Well, after an 18-month hiatus, we got our RV out of storage and started our travel adventures again. It’s been long overdue and definitely needed. For the first trip of the summer, we decided to head a bit south and east for a Tour of America’s Heartland. Our trip took us out of Colorado, into Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, back through Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. It was a terrific loop with many new unexpected sights and experiences. Follow along for some insight on traveling through this part of our beautiful country.
When we decided to head to Arkansas, we wanted to keep with our past travel plans and stay on two-lane roads whenever possible. This made it easy for us to plan our way out of Colorado and gave us an easy route to our final destination. We hopped on US 50, south of Pueblo, and headed east. This was an interesting drive as we got to drive through all the farmland in southeastern Colorado that is famous for cantaloupe (Rocky Ford) and our beef. It’s really a pretty drive seeing all the farming and the tiny communities along the route. Too bad that the produce isn’t available yet because I can imagine the farmer’s markets in the area are pretty amazing.
Speaking of US 50, I learned on our trip that it is the longest US Hwy in America, stretching all the way from Maryland to California. I knew that we have been on other parts of HWY 50 in other states before so this was a surprise to read this along the way. A neat tidbit of information. Now taking a coast-to-coast trip would be fun knowing that you can follow one 2-lane highway!
One thing that we noticed right away is that there would be a lack of National Forests, BLM land, and dispersed camping opportunities on this trip. That’s ok though because we have only stayed at a couple of state parks over the past few years and we knew that this would be a fun opportunity to try something new and have access to utilities that we normally forgo.
John Martin Reservoir State Park. Lamar, Colorado
We got lucky finding John Martin Reservoir State Park between Las Animas and Lamar on the far southeastern side of the state. The park actually crosses the Santa Fe Trail and is renowned for its water sporting activities and fishing. They have tons of RV camp spots (over 200) and a secret dispersed camping area on the backside of the reservoir on the shores of the lake. All you need is a Colorado fishing license to camp in this area and you are good to go. We chose this option and glad that we did as it was a perfect spot for the first night.
I have only driven through Kansas once. It was across the state on Interstate 70 when I moved to Colorado over 30 years ago. A lot has changed since then (obviously) but one thing that I do now that I didn’t do then, is to take the road less traveled. It is quite something to see and understand a place when you take the back roads. To me, this is so important when you really want to “see” something. Seeing America this way has opened my eyes to so many incredible sites and insight into how Americans live. It’s really quite amazing. Kansas is not a boring drive like I remember as a young woman.
The farming operations are incredible to see. Everything is done on such a large scale. Yeah, you see a farm, but that farm goes back miles from the road. Hundreds of thousands of acres. The feedlots, yeah, you see a few cows until you look over the berm and there are thousands of them. You know that you are coming into a town, not because there is a sign, but you see enormous grain elevators towering over the countryside. These structures are huge and part of some Co-op that is accessed by the train line. It’s amazing what goes into feeding America and the world for that matter. A drive through western Kansas will certainly give you a new appreciation for the food that goes on your table.
Garden City and Dodge City
There are two towns that are worth a visit when you drive through western Kansas. Garden City and Dodge City. Either place is a great place to gas up and pick up essentials that you may need.
Garden City is a charming city that even has a full-fledged zoo complete with rhinos, lions, and giraffes. I didn’t expect a zoo in the middle of farm country but there it was and it’s free for a walk-through. The town itself is neat and tidy, has many family-friendly activities. We did some work at their lovely library that also has beautiful outdoor gardens.
Headed to Dodge…
We have all heard of Dodge City if you paid attention to US history in high school. “Famous for its rich history as a frontier cowtown, Dodge City offers up a wide array of legends, lore, and history to travelers in western Kansas. Once called home or visited by such notables as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, and Clay Allison, this old town had a reputation for being the most wicked town in the Old West“.
Dodge City is worth a visit for sure. They have a brand new museum on “Boot Hill”, a nice walking tour of the town and a “Hollywood” like “walk of fame” for all the stars in the tv show Gunsmoke. Dodge City is a fun place to get a nice dose of the history of the wild west until it’s time to “Get the Hell out of Dodge”! LOL!
