Disclosure: Kansas I-70 Association sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
Junction City in Geary County deserves a closer look. Exit from KS I-70 to discover its proud military heritage, outdoor recreation, and visit-worthy attractions. A 25-minute drive from Manhattan and only an hour from Topeka, it is nestled in the beautiful Flint Hills of North Central Kansas.
With more than enough to do in town, I’d recommend spending at least one night in Junction City. Hotels are located within a close driving distance of historic downtown and most attractions. Before seeking adventure around town, I checked in to my accommodations.
Courtyard by Marriott (310 Hammons Drive) offers amenities that provide a feeling of comfort when traveling. My guest room was up-to-date. It featured a king bed, workstation, and had enough room to spread out and make myself at home. The hotel was a pleasant space to return to when I wasn’t exploring the town. For travelers in search of indoor exercise options, the hotel features a pool and fitness center. Loungers will appreciate the outdoor patio featuring a fire pit. If you’re in search of a quick bite to eat, The Bistro has food to go plus Starbucks drinks.The hotel had the amenities I needed as a writer like high-speed WiFi and a spacious lobby with a business center to get work done. Its modern amenities, friendly staff, and quiet quarters made my stay worthwhile. When in Junction City, I know you’ll be pleased with your accommodations at Courtyard by Marriott.
The residents of Junction City, Kansas are proud of their history and heritage, and they should be. It’s the home of Fort Riley, an Army installation. Named after Major General Bennett C. Riley who led soldiers along the Santa Fe Trail, it was built in 1853 to protect the movement of people and trade over the Oregon-California and Santa Fe trails.
It’s a place where soldiers get combat-ready and train to be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Many of the town’s residents are soldiers and it’s common to see men and women in uniform enjoying civilian life out and about in town. So, it makes perfect sense that the town recognizes past and present soldiers at many of its attractions.
Smack dab in the middle of historic downtown is Heritage Park, a place that honors the soldiers and sailors who gave their lives for our country. It’s a place to learn about their sacrifice, read each one’s name, and reflect.
During your visit, read the poem by Michael O’Donnell who was killed in action in Vietnam at the State of Kansas Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Take time to view the Junction City/Geary Count Law Enforcement Memorial. The public space is also home to numerous monuments, a bicentennial time capsule, a bandstand, and a water fountain.
BUFFALO SOLDIER MEMORIAL
It’s worth the short drive to view the town’s Buffalo Soldier Memorial (1832 N Adams St.), which is a tribute to the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Regiments who served courageously in multiple wars. According to history.com, “the infantry regiments were created to help control the Native Americans of the Plains, capture cattle rustlers and thieves and protect stagecoaches, wagon trains, and railroad crews.” The memorial is free to visit. To learn more about Buffalo Soldiers, visit here.
GEARY COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM
Built as City Highway School in 1927, the Geary County Historical Museum (530 N Adams St.) is an incredible space filled with timelines, artifacts, and hands-on activities for history seekers. Three floors of exhibits tell the story of the people and places that make Geary County amazing. Admission to the museum is free; however, donations are accepted.
Open as a museum since 1983, the building itself is a historical artifact of Geary County. Look closely at its architectural details during a self-guided tour.
Today, visitors can experience what Main Street would have looked and sounded like inside the first-floor exhibit. As you make your way through the tack room, parlor, and kitchen areas, you naturally imagine what life might have been like during the early days of Junction City.
Another exhibit explains how Junction City got its name for the intersection of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers. Settlers were drawn to the area for the promise of good land and river water. The town was founded in 1858 and it grew quickly over the next decade.
However, overflowing rivers and sudden rainstorms have caused havoc on the town on more than one occasion. Junction City’s residents are resilient having survived and rebounded from multiple floods. In fact, the Milford Depot was swept off its foundation after the 1936 flood.
The upper floors of the museum transport visitors to an authentic Union Pacific train depot, schoolhouse, and a large room once used as the school’s gym includes bonus artifacts that you don’t want to miss. From the history of Fort Riley to early communication tools, the museum includes well-designed, thought-provoking exhibits.
During my visit, a volunteer gave me a guided tour of the exhibits. I appreciated his extensive knowledge of the town’s history and his witty sense of humor as we meandered our way through the museum’s collections. By the end of the tour, I was better for having met him. It was a delightful experience. The museum also welcomes groups and is happy to organize tours.
C.L. HOOVER OPERA HOUSE
After it caught fire in 1898, sadly only the front exterior wall remained. After multiple remodels and renovations, it was transformed into the Opera House in 1942.
Today, visitors can enjoy plays, movie screenings, and musical performances in a state-of-the-art theatre. Concert-goers sit in comfortable, new seats listening to excellent acoustics. Stay tuned! The premier fine arts center will undergo an expansion of its square footage next door in the coming year.
The Opera House is also known for hosting children’s programs as well as art and music classes for all ages. The Junction City Little Theater performs four productions every year. The community band performs on Memorial Day and showcases free shows every Sunday in June.
