A Civil War battlefield. Museums featuring inspiring stories of strong women. Ginormous attractions. Route 66 kitsch. Yes, I’ve found a region in Kansas that has a good mix of road trip stops to keep a family entertained for a few days. Check out this quirky and insightful road trip through Southeastern Kansas and discover some of the best stops along the way.
Disclosure: A portion of this trip was hosted by the Southeast Kansas Tourism Region and Chanute Chamber of Commerce. Some experiences I covered myself. This post may contain affiliate links. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
Why explore Southeastern Kansas?
My husband can attest to this: I pick seemingly random places for trips. But, they’re not random in my mind. I like venturing off to places no one seems to talk about. I like finding something that gets me inspired and excited to tell you all about it. It’s like a treasure hunt, looking for these hidden travel gems.
Southeastern Kansas was one such area of Kansas that remained a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve been to some of the state’s biggest cities, and I’ve ventured into some of the smaller towns in central Kansas. There were things to love in all those places. But the gems? I found those in the smaller towns.
So, I planned a three-day road trip through Southeastern Kansas and here’s what we encountered.
Quirky and historic attractions
To explain this section simply: I love goofy photos so anything deemed “quirky” or “weird” is going to be a must-stop for me. And more seriously, I like to learn a little something while traveling. Therefore, I plan stops to get a good mix of fun and education (and sometimes both).
Big Brutus in West Mineral, Kansas
Big Brutus, the world’s largest electric shovel, is one of those things that sounds underwhelming because your brain can’t compute just how big it is. You just have to see if for yourself, and only then do you appreciate how ridiculously cool it is, and you’re glad you stopped.
I knew very little (OK, actually I knew nothing) about Kansas’s mining history before the visit. Thanks to the small museum and intro video, as well as the YouTube interviews of individuals who worked on Big Brutus that you can access through QR codes throughout Big Brutus, I feel a bit more knowledgeable and appreciate what the people in this region grew up with.
Highlight: Climbing up Big Brutus. You don’t actually go to the very tip top (thank god), but you can climb up to the operator’s nest, and that’s high enough.
Hours: Open year-round, but I can only imagine how crazy hot it gets inside Brutus in the summer.
Erie Dinosaur Park in Erie, Kansas
Kansas has a long history of self-taught artists creating magnificent (and sometimes weird) art. I love it. The Erie Dinosaur Park is a collection of dinosaurs made out of scrap metal and farm implements by one man, a retired aerospace engineer. They lived on his property for years before they were gifted to the town of Erie and the park was born.
Highlight: Like all art, it’s an individual call. I loved Sherman, the red and green ankylosaurus that has a lot of personality (and lichen). I think others might like the gray dinosaur that you’re permitted to climb (everything else is strictly off-limits). Or maybe the giant brachiosaurus, which interestingly enough, was the very first dinosaur created by the artist as well as the largest.
Admission: FREE (and kids receive a coloring book and little dinosaur keepsake)
Hours: Open two days a month from April to September, the second Saturday and third Sunday. Otherwise, the dinosaurs are kept behind a locked fence. There is a sign outside the park with a phone number, though, and you can call it and a volunteer may be able to come meet you and let you in.
Fort Scott National Historic Site & Fort Scott Downtown Historic District in Fort Scott, Kansas
I have a feeling that most people first seek out Fort Scott National Historic Site and then are completely surprised by the picturesque Downtown Historic District nearby. I’d read that the downtown area was nice, but “nice” does not do it justice. Lovingly restored buildings in late Victorian, Italianate, Queen Anne and Romanesque architecture line brick streets.
It puts Omaha’s beautiful Old Market to shame.
When I visited Fort Scott, it was March and so not the best time to visit the Fort Scott National Historic Site. In the summer, there are re-enactments and all sorts of cool things going on. Visit any other time, and you can still walk the grounds. You just don’t get that extra bit of interaction.
Highlight: My whole family was drawn to the 1863 Block House and the cannon next to it.
Humboldt Town Square in Humboldt, Kansas
Humboldt is a town you’ll want to remember and visit once now and once in a year or two because this place is growing and getting cooler by the minute. There’s a reason the New York Times named it a travel destination in 2022.
