12 Kansas Road Trips Featuring Painterly Landscapes, Charming Small Towns and Historic Sites
Interstate highways are like hit singles—big sellers with successful formulas that appeal to mainstream audiences. The scenic byways of Kansas are like album cuts—deep tracks underappreciated by the masses yet treasured by connoisseurs. The Sunflower State offers 12 such routes for finding your Midwest summer road trip groove.
Related: The Best Midwest Family Vacations
Flint Hills National Scenic Byway
Follow the paths of Native peoples who lived in the region and settlers who arrived via the Santa Fe Trail. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City shows what Kansas looked like then. In Council Grove, dine at the historic Hays House. And in Cottonwood Falls, see the striking Chase County Courthouse.
Distance: 48 miles
Major towns: Cottonwood Falls, Strong City, Council Grove
Frontier Military Historic Byway
Ten-hut! Built to move soldiers and supplies, this once dusty trail connects Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott National Historic Site. Several towns feature veterans memorials, including at Fort Scott National Cemetery. Dining options far outrank mess halls. (Don't miss the fried chicken in Pittsburg.)
Distance: 168 miles
Major towns: Baxter Springs, Fort Scott, Leavenworth, Pittsburg
Glacial Hills Scenic Byway
When ancient ice masses lost their grip on this region, they left behind rolling hills and rock-strewn valleys. You'll leave having checked off some cool boxes, including a four-state vista in White Cloud, a flavor-packed lineup of global cuisine in Leavenworth, and Amelia Earhart's birthplace, now an eye-opening museum in Atchison. To discover more Atchison treasures, take a trolley tour of the historic town.
Distance: 63 miles
Major tows: Atchison, Leavenworth
Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway
Outdoor rec options (including epic horseback riding) abound on this drive, as do the spirits of pioneers, cattle ranchers and Native Americans. Swim, boat, fish, hike and camp at Coldwater Lake in Coldwater. And see the Medicine Lodge home where bar-bashing Carry Nation lived.
Distance: 42 miles
Major towns: Coldwater, Medicine Lodge
Kansas Historic Route 66 Byway
It's the shortest stretch of Mother Road in any state, but a drive long on landmarks and nostalgia. See the route's last original Marsh arch bridge, a nearly century-old general store and inspiration for the movie Cars. Stop by Cars on the Route to see the boom truck that inspired Tow Mater. Just down the street, Gearhead Curios (in a 1939 gas station) displays a replica of the film's Doc Hudson race car character.
Distance: 13 miles
Major towns: Baxter Springs, Galena, Riverton
Land and Sky Scenic Byway
Cross the Great Western Cattle Trail, "scale" the state's highest point at Mount Sunflower (in the middle of a pasture), and explore the deep canyons and rugged landscape of the Arikaree Breaks. The nation's first agriculture-theme byway also showcases crops and wildlife. Heads up for roadside art too, like a replica van Gogh on an 80-foot easel in Goodland.
Distance: 88 miles
Major towns: Goodland, St. Francis, Sharon Springs
Native Stone Scenic Byway
This route romances the limestone in natural formations and historical buildings, like those in Alma. Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie Park in Wamego is hallowed cultural ground—the site was on the Underground Railroad. Wildwood Adventure Park in Manhattan provides zipline views of native limestone, while Alma Creamery promises a delightfully cheesy experience.
Distance: 75 miles
Major Towns: Alma, Eskridge, Manhattan
Post Rock Scenic Byway
Resourceful settlers on the treeless prairie subbed limestone for wood fence posts. That creative spirit lives on at quirky art spots like Bowl Plaza, a mosaic-covered public restroom resembling a giant toilet in Lucas. In Russell, the Deines Cultural Center houses the wood engravings of printmaker E. Hubert Deines. For lake-based fun with a side of mountain biking, head to Wilson State Park.
Distance: 18 miles
Major towns: Lucas, Wilson
Prairie Trail Scenic Byway
Famous figures (Coronado, Zebulon Pike, Buffalo Bill) and everyday folk have taken this route. Find buffalo at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in Canton, cool formations at Mushroom Rock State Park in Marquette, and all things Swedish (except Ikea) in Lindsborg. While in town, admire the craftsmanship of Dala horses at Hemslöjd and grab a latte at Blacksmith Coffee Shop and Roastery.
Distance: 80 miles
Major towns: Ellsworth, Lindsborg
Smoky Valley Scenic Byway
The Smoky Hills kiss the sky with a purple haze, while wildflowers lay a kaleidoscopic carpet. Drive to overlooks at Cedar Bluff State Park, and marvel at Castle Rock, a bluff resembling a medieval fortress. Scenery comes with sips of reds, whites, and fruit and dessert wines at Shiloh Vineyard and Winery in WaKeeney.
Distance: 60 miles
Major towns: Ransom, WaKeeney
Western Vistas Historic Byway
No need for an amphibious vehicle, but you will be driving through a prehistoric ocean. Prepare to have Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and Monument Rocks (both south of Oakley) rock your world with their formations. See the ruins of Native pueblo El Cuartelejo at Historic Lake Scott State Park. And give Wild West legends Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill their props.
Distance: 102 miles
Major towns: Oakley, Scott City, Sharon Springs
Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway
Two major air hubs for migrating birds—Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge—anchor this route. Get oriented at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. Several historic buildings stand in Stafford, while the Barton County Historical Society Museum and Village in Great Bend features a rock home, 1898 church and other structures.
Distance: 77 miles
Major towns: Ellinwood, Great Bend, Hoisington
Extend your journey (and discover even more opportunities to explore) when you stay overnight in one of Kansas' state parks.