The charming town of Clay Center, Kansas is one of the most welcoming communities I’ve visited. The county seat of Clay County, the town attracts tourists in search of colorful murals and day trip destinations. The community takes pride in its specialty shops, zoo, restaurants, and annual Piotique festival every September.
I had the pleasure of staying overnight in Clay Center to make the most of my visit. With a population hovering at about 4,000 people, the tight-knit community rolls out the red carpet for visitors. I arrived in town just after sunrise and parked not far from the limestone courthouse in the town square.
HAPPY HIPPIE STUDIOS
Hanging plants. Shelves of packaged granola and honey. Brick exposed walls. Pink Floyd music playing in the background. Happy Hippie Studios (815 5th Street) is a sensory overload. As blenders whirl, owner Erin Hammel, greets locals and takes their fruit smoothie and açaí bowl orders.
I ordered The OG Acaí Bowl, a blend of acaí (berries of a South American palm tree) and banana topped with fresh fruit, locally sourced honey, coconut shreds, and granola. The delicious breakfast bowl was filling and a healthy alternative to a traditional breakfast. I sat at a table covered in chalkboard paint (colored chalk available!) and admired the artwork on the walls. A table near a cozy seating area sat covered with colorful stickers and board games.
Happy Hippie Studios is more than a place where wellness-driven people come for a tasty bite. A certified yoga instructor, Hammel encourages visitors and locals to join a yoga class or enjoy on-site massage therapy, sauna treatments, and esthetician services.
Hammel’s drive and determination are the only things more impressive than the studios. An award-winning business owner under 30, she grew Happy Hippie from a one-blender farmers’ market stand to a flourishing business. In fact, she served 150 smoothies on opening day. No wonder her slogan is “Smoothies Make People Happy.”
PRO TIP: You’ll be impressed by Happy Hippie’s healthy menu options. Visit for lunch to create your own meal from the salad bar. Hammel stocks it with fresh ingredients daily.
After my two-hour drive from Wichita, I was ready for a hot cup of coffee. Java Junkies (505 Court Street) is where residents and visitors gather comfortably to chat about the day’s activities. My visit to Clay Center also coincided with the annual Piotique celebration, so the coffee shop was a buzz with chatter about the weekend’s festivities.
The town’s espresso bar and artisan restaurant are centrally located near retail shops and local businesses. I talked with the owner, Mike Peerson, about his business while he made cold brew. Multi-tasking is a skill Java Junkies employees have to master since the coffee shop is seemingly always busy.
The smell of coffee permeates the air. During my visit, I enjoyed the Latté of the Week selection while relaxing inside the cafe. The menu also features early morning selections ranging from scones and pecan rolls to muffins and breakfast burritos. You’ll also find heartier meals like grilled PB&J or cheese sandwiches as well as turkey wraps on the menu.
I returned on Day 2 of my stay in Clay Center for a hot coffee. The line reached from the counter almost to the door while employees hurriedly served patrons. They were busy for a good reason. The 4th Annual Java Junkies T-Rex Race for charity was about to start and race fans wanted to fuel up before watching it. (More on the race later!)
PRO TIP: Bring your laptop. They offer free Wi-Fi making it a cozy place to get work done. I felt right at home using the desk with the reading lamp.
TASTY PASTRY BAKERY & COFFEE
If you can leave Tasty Pastry Bakery & Coffee Shop (511 Court Street) with only one donut, it will be a miracle. The aroma of freshly baked pastries hits you the moment you enter the door. Glass displays hold stacks of homemade donuts and nut rolls. The morning I arrived, the place was packed with small groups of diners at every table. Kids approached the counter ready to order a cinnamon roll or cookie.
PRO TIP: Tasty Pastry Bakery & Coffee Shop is open every day except Sunday. Arrive early to order the best pastry selection. The coffee is hot and the donuts are fresh.