Our road trip was not well-timed for visiting the town, though. We passed through on a Monday when nearly everything was closed. We peeked into the windows of other shops and businesses like pathetic street urchins. A delightful-looking, but definitely closed for the day, candy shop definitely was taunting us. We did get a drink from the Octagon City Coffee Co. and shopped the gift shop connected to it (definitely go see it — fun and quirky gifts for you and your loved ones).
Highlight: Neosho Valley Woodworks stands out, even though we only got to peek inside the windows to gawk at the operation. It’s a fully-functional 1880s workshop where old-school cabinets and furniture is being crafted! I wish we could’ve gone inside.
Hours: Check individual store hours
Lowell Milken Center Museum for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kansas
Lowell Milken Center Museum for Unsung Heroes was born from a high school project by girls from the nearby town of Uniontown. They uncovered the story of Irene Sendler, a Polish woman who saved hundreds (some save 2,500) Jewish children during WWII. It’s an incredible and moving story that became a play, book and movie, and now, the cornerstone exhibit of this museum. Megan, one of the four girls, is now the program director at the museum, and I hope you too are lucky enough to meet her and hear her story first-hand.
The museum highlights individuals who often are overlooked in history books, the everyday people who’ve done remarkably heroic things. You can’t help but be inspired when you visit. Omaha friends, you’ll want to read the story of Andrew Jackson Higgins, who was born in Omaha in 1886. And it’s not just people highlighted in the museum, a dog named Stubby and a plucky pigeon are also included.
Highlight: The museum displays some items connected with Sendler, including one of the jars she had used to store and hide all the names and identifying information about all the kids saved. She buried the jars by a tree in Warsaw, and dug them back up after the war to start reuniting children with their families. The tree still stands in Warsaw.
Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas
When the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum was first described to me, Osa had been called a badass and that was enough to make me want to visit and learn more. The Kansas natives were celebrities of their time, essentially, for traveling the world as pioneers of travel film and travel photography in the early 1900s. The museum tells their story, from their modest start (Osa is a Chanute native) and onto their adventures around the globe and their encounters with royalty and celebrities and wild animals that had never really been captured on film until then.
It’s hard not to get swept up in the couple’s adventurous spirit when walking through the two-story museum, and it’s especially difficult not to become an Osa fan girl. She was a particular dynamo, an utterly charming fashionista and talented markswoman.
Highlight: Housed in an old Santa Fe train station, the museum has a surprisingly large natural history collection that highlights the people and cultures the Johnsons encountered on their travels. For the size of Chanute, it’s an incredible museum.
Admission: Adults, $6; Seniors & Students ages 13-College, $4; Kids ages 6-12, $3; and Children under 6, FREE with an adult
Hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site in Pleasanton, Kansas
The largest Civil War battle in Kansas as well as one of the largest calvary battles in the Civil War, Mine Creek is significant in U.S. history. This prairie battlefield is where a vastly outnumbered Union Army defeated the Confederates, helping defeat the 1864 Confederate invasion of Missouri and Kansas. There are trails at the site, as well as a visitor’s center.
Highlight: I think the highlight is the significance of the place. It’s the only major Civil War battlefield in Kansas. Pictures don’t really capture the heaviness of the place, though.
Admission: Adults, $6; Seniors 65+, active military, college students with ID, $5; Children ages 5-17, $3
Hours: Exterior is open year-round from dusk to dawn. Visitor center is open from mid-April through mid-October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday
Memorable food and drinks
Hungry on the road? Of course you are. Here’s where we stopped for meals and snacks and coffee and a beer.
Common Ground Coffee Co. in Fort Scott, Kansas
When we were in Fort Scott, we had a very short time to take in a lot of sights…which meant a very limited amount of time for a meal, too. Common Ground Coffee Co. was recommended to us for their desserts (peanut butter pie, per Megan from the Lowell Center), but as it turned out, the coffee shop had tasty sandwiches for lunch, too. The cafe had exposed brick walls, white chandeliers and a modern cozy feel to it. The chai was great, too.
