Breathless in Kansas!
Cowboys, Crops, and Dinosaurs
by Karin Leperi

It was supposed to be just another early morning flight. I was on my way to Kansas to check out a state known for its prairies, agriculture, and friendly people. The plane had just leveled off and beverage service had begun; I was eagerly anticipating my morning cup of java. Though it seemed warm in the plane, I thought it was just me. And then, our morning silence was interrupted with an announcement from the cockpit: “We are making an immediate descent to 10,000 feet because of a primary failure with cabin pressure.” Despite the calm, almost perfunctory tone of the co-pilot, I now realized why my breathing had become labored.

Kansas was going to have to wait. For now, Pittsburgh would be our unscheduled stop. Our emergency landing overloaded the gate with over 150 passengers trying to rebook flights. Thank heavens I used a travel agent, I thought, as I called my agent's hotline number to make arrangements for my onward flight.

Flying to Kansas was literally taking my breath away. Little did I realize that after I eventually landed in Kansas City, after several convoluted connections, the breathlessness would stay with me — but in a much more positive sense. Kansas proved to have many surprises in store for me — many that continue to take my breath away.

Heading for the Hills

I collect my luggage and pick-up my rental car. For the next three days, my Kansas road trip will include cowboys, crops, and dinosaurs — and a whole lot more. First stop is Lawrence, a 45-minute drive west of Kansas City. With a population of 80,000, Lawrence is home to two universities, a lively performing arts district, and outstanding restaurants. Originally founded in 1854 as a way to keep the Kansas territory free from slavery, today Lawrence pays tribute to its legacy as the “Free State.”

After a dinner stop in Lawrence at the eclectic and wonderful Freestate Brewery, I head for the hills, to the northeast of Kansas, where the Kansas prairie gently gives way to rolling hills of green and gold dotted with occasional stands of oak trees. I’ll be staying at the Circle S Ranch & Country Inn, a seductively secluded ranch with stunning vistas of native grasslands, wildflowers, and wildlife.

Only 15 minutes drive from the college town and cultural center of Lawrence, Circle S Ranch has earned a reputation for being one of the best getaways in the Midwest. The 10,000 square foot inn blends with the countryside, and at first blush, looks like an old Kansas barn. However, once inside, guests are greeted with spacious luxury that includes a great double fireplace, a dining room, conference room, and wrap-around porch that reminds you that it is time to slow down ... and watch the buffalo roam.

A 3000 square foot party barn on the property is ideal for weddings, retreats, and reunions; and it is able to host up to 200 guests for seated receptions. The traditional silo is in actual fact a first-class spa with a spa menu that includes treatments such as “Gravel Road Deep Tissue Massage,” “Babbling Brook Hot Stone Massage,” and a “Nowhere Near the Sea Salt Scrub.” If I ever get married again, this is where I’m heading to exchange vows. There is nothing quite like it.

Day 1: Scenic Byways and Towns that Time Forgot, Morris and Chase Counties, and the Flint Hills

After a delicious breakfast of local fruits, homemade breads, and frittata, I leave Lawrence, drive through Topeka, and continue to Highway 99, exit #328. My first stop is Alma Creamery, where the famous Alma cheese is handmade. Today, they sell over 20 varieties of cheeses and I try at least six of their best sellers and want more. I watch them package a cranberry-infused cheese for Christmas, and wonder about its taste. I’ll have to wait.

Next, I drive down the Native Stone Scenic Byway, through Alta Vista to Council Grove. Arriving at Council Grove, once a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail, I reach for my camera. This is one of those can't miss photo ops; to photograph the Hays House, a restaurant and tavern built by Daniel Boone’s great-grandson in 1857. (Kansas has its fair share of superlatives; and the Hays House is no exception, billing itself as the oldest continuously operated restaurant west of the Mississippi.)

Within moments I’m asked by a local if there is anything I need help with. Indicative of small-town hospitality, the person offering his assistance is none other than the mayor. “Council Grove exists pretty much as it did in the past,” says Mayor Dick Montgomery. “It was a way station and crossroads, a place where people liked to congregate.”