THE REX THEATRE
The Rex Theatre (519 Court Street) is located within a short walking distance of the café. The theatre was built in the early 1900s, and after years of sitting empty, the new owners gave it a complete overall. The fully-renovated historic theatre welcomes audiences who attend first-run movies and live community drama performances. Today, The Rex Theatre is a member of the Kansas Historical Theatre Association, a non-profit organization that promotes and facilitates the restoration of noteworthy theatres in the state.
The 299-seat theatre is a gem in the heart of the town. It’s where many locals have come for years noting memorable moments. Director Reneé Langvardt and her employees work hard to provide an unforgettable experience. During the summer, families enjoy Free Movie Friday. When school children are released early from school on scheduled days, the theatre plays a movie to keep them entertained.
When the lights are up, visitors can see the theatre’s stunning architecture including ornate plaster made of horsehair. The modern seating provides a comfortable movie screening experience. Newly restored bathrooms are adorned with framed images of Hollywood stars of the past. The original tile floor and entryway harken back to an earlier time.
The concession stand is fully stocked with the movie popcorn, cotton candy, and candy selections you crave. Ask about combo deals. Adults can enjoy beer and wine.
PRO TIP: Like me, you’ll probably fall head over heels for the theatre. Look for t-shirts for sale near the concessions stand that read “I LOVE THE REX.”
THE SCHOOLHOUSE INN
Imagine my delight when I learned I would stay overnight in a renovated one-room schoolhouse on the edge of town. As a past high school teacher, the chance to do so was something I never thought possible. But then again, Clay Center is the kind of town full of delightful surprises.
As I drove up to The Schoolhouse Inn, I noted the bell in the tower and the oversized windows and doors. Inside, the interior was decorated in neutral tones. The restored hardwood floors creaked as I toured the accommodations. The open living room space easily included enough seating to accommodate several guests. Original chalkboards carved with the initials of rambunctious students flanked two sides of the room.
Two bedrooms with plush queen-sized beds with end tables and armoires welcomed me. Which one would I choose? The rooms were equally inviting. The full bathroom with a modern shower included the amenities of home plus a basket of toiletries.
Although The Schoolhouse Inn did not have a kitchen, I had access to a small refrigerator and freezer, Keurig coffeemaker, and microwave. The refrigerator was filled with bottled water and soda products. Complimentary drinks and snacks made the stay unexpectedly comfortable.
Because The Schoolhouse Inn sits on the owner’s private property, I found it to be a peaceful and quiet setting. If you’re interested in staying overnight in The Schoolhouse Inn, contact the owner via their business Facebook page. The inn is not listed on Airbnb, nor does it have a website.
PRO TIP: Turn on interior lighting before returning to your lodging accommodations at night. The schoolhouse looks beautifully illuminated from within, and you’ll be thankful for the night lighting.
15-24 BREW HOUSE
15-24 Brew House (426 Lincoln Avenue) is a popular place on any given day. It attracts locals and out-of-towners on the hunt for craft beer and a delicious meal. You can expect tasty, award-winning beer and heaping plates of food.
The brewery is kicking out some of the area’s best beers. I ordered a four-pour beer flight to sample several brews. As a travel writer, I’ve drank quite a bit of craft beer, and I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed all of the Brew House’s selections. Peel Out, comparable to Blue Moon, lived up to the hype. The two-time National Grand Champ Belgian Wit was my favorite, followed by 1 Eye Open Tropical IPA.
Voted “Best Burgers in Clay County,” I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity to order the stacked and smothered Gouda Mac burger. The sandwich is a feast for the eyes. Gouda bites drip with chipotle aioli atop a burger with bacon. You won’t leave a single bite on the plate – so leave room for crispy waffle fries! Other menu options include steaks, pizzas, salads, and appetizers. View the menu.
I was fortunate enough to get a private tour of the backroom brewing facility by Brew Master & General Manager Clint Armstrong. A few questions in and I realized that Clint is the real deal. He cut his teeth on beer brewing like most beginners and then sought the mentorship of the pros while living in Colorado. Fast forward years later, Clay Center is lucky to have him cranking out award-winning craft beer that easily rivals some of the best Kansas beer on the market. As we entered the tank room he said, “Welcome to my happy place.” We’re all smiling now.
