With a population just shy of 30,000, this city in southwest Kansas is renowned for its meat industry.
Ranching and beef are such a cornerstone of life in Garden City that there’s even a summer festival, Beef Empire Days.
The city was cofounded in the 1870s by frontiersman and hunter Charles “Buffalo” Jones (1844-1919). Initially a prolific hunter of buffalo, he came to realiize the wrongs of the buffalo trade and was one of the first people to preserve the species.
Now, the largest publicly owned buffalo herd in Kansas grazes the sandsage prairie south of Garden City and can be seen on a guided tour.
Like much of Western Kansas, Garden City was developed during a rush in the 1880s, and the Windsor Hotel downtown is a magnificent holdover from that time.
1. Lee Richardson Zoo
Garden City boasts the largest zoo in Western Kansas, open all year and set on 50 acres in Finnup Park.
The zoo dates back to the 1920s and is named for former Chief of Police Lee Richardson (1884-1851), who founded this attraction by bringing in a pair of skunks.
From those simple beginnings, the Lee Richardson Zoo is now an AZA-accredited attraction with more than 110 species from around the world.
A brief list includes African bush elephants, jaguars, maned wolves, alpacas, Amur leopards, snow leopards, sloth bears and anteaters.
Among the eight main exhibits are North American Plains, South American Pampas, Pachyderms, African Plains, Wild Asia and an impressive aviary mixing indoor and open-air areas.
2. Historic Downtown Shopping District
The best place for independent shopping in southwest Kansas is Garden City’s historic nucleus, also known as Main Downtown.
Come here for gifts, art, jewelry, fashion, homewares, shoes, BBQ supplies and food, sushi to sandwiches.
The historic downtown is also a joy to behold, with its tree-lined streets, vintage storefronts, new street furniture and a collection of murals and sculpture that grows by the year.
A map for a self-guided tour of these works is available from Garden City Arts on Main Street. The Windsor Hotel, dating back to the 1880s, is still a mainstay for downtown, and is diagonal to Stevens Park, a great spot for a picnic and a venue for outdoor events all summer.
3. Garden City Arts (GCA)
On Main Street downtown is an arts hub elevating the cultural scene in Southwest Kansas for more than 30 years now. At this free center you can check out a new exhibition every month, so there’s always something fresh to see.
The month of August is dedicated to the SWKS Juried Exhibit, which is not to be missed. The gift shop is also something special, stocked with unique pieces by talented artists and makers from the area.
As a community asset, Garden City Arts hosts a wide range of classes for anything from printmaking to watercolors.
The events calendar is also packed, and a highlight is Art in the Park, held in Stevens Park on the fourth Saturday of June, and combining art, music and a slew of activities.i
4. Sandsage Bison Range
On the south side of Garden City is an immense sweep of sandsage prairie that has never been plowed. This dates back to 1916 when Woodrow Wilson granted more than 3,000 acres of the Kansas National Forest holdings to the State of Kansas.
Roaming this land is the oldest publicly owned herd of bison in the state. Numbering more than 100, that herd arrived in 1924, and can only be seen on a public tour.
This is well worth taking, getting you close to this iconic animal and giving lots of interesting info on the intricate sandsage ecosystem. In June there’s also a popular series of tours to admire the wildflowers, with amazing photo opportunities.
5. Finney County Historical Museum
In a brick building to one side of the zoo entrance in Finnup Park is a museum charting the social, cultural and natural history of southwest Kansas.
You’ll pick up lots of interesting tidbits about the settlement rush in the 1880s, the area’s cattle industry and the Garden City Sugar Company which powered the local economy in the early 20th century.
There are also profiles for figures like Charles “Buffalo” Jones, the frontiersman and cofounder of Garden City, credited with helping to preserve the American bison.
There’s an historic one-room schoolhouse on the museum campus, as well as the William D. and Luticia Fulton House from 1884.
6. Parrot Cove Indoor Water Park
The best-rated water park in southwest Kansas is just off U.S. 400 on the east side of Garden City. As you can tell from the name, Parrot Cove is a year round indoor attraction, but has everything you could want from a water park.
That includes four tube and body slides, a lazy river, a climbing wall and Lil’ Explorers’ Reef, zero-depth play area for the smallest visitors.
For a more relaxing time you could wait for Adult Night, from 9pm to midnight on the third Saturday of the month. There’s an arcade and snack shack here, while the park is part of a larger complex with a hotel, gym and branch of the Old Chicago pizza chain.
