Visitors can dig for diamonds at a decommissioned mine in Arkansas. But diamonds aren’t the only hidden gems that await groups visiting America’s Crossroads.
Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri are full of attractions that tell stories of famous residents and incredible events. From Wild West history to massive caverns and a wildlife preserve, here are some intriguing sites you won’t want to miss on your next group tour of the region.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
Anybody can pan for gold, but a unique destination in Arkansas allows its guests to dig for things that are a bit more precious: diamonds, amethyst, garnet, banded agate, jasper and hematite. Not only can visitors dig to their heart’s content, searching for that one big find that will bring them riches beyond their wildest dreams, but they can haul away five gallons of material daily.
Crater of Diamonds State Park sits on the largest volcanic diamond pipe in Arkansas. The area was mined for 40 years, but none of the companies were ever very successful or profitable, said park interpreter Waymon Cox.
That doesn’t mean the area is devoid of diamonds. About 33,000 diamonds have been dug out of the ground by park visitors since the area was sold to the state of Arkansas in 1972. An 8.52-carat find in 2015 was cut into a 4.6-carat jewel valued at $1 million. And even though not everyone is lucky enough to walk away with a flawless gem worth a lot of money, 120,000 visitors a year stop by to take a chance.
Group travelers receive a discount on admission and can take part in diamond mining demonstrations and guided walking tours of the site.
Fantastic Caverns is the only drive-through cave complex in the United States. Visitors hop onto trams pulled by old jeeps that take them into an amazing underground world that was formed by an underground river millennia ago.
There are multiple levels to the caverns, but visitors are allowed to tour only the “upstairs,” said Hubert Heck, director of marketing and group sales for Fantastic Caverns. The complex was first discovered in 1862 when a dog chased an animal into the cave opening, which was covered by vegetation. The dog’s owner located the trapped dog by his barking and stumbled upon the caves. He was afraid to tell people about the caverns until after the Civil War because he didn’t want the Confederate or Union armies to take them over for munitions storage. Since then, the caves have been a tourist destination, a speakeasy featuring live music and the location of a country music radio show called “Farmarama.” It wasn’t until the 1950s that electric lights and cave trails were added to allow visitors better access to the caverns.
Groups of 20 or more get a discount when they visit the caverns, which are open 362 days a year. The high-humidity caverns stay at a constant 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and tours take about 55 minutes.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum
One of the most beloved authors of all time, Laura Ingalls Wilder, spent a good deal of her adult life at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri. She raised her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, there and wrote her “Little House on the Prairie” books there, detailing her family’s hardscrabble existence in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and the Dakota Territory in the late 1800s.
“She’s a pretty neat lady,” said Nicholas Inman, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum. “It is interesting how many generations she’s really touched.”
Laura and her husband, Almanzo Wilder, moved to the area in 1894. They bought land outside of Mansfield to grow apples and raise goats, chickens and Morgan horses.
Many people know Laura’s story from the television series that ran from 1974 through 1983. Visitors to the property can tour the Wilders’ original farmhouse, which was completed in 1913, and the Rock House, a gift to the Wilders from their daughter. The Rock House was where Laura wrote the first four Little House books.
The museum showcases her family’s personal belongings and keepsakes and even Charles “Pa” Ingalls’ famous fiddle. It also has a section dedicated to Rose Wilder Lane, a well-known author in her own right.
About 40,000 visitors come from around the world each year to see where Laura wrote her books. Groups tours are easily accommodated.
Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve
The Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve got its start as the guesthouse of Phillips Petroleum Company founder Frank Phillips and his wife, Jane. Frank wanted a retreat to which he could invite customers and other business associates to come and do business in a more relaxed setting. The Lodge home on-site was completed in 1926, and guests can tour it today, but Phillips and his wife were also great art and artifact collectors.
The museum, built on property, started with a small plane that made the first direct flight from San Francisco to Hawaii, beating out eight other planes participating in the Dole Pineapple Race. Phillips built a hangar on property to display the victorious Woolaroc plane, and eventually, his collections began to outgrow the building.
Now, according to Frank Phillips Foundation CEO Bob Fraser, the state-of-the-art, 50,000-square-foot museum has 10 galleries that display one of the best collections of Southwestern art and artifacts in the country.
Part of Woolaroc’s charm is its 3,700-acre wildlife preserve that boasts free-roaming bison herds, elk, deer, longhorn cattle and Scottish highland cattle. Visitors that enter the main gate and make the two-mile drive to the main campus are greeted by herds of wandering wildlife. The preserve also has a collection of more exotic species like ostriches, zebras and water buffaloes.
Visitors can hike the trails, drive through the property to see the animals, tour the lodge and visit the museum. Groups can get close to some of the baby animals born on the preserve at the site’s petting barn.
From March through September, visitors can take part in Woolaroc’s Mountain Man Camp, a re-enactment of an 1840s traders camp. The camp’s two mountain men teach visitors how to shoot a black-powder rifle and the proper way to throw a tomahawk. Visitors also get a taste of how people lived back in the 1840s.
Old Town Abilene
Old Town Abilene, a re-creation of 1860s Abilene, Kansas, sits on the south end of town next door to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Visitors can wander through restored buildings, including an old saloon, a jail, a schoolhouse and a general store. The nonprofit group that runs the site is slowly raising funds to restore more of the old buildings, among them two log cabins that were some of the first settled cabins in Abilene.
“A lot of old buildings in Abilene ended up in other Western towns in Kansas,” said Sarah Wilson, treasurer and secretary for the Board of Old Town Abilene. “It is basically how things got scattered about.”
Gunfighters perform in Old Town Abilene on the weekends during the busy season, and every Labor Day, the site commemorates its cattle drive past by hosting Chisholm Trail Days. Longhorn cattle are driven through the area and loaded onto train cars as they would have been back when the Chisholm Trail was operating between Texas and Kansas.