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Kansas’ Small Town Treasures

The most fascinating aspects of Kansas can be found in its small towns.

Although most trips start at, end in or pass through a larger city at some point along the way, smaller towns and hamlets offer travelers unique glimpses of life and unexpected interactions. That’s the case in Kansas, where small towns are homes to impressive college campuses, inspiring art colonies, fascinating museums, stunning natural areas and other sights worth seeing.

This itinerary showcases distinctive towns in eastern and central Kansas. It begins in Lawrence and ends in Leavenworth, both a short drive from Kansas City, which makes an easy point of entry via airport or interstate. The route makes a counterclockwise loop through the state and hits Hutchinson, Lindsborg and Manhattan along the way. This itinerary is easy to do as a four-day trip; adding more days would allow time for stops in larger cities along the way.

Art on Campus in Lawrence

Just 45 minutes west of downtown Kansas City, Lawrence is an energetic and eclectic college town, home to the University of Kansas. The university presents several opportunities for groups, including tours of the Spencer Museum of Art.

Part of the university, the Spencer is the state’s only comprehensive art museum. Its collection includes some 45,000 works from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as numerous pieces of contemporary art and sculpture. Highlights include works by the likes of Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as Native American textiles, ceramics, basketry, beadwork and silverwork. The museum also hosts special exhibitions and events throughout the year.

The museum recently reopened to visitors after an extended closure due to COVID-19. As the pandemic recedes, the museum will resume special programming and tour opportunities normally available for groups.

While you’re there: Another KU institution, the Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collection, honors the life and career of prominent Kansas politician Bob Dole. Artifacts and memorabilia on display help groups learn about Dole’s early life, his World War II service, his work in Congress and his presidential campaign.

Seeing Stars in Hutchinson

It takes about three hours to drive from Lawrence to the town of Hutchinson, although you can break up the trip by visits to bigger cities like Topeka or Wichita, worth a visit in their own right. Once you’re in Hutchinson, though, you’ll find an attraction many wouldn’t expect to encounter in the middle of the Plains: a world-class aerospace museum.

Founded in 1962 as a makeshift planetarium on the state fairgrounds, Hutchinson’s Cosmosphere has grown into a Smithsonian-affiliate museum with over 100,000 square feet of exhibit space. Visitors can see fascinating vehicles, such as the SR71 Blackbird suspended in the lobby, as well as missiles and weapons systems used during World War II and the Cold War. Among museum highlights is the Apollo Gallery, which showcases the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey, Apollo spacesuits and a moon rock recovered during an Apollo mission.

Groups that visit the Cosmosphere can arrange a number of tour experiences, as well as a show in the now state-of-the-art planetarium.

While you’re there: For decades, workers harvested salt from a mine beneath Hutchinson. Today, at the Strataca: Kansas Underground Salt Mine, visitors can go 650 feet underground to explore the mine and catch a glimpse of some important Hollywood films and costumes that are stored in its underground vaults.

Lindsborg, A Visionary Village

It’s only 40 miles from Hutchinson to Lindsborg, but when you arrive there, you might feel like you’ve been transported to Europe. Known as Kansas’ Little Sweden, Lindsborg was settled by Swedish immigrants in 1869. Today, the village of 3,500 people is a thriving arts community that celebrates it international heritage.

Visitors to Lindsborg can learn about the area’s artistic visionaries at several galleries and studios. A favorite for groups is Red Barn Studios, which was the working studio of 20th-century artist Lester Raymer, who became known as the Picasso of the Plains. Raymer considered himself a painter and a printmaker but experimented with many different artistic media and methods. On a tour of the studio, visitors can see some of the tools he used in his creations, as well as finished works of painting, ceramic, woodcarving and more.

In addition to Red Barn Studios, art-loving groups can see the work of National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson at his Small World Gallery nearby.

While you’re there: Groups can continue to appreciate Lindsborg’s art and Swedish cultural heritage by looking for the eight Dala horse statues scattered around the streets of the village. The Dala horse is a traditional Swedish craft, and the ones on display throughout Lindsborg have been painted and decorated by local artists to showcase the area’s creativity.

Preserving the Prairie in Manhattan

The return east from Hutchinson will take you through beautiful natural landscapes, including a stunning tallgrass prairie known as the Flint Hills. By stopping in the town of Manhattan, your groups can learn more about the fascinating geology of the area at the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

Opened in 2012, the Flint Hills Discovery Center gives visitors an overview of the 4 million-acre Flint Hills geological region, which stretches from Kansas into northern Oklahoma. The area is defined by limestone deposits close to the surface that made the land impossible to cultivate and farm. As a result, it’s the last surviving tallgrass prairie in America. The discovery center features exhibits about the area’s geology, along with an immersive theater, interactive programming and a special terraced landscape to highlight the area’s natural features.

Nature lovers can see more of the prairie and the animals that call it home at the nearby Konza Prairie Research Natural Area.

While you’re there: Explore a private museum of exciting automobiles at the Midwest Dream Car Collection. The museum features more than 65 cars that range from a 1907 Model T Ford to a 2019 Tesla Model X. Visitors will find muscle cars, classic automobiles and other exotic or customized vehicles.

Leavenworth’s Buffalo Soldiers

For the final leg of your small-town Kansas tour, head to Leavenworth, a town about 30 miles northwest of Kansas City. The city is famous for its formal federal penitentiary, as well as Fort Leavenworth, a large Army installation with numerous stories to tell.

Fort Leavenworth was founded in 1827 and is an important education site for officers in training. After the Civil War, it became famous as the home base of the Buffalo Soldiers, the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments that comprised African American soldiers who served on the western frontier. In the early 1990s, Colin Powell spearheaded an effort to create a monument to the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Leavenworth. Groups that visit the fort can see the monument and have conversations with former Buffalo Soldiers who now serve as guides.

Another Fort Leavenworth highlight is the Frontier Army Museum, which has displays and artifacts that detail the history of the fort and its role in various world events.

While you’re there: During the heyday of railroad travel, waitresses known as Harvey Girls served travelers at Harvey House restaurants in depots around the country. Leavenworth is restaurant founder Fred Harvey’s hometown, and groups can arrange a Harvey Girl dining experience in the city’s restored 1888 train depot. There’s also a Fred Harvey museum in town.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.