When visiting Brew House, carve out enough time to enjoy a meal and a few beers while chatting with locals. Taproom Manager Phil Kasper is a friendly, welcoming guy eager to chat about Clay Center or beer. If the weather is nice, enjoy the newly installed patio for a view of downtown.
PRO TIP: The brewhouse serves over a dozen beers on tap, all available to go via a growler, squealer, or crowler. They do not distribute off-site, so stock up on your craft beer favorites.
SELF-GUIDED MURAL TOUR
There is a cool thing happening in Clay Center, Kansas. Some call it a mural movement! The town showcases over 25 oversized paintings by 15 professional artists from seven states for you to discover. If you’re a mural hunter like me, Clay Center is exactly where you want to be.
The movement, established in 2020, is gaining attention. KSN’s Good Day Kansas, Wichita Times Online, and several Kansas news publications featured the town’s artistic initiative. The town’s leadership nailed it when they devised a way to drive tourism to Clay Center while beautifying it. A handful of committee members knew what they were doing when they proposed the first mural installation, leading to many more.
You can download the interactive mural map using a mobile app that uses your phone’s GPS to guide you to each one. Prefer a paper map instead? Grab a mural group map from various stations around town – look for a map station near Java Junkies. While most of the murals are concentrated within the town’s main streets, a few outliers are also worth seeing.
It’s hard to pick a “favorite” as they all have endearing qualities that make them camera-ready. However, as a fan girl of Brady Scott’s murals, I was pleased to see his work on display at Utility Park & Zoo. His paintings depicting a bright-colored peacock stopped me in my tracks. The eye-catching cheetah mural enticed me to grab my camera.
PRO TIP: Before starting your guided trek, make sure you’re wearing comfortable walking shoes. Remember, you won’t be able to walk to all of them as they are spread out around town. Once you arrive at a mural, use your phone’s camera to scan the QR code, providing information on the artist’s work.
UTILITY PARK & ZOO
Black bears. Lemurs. Exotic Birds. You may not think animals like these would call a small Kansas town their home, but you’d be wrong. Clay Center’s Utility Park & Zoo (4th Street & Pomeroy) has invited visitors to enjoy the scenery and animals at no cost. The ten-acre property is open daily from 9 am-8 pm.
The Public Utilities Commission acquired the land and zoo in the 1930s during the Depression era when the town’s residents found it difficult to pay their water and light bills. So, they decided to allow customers to work off their bills at the park by constructing natural stone walls. Today, the walls enclose a park with beautiful gardens and a zoo filled with rehabbed animals. The project is supported by PUC as a gift to the town’s residents.
I had the opportunity to meet various animals thanks to a guided tour by facility employees. I watched black bears dine on snacks. A lemur ate raisins from my hand. And beautiful birds like the ones pictured above chatted excitedly while we observed them. The zoo is undergoing a major renovation that includes the addition of an aviary that will become a habitat for various birds.
The zoo remains open to animal seekers while the planned improvements take place. Future plans include an entrance building, splash pad, and education building.
PRO TIP: Visiting with children? Enjoy the park’s playground equipment and the walking trail west of the zoo.
I stepped into boutique heaven when I walked through the doors of Ginger’s Uptown (721 5th Street). Ginger and the staff warmly greeted me as they took me on a store tour. Women’s apparel, accessories, home decor, kitchen gadget, and gourmet food filled the space.
Ginger has operated the business for 36 years providing locals and visitors a place to shop for a gift for themself or someone else. They pride themselves on carrying the best brands in the business. Nora Fleming, Brighton, Michel Design Works, The World’s Best Pan…you name it, you can find it at Ginger’s Uptown. Plus, they make shopping for their products easy if you can do so in person.
