Disclosure: Kansas I-70 Association sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
When Kansas I-70 Association asked me if I wanted to take to the road to tell the story of Western Kansas, I was all in. They wanted me to explore multiple rural towns. My only question was “When do I leave?” My first assignment was to gas up the car and head to Russell County and capture the people and places that make it a bucket list destination.
My first stop on the Kansas I-70 road trip took a slight detour, but I had to check it out. The town of Wilson has the World’s Largest Czech Egg located at the Ed & LaVange Shiroky Park. Standing 20′ tall x 15′ wide, it was hand-painted by 50+ local volunteers with more than 2,000+ hours. The massive egg, designed by local Czech egg artist, Christina Slechta, is covered with symbolic images.
Wilson is considered the Czech Capital of Kansas and the annual After Harvest Czech Festival brings thousands to the area to celebrate the heritage of families who settled in the area.
POST ROCK SCENIC BYWAY
A short drive on KS-232 from town, the Post Rock Scenic Byway drive routes you to Wilson Lake just south of Lucas, Kansas. The 18-mile byway is named after the limestone fence posts that pioneers used in the late 1800s when wood wasn’t available. Kansas limestone was sourced from what was an old seabed.
For all of the people who say Kansas is “flat,” they’ve never taken this drive to enjoy the rolling hills and endless views. Watch as the limestone fence posts rush past the car along your route. Like me, you might find yourself pulling the car over numerous times just to get a better view. Kansas pulls out all the stops. I can only imagine how beautiful the night sky looks when stargazing in the area.
If you love to fish, boat, or simply relax on the beach, there’s no better place to do it than Wilson Lake. It’s the clearest lake in Kansas! Once you stand above it from the overlook or on part of 100 miles of shoreline, you’re amazed by its beauty.
It was my first visit to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake and honestly, I was impressed. This is not a fishing hole or a brown water Kansas lake. It’s gorgeous! You can camp, fish, kick back on sandy swimming beaches, windsurf, and more if you visit the area. You might even spot sailplane racing. Oh, and do you love to fish? Wilson Lake is considered an angler’s paradise. One of 24 reservoirs in Kansas, it is revered for its bass, crappie, catfish, and walleye fishing. It was ranked #86 of the Top 100 Lakes Nationwide by Bass Masters Magazine.
The geologic formations and rolling rolls make the drive in this area of Russell County spectacular. Kansas is NOT flat. In fact, many mountain bikers like to twist and jump along the Switchgrass Bike Trail that winds 7.5 miles over the hills. Not much for adrenaline sports? Wilson Lake is also a geocache location for those who want to find a hidden treasure.
Have you explored Wilson Lake yet? Hop in the car and head west on KS I-70 to experience it first-hand. Don’t forget to pack your fishing poles and swim gear.
People have said that I needed to visit Lucas for years. I kept putting it off, which was a mistake because it is a Kansas town that offers once in a lifetime experience. It has the distinction of being home to three of the 8 Wonders of Kansas sites. The reason its reputation proceeds it? It’s probably the most eccentric, artistic town in the Sunflower State. I had never seen anything like it and nor will you. Over 15,000 visitors add Lucas to their road trip must-visit list each year.
I continued on Hwy 232 from Wilson Lake to Lucas, the “Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas.” I spied yard art, ceramic plates on lights poles, and a lion sculpture within five minutes of my arrival. WHOA. I parked the car on Main Street and saw a woman wearing an oversized straw hat sitting on scaffolding with a brush in hand painting a mural. I introduced myself and learned that she was commissioned by Lucas Pride Program to revive the faded mural, a project that was nearly complete. She happily welcomed me to town.
With the Bowl Plaza in my sights, I made my way to a bright white building covered in mosaics shaped like a toilet bowl. Like everything in Lucas, local artists decided to “bling” the building that was built as the town’s public restroom. To say that it is an unforgettable experience is an understatement. The building resembles a toilet tank, the benches are the seat, the entrance is the lid, and the sidewalk mimic the curved of toilet paper. I don’t want to spoil the rest for you. Plan a pitstop in Lucas so you can see the entirety of Bowl Plaza for yourself.
More artistic talent is on view at the Grassroots Art Center, a building that showcases the whimsical work of over 25 self-taught artists. Most of the rotating exhibitions were created by artists later in life or during their retirement. None of them held back on using their creativity to wow onlookers.
In my opinion, the most mind-blowing display of creativity was a sculpture by John Woods. He paid homeless people to dredge MacArthur Park Lake to collect the art supplies he needed for the sculpture, “Westlake Park.” Every inch of the sculpture is covered in lost lake items ranging from watches to toys and necklaces to marbles. Another artist, Gary Pendergrass, who hails from Wichita layered and stacked objects to create a ship with a steampunk theme.
Many of the artists’ works show their appreciation for recycling objects to find new uses for them. I suggest you step inside the building’s old bank vault to see the work of Overland Park artist, James Peruca. He used recycled objects to create art that surrounds the viewer. What do you recognize in the photo below?
Admission to the Grassroots Art Center doesn’t necessarily include a guided tour but the helpful employee that works there is more than happy to provide background information about the artwork on display. If you spy a piece that you’d love to take home with you, there is a good chance it’s for sale.
