Disclosure: Explore Great Bend sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
When you’re looking for fun places to explore in Kansas, all roads should lead you to Great Bend. With an abundance of things to do, especially during a summer festival weekend, there’s never a dull moment. Whether you follow my trip itinerary exactly or use my experience to create your own, you’re going to love Great Bend’s go-to places.
REPERKS COFFEE SHOP
I had the pleasure of starting my Great Bend experience at RePerks Coffee Shop (1216 Main St.) in the heart of downtown. What is it about a coffee shop that seems to calm and center oneself? The smell of the roasted beans. A glass case is full of delectable desserts. Add a friendly barista, and it’s the ultimate start to the day.
RePerks is a local hangout that attracts residents and out-of-towners in search of a scratch-made breakfast served all day. But that’s not all – the lunch and dinner menus promise hearty portions appealing to those who want down-home comforting meals. Known for Fried Chicken Friday and Prime Rib Saturday, the quaint coffee shop will exceed your expectations.
Apparently, I didn’t read the menu close enough because I inadvertently ordered a BLT sandwich for my breakfast meal, but hey, it was delicious. I talked to the owner between bites and learned that they are also building another restaurant on the premises, Teller’s 1972. The steakhouse will open to welcome guests in October 2022.
PARTY IN THE PARK
A big draw of visitors to Great Bend during the summer is Party in the Park. With minutes to spare after breakfast, I drove over to Veterans Memorial Park to watch the kickstart of the Wet/Dry Parade. My contact from Explore Great Bend picked me up in a golf cart, and we sped off to position ourselves on the “dry side.”
The town’s first responders led a long trail of trucks and cars pulling floats. Kids sat in truckbeds poised with Supersoaker water blasters ready to spray parade bystanders. But the onlookers also had their own water canons! The energy was palpable as groups took their place on both sides of the railroad’s tracks that separated onlookers.
Later, we decided to drive the golf cart at the tail end of the parade. Just as I thought we were in the clear, an onery firefighter released a firehose in our direction soaking us from head to foot. Needless to say, it was a blast.
Anything That Floats Race
I love a challenge, and clearly, the town’s residents were up for a challenge as well. Multiple teams showed up at the park’s 12-acre lake to compete in the Anything That Floats Race. As each team dropped in their float, you could hear teams ribbing each other in the competitive spirit of the race. Would the town’s police officers win? The mother-son team? Who would take home the trophy?
I laughed as I watched boaters paddle their way through the designated path on the water. It was a lot of fun to watch townies cheer on race participants, especially as “the interns” paddled their way to first place. People gathered on the shore to snap pictures of them with the trophy.
Party in the Park’s car show was impressive with over 80 cars and trucks. Don’t you love a car show? If only we could take our pick of the selection and drive off in one, right?
If you’ve never been to a car show, you can expect the owners to sit in chairs behind their vehicles eagerly waiting to answer questions. Take a look inside and under the hood. Imagine yourself cruising down the road with the windows down. It’s the quintessential event of the summer.
VETERANS MEMORIAL PARK
The site of the festival, Veterans Memorial Park, offers quite a bit to do any time of year. I took note of a fitness trail, newly added playground, sand volleyball area, baseball parks, paddleboat & kayaks, disc golf course, and tennis courts. I was drawn to the monuments honoring the veterans located near the front entrance, which showcased a tank on display.
The park is large enough that you may want to drive and park your car depending on the areas you choose to explore. With ample shade trees and plenty of parking, you’ll find it easy to navigate to the ideal spot.
HANDLEBAR BAR & GRILL
I was feeling energized after the festival’s morning festivities and ready to eat lunch. Handlebar Bar & Grill (807 10th St.) is open six days a week serving classic sports bar grub with a full bar of cold drinks.
When I pulled into the parking lot and scanned the area for open space, I didn’t find one and instead created my own under a shade tree. Inside, vintage motorcycle helmets and Harley Davidson relics dangled from the ceiling.