The Flint Hills

Taking the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (Route 177), I drive slowly so as to fully take in my surroundings: undulating waves of prairie grass anchored by bluffs of the all-pervasive flint and limestone. Unlike the grandeur of western landscapes, this is a subtler, almost sweeter type of terrain, a mellow type of beauty that honors simplicity, grace, and charm. The Flint Hills contains the largest remnant of native tall grass prairie in the world. Most has never been tilled and remains pristine due to an abundance of flint that caused many farmers to move on in search of less rocky soils.

To see the native tall grass prairie is one of those experiences that should be on everyone’s list of “100 Things to See and Do Before You Die.” Sweeping vistas of golden native grasses extend as far as the eye can see, acting as camouflage and cover to a wonderful collage of wildflowers and wildlife. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve — our nation’s newest, and Kansas’ first — National Park, is the last remaining remnant of the prairie grass ecosystem. Considering that less than four per cent currently exists of a range that once extended over most of the middle North American continent, the tall grass prairie landscape can be considered one of the most endangered and fragmented ecosystems today.

Also known as the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch, the park contains the 1880’s ranch stead buildings, including an 11-room stone house built in the “Second Empire” style. Over 11,000 pristine acres of prairie are the heart of the park.

Continuing south along the Scenic Byway, I head toward Cottonwood Falls and its legendary courthouse. Built n 1873, the regal Chase County Courthouse was constructed with native, hand-cut limestone and walnut trees from the Cottonwood River. It is the oldest working courthouse west of the Mississippi River; arguably, it is one of the most beautiful. On the National Historic Register, the courthouse is a masterpiece of the French Renaissance style of architecture, with a distinctive red mansard roof, cupola, balustrade, and spiral staircase. Lacking any visible means of central support, the walnut staircase is the subject of architecturally intrigue for visitors from around the world and remains a modern day mystery. An old jail which was in use until the 1970s, is located at the rear of the courthouse. Take time to read some of the inscriptions left behind by prisoners.

After touring the courthouse, I head down Broadway Street to the Grand Central Hotel & Grill, the only AAA Four Diamond hotel in the state. Built in 1884 and then renovated in 1995, the hotel exudes elegance with a western flair, offering 10 spacious rooms with cowboy branding. The restaurant has a well-deserved reputation for some of the best beef in the state, along with professional and friendly service. For lighter appetites, order the steak salad, a delicious and satisfying combination of crunch and chew. That should save room for their signature dessert, crème brûlée.

As the Grand Central is conveniently located, proprietor Suzan Barnes can arrange customized tours and activities for just about anything, from horseback riding in the Flint Hills, fishing, nature hiking, to a sunset ride on the Prairie Drifter, a 1958 wheat truck. Just ask.

I opt for a sunset trail ride in the Flint Hills, at the Flying W Ranch. This is all about experiencing cowboy culture on a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch. My guide is Newt, a working cowboy with quiet good manners and charm. As we ride our horses in the hills, by the river and through the woodlands — all of which are basking in a warm sunset glow — I wish it could last longer. Other activities you can choose include camping out on the prairie, chuck wagon cooking, and cowboy lessons. I vow to come back.

Day 2: Agritourism in Ottawa and Franklin County

Only 22 miles from Lawrence and 53 miles from Kansas City, Missouri, is the City of Ottawa — a page from the book of living history. With a population of 12,330, it has small town charm along with diversified agritourism, historic attractions, and amazing architecture. After a brief stop at the Victorian-inspired Travel Information Center on K-68, I set out for a day of agritourism.

The Kansas Alpaca Company provides travelers with an opportunity to see an alpaca farm first-hand. Prized for the fiber it sells, the farm offers visitors a chance to buy the silky yarn as well as alpaca wool products made from the sheared coats of their alpacas.

And then there are the bison. The North American Buffalo (bison) once roamed the plains by the millions. By 1900 fewer than 500 survived. However, thanks to a fast-growing and thriving agricultural enterprise in buffalo meat, there are over 250,000 buffalo today in Kansas. Shadeland Stock Farm Bison Ranch, located northwest of Ottawa, is home to roaming herds of bison, affording a wonderful opportunity to witness these giant prairie dwellers by way of wagon ride. Owner Jack Beauchamp tells me about how his bison are all natural, grass-grown, and fattened without grain, hormones, or antibiotics. Buffalo meat and products are sold at an on-site gift shop. For a really unusual gift, be sure to ask about the buffalo cane — a guaranteed conversation piece at any party.