Horsethief Reservoir is a new reservoir near Jetmore, KS which is about 20 minutes north of Dodge City. It is in the middle of nowhere but offers terrific camping with full hookups and lovely facilities for a small fee. Opportunities for camping in this part of Kansas are extremely limited. This area was a welcomed respite for a very hot day on the road.
North Central Oklahoma
When you cross the border between Kansas to northern Oklahoma, the scenery changes completely. It goes from flat and dry, to hilly and wooded. It’s like a switch gets flipped. Agriculture also changes. It goes from huge commercial farming outfits (crops and animals) to more of a ranching persona where cows are grazing in the wide-open fields. If I were a cow, I’d much rather be one in OK than living on a feedlot in KS. Either way, each state is pretty desolate in terms of population. There are many boarded-up small towns and not a lot of people. It’s actually pretty sad seeing all these towns that no longer exist in these areas.
One of many things that Oklahoma does right is its state parks. We chose to drive through Oklahoma because of the perfectly spread-out state park system. It was easy for us to plan the trip based on the parks both on our way out and back.
Salt Plains State Park. Jet, Oklahoma
Salt Plains State Park and lake, is adjacent to the Salt Plains National Wildlife refuge. This area was formed from prehistoric days when the area was the ocean. When it dried up, it left behind these great big salt fields and a lake that is half as salty as the ocean. It’s quite impressive and fascinating to see this appear amongst all the farms.
This area is a birders and wildlife seekers paradise. There is also plenty of swimming, fishing, and hiking to take advantage of. Boating is not recommended though because the lake is so shallow but I’d think paddleboarding, canoeing, and kayaking would be a lot of fun on this lake.
One thing that is unique about the area is that you can go Selenite Crystal digging. Oklahoma is the only place in the world where the hourglass-shaped selenite crystal can be found. That’s pretty neat in my book! This is a free activity that is open to the public. Just check in with the park ranger to get more info on times.
Pawhuska is one of those towns that was once clearly boarded up until the onset of the Pioneer Woman who has a show on the Food Network. I had no idea that this is the area of Oklahoma that she calls home. Thanks to her, Pawhuska is changing for the better since she opened her Mercantile. She is prompting other businesses to come in and do the same. It’s a neat thing to see a town come back to life.
Martin Scorsese also caught wind of this town and is filming Killers of the Flower Moon there as we speak. It was very unexpected to roll into a small town, in the middle of nowhere, and stumbling upon a movie set. I’m not a movie watcher but this may be an interesting take on the formation of the FBI and the tragedies that happened to the Native American community. I’ll read the book first and will probably watch the movie when it comes out.
Like all small towns in Oklahoma, nothing is open on Sundays. So plan for this. It’s impossible to find a cup of coffee in Oklahoma on a Sunday.
Osage Falls State Park
We camped at Osage Falls State Park outside of town. It’s a pretty park that has some great opportunities for swimming in the river. If rope swinging, jumping off rock cliffs, sitting under waterfalls, or just sunbathing on the warm rocks is your thing, then this is a fun place to spend an afternoon and evening. There are also some nice hiking trails, tennis, and cabins available.
The headliner picture in this post is the river that runs through Osage Falls State Park.
The last stop before going into Oklahoma was Vinita. It’s a worthwhile stop and a look around. They have a great library with free wi-fi and a nice downtown with a coffee shop and other places to pop in. I added to my Wager Ware cast iron collection from an old antique store in town.
Vinita also happens to be on Historic Route 66 and the hometown of Dr. Phil (LOL). Its history is a lot like many small-town American towns, however, this one was named after a lady named Vinnie Ream who happened to be the sculptor who made the Lincoln Statue that sits in the US Capitol Rotunda.
Vinita is at the base of the Ozarks Highlands and a nice place to see how the landscape will change very quickly as you get into Arkansas.
Thanks for following along on part one of the Tour of America’s Heartland. Part Two coming soon!
Check out other amazing trips over the years