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The Great Northeast Kansas Road Trip

For a region so close to three other states, it’s surprising how under-the-radar Northeast Kansas is for everybody I’ve talked to (except for the few proud people I’ve met who grew up there). It’s a beautiful and mostly rural area of Kansas with intriguing small towns just waiting to show off their history, food, and hospitality. And on the outer edges of the region, you’ll reach the vibrantly urban area of Kansas City.

Disclosure: This post is the result of several hosted and sponsored visits to the area made possible by several chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus in Northeast Kansas. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.

Cultural Center for the Arts in Atchison

I’ve visited Northeast Kansas on several occasions in the past two years, most recently in the summer of 2023. It was a two-part trip interrupted by a broken foot at the start on the first day of the journey! I returned to explore more of the region later in the summer. This post will include details about trips I took earlier, should you want to make your road trip through Northeast Kansas an even longer one. 

Things to know about Northeast Kansas

For most Nebraskans, I recommend exploring Northeast Kansas by highway, and not just as an off-ramp from Interstate 29. You’ll be rewarded as the northernmost part of the region is the start of the Glacial Hills Scenic Byway. Receding glaciers from long ago left behind rolling hills and intriguing rock-strewn landscapes.  

White Cloud, Kansas

The region’s significant for historic reasons, as well. The tiny town of Lecompton was once the capital of the Kansas Territory and the place that proudly proclaims to be the place “where slavery began to die.” Northeast Kansas plays a role in the Pony Express, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and Indigenous culture, too.

Road trip stops in each town

Northeastern Kansas is more than the towns mentioned below. Use these towns and cities as the jumping off point for exploring the region. There are hidden gems waiting to be discovered.  

Seneca

Start your journey in Seneca on the town’s historic Main Street, a brick-lined street that exudes the charm of a quintessential Midwestern downtown. Many of the highlights in Seneca are accessible on foot if you make Main Street your starting point. 

Pony Express Museum

History buffs will want to stop at the small but intriguing Pony Express Museum. The Smith Hotel in Seneca was the first home station on the Pony Express Trail heading west, so much of the museum focuses on that. Hours are limited from Wednesday through Saturday in the summer, and by appointment the rest of the year. Catty corner from the museum is a historic marker for the Pony Express should the museum be closed. 

There’s also the Nemaha County Historical Museum just north of Main Street. Part of the museum is housed in an old jail! Next to the historical museum is the Temple of Honor Military Museum. It’s an impressive collection, but one you’ll need to make an appointment to visit. 

Tip: The museums do not have air conditioning so visit them in the morning.

For those who like to stop at quirky attractions, Seneca is also home to the Seneca Hand Dug Well. It’s 65 feet deep and 34 feet wide, making it the widest in Kansas. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. 

I visited with my family, and I’ll be honest, my kids’ favorite part of Seneca was all the food. For breakfast, get homemade pastries and sweets at Sweet Pea’s Bakery. For lunch or dinner, you can’t go wrong with pizza. The long-running popular Freddy’s Pizza Palace is the place for that. For ice cream or a boost of caffeine, go to the Cornerstone Coffeehaus, located in an historic building with stained glass windows that was once a bank.

Cornerstone Coffeehaus

If time allows, browse a few of the locally-owned shops along Main Street. A few I recommend: The Market on Main, Buggy Days Antiques, Picture This, and Fitted. Be on the lookout for murals while you’re walking around.

We stayed overnight in the Suite on Main, a gorgeously renovated loft that was incredibly spacious for my family of four. It overlooks Main Street, and is conveniently right next door to the bakery.

Addresses

  • Pony Express Museum, 327 Main St., Seneca
  • Nemaha County Historical Museum, 113 N. Sixth St., Seneca
  • Temple of Honor Military Museum, 33 N. Sixth St., Seneca
  • Seneca Hand Dug Well, 301 N. 11th St., Seneca
  • Sweet Pea’s Bakery, 420 Main St., Seneca
  • Freddy’s Pizza Palace, 32 N. Fifth St., Seneca
  • Cornerstone Coffeehaus, 431 Main St., Seneca
  • The Market On Main, 515 Main St., Seneca
  • Buggy Days Antiques, 509 Main St., Seneca
  • Picture This, 322 Main St., Seneca
  • Fitted, 426 Main St., Seneca
  • Suite on Main, 426 Main St., Second Floor, Seneca

Hiawatha

Hiawatha may be best known for the massive head scratcher, The Davis Memorial at Mount Hope Cemetery, but there’s more to it beyond that Italian marble oddity, luckily. It’s located on the outskirts of town and it’s along the way to Klinefelter Farm.

