4 best day trips three hours from Kansas City

Stir-crazy yet? After nearly three months of social distancing, that’s to be expected. And yet, things aren’t exactly back to normal. Never fear, we’re here to help with four great day trips that are a three-hour drive from Kansas City. We picked spots that are safely spacious but which offer excitement, fresh air and much-needed changes of scenery. Get out there, but remember to use common sense and follow CDC guidelines.

One of the world’s best zoos is a short drive up I-29

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo might just be the best in the world. You can take our word for it—but in case you don’t, Nebraska’s most visited tourist destination has been ranked above the elite zoos of San Diego, Singapore and Prague by USA Today, TripAdvisor and a host of other outlets.

The jewels of the hundred-acre campus are the two domes that immerse you in the jungle and desert. Inside the leafy, humid rainforest, you encounter macaws and squirrel monkeys while crossing rope bridges in the canopy before climbing down to the forest floor, where you get up close to a fifty-foot waterfall and pygmy hippos. In the desert dome—the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome—you’ll spot javelina, bearded dragons and meerkats. Oh, and below that dome you’ll find the world’s largest exhibit of nocturnal animals. The largest wild cat complex on the continent is just down the hill.

There’s more—a lot more—so if you’re doing this as a one-day trip, you’ll want to set an alarm to leave KC right about the time the animals are waking up. —Martin Cizmar

GO: The zoo is 190 miles north on I-29. From I-29, take I-80 west in Omaha, then take exit 454 and follow signs to the zoo.

You can get amazing Springfield-style cashew chicken from a drive-thru

Proverbial wisdom holds that many of the best foods have been discovered when worlds collide—banh mi and spaghetti pop to mind. So it is with Springfield-style cashew chicken, which was invented by Chinese-born immigrant David Leong when he was looking to develop a recipe that would appeal to the tastes of Southeastern Missouri.

Springfield-style cashew chicken isn’t like the Thai takeout staple. It starts with nuggety chunks of batter-fried chicken glazed with a sweet and spicy sauce made with chicken stock, soy sauce and oyster sauce. Crushed cashews and a few chopped scallions are tossed on top, and centuries of parallel cultural evolution meld into one beautiful box.

Leong’s son operates a modern sitdown spot bearing the family name on the south side of town, and if you’re in a situation where it makes sense to settle into a comfy chair with icy air conditioning and have a cocktail, it’s worth a pilgrimage. The best of the cashew chickens we tried on our visit, though, came from the drive-thru at Cashew Station a few miles away. The spicy cashew chicken there has thin, crisp breading that comes alive under a drizzle of a light sauce peppered with chili seeds and nut bits. It’s less than seven bucks for a meal, and there’s a park right across the street if you’re looking to picnic. —Martin Cizmar

GO: Springfield is 160 miles south. From I-49, take exit 157 for Route 7 and follow forty miles to Route 13. Take Route 13 south for 90 miles. To get to Cashew Station, take a left onto Battlefield Road and look for the restaurant on the right after a mile and a half.

While you’re there: Springfield is the birthplace of Bass Pro Shops, which are as much amusement parks as retail outlets. So it’s fitting that the founder put the massive Wonders of Wildlife museum next to HQ. The museum is 350,000 square feet and includes a million-and-a-half gallon aquarium and taxidermied animals in elaborate scenes from the native Ozark forest to the Amazon rain forest.

Ha Ha Tonka is one of the most photogenic spots in the state of Missouri

Back in 1903, Kansas City natural gas baron Robert McClure Snyder decided to build an Ozarkian oasis on a bluff above one of the state’s largest natural springs, where cool, pure green waters flow up from the earth.

No expense was spared by Snyder—the visionary owner brought over Scottish stone-masons to employ traditional European techniques with local stone—but after he died in one of the city’s first auto accidents, the unfinished estate suffered a series of setbacks before finally burning to the ground.

Today this popular state park has a network of trails mostly covered by boardwalks, which protect the spring-sodden ground around the emerald-green lagoon of fresh springwater that feeds into the Lake of the Ozarks.

The parking lot near the castle is tiny and overrun, so get there on a loop from the Post Office Shelter trailhead. Follow the blue trail down the hill to the lagoon, take the boardwalk over it, and climb the stairs two-hundred vertical feet to the top of the bluffs. From there, follow the red trail to the other side of the lagoon and the castle ruins overlooking it. Double back on the red trail after exploring the ruins, then stay on top of the ridge and follow the rest of the blue trail loop back to your car. —Martin Cizmar

GO: From I-49 south, take exit 157 for Route 7. Follow Route 7 for 67 miles to Warsaw. Take a right onto US-65 south. Follow US-65 south for 25 miles, then take a left onto US-54 east. Go 25 miles east on US 54 to Missouri D. Take a right on Missouri D and go 2 1/2 miles to the Post Office Shelter parking lot. The trailhead is on the north side of Missouri D.

Buy sliders by the sack in Salina

Stop at the Cozy Inn for a sack of sliders and you’ll smell like onions for the rest of the day. But it’s so worth it.

The tiny town of Salina’s iconic burger joint opened in 1922, a year after White Castle debuted the slider just an hour and a half south in Wichita.

The onion-packed patties at the Cozy Inn are smashed thin and grilled on a grease-dripped flattop—current owner Steve Howard confirms it’s the same one that was used on opening day almost a century ago. “It’s got a little warp to it, but it still works great,” Howard says. “We clean it every night with a little oil and a lot of elbow grease.”

Whether you order inside the tiny six-seat building or at the walk-up window, you’ll be asked three questions: “How many?” “All the way?” (ketchup, mustard and pickle—no cheese on these burgers) and “Chips or drink?” Remember: The onions aren’t optional. —Nicole Bradley

GO: Take I-70 to Topeka until you hit the Salina exit. Follow North Ninth Street. Take a left on West Iron Avenue, then a left on Seventh Street. You’ll see Cozy’s neon sign and red-and-white-striped awnings.

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