I challenge you to try leaving the store without buying something. I couldn’t do it. Home cooks will appreciate the specialty foods corner that includes fill-a-bottle olive oils. Ladies looking to add glam to their wardrobe will appreciate the clothing and jewelry selection. And women looking to purchase seasonal home decor will gasp in amazement at the displays that welcome shoppers.
Known for its wedding registry services, the store caters to those who need to pick up a gift for the bride and groom. Rumor has it that they’re on almost every local wedding registry. Ginger is the queen of ribbons and is known for creating wow-worthy gift baskets. They can also ship you 99% of the inventory, and you can shop from the store’s website to order online.
The Uptown Girls host Thursday Coffee Talk sessions on Facebook live showcasing the newest inventory. Events like All That Glitters Christmas Showcase always promise big crowds, so signing up to attend one of the sessions in advance is key.
PRO TIP: Check out the store’s private label selection of jarred gourmet foods ranging from relish to white queso dip. Look for samples to try. Don’t leave without buying handmade chocolate truffles.
CLAY CENTER COUNTRY CLUB
Famished from a full day of fun, I joined my travel contact at the Clay Center Country Club (1568 Navajo Road) for a dinner. I enjoyed a glass of red wine inside the clubhouse with scenic views of the pristine 9-hole golf course. Soon, I was surrounded by locals asking about my visit to the town and my role as a travel writer. My new friends were welcoming and a delight to talk with over Happy Hour.
The dinner menu included a vast selection of entreé selections and lighter fare. A patron recommended the Chicken Fried Pork Loin, an off-menu choice. Score! It arrived perfectly cooked and paired with appetizing sides and a dinner roll.
PRO TIP: If you accompany a country club member, you can golf the course or enjoy a meal in the dining room as their guest.
DIECK’S CLAY CENTER LOCKER
Dieck’s Clay Center Locker is a family-owned business where those in the know shop for retail meats. Sixty cooler doors have refrigerated, pre-packaged beef, bacon, jerky, bratwurst, snack sticks, steaks, and more. Not only do they sell meat, but they also smoke it on-site. Most of their fresh meat is shipped to them from nearby Junction City, Kansas.
After a fire destroyed their old facility, the owners drew design plans for the current building on butcher paper. Now, the converted Dollar General Store is the town’s meat locker keeping locals’ refrigerators stocked with Kansas beer and pork products. It’s also a one-stop shop for grab-and-go shopping. They carry a large selection of beer and road-ready snacks.
PRO TIP: Pack a large iced-down cooler for your trip to Clay Center to fill it up with frozen meat. Oh, and don’t miss the back shelves stocked with private-label pickled vegetables and salsa.
MORE THINGS TO DO
Dexter Park (600 Grant Ave.) hosted a car show during the Piotique fall celebration while I was visiting. However, you can find “Safari Run” playground equipment, a tank, and an outdoor amphitheater used for community performances.
Piotique Celebration takes place on the last Saturday of September every year. A tradition since 1936, hundreds of people turn out to watch parades, shop for food and craft vendors, play games, watch Cruise Night, and listen to live music. Expect large crowds to watch festivities downtown if the festival falls on the same weekend as homecoming.
The 4th Annual Java Junkies T-Rex Race for charity drew hundreds of spectators this year. Sponsored participants donning inflatable costumes sprinted down a city block to earn their way into the final heat. The winner earned $1,000 to donate to a charity of choice. It’s an event that is not to be missed.
Milford Lake is a 30-minute drive southeast of Clay Center. It’s an exceptional location for birdwatching, hiking, water sports, and overnight lodging in cabins or via campgrounds. Read what you can expect at Milford Nature Center in a post about Junction City here.
I’m not going to lie. I felt a little tug on my heartstrings as I pulled out of town, leaving my new friends behind. The town’s people are welcoming, and with so much to do and see in Clay Center, it made it hard to leave.
Go for the murals. Drop into town to dine at the restaurants. Plan a trip around the town’s many events and festivals. No matter the time of year, Clay Center is a wonderful place to explore.