Disclosure: Kansas I-70 Association sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
The western Kansas town of Oakley is a haven for fun things to do. My road trip on KS I-70 led me to Exits 70 and 76, where attractions like the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center and Fick Fossil Museum promised a fun day. But before I could focus on the town’s history, I needed something to eat.
I pulled the car over at Sunshine Bakery (3502 US-40), a delightful donut shop of modest size. I made it with only minutes to spare before they closed. The employee was super nice and told me to take my time choosing my breakfast treats. Sometimes when you make it to “last call” at a donut shop, you’re left with only a few donuts. That is not the case at Sunshine Bakery. Trays of crullers, fritters, and cream-filled donuts stared back at me. I went for a glazed donut and a fresh-baked vanilla cake donut. The corner bakery is the place to stop for breakfast in Oakley. The drive-thru stays busy all morning, so I recommend parking and heading inside.
BUFFALO BILL CULTURAL CENTER
Since my room at the Kansas Country Inn (3538 US 40) wouldn’t be ready for several hours, I went to the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center (3083 US 83) on the edge of town to view the twice-life-sized bronze sculpture of William F. Cody. It was voted one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Art. You can’t miss the sculpture as you turn into the parking lot.
Cody, aka “Buffalo Bill,” grew up on the Kansas plains and made his living as a contract buffalo hunter. The meat was provided to nearby Fort Wallace to feed soldiers. Cody also worked for the army as a civilian scout. When he heard another buffalo hunter, Medicine Bill Comstock, was a competitor, he suggested they stage a contest to see which hunter could harvest the most buffalo in a day. Cody was triumphant that spring day in 1868, earning him the nickname “Buffalo Bill Cody.”
The sculpture of him on a hunt is worth checking out. The information center at its base tells the story of Cody and his legacy.
Inside the Buffalo Bill Culture Center, you’ll find permanent and on-loan displays that provide details of the area’s history. I watched a fascinating short movie, “Hidden History – The Ghost Town of Sheridan Kanas 1868,” about a lawless town made up of mostly saloons not far from Oakley. The Kansas Pacific Railroad’s tracks ended there. The video told of men hung from railroad trestles and a mass grave created to bury the dead. The town existed for 15 short months. You can view an oil painting, “End of the Track,” by local artist Chuck Bonner on the wall of the center.
I also appreciated the illustrated panel on the wall that featured the people and places that make this area of Kansas unique.
The center also serves as the town’s travel information center, so it’s best to stop there before exploring Oakley. I discovered extensive travel brochures, maps, and a gift shop. The staff was eager to answer my questions and offered me freshly brewed coffee. If you need to research area attractions, knowledgeable employees will help you, or you can use the free WiFi to search the internet. A pet-friendly building, and travelers with dogs appreciate the indoor and outdoor accommodations.
FICK FOSSIL & HISTORY MUSEUM
People drive from miles around and across state lines to visit the Fick Fossil & History Museum (3083 US Hwy 83) in Oakley. I was impressed with the quality and quantity of fossils on display. Vi Fick was an artist who created artwork with marine fossils, bones, shells, and sharks’ teeth. Her intricate, 3-D artwork decorates the museum’s walls.
George Sternberg’s rare fossil, a 15′ Xiphactinus Audax, is the world’s oldest known mosasaur, and it sits on display for museum visitors to enjoy. The room that houses it also showcases a mosasaur skull. For fossil hunters and fans, this room promises to get their hearts racing. Since the museum sits on the Western Vistas Historic Byway, the area is a well-visited destination for geologists and paleontologists keen on discovering fossils. The museum houses a large collection of rocks and minerals as well.
Other museum rooms tell the story of the life of the prairie. You can walk into a replica of a sod house, view the interior of a general store, and listen to audio stories about the railroad. What do you think it would have been like to live before modern technology? The museum showcases the impact of modern communication on society, dating back to the telegraph to the telephone.
In a separate room, I found a piece of art, “Advertising Pencil and Pen Collection,” by one-time Oakley resident Donald Hall. He collected free pencils and pens throughout his lifetime and created the artwork pictured in the photo below. As a writer, I appreciated how Hall used an everyday object to create a masterpiece.
Don’t leave the museum without climbing inside a 1958 Ford V8 F750 fire truck once used by the Oakley Fire Department. The truck was taken out of use with 8,216 miles on it. The museum has a lot to see, and I’d recommend devoting at least an hour during your visit. You can tour the museum for free (donations accepted) six days a week, but check museum hours before driving there.
I was ready to see the geological formations called Monument Rocks. I drove 20 miles south on US-83 and meandered a few desolate country roads. A large snake crawled across the road in front of my car. Then, I drove over what looked like a black scorpion. (Note: Locals tell me it may have been a tarantula since the area is on the migration path.)
It was unlike any part of Kansas I had ever seen. Some fields lacked fences. Cattle stood watch as I passed. The earth was rocky, and the dirt was light in color. I stared at the remnants of an ancient ocean that once covered the region.
I scanned the land. I didn’t see tall rocks protruding from the land. Where were they? Then, out of nowhere, I spotted them. Monuments Rocks or “The Chalk Pyramids” stood as an outcropping just off the road, and I had the entire place to myself.
