Choose your adventure: 16 safe summer day trips to get you outside

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 16 great day trips from Kansas City. We picked spots that are safely spacious—think secluded hikes, prairie ghost town and massive earthen mounds—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.

We’ve selected 16 of the best day trips between one and four hours from KC. They’re broken up by four themes: culture, food, adventure and history. They’re organized by distance, starting with trips that are just an hour from town. There are four adventures in each direction and for each theme. So if you’re headed east, we’ve got four adventures on the way with four different themes; if you’re into food, we’ve got four adventures in different directions. Have fun out there!

Travel Necessities

Things are still a little crazy out there right now—you may find that public facilities you’d expect to rely on in places like parks are closed or unsafe. Be self-reliant by bringing essentials with you.

  • Bottled water
  • Toilet paper and trowel
  • Hand sanitizer or soap, extra water and paper towels
  • Masks
  • Gloves
  • Granola bars or other snacks
  • Bug repellent
  • Sunscreen

One-Hour Road Trips

Adventure: The best hiking in the KC area is up in Weston

To stand on a rocky Missouri bluff while experiencing breathtaking views of rolling green hills, you need to take the quick trip up to Weston.

Weston Bend State Park has a few walking trails, but West Ridge Trail is the best: A large portion of the trail abuts the Missouri River and gives hikers sweeping views of the flowing water and the other side of the state line. West Ridge’s two-and-a-half-mile loop is moderately difficult with a few steep elevation changes, but the trail itself is pretty smooth. Still, it’s smart to be on the lookout for exposed roots, rocks and mini mudslides after a rainfall.

West Ridge easily connects to Harpst Trail and Paved Bicycle Loop. If you take the long loop through all three trails, it’ll take you about two-and-a-half hours. There’s a lookout point a few feet from the West Ridge Trailhead—we recommend saving this for the end of your hike as a reward for your efforts. The scenic overlook, a planked deck tapered around a tree, gives panoramic views of the state line river and Fort Leavenworth’s imperial-looking clocktower. —Nicole Bradley

GO: From I-29 north, take the Tracy exit to 273 west and follow signs for Weston Bend State Park. Follow the park road to the last parking lot, where you will find the trailhead.

While you’re there: Visit O’Malley’s Pub. The historic bar sits six stories below the limestone bones of the old Weston Brewing company, which dates back to the mid-1800s.

History: Retrace the footsteps of an iconic American freedom fighter in Osawatomie

After a mob executed an abolitionist minister, John Brown vowed to “consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” He achieved that through martyrdom following his failed plot to raid a Virginia armory and free African Americans held in bondage across the South. But Brown first took up arms in defense of black personhood while living in a small cabin in the rural Kansas town of Osawatomie. There, the man who would become an icon of freedom engaged in battles during the “Bleeding Kansas” era, starting with his bold leadership in bringing frontier justice to some of the thugs responsible for the sacking of the peaceful abolitionist settlement of Lawrence. Of all Brown’s heroics, the most impressive may be the skirmish documented on the signs at the John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, where he led a severely outnumbered group of freedom fighters to a draw against a militia led by Missouri slaver John W. Reid. —Martin Cizmar

GO: From I-35 south, take the exit for Route 169 in Olathe and follow south for 30 miles to Osawatomie.

Culture: Walk through the earliest era of KC at Missouri Town 1855

While you’re there: Right outside the park you’ll find Jazzy B’s Diner, which has both traditional KC ’cue and sea-food. We like the funky blue cheese potato salad and a saucy brisket sandwich.

At Fleming Park in eastern Jackson County, you can glimpse KC life in another era. That starts on the way into Missouri Town 1855, where the buffalo roam, and continues inside the thirty acres set aside for the park. In these idyllic pastures, you’ll find antebellum homes and barns moved here for preservation, along with a working blacksmith shop firing a coal furnace and a dry goods store stocked with period products, some of which are for sale. When the park is open, expect to find reenactors dressed in period garb playfully encouraging you to vote in a mock election or giving a brief history of the Missouri mule. —Martin Cizmar

GO: Head east on I-70 or I-45 to I-470, then take exit 10A for Colbern Road. Follow signs to the park.

Food: Get nationally-recognized bread in charming downtown Lawrence

1900 Barker is a tiny bakery and coffee shop owned and operated by the Petrehn brothers—Taylor, the baker, and Reagan, the coffee guy. It’s just five years old and has been nominated for James Beard Awards the past three years, making it the only Lawrence establishment to have ever garnered a nomination for the prestigious national food awards.

