Historic forts, historic explorers, beautiful prairies, the fastest mail service in the Old West, and so much more await you in Kansas!
Kansas National Parks! While Dorothy & Toto might not be in Kansas anymore there’s no reason why you can’t be. As a matter of fact, More Than Just Parks is going to give you 7 compelling reasons why you should consider Kansas when planning your next roadtrip.
While Kansas has many national park sites, I should note that it doesn’t actually have any congressionally designated “National Parks.” Nonetheless, there are a whole host of amazing Kansas National Park Service sites to visit.
Historic forts, famous explorers, beautiful prairies, the fastest mail service in the Old West, and so much more await you in Kansas!
Are you ready to dive in? Then let’s go!
Kansas National Parks
1. Brown V. Board Of Education National Historic Site | Kansas National Parks
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark Supreme Court decision. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Court’s unanimous decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Since I’m a retired history teacher I’m glad to provide a short history lesson. The case originated in 1951. The local public school district in Topeka, Kansas, following a widespread practice known as “segregation” or “separate but equal,” refused to enroll the daughter of a local black resident at the school closest to their home. Oliver Brown’s daughter was instead required to ride a bus to a segregated black elementary school farther away.
The Browns and twelve other local black families filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that the practice of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. Overturning an 1896 Supreme Court decision (Plessy v Ferguson) which had ruled that racial segregation was not in itself a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Court ruled it was unconstitutional. Not only that, but led by attorney Thurgood Marshall, the plaintiffs were able to successfully argue that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal.
Interested In Taking A Deeper Dive
Believe it or not, I was one of those guys who sat in class taking notes and, when the professor threw out the name of what sounded like an interesting book, I not only wrote it down, I went out and purchased it. Yes, I am that guy which is why I ended up teaching history.
There’s a wonderful book about the landmark Supreme Court decision. Written by Richard Kluger, it’s titled Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. It’s a modern classic!
Today It’s A National Historic Site
Monroe Elementary School was one of the four segregated elementary schools for black children in Topeka. The restored school was purchased by the National Park Service and reopened in 2004 as a National Historic Site.
Visitors will find exhibits, films, interactive activities as well as interpretive programs led by National Park Service staff. It’s open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
2. Fort Larned National Historic Site | Kansas National Parks
Later in the article I’ll give you an exciting history of the Santa Fe Trail. This trail provided one of the most important overland transportation routes in America permitting millions of dollars of commercial traffic to flow between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Fort Larned was built to protect travelers along that trail from possible attack by Native Americans. As tensions rose between the native peoples who had once roamed these lands freely and those who were increasingly restricting them from doing so, it became necessary to provide military outposts as a means of protecting both commerce and settlers.
This particular fort has quite an interesting history. Built in October of 1859, the fort’s mission was “to protect and maintain peaceful relations with everyone on the trail.” It was initially called “Camp on Pawnee Fork.” Later, it became “Camp Alert.”
Benjamin R. Larned
Named Fort Larned for Col. Benjamin R. Larned, the U.S. Army paymaster, this fort served as one of the most important defense posts along the Santa Fe Trail. In the 1860s, the federal government replaced the original sod and adobe buildings of this fort with stone and timber buildings.
Today, the fort complex includes nine buildings; a barracks, a post hospital, two company officer’s quarters, commanding officer’s quarters, quartermaster storehouse, the old commissary, the new commissary, and a shops building.
Visitors can take a trip back in time as they explore these interesting buildings and imagine what it was like to live on a western fort in the 19th century.
3. Fort Scott National Historic Site | Kansas National Parks
Fort Scott was established in 1842. From 1842-53, it was a military fort established to protect the Permanent Indian Frontier. It was from there that soldiers kept peace between white settlers and American Indian tribes, patrolled overland trails and fought in the Mexican-American War.
Within a few years, the fort and its inhabitants were thrust into the conflict which became the Civil War. Kansas found itself at the forefront of this growing sectional crisis due to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act established the territorial boundaries of Kansas and Nebraska and opened the land to legal settlement.
What the act did was to allow the residents of these two territories to decide by popular vote whether their state would be free or slave. This concept of self-determination was called “popular sovereignty.” Kansas became “ground zero” in this battle as people on both sides of this controversial issue flooded the territory, trying to influence the vote in their favor.
It became known as “Bleeding Kansas” as violence swept across the state. Abolitionist John Brown and his sons murdered five pro-slavery advocates in May of 1856 at Pottawatomie Creek.
Fort Scott Today
It’s estimated that 26,000 visitors come to Fort Scott National Historic Site each year. The site includes 20 historic structures, eleven of these are original buildings, the others are reconstructions built on the original foundations.
