A rejuvenating weekend of epic beauty and sublime calm on the open range in the Flint Hills of Kansas
I had just finished soaking up the last bit of syrup with my French toast when the waitress at the diner inquired about my plans for the weekend. I took the opportunity to ask for her advice.
“The antique store is having a tea,” she said.
That wasn’t the only thing going on in the town of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, population 875, on this overcast weekend.
“Do you like to skip stones?” she asked. “People like to do that out at the lake.”
Have you ever planned a weekend trip so full of activities that you returned home exhausted? I have. I had just returned from a weekend in Chicago that involved two days of non-stop walking in order to hit every place on my list.
If you feel the need for something totally different — a weekend with no checklists or schedules in a place with the purest silence you’ll ever hear — a trip to the Flint Hills might be exactly what you’re looking for. The gently sloping prairie that runs like a spine up the height of Kansas is a place where time goes slower. It’s a place where you’ll be awed by watching buffalo graze on the untouched prairie lands that once covered this continent. And it’s a place where Midwesterners come to realize we have epic vistas every bit as dramatic as any mountain or beach.
The key to a relaxing getaway is finding the right lodging. The place to stay in the Flint Hills is the Millstream Resort Motel (401 Mill St., Cottonwood Falls, Kan. 620-273-8114), a tiny historic limestone building where the wooden doors open with a quick pull of a leather strap. This homey retreat is situated in a grove of trees and backs up to the Cottonwood River. Sharon Clute, who owns the motel with her husband Richard, gave me a tour of every room — there are only four — and a small private cabin. Each room has wooden floors, handpicked antiques and walls decorated with photographs taken by visiting artists. You’ll find old books, unique lamps and cowboy hats hanging on steer horns. Rooms have balconies on the back with chairs that face the grounds. In the morning, you can drink coffee outside while listening to the water rushing over the falls just across the courtyard. In the evening, you’ll enjoy relaxing by the river under a canopy of cottonwoods near the firepit.
Dinner at Grand Central Hotel Grill
Just a short walk from the motel, you’ll arrive at the Grand Central Hotel (215 Broadway St., Cottonwood Falls, Kan., 620-273-6763, grandcentralhotel.com), an elegant brick building in the middle of downtown Cottonwood Falls. Built in 1884, the hotel features a restaurant that is the go-to place for fine dining and drinks. It offers standard dishes such as steak, grilled chicken and shrimp in a small room just off the main entrance. There’s also a bar tucked away in the back if you’d like a pre-dinner drink. You’ll want to save room for dessert. The lemon Italian creme cake, a slightly sweet tower of citrusy delight, is highly recommended. Or, to satisfy a chocolate craving, try the warm chocolate fudge cake with two scoops of ice cream. You can burn off the calories on your walk back to the motel — if you circle the block 87 times.
Brunch at Keller Feed and Wine
Keller Feed and Wine (317 Broadway St., Cottonwood Falls, Kan., 620-273-5016) is a delightful storefront diner in the center of town. The colorful twinkle lights on the ceiling and historical signs adorning the walls make this place instantly cozy and familiar. The restaurant’s weekend brunch will have you coming back for more. (Literally, you will be back the next day.) I highly recommend the French toast. The chunky boulders of soft French bread with a side dollop of whipped cream are breakfast perfection. The service team here is wonderful and genuinely friendly. Walls are filled with old maps and photographs, and staff invite you to take them down off the wall for closer inspection, if you are so inclined. My favorite was a photo of the old horse-drawn streetcars that used to run through town in the early 1900s.
Antiques and artifacts
After brunch you can walk right out the door of the diner and into a number of antique stores. Tallgrass Antiques (314 Broadway St., Cottonwood Falls, Kan., 620-794-1750) is filled with architectural salvage, vintage dishware and primitives. Try Prairie PastTimes Arts and Crafts (220 ½ Broadway St., Cottonwood Falls, Kan., 620-273-6003) for original artwork and handmade jewelry and, on Friday nights, live music. After shopping, walk over to the Chase County Courthouse (300 Pearl St., Cottonwood Falls, Kan.). The striking French Renaissance structure is the state’s oldest county courthouse still in use. Just around the corner is the Chase County Historical Museum and Library (301 Broadway St. Cottonwood Falls, Kan., 620-273-8500), where you can peruse cowboy memorabilia, look at old farming tools and study Victorian artifacts.
