stretch your legs!
But this list is far from comprehensive. To see more, drive the dirt roads along your way, and spend a little time in the nearby small towns. Keep your camera handy!
10. Smoky Hills Wind Farm
Driving west on I-70 from Salina, keep your eyes open for wind turbines. This 20,000-acre wind farm is visible a long way off! It can produce almost 250 megawatts of power at peak output, some of which is delivered as far as Springfield, Missouri. There’s something majestic about those white blades slicing the air among the beautiful Smoky Hills scenery.
If you love nature, you will love this state park southeast of Russell. It’s not too far from I-70 and it is rather busy, but wildflowers, animals, and unique rock structures abound, especially at Rocktown Natural Area. Several trails and back roads offer access to the best of the scenery. Keep your eyes out for post rock, used by pioneers in lieu of wooden fence posts. And if you’re the fishing type, cast out a line—Wilson Reservoir is home to state record walleye and striped bass.
8. Castle Rock
About a 20-mile drive from I-70 near the small town of Quinter, Castle Rock is worth a visit. There are few sights stranger than a limestone tower jutting up out of a nearly level field. Castle Rock was once a landmark on the Butterfield Overland Despatch, but its height is gradually being lost to time and weather. This feature, jointly with Monument Rocks (scroll down), is listed as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. Drive carefully—the roads are best tackled in dry weather only.
This museum, 7-1/2 miles north of U.S. Highway 36 near Belleville, is a great way to learn about the former residents of the Smoky Hills. The Republican band of the Pawnee occupied the site of the museum during the late 1700s and possibly again in the 1820s. Interpretive displays will introduce you to the language, beliefs, and daily life of the Pawnee, and a short nature trail will show you around the village.
6. Pawnee Rock
Just north of the town of Pawnee Rock and U.S. Highway 56 is the landmark that gave the town its name. The sandstone bluff was an excellent place for Indians to rendezvous or for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail to survey the landscape. In those days, it was around 150 feet tall, but settlers and railroad builders took large chunks out of it for building material. Today, Pawnee Rock is just over 50 feet tall, and it provides a foundation to a pavilion where visitors can sit and just spend a little time outside.
5. Rock City
How often do you arrive at a geological phenomenon and receive encouragement to climb on the rocks? Just outside of Minneapolis off U.S. Highway 81 is a small park almost covered with sandstone concretions. Many resemble large bowling balls, while others suggest turtles, donuts, mushrooms, and shipwrecks. This destination is one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Geography jointly with Mushroom Rock State Park (scroll down), and is bound to have a spot on any child’s list of favorite places in Kansas.
4. Coronado Heights
Northwest of Lindsborg and not too far from I-135 is a landmark situated in one of the most scenic parts of the Smoky Hills—Coronado Heights. On a hill overlooking the Smoky Hill Valley, the WPA constructed a stone castle to commemorate Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his famous quest for gold. Part of a Spanish coat of mail was found at the remnants of an Indian village just a few miles from the Heights. Coronado Heights is one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Geography.
3. Monument Rocks (Chalk Pyramids)
Almost 30 miles from Oakley off I-70, Monument Rocks have made their way into many a book about Kansas. Together with Castle Rock, they are among the original 8 Wonders of Kansas. Also like Castle Rock, Monument Rocks rise up out of the ground with startling suddenness. The graceful natural arch showcased in this formation, however, makes the site distinctive. Drive carefully, and do not attempt this trip in wet weather.
This tiny park east of Ellsworth displays the quirky side of the Smoky Hills. One look at the unusual shape of the rock formations, and you will see how the park got its name. Besides its geological interest, Mushroom Rock has historical significance, having excited the wonder of Indians, explorers, prospectors, stagecoach drivers, railroad builders, and others throughout the years. A camera is a must at this park, which shares with Rock City the distinction of being on the list of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Geography.
Also east of Ellsworth is a state park that probably best displays the many facets of the Smoky Hills. Whether your interest is plants, animals, rocks, or just outdoor recreation, you will be hard pressed to beat this park for variety. Walk the trails (ideally in dry weather) to see the diverse views. Before you leave the area, pick up a brochure and drive the Kanopolis Lake Legacy Tour to learn more about the history and nature of the area.
Directions, beautiful photos, and more information from the Kansas Geological Survey.
Plan your trip with directions and historical information.
Rock City Park
Learn what to expect at Rock City, as well as how to get there.
More about the history of Coronado Heights. Includes detailed directions.
A little history, along with directions and a map.