There is nothing as nostalgic as having lunch at an old-fashioned soda fountain. Allegre Pharmacy is as famous for its hamburgers as it is for its small-town friendliness; and for its inexpensive prices. Servings are ample so unfortunately I have no room for the peanut butter pie.

Pome on the Range Orchard and Winery, a family-owned orchard, is an example of crop diversity and quality at its finest. You know the place is great when you see the locals shopping for their produce here. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are available year-round, including nectarines, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, asparagus, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and pumpkins. Try the “white” nectarine when in season, the sweetest and juiciest I’ve ever eaten. Pome is also home to one of the newest wineries in Kansas, with 20 wines that focus on fruit favorites such as apple and elderberry.

I drive to Topeka for dinner at Boss Hawg’s Barbeque & Catering, famous for slow-smoked barbeque over select native hardwoods. In fact, Maximum Golf Magazine listed them as one of the top ten barbeque restaurants in the country. Then I check in for the night at the newly renovated and spacious Topeka Ramada.

Day 3: The Kansas Capital, More Crops, and Dinosaurs

Topeka, the capital of Kansas, is home to one of the most beautiful Capitol buildings in the United States. An historic French Renaissance-style building, the Kansas State Capitol contains colorful murals that depict dramatic moments in Kansas history. Most well-known are the Curry Murals on the second floor, in particular the one of John Brown in the mural Tragic Prelude. Don’t miss the recently restored House of Representatives Chamber and the renovated Senate Chamber.

After viewing the Capitol itself, it’s time for me to explore Kansas crops, with my first stop at a lavender farm. But wait, this is Kansas and you can’t grow lavender here. Nevertheless, 12 varieties of lavender are grown at Kansas Lavender, just west of Topeka. However, it is the Grosso and Provence lavenders that are used for their farm-produced gifts for sale. Lavender gifts include sachets, dream pillows, and lavender infused honey.

Next stop is Pendleton’s Country Market. Though they sustained heavy damage from a March micro burst, they are open and brimming with fresh-cut flowers and every type of seasonal crop.

Admittedly, Kansas is not a place where I expect to find fine wines, however after a visit to Davenport Orchard, Vineyard &Winery, I am humming a different tune. Using Kansas grown fruits and vines with a philosophy of minimal intervention, Greg Shipe and his wife Charlee have crafted several first-rate wines. My favorites include the 2003 Norton, a dry red that is aged in barrels for 15 months and the Davenport, an innovative dessert wine with a port-like taste. These wines are sophisticated, complex, and show much promise.

My next stop is the 172-acre complex that honors our agricultural heritage, the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame. Dedicated to our nation’s food producers, the center is a tribute and celebration of the tools and trade of rural America. Be sure to save at least an hour for a trip through Farm Town, a replicated country village from the late 1800 to early 1900s.

The final leg of my Kansas road journey takes me to an exciting new 20,000 square foot restaurant/retail/entertainment complex at the Legends Mall in Kansas City, Kansas. Here I will have dinner with the dinosaurs. The restaurant is TRex — a concept developed by the founder and creator of the Rainforest Café, Steven Schussler. The first of its kind, this “other world” dining adventure successfully integrates great food with the Paleo Zone — the ultimate journey through the prehistoric past.

Listen to Roy's recent interview with Steven Schussler on Talking Travel.

For dinner I order the Mammoth Mushroom Raviolis, simmered in a rich lobster sauce and garnished with Roma tomatoes and fresh spinach. The taste is surprisingly great, a dish I would order again and again. Just for fun, whether you have kids or not, try the Paint-A-Dino for dessert. In the classic tradition of marshmallows, rice crispies, and chocolate, this dessert comes shaped as a dinosaur and challenges you to bring out your creative side by brushing colored sauces and placing colored pieces of chocolate on a customized “dino.”

Kids love this place because of the Discovery Dig, a Mining Mania, and Paleo screen that interactively test their knowledge of the dinosaur era. They also love the Build-A-Dino™, Where Best Friendosaurs Are Made™, where they can choose outfits and accessories to dress their prehistoric dinosaur. And adults love it because the food is great, the environment is entertaining, and it’s just plain fun. I leave mesmerized by my experience, transported back to a world out of time.

