New at the 2017 Kansas State Fair

The state fair is in full swing, and this over 100-year-old celebration has some new things. Here are our recommendations.

Pronto Pup t-shirts

Don’t you dare call it a corn dog! The pronto pup is a fair classic and there are at least three spots around the fairgrounds to get one, but only next to the Lair White House and the arena can you get a shirt proclaiming your love of this fair food. $21 a shirt with kids and adult sizes and a few different colors.

Flippin‘ – Acrobat and aerialist show

Where last year ther was a dog show, this year there is an acrobat show. With family members starring, there is a combination of trapeze style work and impressive balance acts with a steampunk theme.

There are no nets or padded mats below the performers and it’s a great great show! Show up 20 minutes or so ahead of time to get a seat.

Free. Shows at Gottschalk Park at 11am, 1:30pm, 6:30pm

Food

There are a handful of new dishes serve up around the fairgrounds. We tried the ‘roni dog’ – a hot dog topped with macaroni and cheese and bacon bits from Carousel Cafe.

One of the best things about the dish is that it’s the right size for one person. If you have a hankering for turkey leg, for example, you had better have some people to share it with since they’re so big. But the roni dog is just right.

Lair White House

Each year there is a different display at the little fair museum, and this year it’s on the special food contests from Pillsbury Pie competitions to the (in)famous SPAM contest.

To toot our own horn a bit, a lot of the SPAM items on display come from the Kansas Trail Guide family.

Free.

Escape Room

For $25, you and up to 7 friends, you get half an hour to get out of a specially designed ‘escape room.’ With hidden clues and the promise of ice cream if you figure it out in the time limit, it’s a fun challenge.

Kids 10 and under free. In front of the Encampment Building. Open 9am to 9pm.

Eat, Play, Stay: Topeka

Topeka, along the Kansas River, has a number of great trails (including near Cedar Crest, the Governor’s Mansion), interesting history, and an active arts scene. Check out our recommendations of where to eat, what to see, and where to stay while you’re in the capital city.

Eat

Hanover Pancake House (1034 S. Kansas Ave. Open 6:30am to 3pm Sundays, 6:30am to 2:30pm Monday through Saturday).

In business since 1969, this mainstay diner style restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, and it was voted Topeka’s Best Place for Breakfast in 2016.

Order up! The Burger Stand

Burger Stand (1601 SW Lane Street, College Hill. Open 11am to 10pm Sunday and 11am to 2am Monday through Saturday).

It’s impossible to pick one best burger here, but I’m a fan of the Smoke (Applewood smoked bacon, gouda cheese & chipotle-cocoa ketchup) and Black & Blue (Blue cheese & granny smith apple chutney).

The restaurant has a couple of dining areas, and they’ve got a pool table, foosball table, and pinball machines. The service was quick, and the food delicious.

Hazel Hill Chocolate (724 S. Kansas Avenue. Open 10am to 7pm. Closed Mondays).

Handmade in small batches on-site, the chocolate treats here are incredible. You can get just one, with truffles costing $2.25, or you can stock up and get them by the box.

Moburt’s (820 S. Kansas Avenue. Open 10am to 6pm. Closed Sundays).

For your own cooking, you can add the gourmet touch with an impressively large range of salts, sugars, and spices — espresso sugar, wild blueberry sugar, Hawaiian black sea salt, gingered Thai sea salt, ground Vietnamese cinnamon, pretty much anything you can think of and many you wouldn’t have thought of before. The staff are great at advising for the best pairings.

Play

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (1515 SE Monroe Street. Open 9am to 5pm daily).

It’s a trailhead for the Landon Nature Trail, and it’s also the place to learn about the historic desegregation decision made in 1954 that helped change schools in America for the better with indoor and outdoor exhibits.

Kansas Children’s Discovery Center (4400 SW 10th Ave. Closed Monday, open 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Saturday, open 1pm to 5pm Sunday. Kids and adults $7.75, seniors $6.75, and under 12 months, free).

In the southwest corner of Gage Park, also home to the Topeka Zoo, is the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center filled with interactive exhibits. The outdoor classroom area has a zipline, music garden, treehouse and more. Inside, there is an art play space, puzzle garden, science gallery, and more with activities for babies, toddlers, and elementary school age kids.

NOTO Arts District (800 and 900 Block of North Kansas Avenue. Keep in mind that many of the shops are closed on Mondays and/or Tuesdays).

The best time to visit is for the First Friday Artwalk, but if you can’t make it then, there’s still plenty to see. A mix of artist studios, antique stores, boutiques and a handful of cafes.