The farm is unique entity is owned by Highland Community College, and it’s where the college’s vineyard is located. Yes, a vineyard! It’s also where events are held for Arts at the Barn, so if you can time your visit to coincide with a concert or workshop there, you’re in luck. It’s best to call ahead to arrange a tour of the farm, rather than stop by. 

The Bread Bowl

There are two restaurant recommendations I have for Hiawatha. Do not visit Hiawatha without going to either The Bread Bowl or The Country Cabin. At The Bread Bowl, be sure to order a slice of homemade pie with your meal. The Country Cabin is known for their prime rib night on Fridays.

A lot of the town’s historic buildings, shops and eateries are found along Oregon Street, including the very recognizable Clock Tower Building. And it’s along Oregon Street that you’ll find the popular Hiawatha Creamery. On the day I went, I saw three families attempt to enter the ice cream shop before they opened at 4 p.m.!

While you’re downtown, there are a few shops to visit. Memorable shops include the clothing boutique Oak & Willow, Blue Moon, and the very eclectic Wright’s Eclectibles. Look for the mural on the 800 block of Oregon Street while you’re at it. For another mural, you’ll want to drive to First Street and see the Hiawatha mural on the old bowling alley.

Addresses

  • The Davis Memorial at Mount Hope Cemetery, 606 E. Iowa St., Hiawatha
  • Klinefelter Farm, 1740-1792 230th St., Hiawatha
  • The Bread Bowl, 100 Oregon St., Hiawatha
  • The Country Cabin, 2534 Kestrel Road, Hiawatha
  • Clock Tower Building, 701 Oregon St., Hiawatha
  • Hiawatha Creamery, 725 Oregon St., Hiawatha
  • Oak & Willow, 717 Oregon St., Hiawatha
  • Blue Moon, 119 S. Sixth St., Hiawatha
  • Wright’s Eclectibles, 709 Oregon St., Hiawatha

Troy

Troy is a small town (about 1,000 residents), and yet, it has a couple notable reasons to stop. Abraham Lincoln spoke in Troy during his only visit to Kansas. You can read about it at the Nelson Rogers House. Across the street, you’ll see the Doniphan County Courthouse. It looks like your standard, regal county courthouse when you glance at it from the Nelson Rogers House. However, you’ll want to walk around to the other side of the courthouse so you can get a good look at the 27-foot-tall Peter Toth sculpture. Carved out of a Burr Oak, “Tall Oak” is an intricate monument to Indigenous Peoples.

Doniphan County Courthouse

I stayed overnight in the Troy B & B at Windmere, a beautifully restored home near the town’s high school. My suite would have slept four with so much space – in addition to the king bed, there was a day bed with a trundle underneath. Breakfast with fresh fruit and an egg casserole was served in the morning, and I had a lovely chat with the bed and breakfast owners. They have a neat story to share with you about turning a once-hollowed-out 100-year-old house into a charming home.

Had I not eaten breakfast at Windmere, I heard the Feed Store Cafe is the place to go in Troy.

Addresses

  • Nelson Rogers House, 138 E. Walnut St., Troy
  • “Tall Oak” and Doniphan County Courthouse, 120 E. Chestnut St., Troy
  • Troy B & B at Windmere, 433 W. State St., Troy (call 785-985-2314 to make a reservation.)
  • Feed Store Cafe, 109 S. Main St., Troy

White Cloud & Nearby

White Cloud Historic District only hints at the town’s history. Named after the son of Chief White Cloud of the Iowa people, the town is the seat of government for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska. Notable moments in the area’s history include the Lewis & Clark Expedition stopping in the area on July 10, 1804. There’s a historical marker for it on the riverfront. Be sure to look up while in the park’s pavilion to spot the huge metal sunflower. 

Four-State Lookout

You can’t miss the signs for Casino White Cloud in the area, but White Cloud is even more notable for being near the Four-State Lookout. On a good clear day, you should be able to see Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. To get there, go to Main Street and drive a quarter-mile north and west on Third Street, driving a short distance uphill. You’ll spot the platform from there. 

Tip: Film buffs, take note. Scenes from “Paper Moon” were filmed in White Cloud.

There’s also a popular flea market held twice a year in White Cloud.

