Sitting just west of the junction of the Arkansas and Walnut rivers, Arkansas City is in south-central Kansas a few miles from the border with Oklahoma.
The local population grew suddenly in the early 1890s awaiting the Land Run of 1893, when six million acres of what is now northern Oklahoma was opened to settlement on a first-arrival basis.
There’s a museum recalling this event in Arkansas City, and showing off the latest finds from Etzanoa, a major settlement for the Wichita People between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Arkansas City has a well-preserved downtown area, with some 60 historic buildings and a rich cultural calendar that includes the Arkalalah fall festival, held for more than 90 years.
The presence of the state line means there’s a couple of Native American casinos close by, and we’ll talk about them in this list.
1. Downtown Historic District
At Summit St and 5th Ave, downtown Arkansas City is protected as a U.S. Historic District, with almost 60 contributing buildings.
These are in a spectrum of styles, including Classical Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Spanish Revival.
If you want to take a self-guided journey through the many layers of downtown Arkansas City’s past, there’s a tremendous, well-researched self-guided tour on the Story Maps website, going into depth on each building.
Today’s Summit Street has a sprinkling of locally owned businesses, with stores for jewelry, handmade gifts, home furnishings, musical instruments, antiques, books and bicycles.
2. Cowley County Waterfall
A 15-minute drive east along US 166 will bring you to one of the prettiest sights in the whole state. On the west side of Cowley State Fishing Lake there’s a breathtaking waterfall, 25 feet tall and ensconced in a little wooded depression.
As with all waterfalls, this sight is spellbinding after a rainy spell, but even in drier periods there’s a pretty, gossamer curtain of water.
Take care on the steep and narrow trail down to the falls. The fishing lake meanwhile covers more than 80 acres and has good numbers of channel catfish, largemouth bass, bluegill and redear sunfish.
3. Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum
In 1893, the Cherokee Nation agreed to turn their title over to the United States government for a 60-mile-wide strip of land just south of the Oklahoma-Kansas border, known as the Cherokee Outlet.
In September 1893, the eastern end of the Cherokee Outlet was settled in the largest land rush in the United States, thought to have been the largest event of its kind in history.
The Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum was founded in 1966 and sheds light on the land rush, and many other aspects of life in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma.
There’s an historic schoolhouse, a recreated pioneer farm and garden and enthralling details about the cultures that lived on these lands centuries ago.
The museum has taken on new significance with discoveries relating to the lost city of Etzanoa, which we’ll talk about in more detail below.
4. Chaplin Nature Center
A short way up the Arkansas River from the city there’s a 230-acre nature preserve on the floodplain, along with an interpretive center.
The Chaplin Nature Center is operated by the Wichita Audubon Society, and you can visit the trails seven days a week, free of charge, for some nature watching. The trails beckon you through prairie, floodplain forest and the long sandbar on the water’s edge when the river’s low.
Some 225 bird species have been recorded in this mosaic of habitats, from wild turkeys to Carolina wrens, cedar waxwings and Harris’s sparrows. Visit the interpretive displays for more information about the preserve’s wildlife, and an elevated bird observation area.
On the last full weekend in October, Arkansas City holds a fall festival that has been going since 1928.
Arkalalah brings tens of thousands of people to the city, and features a giant parade on the Saturday lasting for more than two hours, as well as a carnival, scores of vendors and a huge program of other activities.
Queen Arkalalah is crowned on Friday night, and is normally a sophomore at Cowley Community College.
The festival grew through the 1930s as a way of lifting spirits during the Great Depression, and the name is a portmanteau of Arkansas City and “alalah”, thought to be a Native American word for Good Times.
6. Wilson Park
A few blocks north of downtown, this park catches the eye immediately because of the majestic steam locomotive parked here.
This is ATSF Locomotive #2542, built in Pittsburgh, PA in 1910, originally for the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railway, and ending up in Arkansas City in 1955.
There’s an historical market telling the story of this engine, and explaining its painstaking move from the Standard Oil Bulk Station to this park to mark Arkalalah.
Also at Wilson Park are amenities like tennis/pickleball courts, picnic tables, a children’s playground, restrooms, a shelter and a rotunda hosting concerts by the Arkansas Community Band in summer.
7. Paris Park
An easy walk from downtown Arkansas City, Paris Park is just west of the Cowley College Campus and serves as a self-contained day out for families in summer.
On hand here is play equipment, a splash pad, a picnic shelter, a skate park, and of course the Paris Park Pool.
This facility is open seven days a week throughout the summer, with slides, a large shallow area and plenty of lounge chairs in the shade around the sides. In September Paris Park also sets the scene for the Last Run Car Show, which we’ll talk about below.