See that statue on top? You can climb practically all the way to it!

Capitol Dome Tour (300 SW 10th Street. Tours are free and run Monday through Friday: 9:15, 10:15, 11:15 a.m., 12:15, 1:15, 2:15, 3:15 p.m. Saturday: 10:15, and 11:15 am., 12:15, 1:15, 2:15, and 3:15 pm. Keep in mind, if it’s too hot, tours will be cancelled).

296 steps and you’ll be at the top of the nation’s only state capitol dome where you can walk outside. The tour starts with checking out some of the capitol building’s many murals, and then you head behind the scenes and up, up, up.

It’s a bit intense if you’re scared of heights, but there are protective railings and a tour guide to put you at ease. And the views from the top, especially on a clear day, are impressive You can also turn back at any point. Read more about it here.

Ted Ensley Gardens (3650 SE West Edge Rd. Open 6am to 11pm).

You can boat, fish, sail, and swim at Lake Shawnee, but there’s more to the area than water activities. Along the west side of the lake are the Ted Ensley Gardens. Trails through the arboretum, a meditation garden, and over a thousand types of flowers and trees, it’s a pleasant, pretty spot.

View from a Capitol Plaza Hotel room

Stay

Capitol Plaza Hotel (1717 SW Topeka Boulevard. Rooms from $109).

Next to the Kansas Expocentre, the Capitol Plaza Hotel is a great place to stay. It’s pet-friendly and non-smoking complete with an indoor pool, hot tub whirlpool, and exercise room.

You get free WiFi throughout the hotel, and there are two restaurants — the Falling Water Grille and Water’s Edge Lounge.

There’s plenty of parking, the beds are comfy, and I must admit that even as an adult, I’m always a fan of glass elevators — this one overlooks the garden atrium.

Part of the Great Mural Wall of Topeka near the Capitol Plaza Hotel in summer 2016

It’s also a few minutes walk from the Great Wall of Topeka-Mural along SW Western.

Ramada Inn Downtown (420 SE 6th Avenue. Rooms from $84).

If you want to easily access history, stay at the Ramada Inn Downtown as it has the in-house Holley Museum of Military History. Along with this unexpected amenity, the hotel has three restaurants: Madison Street Diner, Maddie’s Cocktail Lounge, and Uncle Bo’s Bar, which has live bands every Friday and Saturday night.

Along with the seasonal outdoor pool, there’s an indoor pool and hot tub. Each room has a microwave and mini-fridge, and they have a free hot and tasty breakfast. You get free WiFi, and in the fitness center, you can take a yoga class.

What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with First Lady Mary Brownback of Kansas

We were honored to be invited to a reception at Cedar Crest Mansion in Topeka for the Kansas Book Festival this past September, and we were able to chat with First Lady Mary Brownback of Kansas. We reached out to her again recently to get her thoughts on what’s so special about the Sunflower State, and here’s what we found out!

Cedar Crest Mansion. Photo by Mark Conard

Cedar Crest has many trails close by – it’s particularly unique to have public trails so close to a governor’s mansion – what value do you feel public trails and public lands have in Kansas?

These public trails and lands give so many of our residents the opportunity to get out and enjoy nature, to see and experience so many new things.

I think about people living in large, metropolitan areas and, not that there aren’t opportunities for those people to enjoy the great outdoors, but it seems the opportunities are fewer and farther between.

Do you see a lot of trail users at MacLennan Park and Cedar Crest?

Every single day. Regardless of weather, there are plenty of people who will bring their dogs for walks on the trail. When the weather is nice though, the trails are full of walkers, runners, bikers and hikers, alike. There are many who come to fish at the ponds, as well.

What are some of the biggest Kansas misconceptions you think people have?

I think two of the biggest misconceptions about Kansas are that Kansas is flat and that there’s nothing to see or do here.

View from MacLennan Park. Photo by Jonathan Conard

Out of staters often think of Kansas as “flyover country” – what would you say to change their minds?

If they’re only flying over Kansas, they’re sure missing out on a lot. The Flint Hills are absolutely beautiful, the college and university campuses are wonderful and, in my travels across the state, I’ve seen some of the most unique main streets with artisan shops and local flair.

When you think of Kansas, what’s the image that comes to mind?

Without a doubt, I picture “home.” This is the state where I grew up, where I live among some of the friendliest people in the world. It’s where I’ve put down roots with my own family and raised my children. There’s no place I’d rather be.

For someone who’s never been to Kansas, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

There are so many great places to take a first-time visitor to our State. A walk around the campus of the University of Kansas (my alma mater!), the Flint Hills, the Kansas Cosmosphere and the salt mines in Hutchinson all immediately come to mind.

