America’s Crossroads states have much to offer in the way of scenic vistas and outdoor attractions. From mountains and rolling hills to the last swath of tallgrass prairie in the country, group travelers have a plethora of historical and awe-inspiring outdoor destinations to explore in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Here are just a handful of must-sees along the way.
Mount Magazine State Park
At 2,753 feet, Mount Magazine is Arkansas’ highest peak. People from all around the world come to the state park to experience the wonderful view of the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake from the top, as well as enjoy the great outdoors through hiking, biking, rock climbing, backpacking, horseback riding and even hang gliding.
“It is gorgeous,” said Jill Rohrback of the Arkansas Tourism Department. “Two thousand seven hundred fifty feet may not sound that high, but the drop is so significant to the surrounding countryside that it is beautiful.”
Group travelers can make the historic Lodge at Mount Magazine their base as they explore everything the area has to offer, including eight wineries at the base of the mountain and Cove Lake Recreation Area, a 160-acre lake for swimming, fishing, boat rentals and all types of water sports. The lodge has 60 rooms and 13 cabins. A visitors center explores the flora and fauna of the area.
Group travelers should make a point of visiting Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, one of the oldest and largest wineries in the middle states, located on the southern slopes of St. Mary’s Mountain, or the Post Familie Vineyards in Altus, Arkansas. Both were founded in 1880. Groups can tour the vineyards, taste some wine and have a meal.
Flint Hills National Scenic Byway
Many people don’t realize that Kansas isn’t all flat. It is home to beautiful rolling hills and some of the last untouched tallgrass prairie in the country. The Flint Hills Scenic Byway stretches 47.2 miles across the Flint Hills between Council Grove and Cassoday in east-central Kansas.
The Scenic Byway starts in Council Grove, which has more than 20 historical sites, most of which relate to the Santa Fe Trail and people moving west as the frontier expanded. Native American heritage is also an important part of the area’s history. The Kaw Mission and the Last Chance Store Museums are on the trail and tell the story of the native people who lived in the area and the pioneers who traveled the Santa Fe Trail.
The Flint Hills Trail State Park features 89 miles of rail-trail that, when completed, will traverse 117 miles from Osawatomie to Herington, Kansas, through the Flint Hills. The trail was designated a National Recreation Trail in October 2020 because it follows the general route of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail and is a piece of the coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail. Visitors to the area can hike, bike or ride horses along the former railroad bed, which has been resurfaced and improved in many places.
Another must-see on the scenic byway is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which is home to 11,000 acres of untouched tallgrass prairie. Visitors can take a bus tour and visit historic buildings in the area, go on a hike or take the cellphone tour. A scenic overlook allows them to see the tallgrass prairie in all its glory and even catch a glimpse of bison that roam the area.
Smallin Civil War Cave
The Smallin Civil War Cave is a privately owned cave in the Ozarks. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cave has both a Civil War and a Native American history.
“It’s an amazing cave, and one of the reasons groups like it so well is it is easy,” said Wanetta Bright, who owns the cave with her husband, Kevin. People who have trouble climbing stairs or twisting or bending love that it is a fairly wide path through the cave with a concrete walkway and handrails and gentle inclines. Individuals with scooters or wheelchairs can also make the trek.
The cave is about a 25-minute drive from Springfield, Missouri, and a 35-minute drive from Branson, Missouri, off Highway 65.
“The cave is probably one of the oldest sites of human habitation in this part of the country because there is water and shelter; a 10-story, wide entrance; and a stream that flows through most of the time,” said Bright.
A research group from Missouri State University conducted a field study of the cave a few years ago. They found arrowheads dating from the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, as well as Civil War artifacts left behind by the Union Army soldiers that were encamped along the Finley River tributary that feeds into the cave. The camp burned down in 1863.
Group travelers can schedule a guided, one-hour tour of the cave, which is about a half-mile walk. For those who are a little more adventurous, the Smallin Civil War Cave also offers nighttime lantern tours on Saturday evenings from September to the first weekend of November. Visitors sit around a campfire listening to stories about the Civil War in Missouri. Before the tour, they are fed a dinner of ham, beans, potatoes and corn bread. Because the cave entrance is so wide, the cave stays fairly well lit during the day, so the lantern tours are only given once it is completely dark outside, said Bright.
Honey Springs Battlefield
The battle of Honey Springs was the largest Civil War battle to take place in Oklahoma and Indian Territory and was one of the most culturally diverse conflicts of the Civil War. Adam Lynn, director of the Honey Springs Battlefield and Visitors Center, said that what stands out the most about the battle was that it pitted 9,000 Confederate troops against 3,000 Union troops and yet the Union won because it had more cannons and better placement on the field.
Five Native American tribes fought there, some on the Confederate side and some on the Union side, along with former slaves who escaped to free states like Kansas. The former slaves fought for the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, the first African American regiment in the Union Army and veterans of numerous other Civil War conflicts.
The battlefield itself is spread over five miles. A modern paved road leads to six walking trails. Along each trail are interpretive signs detailing what happened during the battle. There are more than 50 interpretive signs on the site.
“In addition to having a rich history and, obviously, standing where the battle took place, you can see the beautiful scenery as well,” said Lynn. The battlefield is in a part of Oklahoma that has rolling hills and beautiful trees.”
The battlefield site has been open to the public since the late 1990s, but it has only been in the past few years that money became available to build a first-class visitors center there and redo the interpretive signs. When the center is complete, it will have permanent exhibits about the battle featuring artifacts dug up on-site, as well as a 4D theater that tells the stories of the many different peoples who fought there and the impact the war had on the five Native American tribes that participated.