From the outside, there’s not much to call your attention. The small white building was once home to a laundromat. The unremarkable exterior belies the wonders within. Before you pass through the glass door at 1900 Barker, a tempt-ing scent will reach you—a subtly sweet yeasty aroma that somehow smells the way a warm hug feels. Inside, it’s a sight to behold. There’s a glass pastry case filled with impossibly golden, many-layered croissants, pretty galettes finished with fresh fruit and perfect mini quiches. Behind the counter, racks and racks are stacked with an endless supply of naturally leavened bread, including long baguettes, oval olive and rosemary loaves, chunky hunks of cranberry almond, dark squares of Danish rye and round wheels of seeded multigrain sourdough. If you’d like your pick of the daily offerings, get to the shop early and be prepared for a short wait. It’s well worth it. —Natalie Gallagher

GO: Head west on I-70 to Lawrence and follow signs for downtown. From Massachusetts Avenue, go two blocks east on 19th Street to 1900 Barker.

Two-Hour Road Trips

History: The site of a brutal bludgeoning spree is now open to thrill-seekers and paranormal investigators

In the tiny Iowa town of Villisca sits a house that would be completely unassuming if it weren’t for the sign in the yard reading “Ax Murder House.”

On June 10, 1912, eight people were bludgeoned to death here. It’s believed that the killer(s) hid out in the attic while waiting for the family to return home from a church function. After everyone fell asleep, the killer(s) emerged and bludgeoned Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children and two young girls spending the night. The investigation yielded a number of suspects, but nobody was ever convicted, and the case remains unsolved to this day.

The house was a rental for many years before being restored to its original condition in the nineties—the owners removed the electricity, plumbing and garage and added an outhouse, chicken coop and barn. The house has been the subject of a number of books and movies and has been featured on paranormal docu-reality shows such as Ghost Adventures and Most Terrifying Places in America.

Today, the house operates as a museum and tourist attraction. Visitors can take tours during the day for ten dollars. The tour includes a video and a quick lesson on the history of the house. Then the tour guide will leave you and your group alone with the house—and whatever other residents may still be there. For true thrill-seekers and paranormal enthusiasts, a group of six or fewer can reserve the entire house for overnight tours and investigations for just four hundred twenty-eight.—Ethan Evans

GO: Take I-29 north to St. Joseph, then take exit 56A to get onto US-71 north and go 66 miles to Villisca. Take a right on High Street, a right on 5th Avenue and then a left onto East 2nd Street.

Food: A new hatchling joins the generations-old chicken fight in a Kansas mining town

It’s no secret that for the past eighty years, the town of Pittsburg, Kansas, has been embodied in a fried chicken feud. After their husbands were injured in the dangerous coal mines that dominated the local economy at the time, two women—one named Mary, the other Annie—started rival fried chicken stands a few hundred feet away from each other on a country road.

You may not know that they’re still squabbling down in Southeast Kansas. Today, the rivalry between the originals on the rural north side of town seems to have cooled while a fresher fight between Chicken Annie’s Original and Pichler’s Chicken Annie’s has picked up steam.

As with any small-town feud, it’s not something an outsider can get to the bottom of while parachuting in (“Oh, we all get along great!” said one server; “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” grumbled another), but the good news for road-tripping diners is that you don’t really need to pick a side.

Mary’s, Annie’s and the other Annie’s all make basically the same lightly seasoned brand of bird (Mary’s batters with egg and milk while both Annie’s only use egg) and serve it with sides like tangy German-style slaw, green beans and chip-chopped fried onions. I preferred Chicken Mary’s—which was also the busiest spot in town on a Friday night during quarantine—but there’s no wrong choice among them. —Martin Cizmar

GO: The originals are 120 miles due south on US-69. From the highway, turn left onto E. 600th Avenue and look for Mary’s, followed shortly by Annie’s.

Adventure: An abandoned town is as cool as it is creepy

Type “Dunlap, Kansas” into Google Maps, and there sits a small square around an unincorporated town on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills.

Dunlap was once a town for Exodusters—freed slaves fleeing to Kansas—during the Reconstruction Era that followed the Civil War. Exoduster Benjamin “Pap” Singleton migrated to Dunlap from Tennessee and started a colony there in 1880. Life for the Exodusters wasn’t easy. They were forced to segregate and treated poorly by white settlers. There was even a separate cemetery for Exodusters.

The population of Dunlap dwindled around the time of the Great Depression, and the town filed for bankruptcy. In 1988, Dunlap’s post office shut its doors, and in 1993, Dunlap’s last black resident was buried in the colored cemetery. Not much is there today. A few deserted homes and an abandoned high school gymnasium still stand despite the school being demolished over a decade ago. One poignant reminder of the town’s history is the Colored Cemetery. The Dunlap City Cemetery sits right on the edge of town while the Colored Cemetery, which was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, is about a half mile out in the rolling Kansas hills. —Nicole Bradley

GO: Take I-70 to Topeka. Hop on I-470 and take the Kansas Turnpike. Take exit 147 toward US-56/Council Grove/Osage City/Admire. Take US-56 until you hit Road F, then take F until Road 290, which will take you into Dunlap.