The restaurant is incredibly popular with locals who bring their families to dine on everything from buffalo wings and nachos to ribeyes and street tacos. Whatever you’re craving, you’ll find it on the menu. The Shrimp Po’ Boy hoagie sandwich came recommended, so I didn’t hesitate to order it. The addictive sriracha mayo and crispy breaded shrimp were appetizing.
If you arrive during the peak lunch or dinner hour, expect to wait for a table. If dining alone, it’s easy to snag a seat at the bar. Happy Hour is 4 pm -6 pm Tuesday-Friday. Ask about the bartender’s drink special and the featured menu item.
Make the most of a road trip to Great Bend by making your way downtown to shop locally. The first stop? Heart of Kansas Mercantile and Miss Pretty Pickles (1212 and 1214 Main St.).
With a little something for everyone, the Heart of Kansas Mercantile store carries a large selection of home decor and specialty foods made in The Sunflower State. Tables and shelves are stacked with jellies and jams, jarred pickles, candles, kitchen towels, artwork, and more. Walk past the register and you find yourself inside Miss Pretty Pickles, a boutique store that stocks plush toys and children’s clothes.
Sweet Dreams Candy Shop (1403 Main St.) is a family-owned and operated store specializing in gummy candy, gum, retro hard candy, and flavorful sodas. The smell of sweet treats hits you as you enter the front door. Rows upon rows of brightly colored packaged candy await purchase on store shelves.
I chose to build my own six-pack of cream sodas and root beers to use for an at-home soda flight. If you love fudge, this is the place to shop for it. Loaves of Pecan Turtle, Belgian Chocolate, and Mint Chocolate fudge sit in a glass case ready to be sliced and sold.
Note: At the time of publication, Sweet Dreams Candy Shop was for sale. According to their Facebook page, if a buyer doesn’t take over the store, it will close by December 23, 2022.
Rosewood Wine Cellar (1901 Lakin Ave.) is a shop devoted to vino enthusiasts. Of course, you’ll find a wine tasting bar (free samples!) as well as rows of handcrafted wine bottles for sale, but the store is much more than another retail store. Rosewood Wine Cellar’s products are made or harvested by client-employees with disabilities. Each time you make a purchase at the shop, you sustain employment for them.
The staff is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable about the award-winning wines. They carry two dozen varieties of wine that are grown a short drive west of town. I was pleased to discover that they carried dry wines that were not overly sweet. However, if you’re someone who appreciates fruit-forward sweeter wines, you’re in luck. The store is an excellent place to bring a friend or purchase a gift for one.
You won’t leave empty-handed at Rosewood Winery Cellars. The inventory includes jars of gourmet relishes, salsas, honey, crackers, and more. If you’re on the lookout for a housewarming gift for someone, bath products, kitchenware, or aprons make shopping a breeze. Seasonal displays beckon home decor shoppers in search of accessories.
MURALS & SCULPTURES
Calling art lovers! Lace up your sneakers and head out on the Great Bend Mural Walk to see street art created by students, community artists, and professional painters. Several locals encouraged me to find the newest installment by artist Ryan “ARCY” Christensen. Located at the corner of Forest and Williams, the scene is aviation-themed and was partially inspired by a 1940s poster.
Originally from Connecticut, Christensen has painted murals in urban areas across the country. His trademark? He paints a “hidden” Mickey Mouse in all of his murals. Do you see it?
Located nearby, I spotted a brightly colored Kansas landscape painted on the side of a commercial property by artist Melanie Ryan. The scene depicting Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area took up the entire west side of the building and wrapped around its backside. Located five miles north on US Highway 281, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area is a marsh where birdwatchers flock to see shorebirds and waterfowl. In fact, 356 of the 482 species of birds currently known to occur in Kansas have been spotted at Cheyenne Bottoms.
A short drive across downtown led me back to Main Street to view “Starting Line,” a 3,000-square-foot mural serving as the perfect backdrop for race fans. If you’re headed to the dragstrip west of town, make a detour to this mural for a selfie or group photo.
Directly across the same parking lot is another beautiful mural on the side of the building housing Dilly & Doc Creative Studio (1110 Main Street). The paint-your-own creation studio welcomes wannabe artists and hosts private parties.
