Be safe and watch for snakes when climbing in the Castle Rock Badlands.

On my quest to visit all 50 states, I always expected Kansas to be sort of an afterthought or a straggler state I’d have to check off when I was getting close to 50. As it turns out, Kansas was state number 39, and it wasn’t the uninspiring expanse of prairie and Wizard of Oz lore I expected. Here’s what will wow you about the Sunflower State.

Sunflower State Paleontology

The Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays was my first stop in Kansas. I was still holding tight to mental images of flat, colorless stretches of prairie and farmers on the watch for the next big twister. A university-run paleontology museum wasn’t what I was expecting. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” sprang into my mind. Dorothy’s phrase from the iconic 1939 movie has come to mean how we feel when we step outside what we consider normal or expected.

Ironic? Definitely, but the tone was set for Kansas being a surprising experience, and the state continued to deliver.

If you’ve never thought about what Kansas was like 300 million years ago, you’re probably not alone. The state’s high amount of fossil discoveries and current terrain result from what used to be the Western Interior Seaway. That’s right, the middle of the continental United States was once underwater. A series of seas, some deep and some shallow, covered Kansas during the Pennsylvanian and Permian periods of geologic history, and deeper water covered western Kansas during the Cretaceous Period, which is the reason for the various chalk formations that dot the West-Central Kansas landscape. 

Although Monument Rock is Kansas’s most well-known rock formation, Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and Castle Rock Badlands are more scenic and offer a richer experience and more adventure versus just a photo opp.

Kansas Badlands

While Kansas has its share of prairies and sunflowers, Western Kansas is full of craggy badlands and unique rock formations that defy expectations of Kansas topography. The most well-known is Monument Rocks, a 70-foot-tall sedimentary chalk formation that once sat on the ocean floor. The rocks are on private land but free to enter and explore; just make sure you heed the signs warning visitors not to touch or climb on the fragile rocks. There’s a keyhole formation that makes a fantastic picture-taking spot. If you can time your visit to align with sunrise or sunset, even better.

Little Jerusalem State Badlands State Park and Castle Rock Badlands are lesser-known but spectacular formations. Little Jerusalem has Kansas’ largest expanse of exposed Niobrara Chalk formations. The 100-foot-tall spires are 85 million years old and earned their name when early settlers believed the rugged terrain resembled the walls of the famous city in Israel. The spires can be seen from the park’s Overlook and Life on the Rocks trails, but travelers who want a closer look can book a tour with a park naturalist and hike amongst the spires.

Castle Rock Badlands is a true hidden gem that rarely appears on searches of things to see in Kansas. Located on private land near Quinter, the badlands are fully accessible to the public and free to enter. The actual Castle Rock formation consists of three impressive spires and was used as a landmark for stagecoach travelers. The natural chalk has eroded throughout the years, and a 2001 storm caused the top of the tallest spire to topple. Historic photos show a different view than what visitors see today, but Castle Rock is nevertheless impressive.

One unique aspect of visiting Castle Rock is the “look but don’t touch” rule is more relaxed. Visitors can walk among the badlands adjacent to Castle Rock and climb on the formations. The area is shared with a herd of grazing cattle who pretty much mind their business but are willing photo subjects as long as you don’t get too close.

Although Monument Rock is Kansas’s most well-known rock formation, Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and Castle Rock Badlands are more scenic and offer a richer experience and more adventure versus just a photo opp.

Haunted Kansas

If your idea of fun fall travel includes a good dose of the spooky stuff, Kansas has its share of resident ghosts and haunted places. I’m a little tenderhearted when it comes to ghost stories, and I usually don’t seek out haunted places. My imagination runs away from me at the most benign noises and creaks, so a vacation itinerary heavy on anything flirting with paranormal activity wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea. Since my most recent trip involved traveling with a braver friend, I agreed to mix a few haunted Kansas sites into our road trip across the state.

Atchison is known as the most haunted city in Kansas. We toured the Sallie House, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl who died in the house during appendicitis surgery. Daytime tours are available, and, for the truly brave, overnight stays. The McInteer Villa is another haunted Atchison spot. Aside from the ghost appeal, the building is a gorgeous example of Victorian architecture. Nine documented deaths have occurred over the years in McInteer Villa, and various paranormal activity has been reported, from flickering lights to the scent of powdery ladies’ perfume. Book a daytime self-guided tour or an overnight stay.

The Sallie House might not look ominous from the outside, but it is rumored to be one of the most haunted houses in the United States. Make arrangements to spend the night if you’re courageous.

Kansas also has several haunted hotels. I’ve stayed in the Midland Railroad Hotel, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a little girl. Other guests have reported hearing the pitter-patter of her ghostly feet in the hallway. I didn’t hear anything, but I slept with earbuds and cranked the air conditioner up to make sure I wouldn’t.

Other haunted hotels in Kansas include the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence and the historic Wolfe Hotel in Ellinwood. If you want a spooky experience without staying the night, the Wolfe Hotel has haunted tunnels underneath the property. Tours must be booked in advance, but they’re worth planning your day around.

The truly brave can arrange to stay the night inside McInteer Villa. $300 covers between two and six guests on a weeknight. Additional guests may be accommodated for an extra fee.

More than just spooky history, the tunnel tour offers a glimpse into the underground world during prohibition days. The tunnels once spanned two city blocks, but just a small portion of the tunnels are currently open to visitors. The only access point is the Wolfe Hotel.

If you’re interested in learning more about Kansas ghosts, the Kansas University Press has published an entire book dedicated to hauntings in the Sunflower State, Haunted Kansas: Ghost Stories and Other Eerie Tales, by Lisa Hefner Heintz.

The Midland Railroad Hotel is rumored to be haunted by several ghosts, especially on the third floor. I stayed on the third floor and didn’t hear or experience anything out of the ordinary, but the hotel is a fun place to stay in quaint Wilson, Kansas, and has not one but two restaurants on site.

Unexpected Foodie Finds

Kansas just keeps on surprising you in a good way. Exploring the delicious Kansas City Taco Trail is worth its own dedicated day if not an entire trip. With over 60 locations featuring all types of tacos, Kansas City, Kansas, has put itself on the map as a spot for taco connoisseurs. It’s hard to impress a girl from South Texas with anything claiming to be remotely Tex-Mex, but KC’s taco scene is solid.

If you’re interested in something more upscale, make a trip to rural Hoxie, population 1,211, to dine at the Elephant Bistro & Bar. The menu offers everything from Hawaiian ginger-lime ahi tuna to bison steaks. Housed in one of the oldest buildings in Hoxie, Elephant Bistro is the passion project of Kansas-born, Seattle-trained chef Emily Campbell, and it’s an absolutely delightful “middle of nowhere” find.

My taco crawl strategy was to ask the people behind the counter what type of tacos they liked. They did not steer me wrong.

If you’re shooting to visit all 50 states, don’t approach Kansas with the mindset that it’s something to merely get through so you can check it off your list. With haunted history, tacos, and mild autumn weather perfect for outdoor adventure, Kansas – yes, Kansas – deserves a spot on everyone’s list of unique places to explore.

Authentic tacos in Kansas!