White Cloud is right on the Glacial Hills Scenic Byway, and along the hills near the byway, there’s another stop to recommend: Iowa Point Cemetery. The gated cemetery has several historic tombstones of people who perished on the California Trail. It’s near Sparks and you’ll know to turn off the byway when you spot the historic marker. While this isn’t a stop I’d make when traveling with the kids, it was interesting for me to make on my own. 

Iowa Point Cemetery

If the pioneer trail fascinates you, Doniphan Country – where White Cloud is located – has 59 signs marking the California Trail throughout the county.

Addresses

  • Casino White Cloud, 777 Jackpot Drive, White Cloud
  • Four-State Lookout, Third Street, White Cloud
  • Iowa Point Cemetery (located off of the scenic byway, Highway 7, near Sparks)

Lecompton

Here’s a surprising history fact for you: The Civil War started in Lecompton, Kansas, not South Carolina. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick history lesson: In 1855, Lecompton was the official capital of the Kansas Territory and considered the center of the pro-slavery movement. In 1858, lawmakers met in Constitutional Hall and drafted the Lecompton Constitution, which would’ve made Kansas a pro-slavery state. It sparked debates locally and nationally, and basically contributed to the growing unrest in the country.

Democratic Headquarters in Lecompton, Kansas

The Lecompton Constitution didn’t pass, and a new legislature (an antislavery legislature) met in Constitution Hall and this time, abolished all pro-slavery laws. Kansas thus entered the Union in January 1861 as a free state, and in April, the Civil War started.

You can learn a lot more about this town’s important role when you visit. You can see where it all went down inside the Constitutional Hall State Historic Site, plus drive by the Democratic Headquarters. There’s also the Territorial Capital Museum to visit. The Lecompton Reenactors put on an interactive performance for tours and groups, and if you’re able to attend one, it’s a great way to learn more about the history. 

Empty Nesters Winery

Beyond history, Lecompton has a few other stops for you. Empty Nesters Winery is a must, but you can’t escape a history lesson even there. All of their wines are named after something historical. Nearby, there’s a great little cafe called Aunt Netters Cafe, as well as a few shops. Claymama’s has jewelry and clothes, and occasionally offers art classes.

Addresses

  • Constitutional Hall State Historic Site, 319 Elmore St., Lecompton
  • Territorial Democratic Headquarters, 226 E. Second St., Lecompton
  • Territorial Capital Museum, 640 E. Woodson, Lecompton
  • Empty Nesters Winery, 338 Elmore St., Lecompton
  • Aunt Netters Cafe, 340 Elmore St., Lecompton
  • Claymama’s, 338 Elmore St., Lecompton

Atchison

Atchison is best known for its hometown hero, the aviation icon Amelia Earhart, so visiting sites connected with her is a good place to start when you explore the town. The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum is open for self-guided tours, but the true must-see attraction is the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum. It’s part-science museum and part-aviation history museum.

A museum highlight is seeing “Muriel,” the world’s last remaining Lockheed Electra 10-E. The aircraft identical is to the plane Earhart flew on her final flight

“Muriel” at the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum

For more history beyond Amelia, visit Atchison Railroad Museum, an outdoor train yard located next to the Visitor’s Center & Historic Santa Fe Depot/Atchison County Historical Museum. If art is more of your thing, the Muchnic Art Gallery located in a gorgeous, three-story 1885 Queen Anne home tucked in a neighborhood. The Cultural Center for the Arts is a great free place to stop in, located in downtown Atchison.

While downtown, there are a few shops to see. The darling shop Purveyor has a ton of cute gifts and clothes, and nearby is another lovely boutique called Twill Trade Atchison.

If you have more time, and you don’t mind getting a little dirty, schedule a farm visit in Atchison. Providence Hill Farm and HoneyDo Farm specialize in booking private tours to suit your needs, and as we all know, you need a goat cuddle session or perhaps a goat hike. Providence Hill Farm also offers some more creative workshops, like soap making.

Providence Hill Farm goat hike

For a quick treat, visit Dominique’s Bakery. The cookies were marvelous there. For a heartier meal, try the Greek-American steakhouse, Pete’s Steak House. The restaurant’s curb appeal on the building is lacking, but trust me, the food is great.