With an overnight at the convenient Holiday Inn Express, I depart early the next morning for Kansas City airport. On my way, I quietly reflect on the subtle beauty and diversity of northeast Kansas.

I have encountered delightful surprises at every turn; and friendly people at every bend. Kansas left me breathless!

To view a slide show of Karin Leperi's Photographic Moments in Kansas, CLICK HERE.

© Photographs by Karin Leperi

Planning Your Trip

Kansas Travel and Tourism
1000 W.W. Jackson Street, Suite 100
Topeka, Kansas 66612
Phone: (785) 296-3810 (

Franklin County Travel Information Center
2011 E. Logan (Hwy 68)
Ottawa, Kansas 66067
Phone: (785) 242-1411

Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau
734 Vermont, suite 101
P.O. Box 586
Lawrence, Kansas 66044
Phone: 1-888-LAWKINS

Visit Topeka Inc.
1275 SW Topeka Blvd.
Topeka, Kansas 66612
Phone: 1-800-235-1030

Kansas Scenic Byway
Flint Hills National Scenic Byway
Phone: (785) 827-3603
Toll Free: 1-800-684-6966

Agritourism Activities

Pendleton’s Country Market
1446 E 1850 Road
Lawrence, Kansas 66046
Phone: (785) 843-1409

Alma Creamery
509 E 3rd
Alma, Kansas 66401
Phone: (785) 765-3522

Shadeland Stock Farm Bison Ranch
1839 Osborne Road
Ottawa, Kansas 66067
Phone: (785) 242-3540

Kansas Alpaca Company
3510 Kentucky Road
Ottawa, Kansas 66067
Phone: (785) 242-1892

Pome on the Range Orchard & Winery
2050 Idaho Road
Williamsburg, Kansas 66095
Phone: (785) 746-5492

Davenport Orchards & Winery
1394 E. 1900 Rd.,
Eudora, KS 66025
Phone: (785) 542-2278

Kansas Lavender
Ingwerson Farms
Topeka, Kansas
Phone: (785) 478-3246

What to Do

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Rt 1 Box 14
Hwy 177
Strong City, Kansas 66869
Phone: (620) 273-8494

Flying W Ranch
A Working Cattle Ranch & Agritourism
Rt. L, Box 11
Cedar Point, Kansas 66843
Phone: (620) 274-4357 or (620) 273-8298

Chase County Courthouse
300 Pearl
Cottonwood Falls, Kansas 66845
Phone: 1-800-431-6344

Kansas State Capitol
300 SW Tenth Avenue
Topeka, Kansas 66615
Phone: (785) 296-3996

National Agricultural Center & Hall of Fame
630 Hall of Fame Drive
Bonner Springs, Kansas 66012
Phone: (913) 721-1075

Where to Stay

Circle S Ranch & Country Inn B&B
3325 Circle S Lane
Lawrence, Kansas 66044
Phone: (800) 625-2829

Grand Central Hotel & Grill
215 Broadway
Cottonwood Falls, Kansas 66845
Phone: (620) 273-6763
Fax: (620) 273-8381
Toll Free: (800) 951-6763

Topeka Ramada
420 E 6th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66607
Phone: (785) 234-5400

Holiday Inn Express
1931 Prairie Crossing
Kansas City, Kansas 66111
Phone: (913) 328-1024

Where to Eat

Freestate Brewery
636 Massachusetts Street
Lawrence, Kansas
(785) 843-4555

Teller’s Restaurant
746 Massachusetts
Lawrence, Kansas
(785) 843-4111

Hays House
112 W. Main
Council Grove, Kansas
Phone: (620) 767-5911

Grand Central Hotel Grill
215 Broadway
Cottonwood Falls, Kansas 66845
Phone: (620) 273-6763
Fax: (620) 273-8381
Toll Free: (800) 951-6763

Allegre Pharmacy
304 South Main Street
Ottawa, Kansas
Phone: (785) 242-0869

Boss Hawg’s Barbeque
2833 S.W. 29th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66614
Phone: (785) 273-7300

T-Rex at the Legends at Village West
1847 Village West Parkway
The Legends at Village West
Kansas City, Kansas 66111
Phone: (913) 334-8888