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Sunflower State Surprise

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

IF YOU THINK THE KANSAS LANDSCAPE offers little more than fields of wheat and prairie
grass, visit the Flint Hills. Situated in the northeastern region of the state, the
landscape left behind by an ancient glacier is one of rolling hills, interesting rock
formations and fertile fields. Thanks to an ambitious recreation program, it’s an inviting
place for motorhomers to spend a few days. The two most prominent attractions in the
northern Flint Hills are Milford Lake and Fort Riley, near the historic community of
Junction City, and the confluence of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers. When Captain
John C. Fremont camped in the area in 1843, few settlers had ventured that far west,
although it is an easy two hours from Kansas City on today’s highways. Fremont reported
finding great numbers of elk, antelope and friendly Indians. Within a decade, that would
change as thousands of pioneers were passing through what was then known as Indian
Territory along the Oregon Trail. The unrest among the Indians led to the establishment of
Fort Riley in 1852 for the protection of the pioneers, and in 1859, the town of Junction
City was incorporated. Today, Junction City is surrounded by bluestem prairie grass
stretching across rolling hills, wooded valleys and beautiful lakes, including Milford
Lake. The southern tip of this lake, which covers 16,000 acres and boasts a 163-mile
shoreline, is a short drive north of Junction City. The state has set aside nine
recreational park areas that encompass more then 4,000 acres around the lake, making it a
great weekend-getaway area. Built for flood prevention, the state’s largest reservoir began
welcoming tourists in 1965. Since its inception, the dam that entraps the water has
prevented an estimated $152 million in flood damage, while the lake and surrounding hills
have provided opportunities for camping, picnicking, boating, fishing, hiking, hunting and
sightseeing. The most popular place for motorhomers is Milford State Park on the lake’s
eastern shore. Lakeside sites as well as view sites are available with full hookups. Also
within the 1,000-acre park are picnic sites, a swimming beach, a fishing pond, a
wildlife-viewing tower, playground equipment, hiking trails, a personal-watercraft
launching area and a full-service marina. The clear lake is stocked with walleye, catfish,
largemouth and smallmouth bass, wipers and crappie, and has yielded a number of record
fish. If you want to keep your golfing skills up to par, several golf courses are located
in the area. Most notable is Rolling Meadows, which is adjacent to the southern end of the
lake. It is rated as one of the top golf courses in the state by Golf Digest magazine.
Below the dam that forms Milford Lake is the Milford Nature Center and Fish Hatchery. The
state-of-the-art facility encompasses an indoor area of hands-on exhibits, like drawers
with holes in them, allowing visitors to guess what they are feeling. There are dioramas
and live animal displays with interpretive material. Behind the museum are large concrete
raceways where fish are placed after being hatched in small containers. When they reach the
proper size, they are used to stock lakes and rivers. On-site naturalists explain how the
fish are transferred from one raceway to another until they are ready to be transported and
released. Also on the premises is a beautifully landscaped butterfly enclosure. It is
especially popular with youngsters, who like to walk through the screened enclosure and
wait for one of the winged creatures to land on them. There also is a small display of live
birds, along with interpretive material on their habits. With your motorhome parked at
Milford State Park or another of the area’s many RV facilities, be sure to set aside time
to explore the beautiful grounds of Fort Riley. When it was established, it was given the
name Fort Center because people believed it to be in the geographical center of the
country. Both Fort Riley and Junction City experienced rapid growth during the westward
migration. The fort became the major horse-cavalry training school in the country and was
renowned as one of the best in the world. The famous 7th Cavalry was put through harsh
training before being sent west to join the campaigns against the Indians, including the
Battle of the Little Big Horn. Still an active military installation, Fort Riley is known
today as the home of America’s Army. Situated on rolling hills covered with deep green
grass and stately trees, the fort has a number of historic sites that are open to the
public. One is the buffalo corral, featuring a herd that is maintained by the veterinary
staff. There is a large viewing stand where visitors can safely observe the bison. Across
from the well-manicured parade ground is the Custer House, dating from the fort’s earliest
history. It is believed that General and Mrs. George Custer occupied this or a similar
house while Custer was stationed at the fort in 1866. Built of native limestone, the home
presents an authentic view of life on the Western front during the Indian wars. Guided
tours are conducted by members of the Fort Riley Historical Society. From the Custer House,
visitors can walk a few steps to see the statue of Old Trooper Bill, a symbol of the fort’s
proud horse-cavalry heritage. Inspired by a Frederick Remington sketch, the statue was the
design and creation of two soldiers. It marks the grave site of Chief, the last cavalry
horse that was registered on the government payroll. Also on the premises is the building
that served as the first capitol of the territory of Kansas. History was made here when
fraudulently elected legislators from across the border with Missouri met briefly and voted
to move the territorial government to Kansas City; later it was moved to Topeka. Another
structure that has seen many uses is Summer Hall, which was built in 1888. Originally used
as a hospital, the facility became post headquarters after World War II. One of the most
interesting buildings at the fort is known today as Saint Mary’s Chapel. Built by
Episcopalians in the mid-1850s, it was the first stone church in Kansas. During the Civil
War, it was used as an arsenal and later as a school. After extensive renovation in 1938,
it was rededicated as a Catholic chapel. Another structure that has seen many uses is the
U.S. Cavalry Museum. Built in 1855, it started out as a hospital and later served as post
headquarters and then as cavalry school headquarters. The museum covers the history of
America’s mounted soldiers from the Revolutionary War to Operation Desert Storm. Across
Interstate 70 from the main entrance to the fort is Freedom Park, which is reached by a
winding trail from the parking area. En route to the top of the hill, visitors will see a
tank and weapon emplacements, and at the top of the trail is an atomic cannon, on loan from
the Smithsonian Institution. It is one of only three in existence today. West on I-70 at
exit 300 is Grandview Plaza, where visitors will find another historic structure, Wetzel’s
Log Cabin Church. It was the home of C.F. Wetzel, in which St. Paul’s Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod, the first Lutheran parish in the state, was organized in 1861. More
history of the area can be learned at the Buffalo Soldier Memorial, the Civil War Memorial
Arch, the Geary County Historical Museum and the State of Kansas Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
When traveling across Kansas, the tendency of most RVers might be to breeze along on I-70
without giving thought to the many recreational opportunities the state has to offer. On
your next cross-country RV trip, take some time to enjoy the lakes and other attractions of
the northern Flint Hills.

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