Addresses

  • Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, 223 N. Terrace St., Atchison
  • Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum, 16701 286th Road, Atchison
  • Atchison Railroad Museum, 200 S. 10th St., Atchison
  • Muchnic Art Gallery
  • Cultural Center for the Arts, 111 N. Eighth St., Atchison
  • Purveyor, 715 Commercial St., Atchison
  • Twill Trade Atchison, 733 Commercial St., Atchison
  • Providence Hill Farm, 8096 Pratt Road, Atchison
  • HoneyDo Farm, 8299 Pratt Road, Atchison
  • Dominique’s Bakery, 626 Main St., Atchison
  • Pete’s Steak House, 618 Commercial St., Atchison

Lawrence

When you visit Lawrence, head right to Massachusetts Street where you’ll find lots of shops, restaurants, and history. Locals call it Mass Street, and some of the best shops I found along there include Wonder Fair and Ruff House Paperie for notebooks, stationary, and gifts; The Raven Book Store and The Dusty Bookshelf, for booklovers, obviously, and for music lovers, don’t miss Love Garden Sounds. It’s an easy-to-spot-storefront – there’s a giant squid in the window.

A black cat roams The Dusty Bookshelf, a used bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas
The Dusty Bookshelf

The city has had a turbulent history, including devastating violence during the Civil War. To learn about it, visit the Watkins Museum of History or by taking a walking tour by Dr. Bob’s Lawrence History Tours. The walking tours are $15 per person.

There are so many restaurant choices in Lawrence. Start the day off right with breakfast at Ladybird Diner. They’re known for their pies, so, use your best judgment if pie at breakfast is a good idea (it is). For a delicious and filling sandwich served with house-made Italian soda, go to Latchkey Deli. For afternoon drinks and/or dinner, go to the Free State Brewing Co. Though the brewery opened in 1989, it was the first legal brewery to open in Kansas in over 100 years. 

Ladybird Diner

Lawrence has enough to see and do, including an excellent live music scene, that you’ll want to stay overnight. Book a room in the historic Eldridge Hotel. The building has been rebuilt a few times, most notably when it was burned down during Quantrill’s Raid in 1863. 

Addresses

  • Wonder Fair, 841 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • Ruff House Paperie, 729 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • The Raven Book Store, 809 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • The Dusty Bookshelf, 708 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • Love Garden Sounds, 822 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • Watkins Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • Ladybird Diner, 721 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • Latchkey Deli, 1035 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • Free State Brewing Co., 636 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • Eldridge Hotel, 701 Massachusetts St., Lawrence

Kansas City and nearby communities

Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, are two different cities. On the Kansas side, the city itself warrants a visit, as do the surrounding communities. Here’s a look at a few things to do at each place.

Kansas City

Kansas City, Kansas, will surprise you with its diversity. Get a taste of it (literally) by choosing one or two restaurants on the Kansas City Taco Trail. And while not a taqueria, add Jarocho Mexican Seafood to your to-visit list.

Honestly, the food options are great in Kansas City. You can’t go there without trying barbecue. I think it’s the law. I recommend going to Slaps BBQ. There will probably be a wait, but it’s worth it for the fall-off-the-bone ribs. For sides, try the cheesy baked potato casserole.

The exterior of Three Bees Coffee Shop, a cafe in Kansas City, Kansas
3 Bees Cafe

I love coffee, and there are a few great places to get some in Kansas City. Splitlog Coffee Co. roasts its own coffee beans, as well, and of course, has its own Strawberry Hill Blend. There’s also the super charming Three Bees Cafe.

After all the eating you’re going to do in KCK, walk off a few of those calories with an Urban Walking Hike of Strawberry Hill. You’ll hear engaging stories about the city’s Russian, Latino, and Croatian neighborhoods. You’ll also pass some stores and galleries you may want to return to after the hike. 

Tip: For a unique experience, time your visit for the fall and attend the annual Day of the Dead festivities in Kansas City!

I can’t write about KCK without mentioning Great Wolf Lodge, a well-known destination for Midwest families. It’s located in a busy area — near the Kansas Speedway and Sporting KC’s home field, Children’s Mercy Park, as well as Legends Outlets.

The indoor water park at Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kansas
Great Wolf Lodge

Addresses

  • Jarocho Mexican Seafood, 719 Kansas Ave., Kansas City, Kansas
  • Slaps BBQ, 553 Central Ave., Kansas City, Kansas
  • Splitlog Coffee Co. 548 Central Ave., Kansas City, Kansas
  • Three Bees Cafe, 925 Southwest Blvd., Kansas City, Kansas
  • Great Wolf Lodge, 10401 Cabela Drive, Kansas City, Kansas
  • Kansas Speedway, 400 Speedway Blvd., Kansas City, Kansas
  • Children’s Mercy Park, 1 Sporting Way, Kansas City, Kansas
  • Legends Outlets Kansas City, 1843 Village West Pkwy., Kansas City, Kansas

Overland Park

A lot of Omahans associate Overland Park with great shopping, but there’s more to the area. A few gems I’ve found in Overland Park include the Museum at Prairiefire. It’s a natural history museum with a modern approach with giant touch screens and live animals. Go there to learn what life was like in the Kansas City area about 300 million years ago. There’s a kid’s space that’s excellent for hands-on learning.

