May/Jun 2014 Issue
This Enhanced Editorial was paid for by a promotional fee from an advertiser.

Explore Kansas’ Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway
The national byway showcases the Jayhawk State’s natural side, along with an ample serving of small-town charm.

great bend cvbJust like many communities and regions that call the Great Plains home, central Kansas is subject to incessant wind and the vagaries of a continental climate. These ever-present factors have reared a hardy folk who call the area home, as well as shaped a landscape that bears the beauty marks to prove it.

These drivers of the life and times of Kansas are captured in the theme of the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway that carves a 77-mile swath through the state’s midsection. “Motion and Change” is the motif for guiding an exploration of the byway, which has been called one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas.

The renown comes from the presence of two immense marshlands – Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge – which bookend the byway. Both sites are crucial to migrating birds, and they have been recognized internationally for their ecological importance.

For instance, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area itself is the largest interior marsh in the United States, covering 41,000 acres and representing the country’s most important staging area for shorebirds. The Bottoms also are home to more than 330 species of birds, 23 species of mammals, 19 species of reptile and nine species of amphibians.

City Streets

Seven towns are on or near the byway, each with its own appeal. In addition, they complement the region’s natural wonder with qualities equally summed by Motion and Change theme:

  • great bend cvbGeology is the theme in Claflin, which has been affected by the vast prairie, wetlands and sandhills that surround it. It also stands out as the geographic center of Kansas. And it boasts six WPA Post Rock Bridges, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby is the Cheyenne Bottoms Scenic Overlook, which vividly reveals the wetland as a 64-square-mile depression in the traditional grassland environment.
  • Movement of Man is the theme in Ellinwood. The theme illustrates the fact that the byway’s historic sites, museums and more catalog more than 10,000 years of human history. Ellinwood does its part with its Underground Tunnels. This is where the seedier side of 19th-century frontier life – prostitution and so on – occurred under (literally) the noses of proper folks. Above ground there are seven antique stores on Main Street, where shoppers can find vintage furniture, jewelry, gifts, collectibles, toys, artwork and quilts.
  • Weather is the theme in Hoisington. In general, dramatic weather is the norm on the byway, from drought to flooding, from intense heat to intense cold and from blizzards to tornados. Locals exemplify the spirit necessary to call such a place home. That spirit can be seen in the 62 award-winning metal pole art installations designed by local artists. The artworks represent depictions of wildlife, area history and appreciation for Depression-era craftsmen. Hoisington also is a short trip away from the Cheyenne Bottom Wildlife Area’s Song Bird Habitat and a road-side stop set up by the Nature Conservancy, which owns a preserve in the Bottoms.
  • Wetlands are the theme for Hudson, St. John and Stafford. The influence of the seasons, weather and human use keep the region’s signature wetlands in a constant state of motion and change. The wetlands also represent a long-standing source of recreation for these communities and the region. In Hudson, there also are tours of Stafford County Flour Mills, a century-old company and the largest non-government-owned milling operation in the country. Meanwhile, St. John’s town square is the perfect place for a leisurely walk. And the African-American Martin Cemetery south of town is an ideal place to learn more about the Exodusters – a term given to freed slaves who immigrated from the South to Kansas after the Civil War. At the Stafford County Historical Museum and Genealogical Society Library there is more information about Exodusters in central Kansas shared through an exhibit that features 29,000 glass negative photos. And Stafford is home to six architecturally significant buildings that are listed on the National Register.
  • Birds and Wildlife compose the theme for Great Bend – signifying the outdoor utopia of migrating birds and wildlife at the doorstep of the byway’s largest community. Great Bend is Barton County seat and home to a Santa Fe Trail interpretive site at the Barton Historical Village and Museum. More Santa Fe Trail commemoration is found downtown on the historical square. Visitors can walk the trail and view embedded quilt patterns that recall Kansas history. Great Bend also takes advantage of its Arkansas River shoreline with a hiking and biking trail. The town’s natural surroundings – and the appeal of the byway – that brings folks to town are feted in a GPS Video Tour of Cheyenne Bottoms and the byway. There also is the Raptor Center, which is the entrance to the Brit Spaugh Zoo. The center specializes in the medical rehabilitation of eagles, hawks, owls, falcons and vultures. Visitors can observe medical procedures and enjoy the interpretive and educational displays.

great bend cvbBack to Nature

The allure and importance of the wetlands that dominate the byway is made more significant by the fact that only three of Kansas’ large marshes remain. (There were 12 in the late 1800s.) It’s a phenomenon that has played out all across the country. Only traces of historical wetlands – essential to wildlife, flood control and water quality – remain in place.

Likely it is hard to notice such a reality on this byway, with its vast wetland complexes and their riches of water, flora and fauna. It’s a paradise, especially to birds migrating along the Central Flyway. Here they may double their body weight before continuing on their journey.

A great place to learn about the marshlands’ importance is at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, located at the eastern edge of Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and The Nature Conservancy Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve. Strolling through the center’s exhibits reveals the story of the Bottoms, from its geological formation to the management challenges of the future. Discovery of the animals and plants living here is made easy through interpretive learning stations. Educational programs and events are available for all ages, too, and admission is free.

At the other end of the byway is Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. It is best to stop at the Visitors Center to get an idea of where to start an adventure. For one, an audio tour on the mostly unpaved roads allows for wildlife watching from the car. There also are hiking trails and overlooks that could offer closer peeks at wildlife, such as whooping cranes during the spring and fall migrations.

Whether it’s from the vantage of the wetlands or the city streets, the sense of how fragile and temporary matters are before the forces of nature and time is vividly realized on the byway. But another realization is all that motion and change yields something majestic and welcoming along the way.

For more information about the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway, visit www.kansasbyway.com or www.visitgreatbend.com.

For trip-planning assistance, visit AAA.com/travel.