In our quest to visit all 50 states of the USA, we made a trip to the US MidWest in September, to minimize encountering summer vacation period crowds.
This region of the US, not a popular tourist draw, still has a lot to offer in its own unique way. Moreover, accommodation, fuel, and food costs are lower than other more popular US tourist areas.
Our ambitious 11-day trip itinerary turned out to be quite manageable.
Day 1, travel day from Vancouver to Kansas City with a lay over in Seattle. Picked up our rental car and overnight at nearby hotel.
Day 2, we drove to Topeka, capital city of the state of Kansas. We enjoyed a free guided tour of the Capitol, and learned that this is the second highest state capitol after Illinois, even taller than the Washington National Capitol. The tour included a climb to the top of the dome for a birds eye view of the city. Topeka is also home to the highly acclaimed Kansas Museum of History where one can step back in time and learn all about the land that is Kansas.
After Topeka, we headed southwest to our next destination, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, in the Kansas Flint Hills region. This National Preserve is the last remaining tallgrass landscape in all of USA. It used to cover 140 million acres, along with millions of bisons, but now less than 4% remain. There are some really nice trails to explore, as well historic farm houses and junior ranger activities to do.
We had a late lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Strong City, Kansas before continuing our drive to Wichita.
Wichita is the largest city in Kansas (not Kansas City because it is divided between the states of Kansas and Missouri). It is not the biggest or flashiest city in the US, but it remains a medium-sized city with a small-town feel. Wichita is a city in the heart of the great plains in Central Kansas, and is home to large aircraft manufacturers which make up a large portion of the local economy.
One activity we enjoyed while in Wichita was walking along the pedestrian trail along the Lower Arkansas River. The 44-foot iconic “Keeper of the Plains” statue stands at the confluence of two rivers, and is home to the Mid-America All-Indian Center.
We also visited the historical Old Town in Wichita. It has a nice ambiance as the area has been gentrified and with unique apartments, craft beer pubs, many restaurant options, and museums.
Day 3, we drove 2 hours to Oklahoma City, the capital of the state of Oklahoma, located in the central Frontier Country region of the state. The sprawling city and its suburbs offer many sports venues, museums, regional food, and a mix of Native American and cowboy culture.
The state capitol complex here is the only state capitol grounds in the USA with active oil rigs.
After a quick visit of the state capital, we walked around the Myriad Botanical Gardens, an
impressive 15-acre urban park in downtown Oklahoma City with a 7 story Crystal Bridge Conservatory, home to thousands of tropical and desert plants.
Then we stopped at the Oklahoma City’s Stockyards City district, one of the largest livestock markets in the world. The auction market takes place every Monday.
For lunch, we headed over to the Asia District, home to one of the largest Vietnamese Asian community in the USA. After the fall of Saigon in 1976, Oklahoma City was one of the cities picked by the US government for the relocation of refugees.
First museum after lunch was the the Oklahoma History Center with great exhibits about the native Indians, the oil & gas boom, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Broadway Musical Oklahoma!
Next was the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum which honors the victims, survivors, rescuers, and all who were affected by the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995 that killed 168 people.
Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier were found guilty after many trials that lasted 7 years. Timothy faced capital punishment, while Terry got 168 consecutive life sentences, and Michael got 12 years for their crimes. A very touching and emotional museum with so many personal stories.
Our last stop for some refreshment was Bricktown, Oklahoma City’s original warehouse district that has turned into an entertainment and sports district, with craft breweries, restaurants and a baseball park.
Day 4, we drove 2.5 hours to Fort Smith, just over the Oklahoma border to the state of Arkansas.
We visited the Fort Smith National Historic Site, the site where thousands of southeastern American Indians were forced to move to west of Mississippi. Many of them died, thus this site is called the Trail of Tears. There was a judge who became known as “The Hanging Judge”, because he sentenced 160 criminals (mostly Indians) to death by hanging, of which 79 were hanged.
Next, we drove to Hot Springs city, Arkansas, through the Ouachita National Forest. Rich in history, the rugged and scenic Ouachita Mountains were first explored in 1541 by the Spaniards. Then French explorers followed. Hot Springs was made a national park in 1921 to protect the region’s 47 natural flowing thermal springs. Today the park protects eight historic bathhouses and the entire “Bathhouse Row” area is a National Historic Landmark District that contains the grandest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America. Hot Spring is the home town of former US president Bill Clinton.
The National Park visitor center is housed in the former luxurious Fordyce Bathhouse, and the self-guided tour of this historic bathhouse is very educational.
Entering from behind the Visitor Center, we walked the Grand Promenade. A landscaped walkway behind Bathhouse Row with a glimpse of the springs and historic landscape features. Then we hiked up to the peak of Hot Springs Mountain and enjoyed the wonderful view of the town below.
Afterward, we enjoyed a nice lunch at Superior Bathhouse Brewery, house inside a retrofitted bathhouse, the only brewery located inside a US National Park, and the world’s only beer (18 flavors) made from hot springs thermal water.
Day 5, we drove one hour east to Little Rock, the capital city and the largest city in the state of Arkansas. Little Rock lies at the center of the state, more-or-less where the Ozark Mountains, the Ouachita Mountains, and the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (the “Delta”) come together.
Little Rock derives its name from a small rock formation on the south bank of the Arkansas River called La Petite Roche (the “little rock”). The “little rock” was used by early river traffic as a landmark and became a well-known river crossing. The original historic “little rock” was later dynamited and used as a foundation for a railroad bridge, but its location can be visited in downtown’s Riverfront Park.
After a quick photo in front of the historical but still active Little Rock Central High School, we visited the Little Rock National Historic Site across the street, dedicated to the Central High integration crisis of 1957, where President Eisenhower sent thousands of Army troops to escort 9 African-American students into the previously all white school. The State Governor threatened to close all schools if they were forced to dis-segregrate.
Next we visited the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Park, a complex next to the Arkansas River, with archives and records of the 42nd President. It has comprehensive collection of photos and memorabilia from Clinton’s two terms as President, including a replica of the Oval Office. After the interesting but exhausting visit to this complex, we had a final view of the Little Rock skyline before lunch break.
After lunch we continued eastward, crossing the Mississippi River towards Clarksdale, Mississippi, the birth place of the Blues, situated in a small town in the Mississippi Delta, about an hour south of Memphis. This little unknown town draws visitors from all over the world for its blues clubs and blues history.
We visited the Delta Blues Museum, containing much information about the Blues genre of music. Famous Blues singers include Muddy Waters, Wade Walton & Ike Turner. We stopped by the Ground Zero Blues Club and the Rock & Blues Museum in Clarksdale. There was a sign that said Morgan Freeman owns and operate the Ground Zero Blues Club.
Upon leaving the area, we stopped at “Crossroads,” the iconic sign at the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61 where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius. Highway 61 is second to Highway 66 as the most iconic in the USA.
Driving north towards Tennessee, we saw many cotton fields along Highway 61. China is now the world’s largest producer of cotton, but most of this is used domestically. The United States is currently the largest exporter of cotton.
Our busy day 5 finally ended when we drove into Memphis, Tennessee, but not before stopping at Tunica, Mississippi, the last town before crossing the state border, which is another Blues town which has evolved into the 3rd largest gaming market in the US behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
See: A 11 Day / 10 Night Road Trip around the US Mid: West – Part 2