How to Travel the Great Plains in Style
Everybody loves America's coastlines, but if you’re one of many who still consider the Great Plains “flyover country,” there’s a good chance you’re missing the point. “The beauty of the plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them, and in what they are not," wrote Ian Frazier in his classic road trip book, Great Plains.
Hardly a flaw, the emptiness here is a treasure. In the Sandhills of Nebraska, for example, the largest intact grassland ecosystem in North America, the grass-covered sand dunes encompass an area of nearly 20,000 square miles. Stand in the middle, and you’ll meet the horizon in every direction without interruption, no buildings or droning interstates to distract you from the spectacle that is planet Earth.
And it’s the emptiness here in the Great Plains that lends many of the items on this list their marvel. Picture this: a green fairway stretching into the distance, a single flag waving in the wind beside a naturally shifting sand bunker, an array of mixed prairie grasses home to grouse, quail, deer, and more. Utilizing the pristine grassland ecosystem of north-central Nebraska, the Sand Hills Golf Club consistently ranks among the best golf courses in the world. And in the sparsely populated Flint Hills of Kansas, the organizers of the annual “Symphony in the Flint Hills” fill the void not with traffic and high-rise condos, but music.
From North Dakota to Texas, the Great Plains is dotted with gems reserved for those willing to venture inward. For a classy trip through so-called “flyover country,” start with these 13 unforgettable features.
Visit the Plains Art Museum: Fargo, ND
The only accredited art museum in North Dakota, the Plains Art Museum resides in a former International Harvester warehouse in downtown Fargo. “The modern galleries stand in contrast to the rough textures of the heavy timber and brick walls surrounding them,” says Dave Bercher, project manager. “It still feels like a warehouse, but one that has been refined and refinished.”
With a host of both rotating and permanent collections–including a massive state mural by pop artist James Rosenquist and an exhibition of the satirical, absurdist works of Chippewa artist David Bradley–the Plains Art Museum is anything but amateur. “The Plains Art Museum is truly the most prominent art center between the Twin Cities and Seattle,” says North Dakota poet Shadd Piehl, a frequent visitor. “It was the first art museum serving North Dakota and has since become an integral part of the community and the arts regionally through its world-class exhibitions, programming, and events.”
Catch an Art House Flick at the Fargo Theatre: Fargo, ND
Built in 1926, the Fargo Theatre originally featured silent films, high-wire acts, vaudeville shows, and more. On the right night, you might have caught an appearance by Babe Ruth, Boris Karloff, Lyle Talbot, or Glenda Farrell, but regardless, you were sure to catch a skilled organist behind “The Mighty Wurlitzer.”
In 1937, while installing the latest in film technology, the Baroque building underwent an extensive interior renovation, and in 1999, the whole building was restored again. Today, The Fargo Theatre is considered an Art Deco masterpiece and stands as the cultural centerpiece of the community, showing independent and foreign films in two separate auditoriums.
“Without the Fargo Theatre,” says Fargo native Matthew Bergh, “it wouldn’t have been possible to indulge in an array of independent films, sneak out to midnight showings of cult movies, and explore music that wasn’t presented on the five big FM stations.”
Take a Day Hike at Badlands National Park: Interior, SD
Eroding at a rate of nearly one inch per year, the Badlands will disappear entirely in just 500,000 years—the blink of an eye in geologic time. Don’t miss your opportunity to explore this otherworldly landscape in southwestern South Dakota, one of the world’s richest fossil beds.
If you’re short on time, you won’t regret a drive through the park. But if you can spare a day, fill those water bottles, grab the hiking stick, and take any one of several routes to Saddle Pass, where you’ll be rewarded with an unrivaled panorama of the White River Valley.
Attend the Black Hills Powwow: Rapid City, SD
Soak up some authentic Native American culture at one of the many powwows, or wacipis, hosted annually by various tribes throughout the Great Plains. One of the largest, the Black Hills Powwow in Rapid City, SD, attracts thousands of dancers and singers each year, and features not just the traditional powwow, but also a major fine arts show, the Miss He Sapa (or Miss Black Hills) pageant, sports tournaments, and more.
“I am always in love with the songs the drum groups sing, knowing that every song that is sung in Lakota is keeping their language alive,” says Thomas Ridley, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe who visits each year. “I love that when you come to the powwow you are always welcome to dance even if you’re not in regalia.”
If you’d prefer to get out of the city, try the Cheyenne River Sioux Powwow on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, or the Oglala Nation Powwow and Rodeo on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. You won’t forget your first powwow. The drums, the dancers, the colors, sights, and smells—it’s a celebration like no other.
Spend a Night at the Hotel Alex Johnson: Rapid City, SD
Looking for a swanky hotel to relax in after the Black Hills Powwow? In July 1928, Alex Carlton Johnson, vice president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, opened the doors to his “Showplace of the West,” a hotel designed to incorporate both Native American and German culture, two of the Dakotas’ most dominant groups.
Today, the 143-room hotel boasts an Irish tavern (Paddy O’Neill’s) and the rooftop Vertex Sky Bar, overlooking downtown Rapid City and the Black Hills beyond. With a nod to history and an emphasis on all the modern conveniences, the Hotel Alex Johnson is one of South Dakota’s many hidden gems.
Tour the Nebraska Capitol Building: Lincoln, NE
Completed in 1932 for just under $10 million, the Nebraska Capitol building was the first state capitol to depart from the national prototype. At 15 stories tall, the building towers over the capital city, topped by a gold dome and a 19-foot bronze statue of “The Sower.”