The Train Garden at Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens
Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens

Stroll the shaded paths and explore the gorgeous gardens of Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens. It’s an inexpensive place to visit and it was a hit with my family. My son enjoyed the Train Garden while my daughter had fun posing with every statue she encountered.

There are several Overland Park locations of popular KC barbecue restaurants. You could literally feast for days on it if you also venture into surrounding communities like Shawnee and Lenexa. Two places I like are Jack Stack Barbecue and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. The OG Joe’s location is in a gas station, which just adds to the restaurant’s intrigue, doesn’t it?

Addresses

  • Museum at Prairiefire, 5801 W. 135th St., Overland Park, Kansas
  • Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, 8909 W. 179th St., Overland Park, Kansas
  • Jack Stack Barbecue, 9520 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, Kansas
  • Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, the OG gas station location is at 3002 W. 47th Ave., Kansas City, Kansas

Olathe

Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm in Olathe is a wonderful historic stop for history buffs and families alike. The 1860s farm is a living history museum with costumed employees explaining how life was in the era. Kids will like learning the old school games, petting animals, and taking a stagecoach ride, which are offered on a schedule. The Mahaffie house on the property is open for tours. It was once a stop for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.

A stagecoach at Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm in Olathe, Kansas

I have a few restaurant recommendations for Olathe. Black Bear Diner was a memorable breakfast stop, especially if you order the Bear Claw French Toast. The bear claw is so sweet, you really don’t need much syrup, if any. For another sweet treat, stop at Sylas and Maddy’s Homemade Ice Cream. The family-owned ice cream shop has a ton of homemade flavors to choose from!

Addresses

  • Mahaffie Stage Coach Stop & Farm, 1200 E. Kansas City Road, Olathe, Kansas
  • Black Bear Diner, 11981 S. Strang Line Road, Olathe, Kansas
  • Sylas and Maddy’s, 11925 S. Strang Line Road, Olathe, Kansas

Related post: Find more tempting sweets around the Kansas City area

Merriam

Strawberry Hill Baking Co. is known for its povitica, an Eastern European pastry. And you’ll want to try a sample of a few flavors of povitica while you’re there. I recommend the walnut povitica. It’s their most popular one, and for good reason. But a little secret: One of the best cakes I ever had was Strawberry Hill Baking Co.’s cream cheese coffee cake. Delicious!

The Dodge Town play area at Antioch Park in Merriam, Kansas

If you’re traveling with kids with a lot of energy, plan a stop at Antioch Park in Merriam. The 44-acre, tree-filled park has two lakes, including one with fun stepping stones. The highlight of the park is Dodge Town, a playground designed to look like an old Kansas Town, with buildings, a train station, and, of course, a train to climb on. 

Addresses

  • Strawberry Hill Baking Co., 7226 W. Frontage Road, Merriam, Kansas
  • Dodge Town at Antioch Park, 6501 Antioch Road, Merriam, Kan.

Related post: Find more outdoor activities in the Kansas City area!

Shawnee

I mentioned Shawnee earlier because of barbecue, but in case you’re craving something different, there are other notable restaurants worth a stop in Shawnee. For pizza, go old school with Old Shawnee Pizza. If you’re traveling with young kids, a meal at Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant is a must. Food is delivered to your table by toy train.

Traveling without kids? Plan a stop at Transport Brewery in Shawnee.

Beer at Transport Brewing in Shawnee, Kansas

Addresses

  • Old Shawnee Pizza, 6000 Roger Road, Shawnee, Kansas
  • Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant, 13803 W. 63rd St., Shawnee, Kansas
  • Transport Brewery, 11113 Johnson Drive, Shawnee, Kansas

Journeying through the heartland of Northeast Kansas is an adventure. From the untouched charm of small towns to the bustling spirit of Kansas City, my time spent in the area has been eye-opening. The region has so much culture, history, and culinary treats! Each town has its unique identity, and if you take the time to visit, you’ll see there’s magic to be found in every nook and cranny.

Exploring Northeast Kansas -- A great round-up of road trip stops in Kansas, from historic to goat farms, tasty pies and craft beer, and so much more!

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