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Just a 10-minute drive from town is the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve (2480B Kansas 177, Strong City, Kan., 620-273-8494, nps.gov/tapr). Allow plenty of time to explore the more than 40 miles of trails on almost 11,000 acres of vast, open prairie. You’ll want to start your hike at the visitor center, which is two miles north of where U.S. Route 50 intersects with Kansas Highway 177. There you can park your car, pick up a trail map and visit a few of the historical buildings before heading out on the trails.
Note: Bicycles are not allowed on the hiking trails. However, 17 miles north, at Council Grove, there’s an access point to the Flint Hills Trail State Park, which offers 117 miles of old railroad bed that’s perfect for biking.
Start with a little exploration of the area originally known as the Spring Hill/Z Bar Ranch. The origins of the ranch date back to 1878, when Stephen and Louisa Jones purchased the 7,000 acres of land that became the Tallgrass Preserve in 1996. The Joneses also built the Lower Fox Creek School at Tallgrass, where their daughter attended class. Tour the ranch house, a limestone mansion built in 1881 that was the main residence for the Jones family. Then explore the massive three-story barn, carriage house and ice house. After gaining a sense of what ranch life was like in the late 1800s, it’s time to explore the prairie on a long hike.
As fascinating as the history of the ranch is, the prairie is the thing that stays with you. When you walk into the open prairie, you are surrounded in every direction by rolling fields that seem to go on forever. Take time to breathe it all in. Stay until the sun sets. Watch as the evening light bathes the grass and wildflowers with a golden hue and then disappears into the stillness.
Dinner at Ad Astra
Ad Astra, a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars,” is not only part of the Kansas state motto but also a wonderful little restaurant just five miles from the Tallgrass Preserve. Ad Astra Food and Drink (318 Cottonwood St., Strong City, Kan., 620-273-8440, adastrafoodanddrink.com) is a great place to enjoy a meal after you’ve spent an evening under the prairie stars. The food is delicious, often featuring locally sourced meats and vegetables. A wide variety of locally brewed craft beers are offered as well. There are plenty of menu items for vegetarians, too, such as the roasted sweet potato burger with goat cheese and balsamic dressing, which pairs well with the fresh fried potato chips. Save room for homemade ice cream, and if time allows, go back the next day for happy hour, when they serve $1 beers.
Head back to Keller Feed and Wine and this time, if you can resist the French toast, try the biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits. The restaurant’s specials change regularly, so there’s always something new on the menu. Dessert after breakfast (that’s a thing, right?) might be chocolate caramel cake, pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate-pecan banana bread or mixed berry cobbler.
The Falls at the Lake
After brunch it’s time to explore the area. First stop is Chase State Fishing Lake (1461 Lake Rd., Cottonwood Falls, Kan.), just two miles from Cottonwood Falls. As you approach the 109-acre lake, park by the dam, follow the path across it, then turn left. The trail will lead you to the falls — a waterfall in three sections below the spillway of the lake. They’re surprisingly full, especially after some rain. There’s also fishing at the lake and a small beach area for swimming, skipping rocks and looking for turtles.
Cedar Point Mill and the Stone Arch Bridge
The Drinkwater & Schriver Flour Mill (Main Street & First Street, Cedar Point, Kan., 816-808-1610, cedarpointmill.com) sits along the Cottonwood River. A three-story stone mill built in 1875, it was an important part of the Cedar Point community, especially during the Great Depression. Today it’s in bad shape, but the good news is that the mill’s 42-inch thick walls still rest on solid bedrock, and efforts are underway to restore the building. Another point of interest in the area is the Clements Stone Arch Bridge, just six miles from Cedar Point (south of Highway U.S. Route 50 in Clements, Kan.). The two-span stone arch bridge was built in 1886 and, along with the mill, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
After seeing these sights, it’s worth trying to stop by the prairie for one last meditative walk. You might find yourself wanting to stay longer, to hang on to that feeling of calm as you stand surrounded by fields so endless it seems as though you are staring at the ocean. The sounds of civilization dissolve away until all you hear is the wind. You have traded checklists and schedules for a brush with the ethereal.