These large-scale paintings are a small sampling of the new and old ones you’ll discover in the area. For a map and self-guided tour of the murals, reach out to the City of Great Bend at 620-793-4111.
The sculptures outside of Barton County Courthouse in the center of downtown dot the landscape. Great Bend has been the county seat since 1867; however, the courthouse that exists today wasn’t built until 1918. According to its website, “Barton helped to provide medical supplies to soldiers during the Civil War and founded the American Red Cross in 1881.”
Situated in front of the Great Bend Library (1409 Williams Street), you’ll spot sculptures with natural patina. Nestled amongst native grass, shrubs, and river rock, each sculpture depicts children enjoying reading or playing in a garden setting. Go inside the library to inquire about scheduled events such as movie night for adults.
If you’d prefer not to walk or drive to each public art installation, consider renting a free electric scooter. You’ll spot groupings of scooters sitting around the downtown corridor. Simply download The Bird app and take a ride.
PARTY IN THE PARK
In a hurry after viewing public art, I raced back to Veterans Memorial Park to partake in more of the festival’s entertainment. The sun was shining and it was hot. I spotted a shade tent with a crowd of people preparing for an event. It was the annual eating contest.
FRUIT LOOP EATING CONTEST
If you could choose one food to eat in a hurry to beat the clock, what would it be? This year, the festival’s eating contest served a pan of Fruit Loops marshmallow treats and boy were the contestants pumped to compete. After snapping a few photos, I had to look away out of fear of what could happen. The winner was the person I predicted to win. She took her Fruit Loop speed eating responsibilities seriously.
BEST MULLET CONTEST
If you had told me that I was going to serve as a guest judge for Party in the Park’s Best Mullet Contest, I would have immediately raised my hand for a high-five. “Yes!” The hair trend is back, and it was a complete thrill to join others in judging contestants’ hair that screamed: “business in the front, party in the back.”
We asked them questions like “Can you, please turn and move your hair?” and “Where do you get your hair cut?” of each contestant. In the end, each age group’s winner won a trophy and entrance to the festival’s evening live music show and fireworks display. Party on, man!
CONCERT IN THE PARK
Rock on! Party in the Park always ends with a live music performance followed by fireworks. This year, Fool House – The Ultimate 90s Dance Party had festival goers jamming in their seats. After the band’s first set, people danced their way to the stage and boogied down to cover hits by the Backstreet Boys, Madonna, Spice Girls, and Blink 182. If attending the annual outdoor concert, tote a collapsable lawn chair and a BYOB cooler.
Earlier in the day, I appreciated a relaxing dinner at The Page An American Bistro (2920 10th Street). Another local favorite, the inconspicuous restaurant sits directly behind Perkins Restaurant & Bakery. If you blink, you might miss it. For those craving a more upscale meal for a romantic dinner or gathering with friends, The Page is the place.
The ribeye steak came with one choice of vegetable side and complimentary warm rolls with butter. Although I asked for medium rare, my steak was cooked medium. That didn’t take away from the steak’s flavor made better by the herbed butter on top. It also came with a bourbon sweet dipping sauce, but I preferred to stick with the herbed butter. The restaurant’s menu also features burgers, wraps, and pasta dishes.
Before the main course arrived, I devoured a dinner salad and sipped a glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. The bar has a decent selection of wines including the town’s ever-popular Rosewood Cellars selections. House wine by the glass is $6.
The dining room is small in size so once it’s full, chatter from other tables creates white noise as diners enjoy their meal underneath a wall of TVs broadcasting sporting events. I recommend arriving early to beat the dinner rush.
BRIT SPAUGH ZOO
During the early morning house of Day 2 of my Great Bend adventure, I drove to Brit Spaugh Park for a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo (2200 Main Street). Regular zoo-goers know that the best time to catch most of the animals active is during the breakfast hour. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
The zoo features species from all over the world. Unlike some small town zoos I’ve toured, Brit Spaugh Zoo impresses with the number of mammals on-site. Big cats, grizzly bears, and monkeys keep it interesting. Animal lovers in search of wild birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates will find it equally impressive.