It’s a stunning building to see in person. I was impressed by its design and the interior details from the custom-made chandeliers to the hand-painted murals. The upstairs lobby also serves as an art gallery featuring regional artists’ work. To see it yourself and view an upcoming event, which often includes comedians, concerts, and plays, visit this link.
MILFORD NATURE CENTER AND FISH HATCHERY
Located a 10-minute drive outside of town and near the Milford Dam and Reservoir, the Milford Nature Center and Fish Hatchery (3415 Hatchery Dr.). It is not to be missed for its live animals, dioramas, and outdoor exhibits. The best part? It’s free and open to the public 9 am-4:30 pm Monday-Friday, 1-5 pm on the weekend.
Free to explore inside and out, the nature center includes displays visitors of all ages can enjoy. I particularly loved the live animal exhibits where I observed reptiles, fish, prairie dogs, a bobcat, and birds of prey.
Nearly all of the animals that live at the nature center are brought to the facility with health concerns, including eagles and falcons that live in outdoor enclosures. In fact, they receive 400-600 animals each year for rehabilitation.
You’ll appreciate the QR-coded informational displays that provide in-depth details about each animal. Kids will love the tactile station to learn more about animal fur and skeletons.
The Butterfly House, open June-October, is entertaining to walk through. A nearby fish hatchery was closed for treatment during my visit, but it is usually open to the public 9 am-4:30 pm Monday-Friday and 1-5 pm Saturday.
Adjacent to Nature Center, families will be amazed by the playground area and bird watching station. I recommend making time to walk the Tallgrass Trail to get a glimpse of the pond and learn about native plants and trees.
Check the center’s Facebook page for events prior to planning a visit. Third Thursdays give animal lovers a chance to go behind the scenes and get in-depth lessons on animal behavior.
MILFORD LAKE & DAM
The Republican River is the primary water source for Milford Lake (22 W 6th St.), which is considered the largest lake in the state and the “Fishing Capital of Kansas.” A recreational hub for everything from fishing to boating and hunting and camping, the lake is a scenic place to relax and unwind.
It’s a beautiful, scenic place to escape the hustle of everyday life. With over 19,000 acres of land, it’s common to spot wildlife making it a landscape photographer’s dream location. Additionally, the area offers entertainment options for the family. Milford State Park (Northwest of Junction City, west of K-77 on K-57) hosts fishing tournaments, Family Movie Night, S’mores Family Fun Run, and more.
One of my favorite attractions in any Kansas town is historical architecture and Junction City has plenty of it. Rathert Stadium (900 W. 13th St.) was built in 1937 and still hosts baseball games today. Sports fans sit in wooden seats to watch the Junction City Brigade, Blue Jays, and American Legion Flames compete on the field.
I like to dine where the locals start their day. Stacy’s Restaurant (118 W Flint Hills Blvd.) is a quaint diner where Fort Riley soldiers, families, and travelers passing through come to enjoy a hearty breakfast and lunch.
Just as I expected, the menu listed pancakes, egg scrambles, french toast, and sandwiches. I ordered a homemade cinnamon roll that came to the table with ooey-gooey vanilla frosting dripping from all sides. When in Junction City, pull over to dine at Stacy’s. The prices are reasonable and the portions are huge.
Ron, the “Pit Master,” at Hot Rod’z (1118 N. Washington St.) knows how to smoke meat. The Hot Rod signature sandwich comes with pulled pork, a hotlink, sauce, and cheese piled high on a bun. Oh, but that’s not it! The plate comes with two succulent ribs, creamy coleslaw, chips, and pickles.
Did I eat it all? I wanted to, but that’s a lot of grub. It was so good, I asked for a to-go box. To my surprise, every meal comes with a “hillbilly fortune cookie” aka oatmeal cream pie. It was over the top DELICIOUS!
Located just behind the historic downtown area, Hot Rod’z is a real deal bbq joint. Ron is always ready to chat about his recipes (he told me the coleslaw recipe!), and talk about his collection of antiques. Stay a while, enjoy the bbq, and get to know him. Good people, better bbq.
BELLA’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT
When you’re craving savory pasta dishes, the place to dine is Bella’s Italian Restaurant (605 N Washington St.) in historic downtown. The friendly staff greets you warmly and ushers you to a table surrounded by the colors of Tuscany. The two-sided menu includes entrees like Veal Cacciatore, Shrimp Alfredo, and Chicken Parmigiana.
I asked the server what the most popular pasta dish on the menu was and he encouraged me to order the Cheese Ravioli. Topped with tangy marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, it was baked to perfection. I was happy with my selection that paired nicely with the house red wine. The creamy Italian dressing was the ideal choice for the house salad. View the menu in advance of your visit here.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Junction City. As someone who appreciates Kansas history and exploring the outdoors, I was glad I took Exit 295 from Kansas I-70 and checked it out. I’m just sad I didn’t have more time to discover more of the area’s attractions like Milford Wetlands, Geary Lake Falls, The Starcke House, or Spring Valley Historical Site.
The next time I visit the town, I hope to stay at Acorns Resort, an area near the lake that includes cabins and a swimming pool.
Have you traveled to the Hometown of Fort Riley? Sought adventure in Geary County? Tell me about your experiences in the comments below.