Located on private land, Monument Rocks is open to the public during daylight hours. The sedimentary formations are Niobrara Chalk, formed during the Cretaceous period on the Western Interior Seaway 80 million years ago. The lines in the rock indicate how the limestone evolved over the years. Listed as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas, it nearly takes your breath away. It’s easy to see why it was listed as the first National Natural Landmark in Kansas.
I circled the formations with my car and then parked. My path was bright white, and the sun bounced off the rock, illuminating the area. It’s hard to describe the size and scale of the formations. They are enormous. It is reported that every inch of rock represents 700 years of history.
I spotted another smaller one just beyond the largest formation (pictured above). The sculptured monolith (pictured below) was striking in its beauty. In the past, the rocks were used by The Butterfield Overland Dispatch as landmarks to guide travelers in the area who traveled the Smoky Hill Trail.
If you’re interested in visiting the outcroppings for yourself, I recommend traveling on a cool weather day or during the morning hours. Avoid making the drive if rain is in the forecast. It’s advisable to pack water and wear closed-toed shoes. To get there, drive 20 miles south of Oakley on U.S. 83, then 4 miles east on Jayhawk Road, 3 miles south, and 1 mile east (dry weather road only).
I drove to Keystone Gallery (401 US Hwy 83) to meet with the owners, fossil hunters who were waiting for my arrival. Housed in a once-abandoned church from 1916, Chuck and Barbara gave me a museum and gallery tour. Soon, I was immersed in stories told about fossil hunts. Once Barbara found her first fossil, she said she was hooked. Together, the couple has spent years excavating fossils. Many of their finds are on display in the museum, while others are on exhibit in other galleries around the nation. Their collection includes swimming reptiles, sharks, birds, and other invertebrates.
The Keystone Gallery overlooks the Smoky Hill River valley with a view of Monument Rocks in the “Badlands of Kansas.” I encourage you to look inside the glass cases at the museum and ask questions. Each fossil comes with a story about its discovery, journey to the museum, and the process of preparing it for display.
The space also serves as a gallery of Chuck’s paintings and a retail shop. Some visitors come to Keystone Gallery to learn more about the fossils found in Kansas. Others stop by to buy rock and mineral specimens as gifts.
Before I left Keystone Gallery, I had one question for Chuck and Barbara. What was the story of the old car sitting near the entrance? I was told that Chuck used the 1948 Chevy Suburban for fossil hunting. Now, it sits as an artistic showpiece on the property. Oh, the stories this car could tell! Look closely at the photos below to enjoy the characters representing creatures of the deep.
I’ll never forget meeting Chuck and Barbara. They taught me so much about the region, but more importantly, how to enjoy what you do for a living. To visit Keystone Gallery, drive on U.S. 83, 26 miles south of Oakley or 18 miles north of Scott City. Thirty years later, the couple continues to share their love of fossils with others. View the gallery’s hours here.
BUFFALO BILL’S BAR AND GRILL
It was hot, and I was tired. I needed a break from traveling in 100+ degree temperatures. I decided to forego a trip to Little Jerusalem Badlands for another day. I headed into downtown Oakley for something to eat at Buffalo Bill’s Bar and Grill (207 Center Ave.).
I struck up a conversation with a bartender (originally from Spain!) who told me the kitchen was closed until the dinner hour. Instead, I enjoyed a cold Corona and read the signs on the wall. One read, “Alcohol because no great story beings with eating a salad.” Perhaps, I would return for a burger later.
I strolled across the street and entered a boutique shop, Everything’s-a-Bloomin’ (204 Center Ave, Main Street). It was stocked from floor to ceiling with home decor, apparel, and Kansas-made foodie gifts. The store also doubles as the town’s only flower shop. Since 2004, Dana’s shop has been the go-to place for visitors to enjoy an unhurried shopping experience. If you can’t find it there, it doesn’t exist. You’ll love this gem of a store in downtown Oakley.
OAKLEY COUNTRY CLUB & GOLF COURSE
I heard that Oakley Country Club & Golf Course (815 W. South 2nd St.) served delicious steak, fried chicken wings, and a full bar. The place lived up to its reputation. I enjoyed a glass of wine during Happy Hour (4 pm-6 pm) and visited with the bartender about small-town life. A members-only 9-hole golf course, the clubhouse saw quite a bit of traffic that evening from locals playing Men’s Night Golf. I met the town’s judge, the bowling alley’s owner, and a few townies who needed a golf cart and a refilled beer cooler.
I ordered a 14 oz. ribeye steak and salad for dinner. Perhaps more than I could eat, I needed a comforting, wholesome meal after days on the road. It was cooked to perfection. Joined by new friends, I enjoyed my dinner while getting to know them better. I was welcomed and felt right at home.
A visit to Oakley offers more than a few tourist stops. (I’ll return to visit Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and Annie Oakley Park for a game of disc golf.) It’s the kind of town you hate to leave because of the memories you’ve made there. The residents are genuine. If you visit the area for its attractions, stay overnight and get to know the people. You won’t regret it.