But there’s also the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays and the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield. So many great attractions that make Kansas such a special place.

At the Kansas Book Festival with Mary Brownback.

For someone who grew up in Kansas and feels like they’ve seen everything there, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

Many of my answers for this question could overlap with the question above. If you’ve grown up in Kansas, you’ve surely had a tour of the State Capitol. But with the recent renovations, that is definitely a site that you’ll want to plan to visit again; it’s absolutely beautiful.

If you’ve never been to Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Wichita or the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure in Salina, those are a couple of the more unique zoo experiences that you’ll find in this area.

Finally, most Kansans get a good laugh out of the fact that we’re home to several “world’s largest” sites but if you haven’t seen it before, the world’s largest hand dug well in Greensburg really is quite the sight.

What makes Kansas special for you?

Many of my fondest memories have taken place in Kansas. Having spent the majority of my life here, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. This is home.

Don’t miss the sandhill crane migration at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

From around Valentine’s Day to April Fool’s Day – the cranes come through Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Recent sightings at the refuge have included sandhill cranes in the thousands on the west side of Big Salt Marsh.

Kansas is a part of the “central flyway” – a migratory route for a variety of birds between Canada and Central America and the marshes and wetlands of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge provide an ideal resting and refueling spot.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Some crane facts

Sandhill cranes are passing through Kansas on their way north to breed from their southern wintering locales.  The birds, which can be 3-4 feet tall, gather in large groups during migration — strength in numbers.

At night, the waters and marshes are an ideal resting spot as any predator coming upon them will disturb the water, notifying the cranes that danger is near.

If you see two flying together, it’s likely a mated pair. If it’s three together, it’s likely to be a family group — juvenile cranes will stick with Mom and Dad for the first 10 months or so.

They can be noisy birds with distinct calls — rattling bugling type sounds that can be heard up to a mile away. Click to listen to them here.

They mate for life, which can be 20 years. Mate selection happens after courtship in the form of dancing — leaping, bobbing their heads, displaying their wings. One example is a male will fling a piece of grass or vegetation into the air as if to say “Look at me, choose me, I can build a good nest.”

They also have distinct “displays” and you can tell from their body language what they’re trying to say. Bowing, stretching their necks, jumping – each display communicates something unique.

Stop by Quivira National Wildlife Refuge — the Big Salt Marsh is one of the best places to see the cranes. It’s open daily from 1.5 hours before sunrise to 1.5 hours after sunset.

Kansas Day is on its way

Kansas was founded on January 29, 1861. It was the 34th state to join the Union, and it joined the Union as a free state. Slave owning was not acceptable in Kansas when it joined the Union. While not disparaging other states, the pride of always having been a state where all men and women are created equal can’t be denied. Kansas joined the Union as a free state, and it fought ferociously to defend that. Including one of the first battles of the Civil War – at Black Jack Battlefield. In trying times, it is reassuring to know that Kansas’s history shows it as a freedom loving state.

What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with George Frazier

We had the honor of meeting George Frazier, author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas at the Kansas Book Festival, and we reached out to ask him a few questions about what he feels is just so special about Kansas.

On a side note, his book is fantastic and highly recommended!

What inspired you to write your book The Last Wild Places of Kansas?

George: My entire life I’ve had a conflicted relationship with Kansas.

In school, when we sang “Home on the Range,” I wondered how we could countenance a state song that celebrated the buffalo when we had once tolerated their annihilation. Later, when I eventually started to notice the unique landscapes of northeast Kansas and decided to dig my heels into our prairie firma and learn about my home bioregion, I immediately ran into a (mostly figurative) wall of barbed wire.  98% of Kansas is privately owned, so getting access to wild places became my main problem.

Like a lot of people who grew up in or near a city and because no one in my family owned land, I realized I’d spent my life without much direct knowledge of this place I called home. I was knew the wildernesses of Colorado, Montana, and California. But not the wild places of home in Kansas. I felt like a stranger.

So I spent three years travelling all over the state, researching our forgotten environmental and Native American history, “rediscovering” some little known wild places, looking at some of the more familiar ones with new eyes, and meeting hundreds of private land owners who took me into the hidden interior of Kansas.

I wrote the book for people who, at some point in their lives, suddenly “wake up” and smell the sunflowers, people who want to experience the real Kansas – not the placeless farm country Kansas of wall calendars and coffee table books.

What are some of the biggest Kansas misconceptions you think people have?

