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Dotted with historic cow towns and laced with open highways, Kansas is known for its sprawling farms and Americana culture. At first glance, its scenery might seem unchanging: The Great Plains appear to roll on forever here in the heartland, where grassy prairies and golden fields of grain define the landscape in almost every direction. But the Sunflower State reveals its personality in the unexpected details. Along rural highways, road-trippers pull over for oddities like the world’s largest ball of twine and a giant replica of a famous sunflower painting.
Destinations like Dodge City bring the state’s history to life in open-air museums and Old West-themed downtowns. Jazz and barbecue masters put Kansas City — a metro area split between Missouri and Kansas — on the national stage. And the state’s largest city, Wichita, ranks among the cultural hubs of the Midwest, where blocks of stylish warehouses and loads of culinary ambition fill neighborhoods like Old Town. Kansas is the kind of place you get to know best horseback riding on a ranch, driving the backroads, and hanging out with the locals in brewpubs and dive bars.
Kansans, as the locals are known, are a car-dependent bunch. The vast distances from place to place mean driving is certainly the most convenient way to get around the state, especially in its most remote corners. Amtrak trains roll through a half-dozen towns and cities including Topeka, the state capital; Lawrence; and Dodge City. Major airlines service the Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (ICT), the main aviation hub in southern Kansas. For trips to northeast parts of the state, fly into the Kansas City International Airport (MCI), just across the border in neighboring Missouri.
Kansas experiences four distinct seasons, with a humid continental climate. June to August rank as the warmest months — popular times to canoe and kayak the state’s rivers. Keep in mind that summer weather is often unpredictable: Dramatic thunderstorms and tornadoes can arrive with little warning. Weather remains warm through September and October, making fall prime time on hiking trails and at natural sights. With Kansas’ longstanding farming and ranching heritage, many communities host harvest festivals in the fall. Winter tends to be cold and snowy, with much of the state experiencing ice storms and blizzards.
When you spot the Monument Rocks on the horizon, you’ll immediately see why this site was designated as the first of Kansas’ national natural landmarks. Rising as high as 70 feet (21 m), these stone outcroppings stand dramatically against the surrounding shortgrass prairies. The clusters of spires, buttes, and ancient sedimentary formations look like otherworldly fortresses and ancient sculptures made of chalk.
Massachusetts Street is the most happening thoroughfare through downtown Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas and one of the most handsome city centers in the state. Part of the Lawrence Historic District, these compact and pedestrian-friendly blocks are crammed with independent cafés, brewpubs, and noteworthy 19th-century architecture.
Hike scenic trails through sweeping landscapes to discover one of the continent’s rarest ecosystems. Tallgrass prairies once covered much of the Midwest, but only a fraction of this vital — now endangered — habitat remains today. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, established in 1996, conserves a sizable remnant of these mostly forgotten lands. Wildlife lovers and photographers come here to spot the grazing herd of resident bison and explore a historic cattle ranch dating back to the late 1800s.