8. Cowley Community College
On a loose campus, Cowley Community College mingles with downtown Arkansas City. A landmark building for instance is the Romanesque Revival Ireland Hall, which is actually the old Arkansas City High School Building, constructed in 1890-91.
The college’s sports programs have a fearsome reputation, in particular baseball, softball, men and women’s Basketball, men and women’s tennis, volleyball and cross country.
You can see the Cowley County Tigers in action at venues like the imposing W. S. Scott Auditorium (1936), the Tiger Ball Park and the Lady Tigers Softball Field.
Cowley County is one of the few junior colleges in the country with its own sports television network, with live broadcasts of its various teams.
9. Burford Theatre
In 2016, this historic movie palace was reborn as a modern performing arts center, for movies, live music, comedy, talks, theatrical performance, special events, weddings and other celebrations.
A contributing property for the downtown historic district, the Burford Theatre dates to 1924 and was designed by the prolific Boller Brothers.
At that time this was also a Vaudeville Stage, and a young Ginger Rogers performed here in the mid-1920s with her troupe, The Redheads.
The restoration began in 2004, after the building was donated to the Arkansas City Area Arts Council, and when you visit you’ll be thrilled by just how much of the original decor has been returned to its Jazz Age splendor.
10. Etzanoa Tour
Described as the “Great Settlement” by the various Spanish expeditions that passed through this part of Kansas between 1541 and 1601, Etzanoa was a city for the Wichita People that peaked between 1450 and 1700.
At its height, there are thought to have been as many as 20,000 people living in Etzanoa. Artifacts have been unearthed around Arkansas City for years, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the location of Etzanoa was definitively pinpointed just east of the present city.
The Etzanoa Conservancy conducts tours at the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum, sharing the latest archeological finds and research about the city.
You’ll visit the mooted city site at the confluence of the Walnut and Arkansas rivers, the site of a battle with conquistador Juan de Oñate in 1601 and archeological vestiges thought to be a chief’s lodge.
Right across the state line, no more than ten minutes south of downtown Arkansas City, is a pair of enormous casinos, standing almost side-by-side on Hwy 77.
The first of these is the 7 Clans First Council Casino Hotel, open seven days a week till early in the morning.
The gaming floor has 1,400 of the latest slots, as well as tables for blackjack, craps and roulette, complemented by several full-service bars and the FlatWater Bar & Grill.
The 146-room hotel in this complex has recently opened an indoor water park. Then a minute or two down the road is the Native Lights Casino, with another 600 slot machines, as well as a full-service bar and a cafe for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
12. Last Run Car Show
The largest car show to be organized by any individual car club in Kansas takes place in Arkansas City on the fourth weekend of September.
The Last Run Car Show has been an annual tradition since 1976 and is put on by the Tumbleweeds Car Club, with hundreds of entries each year.
The show itself is held in Paris Park, but for the public the highlight is probably the cruise through downtown, when there’s an unending line of gleaming classic cars, from hot rods to early 70s muscle cars.
One of the many things that makes the show special is that all of the money raised goes back into the community, funding scholarships at Cowley Community College and a number of local charities.
13. Spring Hill Golf Course
A convenient spot for a quick round of golf, this nine-hole municipal course is on the northern edge of town and has a great reputation.
Spring Hill Golf Course was founded in 1928, and one of the things that makes it special is the far-reaching views, extending for miles along the Walnut River valley.
This elevation comes into play a lot, especially on the opening hole, a par 4 where you have to play across a tricky hollow. If you’d just like to soak up those views there’s a public park next door, and it’s a special place to be at sunrise.
14. Mid America Dragway (MAD)
There have been drag races at this facility, ten minutes east of Arkansas City, since the mid-1960s.
The ¼-mile Mid America Dragway has a 300-foot cement launch pad that switches to asphalt, while spectators have newly installed seating, climate-controlled concessions (with a large awning for shade) and restrooms, which is more than most small-town raceways.
The racing season begins in earnest in late March and continues through October. Look out for Midway Drags by Hotrod Sanctuary in June, with fine old cars from 1972 and before.
15. Tacolalah Festival
This recently launched event is a colorful celebration of Arkansas City’s multicultural community.
Usually held on the third Saturday of July, Tacolalah brings a slew of excellent local food vendors, the bustling Cowley Outdoor Market, children’s games and entertainment, cultural demonstrations, arts and crafts and live entertainment throughout the day.
As you can guess, tacos are the soul of the event, and there’s also a margherita and beer garden open from the afternoon until the festival closes at 10 pm.