In south-central Kansas, El Dorado has a history reaching back to the 1860s, but the modern story of the city begins in 1915 when oil was discovered here.
Within three years this oilfield was the single largest oil producer in the country, responsible for almost 13% of the United States’ total production.
With those days consigned to the past, El Dorado is an attractive small town on the edge of the Flint Hills. The city is on the shore of an immense reservoir, built for flood control during the 1970s and now a recreation paradise in the summer at El Dorado State Park.
El Dorado is the only place in Kansas to be a designated City of the Arts, a status reflected by the excellent Coutts Museum of Art and a fine assemblage of outdoor sculpture downtown.
1. El Dorado State Park
As a flood control measure, this 8,000-acre reservoir, with almost 100 miles of shoreline, was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and completed in 1981.
Within a few minutes of downtown El Dorado you’ll have access to around 4,500 acres of park lands, while another 3500 acres is reserved as a wildlife area.
The state park has miles of trails for walking, mountain biking and horseback riding, while there are two swimming beaches, 1,100 campsites and a marina for boat rentals (more later).
On top of all that you’ll find a large amphitheater, providing a majestic setting for festivals and concerts throughout the summer.
2. Kansas Oil Museum
To get in touch with El Dorado’s oil boom, head for this museum on a large campus on the east side of downtown.
The Kansas Oil Museum has indoor and outdoor exhibits in these ten acres. Inside you can delve into the history of Butler County, touching on the lives and customs of the Native Americans who hunted on these lands, the ecosystems of the Flint Hills and the development of communities here through the 1900s.
The outdoor exhibits are dedicated to the oil industry, with historic equipment left over from the boom days, and detailed accounts of how oil was, and continues to be, drawn out from deep underground.
At the Historic Boom Town exhibit, which is frozen in time in the 1910s, you’ll find out how oil boom towns like El Dorado were essentially divisions of oil companies, governed by company officials to ward off strike action.
3. Downtown El Dorado
Maybe the first thing that will strike you about the historic heart of El Dorado is just how easy it is to get to the best bits on foot.
There’s a dense concentration of local shops, restaurants, public art, visitor attractions, green spaces, entertainment amenities and sports facilities, all within shouting distance of each other.
A summer evening here might involve dinner and a movie at the Central Cinema 6, or craft beer and a ball game at the fabled McDonald Stadium.
As a City of the Arts, there’s a certain flair to downtown El Dorado, with a rare quantity of public sculpture, the acclaimed Coutts Museum of Art and a cluster of smaller independent galleries.
4. Coutts Museum of Art
The old Butler County State Bank building downtown houses a superb art museum established by former Eldorado attorney Warren Hall Coutts, II.
He had intended to open an office here with his son Warren “Bud” Hall Coutts, III, but those plans were tragically scuppered in 1965 when Bud and three of his friends were killed in an airplane crash.
Coutts practiced law here, and opened a museum in 1970 on the third floor in Bud’s honor, and this eventually took over the whole building.
On his travels, Coutts had amassed an amazing inventory of painting, sculpture, decorative arts, purchased in places as far afield as South America, China, Russia, France, the Netherlands and England.
Growing from this personal collection, the museum now has more than 1,500 works in its holdings, with an emphasis on the Makk family of artists, sculpture by Frederic Remington, Prairie Printmakers and scores of artists specific to Kansas, like Bill Walton and Jim Clements.
5. El Dorado Bike Trail
The best way to reach El Dorado State Park is to walk or bicycle along this trail, a little under four miles long.
You can pick up the Linear Trail on the edge of downtown at East Park, with another spur directly across the Walnut River at the picturesque Riverside Park.
From this spot the trail runs through a wooded riparian habitat along the river’s West Branch, passing through Main Park, before eventually joining a stretch of former railroad trackbed, which will soon deliver you to the lakefront and campground.
This scenic final stretch features a mixture of woodland and beautiful tallgrass prairie typical of the Flint Hills.
6. Walnut River Brewing Company
For people who prefer high-quality beer, there’s a successful craft brewery at the south end of downtown. Walnut River Brewing Company was founded in El Dorado in 2013 and has since opened a pourhouse in Wichita.
The El Dorado location is a brick building from the 1910s with a sleazy past as it contained a brothel a century ago. You can drop by the cozy taproom Tuesday to Sunday to sample some of the 12 beers on tap.
A few year-round brews to keep in mind are Warhead Irish Red, Teter Rock Kolsch, High Beam (West Coast IPA) and Re-O-Ranged (Citrus IPA), while there’s an ever-changing roster of seasonal beers, from Porters to Stouts to Sours.
7. McDonald Stadium
Just a few steps from downtown El Dorado is a lovely home-town ballpark, inaugurated in 1940. Today the McDonald Stadium is home field for the El Dorado Broncos, who play in the summer in the Sunflower Collegiate League.
Several former Broncos have ended up in the Big Leagues, including 3x All-Star Heath Bell and Marlins and Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson.