Drop the H Brewing Co. in Pittsburg, Kansas
Don’t be surprised if the owner of Drop the H Brewing Co. starts chatting with you. He does that with anyone he doesn’t recognize, and it’s a great welcome to the craft brewery. It’s a fairly family-friendly place, serving up delicious wood-fired pizza (try the Crazy Cow with house-made garlic sauce, steak, mushrooms, bacon, red onion, and mozzarella topped with arugula and seasoned garlic drizzle) along with their beers. We were traveling with kids, and did not feel out of place there; they were, in fact, invited to join us on the brewery tour.
Do not leave without trying the lone dessert in the brewery, the cinnamon sticks. Thank me later. Also, if you want a beer recommendation, try the Dunkel.
El Rincon Azteca in Chanute, Kansas
I cannot believe it has taken me this long to try barría, because the birría quesadilla I had at El Rincón Azteca was pound-the-table good. Birría is essentially a stewed meat from the Jalisco region of Mexico, and perhaps you’ll recognize it as the Mexican entree that usually has some sort of broth to dip your food in. And since we were there with kids, the fried ice cream sundae was in order for dessert.
Fillmore Coffee House in Iola, Kansas
Small town coffee shops are starting to be my favorite things about traveling. Fillmore Coffee House is a unique coffee shop in Iola that’s brimming with green plants and a good vibe. The coffee’s good, yes, but then there are salads and bagels with their homemade schmears and pastries. It’s all good. And just try not to buy a plant or gardening themed item while you’re there. I dare you.
The Grain Bin in Chanute, Kansas
We went where the locals go for breakfast during our short stay in Chanute. The Grain Bin is everything you’d want in a small town diner: Friendly service and good food served up fast. It seems a little silly just to point out the sausage links, but they were so good, I was a little sad when I had eaten them all before I’d finished my pancakes.
Octagon City Coffee Shop in Humboldt, Kansas
Thank goodness Octagon City was open while we were in Humboldt. This is a cool spot to relax in, but alas, we were on a road trip itinerary that didn’t allow for much dawdling. Well, I mean, there was enough time to shop around the store connected to the coffee shop, sure, but we didn’t get to kick back and sip our coffee and kombucha (I even annoyed myself with that last sentence).
While you’re in the coffee shop, be sure to read up the story on the cafe’s wall telling the history of the Octagon City. It just proves truth is stranger than fiction and you just can’t make up this Kansas history lesson.
Kansas Route 66 stops
The historic Route 66 is the stuff of legends, and for the most part, I’ve never once purposely sought out a drive on it. I know! But, I couldn’t resist the call of the Mother Road this time. Kansas is known for having the smallest section of Route 66 — all of 13 miles — so I figured this was an attainable distance to do with kids. Here’s where we stopped:
Fans of Route 66, don’t hate on me. We did not dine at any of the kitschy diners or soda fountains. For one thing, they were either closed or looked closed (curse you off-season travel!). Bricks & Brews is Baxter Springs was open, though. They serve up wood-fire pizza and salads, and for lunch, they had a pizza buffet (perfect for hungry teenagers). It has a modern pub vibe to it, and the women’s restroom is pretty cool and I kick myself for not having my camera on me to take a picture. Anyway, it’s not your traditional old-school Route 66 place, but it’s on the route and I liked it.
Cars on the Route embraces the city of Galena’s connection to the Pixar movie, “Cars.” The inspiration for Mater, the lovable tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, was discovered on the side of the road on Route 66 when producers were on a scouting mission. You’ll find the likes of Tow Mater, along with other “Cars” characters, both at Cars on the Route and a little farther down Route 66.
Renee Charles, President of the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association and co-owner of Cars on the Route, met us in Galena to tell us a bit of history about how Cars on the Route came to be. It’s in the middle of renovations, and the old filling station isn’t quite ready for its close-up…but the cars out front are. It’s already worth a stop now, but just wait for what’s next.
Not far from Cars on the Route is Gearhead Curios in another retro gas station-turned shop and photo opp. Here, you’ll find Doc from “Cars,” as well as a cute, updated Big Boy that now looks like a Texaco spokesman with a stack of tires instead of a burger. You’ll also meet Aaron who owns the place, and he’s a character himself. Stop for a bit to shoot the breeze with him and buy a Route 66 soda while there.