Culture: Stroll the original Main Street, USA

Back in February, Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes rode down Main Street, USA, at Walt Disney World. What took him thousands of miles and a Superbowl victory is much simpler for the rest of us: Hop in the car and drive a couple of hours to Marceline, Missouri—home of the original Main Street, USA. Marceline (population 2,233) was Walt Disney’s hometown, and its Main Street is the model he mandated for the Main Streets at his theme parks around the world.

Walt’s father, Elias Disney, brought the family here in 1906 to start a forty-eight-acre farm. Although the family left four years later, when Walt was nine, the town held a place in his imagination.

“More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened in the past or are likely to happen in the future,” Walt once said.

Start your trip at Ma Vic’s Corner Cafe for a Dusty Miller, the ice cream treat original to Marceline since the early 1900s. From there, it’s just a few steps to the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, a ten-thousand-square-foot, two-story structure housed in the 1913 Santa Fe Railway Station. Walt’s only sister, Ruth Disney Becher, gifted thousands of family artifacts to the museum. On the grounds you’ll find the resto-ration of the Midget Autopia Ride, the only ride to leave Disneyland and be operated outside of a Disney property. You can walk or pedal your way around the track in your own custom Autopia car.

Nearby is a bandshell that’s familiar from Disney films. Note that the marquee proclaims the “World Premiere of the Great Locomotive Chase”—Walt and his brother Roy came home in 1956 for the premiere and greeted each child as they entered the theater. Walt addressed the crowd on that occasion: “You children are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.”

In attendance was a little girl named Kaye Malins, who grew up to become the director of the Disney Museum.

Even the post office here, named for Walt Disney, is unique—they stamp mail with a one-of-a-kind cancellation. Not far away is the Disney Farm and Barn, which has a replica of the barn. Walt kept the blueprints of the original structure, such was his obsession with this little town. —John C. Tibbetts

GO: Marceline is 135 miles from Kansas City. Take I-35 north to Cameron, then go east on US-36 for 70 miles and watch for the sign to Marceline.

Three-Hour Road Trips

Culture: 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.

Food: 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.

Photo by Rebecca Norden & Caleb Condit

Adventure: 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.

History: Buy sliders by the sack at a historical diner 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.

Four-Hour Road Trips

Culture: Pose for a portrait in front of one of the most iconic backdrops in American art

There are no stoplights in Eldon, a tiny town nestled deep between the rolling green hills and golden cornfields of southern Iowa. There’s a small grocery store ten miles away; you’ll have to drive an hour and a half to Iowa City if you want to find a Starbucks. All things considered, it’s a surprising place to find the inspiration for one of the world’s most iconic paintings.

You don’t need to be an art savant to recognize Grant Wood’s seminal 1930 masterpiece “American Gothic.” The portrait of a dour farmer father and his daughter (Wood’s sister and his dentist, in fact, both of whom he asked to pose for the painting) in front of a humble white house with its ostentatious gothic window has been parodied countless times in editorial cartoons, advertisements and magazine covers. When you visit the original American Gothic House in Eldon, the visitor center happily provides costumes and props for you to recreate your own portrait, from the overalls and patterned apron down to the cameo hayfork and necklace.

Most of the time, the house is closed to visitors. There is something surreal about seeing the small home in person, though you’ll have to content yourself with posing in front of it and walking around the well-kept lawn. The visitor center, open a few hours each month, contains a compact room packed with information about Wood’s life and work, as well as the history of the house—it was built in 1881, and Wood only visited it twice.

“American Gothic” is often interpreted as a satirical work, but that was never Wood’s intention. Rather, his aim was to exalt the Midwestern spirit: There is admiration in the fine lines of his subjects’ faces and fastidious attention to detail in the pattern on the window curtains. —Natalie Gallagher

GO: Eldon is 225 miles from KC. From I-35 north, take exit 92 for US-136 east. US-136 east merges with US 63 north after 90 miles. Continue on US-63 and follow for 12 miles to Floris Road. Take Floris Road to downtown Eldon, then take a left on Ninth Street, a right on Elm Street and a left on Finney.

While you’re there: Not far from Eldon is the small town of Ottumwa, where you’ll find the state of Iowa’s signature sandwich at Canteen Lunch in the Alley. Inside this squat yellow building, there’s a horseshoe bar wrapped around the restaurant’s centerpiece: a freestanding metal steamer that cooks over a hundred and fifty pounds of ground beef daily, seasoned only with salt. Loose-meat sandwiches here are available with cheese and “everything” (ketchup, mustard, pickle and onion). They’re four dollars and ten cents, and they’re utterly satisfying.