Kansas has always been an extreme place – politically, weatherwise, and in the phenomenology of wild places. It seems like people are either completely clueless or, strangely enough, almost Pollyanic (is that a word?) in their knowledge and opinions about the state’s wild landmarks and remaining fragments of native ecosystems. The lack of access has indeed come to mean non-existence for most Americans and many Kansans, but wild Kansas champions don’t have to rubber stamp every weedy wildlife area or scrub forest nature trail as fantastic. The truth is more complicated.

From left to right: Jonathan Conard, Kristin Conard, and George Frazier at Cedar Crest.

From left to right: Jonathan Conard, Kristin Conard, and George Frazier at Cedar Crest.

In the book, I’m very generous with what I find, but compared to other recent works on Kansas geography I tried to paint a picture of the state of our wild lands in the early 21st century.

We have much to be grateful for – our rivers are the cleanest they’ve been in a century, extirpated species are making comebacks, there is renewed interested in hiking and paddling, and local communities are getting behind efforts to promote their wild places.

I tried to focus on the good that I found, while pointing out areas for improvement. More than anything I think most people need a pair of glasses fitted with Kansas “lenses” to appreciate our bioregions. My book is hopefully a prescription.

Out of staters often think of Kansas as “flyover country” – what would you say to change their minds?

When I was a kid, as soon as you flew into Kansas airspace the flight attendants had to stop serving booze. I think my parents and most other travelers would have preferred “fly around” country.

Do you find inspiration in Kansas for your writing?

My book took years to write – almost nine all told. I worked on it not only in Kansas, but in California, Florida, Missouri, Mexico, Fiji, Colorado, and Canada.  When writing about nature, I’ve found that being removed from your subject sometimes helps distill a refined perspective.  Walking through the prairies in your mind can help more than walking through an actual prairie in terms of the craft. But my favorite Kansas writing space was the old Glass Onion loft above Yello Sub that used to be on the KU campus. I thanked them in my book’s acknowledgments, but by the time it came out, campus Yello Sub had been razed to make way for the Oread Hotel.  This probably means I need to writer faster!

For someone who’s never been to Kansas, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

For prairie immersion there is no better place than Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve outside of Strong City.  Bison and bluestem.  Head north through Council Grove to Manhattan after your hike.  There you can do more hiking at Konza Prairie or drink beer in Aggieville – both are true Kansas experiences.

For someone who grew up in Kansas and feels like they’ve seen everything there, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

Hike the Breidenthal tract near Baldwin City, the ancient pecan forest at Fort Leavenworth, the trail than connects the main highway at Big Basin in the Gypsum Hills to St Jacob’s Well, the Santa Fe Trail (20+ miles of it) at Cimarron National Grassland, or canoe the Kaw from the point where the Smoky Hill (our ancient buffalo river) meets up with the Republican in Junction City to the bridge in Manhattan. My book goes into great deal about all of those experiences.

Tour the Capitol Dome

Of the 50 states, Kansas is the only one with a capitol dome where visitors can climb all the way to the top and go outside, 10 feet or so beneath the bronze statue of a Kansa warrior that tops the 304 feet tall dome. Oh, and that 304 feet places it 16 feet taller than the United States Capitol dome.

It’s 296 steps all the way up, though this is broken into parts where you can turn around if it’s becoming a bit too much. For the first few stops, you’re headed along stairs hugging the wall. The last 100 or so steps take you up into the middle of the dome, up into the small cupola, and then out onto a circular walkway.

And yes, it’s a bit nerve wracking if you’re scared of heights (as I am!) as you head away from the wall and into the middle, but I made it through, so I’m sure you can.

Tip – If you go in fall, the changing colors of the trees will make the panoramic view even more stunning.

A Kansas State Historical Society volunteer will take you up and give you some information. You start out on the fifth floor and get info about the restored frescoes (one of the state’s first “selfies” can be found in them!). Then you head up to above the interior dome and get a view of the steps up into the unfinished part of the dome.

The dome itself was a part of a nearly $325 million revamp of the statehouse completed in 2014.

If you go:

Cost: Free!

When: Tours are run by the Kansas State Historical Society Monday through Friday: 9:15, 10:15, 11:15 a.m., 12:15, 1:15, 2:15, 3:15 p.m. If it’s too hot, they’ll cancel the tours as the dome itself isn’t air conditioned. Not sure if it’s cancelled if/when it’s too cold…

Where: 300 SW 10th St, Topeka, KS 66612. Visitor’s entrance is on the ground level, North Wing, on 8th Avenue. Parking information here.

More info: Kansas State Historical Society, 785-296-3966