Four National Park Service Gems in Kansas and Missouri

While not all of the National Park Service sites in Kansas and Missouri are described here, four tremendous highlights of the NPS have formed a satisfying itinerary for us, and we are excited to share! Others to consider adding to the itinerary are Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Springfield, Missouri and George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri. We have listed these in the order we would tour them, starting east of Kansas City at the Harry Truman site, and then working our way west, through Kansas.

Harry S. Truman National Historic Site

The Truman House, photo by Derek Wright.

The Truman House, photo by Derek Wright.

The Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Independence, Missouri is a quick thirty-minute trip from the Kansas City airport. The site provides a comprehensive look at Truman’s early life, courtship and marriage, and post-presidency. The Truman home reflects the sincere connection both Harry and Bess Truman felt to their hometown, and the site encompasses several properties (in relatively close proximity to one another) that were important to the Truman family. The visitor center is located in the town’s old firehouse, and offers a video, as well as rotating exhibits, about Truman’s life. Tours of the Truman home are only offered on the half-hour and are limited to eight persons per tour; these operate on a first come first served policy. There is the chance that the entire day’s tours can fill up early in the day.

The NPS preserves the home exactly as when the Trumans' lived there, with nearly all the rooms as they were when Bess Truman died in 1982. Note that due to sequestration cuts, the entire site is currently closed on Sundays and Mondays. Bess Truman wrote into her will that to protect her family's privacy, the second floor was to remain closed until the death of her daughter, Margaret.

Further afield is the Truman family farm. The NPS was thankfully able to purchase several remaining acres and the farmhouse, protecting them from urban development. Tours of the two-story preserved farmhouse are no longer available due to sequestration cuts. The farmhouse and grounds are a twenty-minute drive from the Truman home and worth a quick stop. If you are continuing to Topeka, the farmhouse will be on your way.

Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site

Period classroom (with decorations from the NPS Centennial), photo by Derek Wright.

Period classroom (with decorations from the NPS Centennial), photo by Derek Wright.

The Brown vs. The Board of Education National Historic Site is in Topeka, Kansas. This site preserves the Monroe Elementary School, one of four segregated black elementary schools in Kansas featured in the 1954 lawsuit and subsequent Supreme Court decision, rendering segregation illegal. A great exhibit about the history of segregation and race in America dominates the lower floors, situated in classrooms. There is also a replica of an early 20th century segregated classroom, with interpretation of the challenges teachers encountered in "seperate but equal" classrooms as well as the many successes. A powerful audio-video exhibit allows you to walk a long corridor surrounded by a reel with footage of protestors, as if you are one of the children of the past walking toward a newly desegregated school — the experience is a profound way to understand the anger these children faced as well as their courage. The auditorium has been converted into a 360-degree film experience, and the corridor features a curated gallery with new exhibits every few months.

The site has a great education presence in the city, and the upper floor is a resource to local students who come to learn about the history of the building, the courts, and race relations. The site is open everyday, except for major holidays, between nine and five.  In Topeka, there are plenty of low-level redemption opportunities with all major hotel chains, though cash rates can be very attractive. Make sure to compare options before deciding, to ensure you are getting a good points value.

The tour bus and expansive prairie, photo by Derek Wright.

The tour bus and expansive prairie, photo by Derek Wright.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

One of the hidden gems of the National Park Service system is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City, Kansas, located south of Kansas City and east of Wichita. Standing on the vast prairie is to see no endpoint, no frame to the land. The openness is exhilarating. Healthy, thriving grassland surrounds you. It might not be initially obvious, but you have traveled back in time here, and can appreciate what it might have been like centuries ago when 170 million acres of such prairie covered the majority of the central United States. Now, Tallgrass Prairie preserves four percent of what was once here. From Topeka, this is a bit more than an hour drive, and you’ll want to spend a couple hours, especially if you are interested in completing any of the hiking trails. One of the things we like about this unit is that it is a four season park — each season offers new opportunities to see the prairie in a new light. Our favorite times to visit are during spring and fall; in the spring there are wildflowers, and the possibility of seeing a controlled fires burn the grasslands while traveling through the Flint Hills; this occurs each spring to clear pastures and support the growth of new bluestem grass. Prescribed burns improve the soil quality, and keep invading species at bay. If visiting in the fall, the grasses will have grown to their full height and you can really appreciate why this plant has its name. Other highlights of the unit include seeing the new herd of bison that live there (secured from Wind Cave NP in South Dakota), hiking though the open grasslands, and exploring the many historical buildings on site. We spent time at the Spring Hill Ranch house, a three-story limestone mansion formerly owned by Stephen Jones, who ran a cattle ranch on the site in the late 19th century. There is also an enormous limestone barn where you can view the ranch machinery.

Fort Scott National Historic Site

View of Ft Scott Parade Grounds, photo by Bob Wright.

View of Ft Scott Parade Grounds, photo by Bob Wright.

Heading back east, you’ll come to Fort Scott National Historic Site, an original 1840’s military fort. This site preserves and interprets the history of the twenty original buildings while telling the story of the military and the fort from eastward expansion to the Mexican-American War, ending with the Civil War, after which the fort was deactivated. There are often interpretive programs on the weekends, with living histories of how life would have been on the fort in the 1840’s. Check the site’s calendar for more details. The preserved nature of the fort is a real rarity, and the site does a great service to keep up the buildings and interpret people's lives lived, both inside and outside of the fort.

If stamp collecting, or if you wish to take more of a journey from Fort Scott NHS, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield and George Washington Carver National Monument are within two hours drive.  Also consider stopping off at the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Preserve in Kansas, an amazing birding area which is on the way back to Kansas City.