The interior features marble mosaic floors, vaulted polychrome tile ceilings, brilliant murals depicting Nebraska’s native and pioneer history, and intricate bronze busts of notable Nebraskans like Willa Cather, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Chief Standing Bear.
Without a doubt one of the most unique and detailed statehouses in the country, the Nebraska Capitol Building is a must-see for anyone traveling through the Cornhusker State. “It’s truly a monumental work and a great place to spend some time in quiet reflection,” says writer and Lincoln resident Jacob Zlomke. “I visit a couple times a month and still find little details I hadn’t noticed before.”
Watch the Annual Sandhill Crane Migration at Rowe Sanctuary: Gibbon, NE
Each Spring, nearly 600,000 Sandhill cranes congregate along the Platte River in central Nebraska during their annual migration north from Mexico and the southern Great Plains. At Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska, visitors can view the great layover from strategically placed viewing blinds along the river.
“This is an amazing life experience. I think everyone comes away humbled,” wrote David Yarnold, President and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “It really puts life into perspective, and helps people understand how important it is to protect natural places for generations to come.”
The cacophony of cranes, or what the great naturalist Aldo Leopold called “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution,” is something you won’t soon forget.
Play a Round of Golf at the Sand Hills Golf Club: Mullen, NE
At the turn of the 20th century, most Americans—if they knew of the Nebraska Sandhills at all—considered the region “a barren waste of useless sand,” according to the state agricultural board’s annual report of 1894.
Today, that so-called barren waste is home to some of the largest ranches in Nebraska—the dunes covered by an array of mixed prairie grasses—and one of the most pristine, if still somewhat unsung, golf courses in the country.
Ranked the ninth best course in the country in 2017 by Golf Digest, the Sand Hills Golf Club outside of tiny Mullen, Nebraska, is “undoubtedly the most natural golf course in America,” a course of shifting bunkers, big skies, and endless grassy dunes.
Listen to a Symphony in the Flint Hills: Cottonwood Falls, KS
In 1994, rancher Jane Koger from tiny Matfield Green, Kansas, invited the public to celebrate her birthday with a symphony on her prairie homestead. Nearly 3,000 people attended.
A decade later, hoping to drum up awareness and appreciation for Kansas’ tall grass prairie, a handful of county leaders founded Symphony in the Flint Hills, Inc., and in 2006, launched the first of its annual prairie concerts. The Symphony in the Flint Hills is now a Kansas tradition, luring nearly 7,000 music and nature lovers alike every year.
“So far as we know, no modern poet has written of the Flint Hills, which is surprising since they are perfectly attuned to his lyre,” wrote Jay E. House in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1931. “In their physical characteristics they reflect want and despair.”
Pair that with the harmonies of an orchestra, and you’re well on your way to the prairie ideal.
Spend a Night in the Price Tower: Bartlesville, OK
When most people think of Frank Lloyd Wright, they picture the Guggenheim, or the organic architecture of his “prairie houses,” their open floor plans and low-pitched roofs sinking into the surrounding landscape. Much fewer people think skyscrapers, probably because only one of his designs came to fruition.
Commissioned in the early 50s by Harold Price for his oil pipeline company headquarters, the Price Tower stands 19 stories tall in downtown Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The building has since been renovated to accommodate a small hotel, a top-floor lounge with stunning views of the city, and an ever-growing gallery of modern and contemporary art, textiles, furniture, and design. Visitors can also tour the fully restored executive office of H.C. Price on the 19th floor.
If you’re an architecture geek, or just need some classy digs for your stay in Oklahoma, look no further than what Wright himself nicknamed “The Tree That Escaped the Crowded Forest.”
Grab Some Lunch at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile: Pawhuska, OK
In May 2006, a woman named Ree Drummond who lived with her husband on a ranch near Pawhuska, OK, launched a blog called “Confessions of a Pioneer Woman.” She wrote about her life on the ranch, cooking, homeschooling, and more. The blog blew up. Drummond is now a New York Times bestselling author and the host of her own show, "The Pioneer Woman," on Food Network.
And late last year, Drummond and her husband opened The Mercantile, “a destination bakery, deli, and general store in the heart of Osage County, Oklahoma,” according to the website. Located in a renovated, century-old building in downtown Pawhuska, The Mercantile offers fresh coffee, bakery items, and made-to-order meals at the deli. If you’re in Pawhuska, you literally can’t miss it. It’s the brightest and newest building in this small Oklahoma town.
Walk Through the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum: Oklahoma City, OK
Not all of us were meant for a life in the saddle, but at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, visitors can spend a day living vicariously through those who were—and still are.
With world-class displays on cowboy gear, rodeos, Native American artifacts, and galleries filled with classic and contemporary Western art—including work by Frederick Remington and Charles M. Russell—the NCWHM ushers you down the dusty trails of cowboys past.
Spy on the Stars at the McDonald Observatory: Fort Davis, TX
Three times a week, the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, TX invites the public to explore the constellations and other celestial objects at its Rebecca Gale Telescope Park. There’s no party like a star party, especially when you’re under some of the darkest night skies in the lower 48.
Bundle up, turn off that phone, and don’t forget to make a reservation. Despite the remoteness of west Texas, these star parties are a hit. And if you’re looking for an overnight stay, the nearby Indian Lodge, a full-service hotel at Davis Mountains State Park, boasts incredible views and rustic, adobe-walled charm.