While the site is furnished to the 1840s era, the story told at the fort includes the period up to and including the Civil War. And, it’s a truly fascinating story to hear.
If you have never been before then I recommend that you begin your adventure at the visitor center where you will learn about the daily self-guided tours. There’s also a cell phone tour which provides a short narration of each of the buildings.
Guided tours can be arranged, but it’s important to call ahead if you are interested in taking one of those.
4. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail | Kansas National Parks
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the historic outbound and inbound routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804-06), the Trail connects 16 states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon).
This trail is administered by the National Park Service. It’s not a hiking trail, but does provide opportunities for hiking, boating and horseback riding at many locations along the route.
What can I see in Kansas that’s connected to this historic trail? Excellent question. I recommend the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Pavilion. Located at White Cloud, Kansas, it describes the expedition’s passage through the area in 1804 and then again in 1806.
It’s a beautiful open-air pavilion located in Riverfront Park. It was constructed in preparation for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial Commemoration on July 3-4, 2004. The pavilion contains an interactive touchscreen monitor and interpretive panels with information on the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Missouri River and the Kanza Nation.
While you’re there, I would also recommend a drive along the Frontier Military Historic Byway. It was originally built to move soldiers and supplies. If you travel it today, however, you’ll find various landmarks such as Fort Leavenworth and the John Brown Museum.
Now here’s a fun fact for you film buffs. The 1973 film Paper Moon, starring Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum, was filmed in White Cloud and other Kansas locations. It was filmed in black and white. It’s supposed to be set in Kansas and Missouri during 1930s Depression-era America.
It’s the story of an itinerant con man, named Moses Pray (played by Ryan O’Neal), who enlists nine year old Addie Loggins (played by Tatum O’Neal) to help him swindle unsuspecting people. Young Tatum O’Neal, in her first screen performance, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The film was shot in the small towns of Hays, Kansas; McCracken, Kansas; Wilson, Kansas; and St. Joseph, Missouri. Various shooting locations include the Midland Hotel at Wilson, Kansas; the railway depot at Gorham, Kansas; storefronts and buildings on Main Street in White Cloud, Kansas; Hays, Kansas; sites on both sides of the Missouri River; Rulo Bridge; and Saint Joseph, Missouri.
5. Nicodemus National Historic Site | Kansas National Parks
One group of Americans have tended to be forgotten when it comes to the story of America’s Westward Expansion. During Reconstruction following the Civil War, formerly enslaved African Americans left Kentucky. They wanted to experience the freedom they had heard about. These people set out for the “Promised Land” of Kansas.
In 1877, the small town of Nicodemus, Kansas, was founded by newly freed slaves. Nicodemus was the first black community west of the Mississippi River. Today, it is the only predominantly black community west of the Mississippi that remains a living community.
A Symbol To The Courage Of African American Settlers
Nicodemus symbolizes the courage of African American settlers who sought better lives, better lands, and better opportunities. They came to the heartland where they believed they could get a fresh start.
Nicodemus is an enduring monument to African American westward migration. Today, visitors can take a self guided or a ranger guided tour to see the exteriors of some of the historic buildings documenting what black settlers accomplished. These buildings include: the St. Francis Hotel, the AME Church, the First Baptist Church, the Nicodemus School District No. 1 building, and the Nicodemus Township Hall.
The Nicodemus Township Hall is the visitors center. It’s a great place to start your visit. It offers exhibits, short videos, and the opportunity to learn about the history of this town and of pioneering African Americans in the West. Some of the descendants of the original settlers still live in Nicodemus.
6. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Once upon a time, tallgrass prairie once covered roughly 170 million acres of North America. It was the continent’s largest continuous ecosystem. It supported a huge quantity of plants and animals.
Of course, with the settlement of America, farmers discovered that prairie soils are outstanding for crop production. So, they plowed the prairie lands into oblivion for the production of wheat, corn and other crops.
What Tallgrass Remains
Today most of these grasslands are gone. What remains, however, located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. It protects a small portion of these grasslands. It’s one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in the world.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was created by legislation passed on November 12, 1996. It created the 10,894 acre preserve to protect a sample of what was once a vast tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
Stephen F. Jones & Enclosed Ranching
In addition to experiencing these magnificent tallgrasses, visitors can tour a restoration of cattleman Stephen F. Jones‘ ranch called Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch.
Stephen F. Jones was a pioneer in what was called “enclosed ranching” whereby cattle movements are limited by stone walls, fences or barbed wire. Because of his leadership, grasslands which would have otherwise been decimated were saved instead.
