Kansas may not be the first state that comes to mind when thinking about the Wild West. But during the era of cowboys and homesteaders, Kansas hung ‘em high in the historical record. The state, located in the middle of the country, is often deemed the gateway to Native American and cowboy territory. During the 1800s, homesteading pioneers drove their covered wagons west through Kansas, while cowboys drove herds along the Chisholm Trail as Native Americans fought to fend off the encroaching settlers.
Today, there are many real-life opportunities to experience the Wild West in Kansas. Start in Dodge City, whose legend began when the Santa Fe Trail was established in 1821. Dodge City quickly became a trading center for travelers of all sorts, many of whom didn’t get along. That’s why, by the 1870s, Dodge City was dubbed “the Wickedest Little City in the West.” Lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson became legends while fighting to establish law and order.
Dodge City’s Boot Hill Museum transports you back to the dusty streets of the decade of the 1870s, complete with original buildings. Historical exhibits document the life of early Dodge City and its cast of quirky characters. During Dodge City Days, a ten-day festival in late July and August, visitors become immersed in all sorts of Wild West action, from barbecues to rodeos to a (staged) shoot-out or two.
About an hour away, the town of Larned is home to the Santa Fe Trail Center. Study up on the noted trail, along which goods were transported between U.S. territory and Mexico. Then, head over to the best-preserved prairie frontier fort in the United States. Fort Larned National Historic Site is a largely-intact army post built in 1859 to protect the Santa Fe Trail and the military during the Indian Wars period.
Wichita is about two hours from Larned. Its iconic Keeper of the Plains statue pays tribute to the Native Americans who made the area their home long before the arrival of the pioneers.Walk to it from the Mid-America All-Indian Center, which showcases Native American art, culture and history. Then, experience cowboy life at the Old Cowtown Museum, which recreates life in an 1870s Great Plains town.
If this inspires you to channel your inner cowboy, saddle up. There are more than a dozen working ranches around Kansas where guests can learn to ride, rope or even to brand cattle.