The Garden of Eden and Cabin is a major draw for tourists to Lucas. Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, a retired school teacher and Civil War veteran, built the 11-cabin in 1907 to attract tourists. He constructed it from 113 tons of cement over 22 years. His family gave tours of the cabin and the Garden of Eden to make money.
Today, his body can be seen under glass in the mausoleum he built on the property. His first wife is buried underneath him in a concrete vault. He married his second wife, who was 20 years old when he married her at age 81. It was all part of his idea for creating a tourist attraction. Strange? Odd? Fascinating? It’s all of the above and more. It still draws a crowd.
I was fascinated by Dinsmoor’s use of wire and cement to build massive structures that told a story. The photo below shows his interpretation of bringing down civilization. The Goddess of Liberty has one foot on the trusts. The man and woman are sawing off the “chartered rights limb,” which represents Dinsmoor’s thoughts on big business overtaking an individual’s rights.
I sarcastically mumbled to myself during the tour of his property, “Because, why not? That seems perfectly normal.” For its wow factor, I recommend visiting the Garden of Eden, located 16 miles north of KS I-70. Admission includes a self-guided sculpture tour, however, the employee on-site eagerly took me and a visiting family around the property. Don’t miss Miller’s Park just to the east of the property. Roy and Clara Miller designed the rock formations as a rest stop attraction and recreation area along Kansas Highway 18, which have been moved to a permanent location next to the Garden of Eden.
Other destinations worth visiting in Lucas include Brant’s Market, Lucas Area Community Theater, Possumbilities, World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Things, and Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden. Don’t be surprised if you feel inspired to create your own artwork after touring the whimsical town.
With more fun in store, I left Lucas and drove 40 minutes to Russell, the childhood home of retired United States Senator and military hero Bob Dole. The agriculture and petroleum-producing town has a lot to offer visitors. As I made my way around town, I discovered well-preserved main street buildings, manicured parks, and an undercurrent of hometown pride depicting in its murals, veterans park, and historic landmarks.
Before checking into my lodging accommodations at Fossil Creek Hotel & Suites, I drove downtown to grab a bite to eat at the town’s newest business, The Bar. It is owned by an attorney, hence the name. Open less than a year, locals and visitors are drawn to its modern interior and sophisticated menu. I was taken aback by the expansive wall of antique law books that served as the backdrop to a row of leather booths. Board games, a life-sized Connect 4 game, and a shuffleboard table took up space in the back of the room. The Bar has a row of supersized TVs guaranteeing a good view no matter where you sit.
I chose the lunch special (pick 2 items for $8 or 3 items for $10) and a cold pint of beer from one of 20 on tap. The impressive lunch plate came with a hummus and muffuletta panini sandwich, apple walnut salad, and a heaping side of addictive truffle fries. The ingredients were fresh and delicious – just the kind of meal I’d been craving on the road. If you’re headed to Russell for an event, I was told to keep in mind that The Bar gets busy. Get there early!
After lunch, I dug in my heels and started checking out the town. The murals of Russell are eye-catching. When traveling along KS I-70, pull over into this quaint town to see them up close.
The home of U.S. Senator Bob Dole, the area honors veterans, agricultural, oil refining, and their residents with beautiful street art. Other attractions worth seeking out include Bob Dole’s childhood home, downtown shops, and Memorial Park for its golf course, swimming pool, and veterans memorial.
Driving through town, I saw buildings made with the region’s most readily available material, limestone. The churches, schools, and early homes in Russell were constructed with stunning sedimentary rock. Visitors can pay to tour some of them like the Heym-Oliver House, built in 1878 by Nicholas Heym on land he purchased for $50. Head’s up! Be sure to check their hours before you visit. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to step inside it because it was a Monday and they were closed.
With a bit of exploring under my belt, I drove to Waudby’s Sports Bar & Grill for a basket of their popular chicken wings. The Vicotria-era building is listed on the national register. When oil workers needed recreation, the building was made into a pool hall in 1923. A family-friendly restaurant, the backroom has arcade games that beg for kids to play them and a pool table for adults in the bar area.
Not far from my hotel, I checked in and found the hotel and amenities comfortable. Fossil Creek Inn & Suites offers busy travelers an affordable stay with a long list of amenities including a swimming pool, whirlpool, and complimentary continental breakfast.
Near the hotel, Meridy’s Restaurant and Lounge was within walking distance. The hotel receptionist recommended I visit the buffet while another local suggested I go for broke and order a steak. I sat amongst couples meeting with their friends and dining on downhome comfort meals. Conversations revolved around local gossip, the summer heat, and farming woes. Everyone knew everyone. I heard the server say, “See ya Pops!” when a regular customer paid his check and headed for home.
While tempted to order a steak (ask about their current prices), I chose Crab Stuffed Shrimp. It was decadent and delicious. Meridy’s is a local restaurant you can see from the highway as you come into town making it a prime location and solid choice for a good meal.
Russell is a town that I passed without stopping along KS I-70 from Kansas to Colorado dozens of times. My mistake! Russell and the surrounding towns offer travelers warm hospitality and sights that surprise them. Good people, interesting attractions, and a variety of dining options make Russell County a sure-win.
Have you spent a day in Russell, Lucas, or on the water at Wilson Lake? Share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to continue learning about the area from others.