While most of our stops on Route 66 were shiny, updated versions of what the highway is known for, Nelson’s Old Riverton Store in Riverton seems to have frozen in time. The store was the place to stop for deli sandwiches, groceries and odds & ends, and it still is. It’s packed to the gills with items. There is a second room to the store that has Route 66 memorabilia, though, so if you are looking for that souvenir, you’ll find plenty of options there.
Curse my luck. The Route 66 Visitors Center in Baxter Springs was not open when we stopped there, but that didn’t stop me from taking photos in front of it. The visitors center is in an old filling station (because of course it is), and the old-fashioned pumps remain in front.
Incidentally, I may have overdone it with iconic stops on Route 66. My teen loudly questioned why we were stopping at so many gas stations. He had a point. Maybe one old-fashioned pump would be enough.
The road trip route we drove
Want to recreate this trip? Want to pick a stop or too? Here’s the route we drove through Kansas.
Day 1: Iola, Humboldt, Chanute
Day 2: Erie, West Mineral, Baxter Springs, Riverton, Galena, Pittsburg
Day 3: Fort Scott, Pleasanton
Day 1: Iola, Humboldt, Chanute
In Iola, we stopped at Fillmore Coffee House for lunch, and then walked around the town square. Fun fact: Iola’s town square is the largest town square in the country. It’s true.
In Humboldt, we stopped at Octagon City Coffee Shop, the Go Get ‘E Tigers shop, and the boutique, Jae & Co. Things I wished we could’ve visited: Bijou Confectionary, the cute kids shop Wild Poppy, and Honeybee Bruncherie.
In Chanute, we toured Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum with the executive director and had meals at El Rincon Azteca and The Grain Bin. We stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, where my kids splashed around in their heated pool.
Fun fact: Chanute is the center of the world, according to Google Earth.
Day 2: Erie, West Mineral, Baxter Springs, Riverton, Galena, Pittsburg
In Erie, we visited Erie Dinosaur Park. It was off-season for the park, but we did arrange a tour of the park ahead of time. Otherwise, the dinosaurs are behind a fenced-in area when it’s not open.
In Baxter Springs, we drove along Route 66 in our super cool Honda while blaring Chuck Berry. We ate lunch at Bricks & Brews and stopped for a photo in front of the Route 66 Visitors Center.
In Riverton, we browsed the crowded shelves of Nelson’s Old Riverton Store. There is a small eating space if you decide to get a sandwich with some of their famed cold cuts.
In Galena, we took a ton of photos at Gearhead Curios, Cars on the Route, and the city park that had an old-timey jail. We also bought sodas and a T-shirt at Gearhead Curios. If you’re looking for the cool American flag made out of license plates, it’s on the side of Gearhead Curios. Aaron will likely include himself in a selfie. Go with it.
In Pittsburg, we had dinner and a beer flight at Drop the H Brewing Co., and we also toured the brewery with the owner. We stayed overnight at the Hampton Inn & Suites, which is connected to the Kansas Crossing Casino. No we didn’t throw any money down, but we did swim at the pool.
Day 3: Fort Scott, Pleasanton
In Fort Scott, we visited Lowell Milken Center Museum for Unsung Heroes, and briefly toured the grounds of Fort Scott National Historic Site. We also strolled along the Historic Downtown District and got lunch at Common Grounds Coffee.
In Pleasanton (or rather in a field outside of Pleasanton), we made a quick visit to the Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site. It was sprinkling and the visitors center was closed so it was a very brief stop.
Where to stay in southeastern Kansas
We stayed at two family-friendly hotels during our road trip. They both had pools, complimentary breakfast, and coffee in the lobby.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Chanute on Day 1. The only drawback I can think of this hotel was that it had an unusual pool hours. My daughter loves getting up early to swim when we’re on road trips and we had to leave the hotel long before the pool would open. Minor quibble, really. The hotel is highly rated on Booking.com.
On our second night, we stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites in Pittsburg. I loved the space of the suites, and the room also had a kitchen. As mentioned before, it’s connected to a casino.