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Grand Central: Natural beauty

Courtesy Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism

The Grand Central states’ natural beauty takes many forms and encompasses a wealth of ecosystems. Kansas’ towering Monument Rocks have endured for centuries, Oklahoma’s austere salt flats hold waiting-to-be-discovered crystals, lush Arkansas foliage soothes all who visit, and Missouri’s lakes and caves offer diverse activities.

Petit Jean State Park
Morrilton, Ark.
Known for its mountain scenery, Petit Jean, Arkansas’s first state park, has more than 21 miles of hiking trails. Nature-lovers skirt creeks and a canyon rim on the hike to 95-foot-high Cedar Falls.

By vehicle groups can also access four scenic overlooks that provide breathtaking views of the Cedar Creek Canyon and the Arkansas River Valley.

Along the Rock House Cave Trail, visitors see a magnificent bluff shelter that was inhabited more than a thousand years ago by Native Americans who were hunters and gatherers. Pictographs high on the cave’s back wall serve as a record of their lives.

Mather Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, has been kept in its original state but with updated amenities. The restaurant, not part of the original structure, was recently torn down and rebuilt to match the lodge’s exterior.

Reopening this spring, a new lobby and reception area tie the restaurant and lodge together, while the original lobby serves as a gathering room.

“It’s a beautiful park for all seasons,” said park interpreter B.T. Jones. “Around late March or early April, the serviceberry tree blooms first, cherries follow, and then dogwoods bloom for almost two weeks. In autumn, the mix of hardwoods is quite colorful.”

Monument Rocks National
Natural Landmark

Oakley, Kan.
Magnificent monoliths, dubbed the Chalk Pyramids by locals, rise more than 70 feet above the Kansas plains at Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark. Arches and buttes extend over 10 acres. Combined with other chalk outcroppings in the area, they’re collectively known as the Badlands of Kansas.

Receding waters of the Niobrara seaway, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, left behind chalk deposits that over time were eroded by wind, rain and the once-significant Smoky Hill River.

The inland sea also left 500 feet of marine sedimentary deposits, a treasure trove of fossils and the remains of extinct animals. Some of the world’s most outstanding Cretaceous marine fossils have been discovered there.

“Groups can start at the Buffalo Bill Sculpture and Cabin in Oakley if they’re heading south on U.S. 83 to access the rocks,” said Raelene Keller of the Western Vistas Historic Byway. “There’s an outdoor storyboard about Monument Rocks, one of the many sites featured on the byway.”

Groups heading north on U.S. 83 will want to stop first at Keystone Gallery, an art gallery, fossil museum and souvenir shop located in the 1916 Pilgrim Holiness Church. The gallery offers information about Monument Rocks alongside fossils found there.

Oakley’s Fick Fossil Museum also displays numerous local fossils.

Lake of the Ozarks

Osage Beach, Mo.
One of Missouri’s most popular outdoor recreation sites, Lake of the Ozarks, blends the area’s history with beautiful scenery.

Centuries ago the Osage Indians discovered Bridal Cave under Thunder Mountain; folklore recounts an Indian wedding held there in the early 1800s. Today, more than 2,000 couples have exchanged vows in the stalactite Bridal Chapel.

Ongoing exploration has uncovered additional chambers, among them the crystal clear waters of Mystery Lake. Giant columns, delicate soda straws and massive draperies wow visitors. One-hour guided tours on paved paths traverse the cave’s eight rooms.

“The cave has numerous onyx formations of all shapes and sizes,” said spokeswoman Lindsey Webster. “It’s an underground adventure that people won’t soon forget.”

Ha Ha Tonka State Park features the stone ruins of an early-20th-century castle built by a prominent Kansas City businessman high atop a bluff. More than 15 miles of trails traverse the park, leading visitors to sinkholes, natural bridges, caves and a lake.

Family-owned Tom Sawyer Paddlewheel Cruises gets groups out on the Lake of the Ozarks. The 90-minute cruises take in Bagnell Dam plus different coves from April through October.

“Our cruises can be customized to any length,” said co-owner Greg Braun. “Breakfast, lunch or dinner cruises are catered from our restaurant: Huckleberry’s. Groups can also eat in the restaurant, which isn’t currently open to the public.”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.