In 1997, the Jones Ranch was designated a National Historical Landmark District. Today visitors can take tours of his 1881 limestone Second Empire house, the three-story limestone barn, and other outbuildings.
And, while you’re in town, I recommend you take a drive along the 47-miles of the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway on K-177. You’ll marvel at the breathtaking scenery. Just imagine a time when it covered 170 million acres of North America.
7. Pony Express National Historic Trail | Kansas National Parks
The United States Postal Service has announced that we will be paying more for slower mail. Ugh! Perhaps it’s time to dust off an old idea.
From April 3, 1860 until October 26, 1861, the Pony Express delivered messages, newspapers, and mail using relays of horse-mounted riders. While it was only in operation for 18 months, it reduced the time for messages to travel between the east and west coasts to about 10 days.
The three founders of the Pony Express were William Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell. These three entrepreneurs used a shorted route with riders at relay stations. These stations were about ten miles apart.
The rider coming in could expect a fresh mount [horse] waiting for him and his mail pouch.
At the peak of their operations, Russell, Majors and Waddell employed 6,000 men, owned 75,000 oxen, thousands of wagons, and warehouses, plus a sawmill, a meatpacking plant, a bank, and an insurance company.
Of course, technology waits for no one. The Pony Express could not compete with the faster telegraph. It went bankrupt after 18 months.
Jim DeFelice has written a wonderfully entertaining account of the history of the Pony Express. It’s titled West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. I love stories about the Old American West. This is one book I simply could not put down.
Retracing The Pony Express
One hundred and fifty years later, you can visit trail traces, visitor centers, museums, hiking trails, historic structures and forts related to the Pony Express National Historic Trail.
The trail crosses eight states following the journey taken by dozens of young riders and hundreds of horses between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.
The best news of all, however, is that you won’t have to change horses every ten miles. There are auto tour routes, GIS interactive maps and a Back-Country Byway .
Or, you can simply use your cellphone (there’s an app for every thing these days!) to chart a course across the Pony Express National Historic Trail.
What’s There To Do
What’s there to do? What isn’t there to do! You can visit interpretive sites, hike portions of the trail, bike portions of the trail or horseback ride portions of the trail (don’t forget about those fresh mounts). There are also museums to visit.
Trail sites to visit in Kansas include: (1) Marshville Pony Express Barn which now serves as a museum. Go there and learn all about how this operation was run. (2) Hollenberg Pony Express Station which is a restoration of an actual station.
It includes living quarters for the Hollenberg family, a neighborhood grocery store, a tavern, and an unofficial post-office. (3) Marshall’s Ferry which is a historic trails park where you can trod the same ground that the Pony Express riders did.
8. Santa Fe National Historic Trail
Westward Ho! Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was a highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The route was originally pioneered by Missouri trader William Becknell.
Once Bucknell showed how it was done, others decided to follow. By 1825, goods from Missouri were being traded in Santa Fe, as well as other points farther south.
There were two major routes. Some used the Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water, but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Others took the Cimarron Route. It was shorter and faster, but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located. It you ran out of water then you weren’t likely to survive the journey.
Now here’s an interesting fact. During the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army actually followed the Santa Fe Trail westward to successfully invade Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended this war in 1848.
Afterward, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.
The Santa Fe Trail Today
Today, the Santa Fe National Historic Trail still extends from western Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along the way, there are museums, historic sites, landmarks, and original trail segments.
If you’re planning a trip then I would recommend that you definitely see the following five sights:
Rabbit Ears Mountain served as a vital landmark for Santa Fe Trail travelers on the Cimarron Route.
Santa Clara Cemetery was a landmark for covered wagon trains and traders going up and down the Santa Fe Trail. It’s now the Wagon Mound National Historic Landmark.
Starvation Peak is a butte that sits at over 7,000 feet, located along Interstate 25 between the town of Pecos and Las Vegas.
Raton Pass which was one of the segments of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. It cut through the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, allowing wagons access to the vast western territory.
Santa Fe Spring which was an important water source for Santa Fe Trail travelers heading West.
You may want to do some research before you go, however, as there are other amazing historical and natural sites you may find to be of particular interest to you.
Map Of Kansas National Parks
Check Out Our Comprehensive Guide
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about some amazing places to visit in Kansas. If you’re interested in learning more about our national parks please check out our complete rankings of all 63 of them.
List Of 7+ (Must-See) National Park Sites In Kansas
- Brown V. Board Of Education National Historic Site
- Fort Larned National Historic Site
- Fort Scott National Historic Site
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
- Nicodemus National Historic Site
- Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
- Pony Express National Historic Trail
- Santa Fe National Historic Trail