I observed several grizzly bears in a tall grass habitat lounging on rocks and inside a man-made pond. The siblings played with one another and splashed around under the waterfall providing an opportunity to observe the bears’ natural behavior. Later, I was given the chance to use a slingshot to toss apple slices to them, which they happily enjoyed. Would you feed a bear if given a chance? Watch a video of the experience here.
Another amazing animal encounter was when I had the privilege of meeting a Great Horned Owl named Thurston. Raised in captivity since it was a baby on a Kansas farm, it wasn’t skittish around humans. In fact, I stood six feet from it as it mimicked the sounds a zookeeper called to it. It mimicked clucking sounds like a chicken! Today, Thurston comes along for zoo presentations to school children and small groups.
The sister lions in the photo below took an interest in me. Perhaps it was because I was tagging along with a zookeeper. Whatever the reason, it was fascinating watching them sun themselves and flick their tails. The male African lion was inside a building out of sight, but I heard that he is large for his size and most certainly dominates his territory.
After winding your way through the zoo (look for the colorful murals painted by school children!), head inside to check out the reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates housed in aquariums. The education center consists of informative displays to aid visitors in understanding the life of raptors. If you’re lucky, you may see a veterinarian at work on the other side of the display window.
Overall, you’ll find the zoo’s animals awe-inspiring and the staff to be cordial. They welcome school groups if reservations are booked in advance. Please consider making a donation near the cashier’s counter inside the gift shop. A surprise awaits those who choose to drop in bills or coins inside the box.
BONUS PLACES TO VISIT IN GREAT BEND
GREAT BEND COMMUNITY THEATRE
The Great Bend Community Theatre is an Art Deco architecture wonder in the center of town. Plan a stop at Rosewood Wine Cellar and then head next door to watch a live theatre production. View the current season’s upcoming show calendar here.
BRIT SPAUGH PARK
Looking for a place to splash in a pool on a hot summer’s day or take the kids to run around on playground equipment? Brit Spaugh Park (2303 Main Street) near the zoo is the ideal location. Wetland Waterpark is open for the season on the Saturday before Memorial Day. With plenty of areas to retreat from the sun, parents can watch as kids take to the slides or play under the tipping bucket.
You’ll also discover a Santa Fe train engine on full display near the entrance. The town was home to an Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway station at one time served as a connection between Los Angeles and Chicago.
The park is also home to softball fields, horseshoe courts, picnic shelters, and a skateboarding arena.
It’s always nice to put down your bags after time on the road. Holiday Inn Express & Suites Great Bend (3821 10th Street) set the tone of a fabulous road trip the moment I arrived. The front desk staff was eager to welcome me to town and tell me about the accommodations. Located on 10th Street, a major highway through town, it’s an ideal place to stay overnight for its proximity to attractions like the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, Brit Spaugh Zoo, and the Wetlands Water Park.
My king suite room was spacious enough for two people to enjoy and included copious amenities. I set down my bags and gave myself a tour noting a fully equipped mini kitchen complete with a refrigerator and single-serve coffeemaker. Near the hotel’s lobby, you can enjoy a free self-serve breakfast in the lobby every morning. An indoor swimming pool, 24-hour fitness center, and on-site business center provide all that you’ll want and need during your stay.
The room was complete with furnishings and plenty of room to relax, which is what I was seeking after a long day exploring Great Bend. The hotel was bustling with families visiting for a wedding party, but I didn’t hear a sound once in my room. The peace and quiet were delightful.
During a return visit to Great Bend, I hope to spend time at Dry Lake Brewing (1305 Main Street). Unfortunately, it wasn’t open before I had to leave for home. You know me – I love craft beer! I’ll add it to my bucket list of places to check out the next time I’m in town.
So much had changed since my childhood visit to Great Bend. It’s more than just another Kansas town surrounded by farm fields. Located 95 miles outside of northwest Wichita, it is worth the two-hour drive.
You can expect to be wow-ed by its attractions, summer festival, and restaurant and shopping scene. The downtown corridor has a delightful surprise around every corner. Are you ready to experience it for yourself?