Adventure: Northwest Arkansas has some of America’s finest mountain biking

You don’t have to be in Bentonville long to realize that biking isn’t just an afterthought; it’s become integral to the culture of this thriving northwest Arkansas community. The energy and passion from the locals (and the Walton family) have helped grow this town into a biking destination for cyclists of all pursuits and skill levels. Trails here serve as a network of roots, which are all interconnected and lead back to the town as a central hub. The accessibility of these trails, both in location and degrees of difficulty, is impressive.

Bentonville has employed professional trail builders to build miles of trails that are not only enjoyable to ride but easy to work into daily life. You can commute to work by bike without leaving the trails. One of the most unique features of the system is that trails are integrated into the infrastructure, allowing riders to explore all of Bentonville by bike. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is located within pedaling distance from the downtown square and features a bikeable art trail that meanders past sculptures and waterways. Hotels, restaurants and coffee shops are all within riding distance of mountain bike trails. Phat Tire, a full-service bike shop located on the town square, offers everything you need to get your bike on the trails, as well as guided tours, shuttles and bike rentals.

Here’s the lowdown on three trails to get you started. —Kim Horgan

Slaughter Pen is a twenty-plus-mile, moderately trafficked loop of flowy singletrack mountain biking trail that runs past the Crystal Bridges Museum and includes difficulty levels from beginner to expert.

Color Preserve trails are built on land designated as a mountain bike preserve but located only two miles from downtown Bentonville. Coler features miles of flowy, technical, rocky trails with several jump features. It is one of the state’s most challenging enduro-style trails.

Razorback Regional Greenway is a collection of nineteen interconnected bike trails covering thirty-six miles and connecting Bentonville, Fayetteville and their suburbs. It’s entirely off-road or protected bike lanes. The Lake Springdale section is particularly scenic.

GO: Fayetteville is 225 miles south on I-49.

While you’re there: As home to one of the world’s most successful corporations, Bentonville has an embarrassment of cultural riches. None are more impressive than the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, home to everything from Gilbert Stuart’s definitive portrait of George Washington to modern icons by Warhol and Rothko. The museum is free.

History: The most impressive native American ruins north of Mexico

There was a time when St. Louis was the largest city in the country. Well, not St. Louis, exactly, but Cahokia, the Native American settlement on the eastern shore of the Mississippi. Archaeologists believe it was as large as London during the High Middle Ages, around the time William the Conqueror was leading the Norman Conquest of England. Monk’s Mound is the largest Native American mound north of Mexico and one of only two dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the United States. It rises a hundred feet over East St. Louis, offering views of the arch and the city skyline. —Martin Cizmar

GO: Cahokia is 258 miles east of Kansas City. Take I-70 east to exit 6, then go east on Collinsville Road to the mounds.

While you’re there: Once the largest train station in the world, St. Louis’ Union Station is now home to attractions including the new St. Louis Aquarium, a massive aquatic attraction with 13,000 animals including a massive shark exhibit and adorable otters. The aquarium opened last Christmas and has quickly risen to one of the top tourism destinations in STL.

Culture: Little Sweden, USA, is in Kansas

Walking down the street of Lindsborg, Kansas, is like walking through a storybook.

Sprinkled throughout the cobblestone street town are Swedish boutiques, herds of painted Dala horses, art galleries and colorful dollhouse bed and breakfasts.

The town of Lindsborg was settled in and built up by Swedish immigrants in 1869. Today, thirty percent of Lindsborg’s three thousand-resident population are natively Swedish. So don’t be surprised if, when walking down the streets of Lindsborg, someone wishes you “god dag” (for non-Swede folk, that means “good day”).

Across the street from Lindsborg’s Smoky Valley Roller Mill, which once operated as a national flour mill in the 1880s, is Heritage Square, a photogenic fenced-off plaza of colorful historic buildings including a one-room school-house, a railroad depot and the first McPherson County Courthouse. The Swedish Pavilion that sits at the north end of the square was brought over from Sweden for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

If you’re in town and in need of a pick-me-up, I recommend stopping by the Blacksmith Coffee Shop, which is in a century-old building that once operated as an actual blacksmith shop. The almond-flavored cafe latte is divine. —Nicole Bradley

GO: Take the scenic route on this one—drive two hours south-west on I-35 until you reach Emporia, then hop on US-50 to pass through Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve, just north of Strong City. Take US-150, which turns into US-56, until you hit I-135 and go north. Get off on the Smoky Valley Road exit. Take a right on 14th Avenue, then a left on E. Lincoln Street, which will take you into town.

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