El Dorado’s strong baseball heritage is documented by the compelling Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at the stadium.
This attraction displays artifacts, photographs and memorabilia, charting the history of the game in Butler County, and noteworthy players and Hall of Fame members. You can visit by appointment by getting touch with the El Dorado parks department.
8. BG Products Veterans Memorial Sports Complex
Butler Community College, on the west side of El Dorado, has a formidable sports program. The Butler Grizzlies compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), and have ten varsity teams at five different athletics facilities.
The foremost of these is the 6,000-seat BG Products Veterans Memorial Sports Complex, which opened in 2012 and was built as a $12 million joint venture between the college, City of El Dorado and the USD 490.
This is the home of the Grizzlies’ football team, with the same artificial surface used by many NFL teams, as well as two giant video boards and 12 luxury suites. Butler has claimed six NJCAA titles in football, the most recent in 2008.
9. El Dorado Main Street Sculpture Program
Something that adds a dash of class to downtown El Dorado is a permanent public art exhibition along Main St and some of Central Ave.
This is the kind of thing you might expect to come across in a larger city, and will give you extra reason to linger a little longer in the heart of El Dorado.
All within an easy walk there are 16 engaging and immaculately maintained works to take in, and a map has been published on the El Dorado Main Street website.
Five of these pieces are clustered around the Sculpture Plaza next to the Coutts Museum. Here you can contemplate the ceramic tile mural Glory of the Hills, by Phil Epp and Terry Corbett, a celebration of the Flint Hills that run through east-central Kansas.
10. El Dorado Municipal Pool
The admission fee for Eldorado’s outdoor pool in Forest Park is as reasonable as it gets. When we put this article together there was a flat rate of just $2, while summer passes were $90 for families and $50 for individuals.
The season begins on Memorial Day weekend, and the pool is open Tuesday to Sunday through the school summer break.
As for facilities there’s a 50-meter lap pool with two slides, diving boards, a kiddie pool and large shaded areas on the sides.
Splash parks are another way for kids to cool off in summer, and El Dorado has two, at the North Main Spray Park (1000 N. Main St.) and Graham Spray Park (1600 Edgemoor).
11. Shady Creek Marina
At El Dorado Lake, ten minutes from downtown there’s a full-service marina and boat dealership, also offering rentals.
At Shady Creek you can pick from a range of 22-foot pontoon boats, with seating for up to 10 ten people, for your own self-navigated cruise around the lake.
If you need a little more power there’s a tritoon boat, with a 150 hp engine. Pets are welcome on all these vessels, and you’re allowed to bring a cooler for a tranquil picnic on the water.
12. The Walters’ Pumpkin Patch
Mid-September through October, this farm ten minutes north of downtown El Dorado opens up to become a fall-themed amusement park.
The main attraction at Pumpkinfest is the 30-acre pumpkin patch, and you’ll ride the haywagon out to this field to choose from pumpkins in every shape, color and size.
The farm adds new activities and entertainment for kids by the year, but for an idea of what else to expect, you’ve got a corn maze, giant jumping pillows, the “O’Play Corral”, a tree house play area, bag swings, farm animals, pedal boats, climbable hay bales, straw piles for jumping, and way more than we can list.
Parents will also be pleased with the two large gift shops, for seasonal food and hand-made crafts.
13. World War II History Center
For a diverting couple of hours on a Saturday there’s a compelling museum downtown dedicated to World War II.
This history center looks at the war from the American perspective, but also examines the other Allies and the Axis powers. There’s information on every theater, from the Home Front to the Pacific and Europe.
The center has a large collection of artifacts, which are put on rotating display and include equipment, medals, weapons, uniforms, flags and ordnance.
One neat semi-permanent exhibit is a restored 1940 Zenith radio, playing recordings of wartime broadcasts, letting you relive the experience of families from that time following the progress of the conflict from their homes.
14. Central Cinema 6
Mostly operating in Kansas, Mitchell Theatres is a chain of first-run movie theaters, bringing high-end cinema experiences to small towns like El Dorado.
Mitchell took over this six-screen multiplex downtown by Central Park in 2011, and fitted the auditoriums with digital projection, digital surround sound and 3D.
But the first thing to mention about the Central Cinema 6 experience is the price point, which is very affordable at $5 for a matinee and $7 for an evening show.
You’d be mistaken if you think the theater will cover costs by hiking up concessions, as an extra-large bucket of popcorn was just $5 at the time of writing.
15. North Main Park
Just after Main St crosses the West Branch of the Walnut River there’s a well-appointed park, home to one of El Dorado’s two splash parks.
Main Park is also one of a succession of green spaces on the El Dorado Linear Trail, and a good place to take a pit stop and make the most of the picnic areas (20 picnic tables).
As well as the spray park, there’s a conventional play structure for kids, along with horseshoe pits, tennis courts, pickleball courts, a large gazebo and fitness stations for grownups.