7. Garden Rapids at the Big Pool
The record-breaking Big Pool was excavated by hand in the early 1920s, and is longer than a 100-yard football field. This giant body of water has witnessed a few stunts in its time, from swimming elephants to water skiing.
The Big Pool remains a permanent part of the Garden City summertime, with a season that begins in May.
The pool complex has been improved several times over the years, including a bathhouse built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
Most recently, in 2020, the park was rebranded as Garden Rapids at the Big Pool, complete with a tangle of water slides, a lazy river and climbing equipment for kids.
8. Tumbleweed Festival
Garden City has its very own music festival, arriving on the fourth weekend in August at the West Green of Lee Richardson Zoo.
Music-wise the Tumbleweed Festival has a country flavor, while incorporating adjacent genres like rock, bluegrass, Americana, blues and folk. There are usually four stages, one of which has a program of entertainment for children.
You’ve also got great food and a schedule of workshops for anything from songwriting to blues guitar, playing the mandolin and bluegrass.
9. Windsor Hotel
Main Street wouldn’t be the same without this grand old hotel building, once known as the Waldorf of the Prairies.
The Windsor Hotel (1887) is an imposing testament to the boom days of the 1880s, when there was a rush for Western Kansas.
This four-story neo-Renaissance building has a massive footprint, measuring 120 by 100 feet, and is composed of red brick with local limestone for the trim.
The Windsor Hotel’s glory days didn’t last long, and setbacks included the Panic of 1893, the rise of the automobile making motels more convenient and finally a fire code breach which sealed the building’s permanent closure in the 1970s.
The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by the Finney County Preservation Alliance. Although the future of the Windsor Hotel is unclear, there’s plenty of hope for brighter days ahead.
10. Escape the Clock
At the corner for Fulton and Main downtown is a family-run escape room attraction, featuring five different themed rooms. For the uninitiated, you’ll have an hour to solve a sequence of puzzles to escape a given room.
These require brain power of course, but also plenty of teamwork and some lateral thinking. Each of Escape the Clock’s rooms has a different difficulty level and recommended group size, ranging from a maximum of 6 to 12 people.
The staff will recommend a room appropriate for your group size and preferences, and if you get stuck you can take advantage of a new clue every few minutes.
The rooms are carefully crafted and have totally immersive stories, with names like The Mayan Experience, Alice in Wonderland – The Final Chapter, The UnDead End, The Vanished and The Copper County Conviction.
11. Sequoyah Cinema 9
A short way east of downtown you’ll find an up-to-date multiplex run by the Mitchell Theatres chain. Mitchell took over in 2010 and added an extra screen in 2018.
You couldn’t pick a better place to watch the latest blockbusters: SQ9’s auditoriums have high-back rocker seats, several feet of space between rows and stadium seating to ensure great views for all.
All screens are equipped with 100% digital projection and 7.1 Digital Surround sound. When we made this list, ticket prices were absurdly low for a modern theater, and it’s worth keeping an eye on the schedule for discounted $4 films.
12. Beef Empire Days
Summers in Finney County wouldn’t be the same without this week-long celebration of the local meat industry.
Falling in late May and early June, Beef Empire Days has been going for more than half a century and puts on a big program of events around Garden City and the Finney County Fairgrounds.
For a brief summary, there’s cattle shows, rodeos, a carnival, parades, contests of all descriptions, art installations and, of course, great food.
One highlight is the Ranch Rodeo, which has an educational aspect, with teams of working cowboys showing off the expert horsemanship, roping and groundwork skills needed on a typical day on the ranch.
13. Garden City Community Theatre
For a taste of Garden City’s creative side, this community theater group was set up in the 1990s to raise funds for Garden City Community Church and continues to thrive.
The group is remarkably open, accepting anyone who has completed kindergarten, and all cast members take part in making productions a success, helping with ticket sales and set construction.
The Garden City Community Theatre usually stages one big show each season, and recent performances include The Music Man, Oliver and Mamma Mia.
14. Hard Rock Lanes
Locally owned and managed since 1979, this Hard Rock Lanes is a family entertainment center, with a great bowling alley at its heart.
There are 12 lanes, all fitted with a state-of-the-art scoring system that includes video playback so you can enjoy a replay of your strike. Automatic bumpers are also included for bowlers under the age of seven.
There’s a newly updated arcade area, a pro shop with equipment from top brands and even an 18-hole miniature golf course, so families could easily spend a few hours here.
15. Airport Raceway
For some high speed action there’s a dirt track out by the Garden City Regional Airport. With a grandstand a few feet from the track, this is touted as the fastest ⅙-mile in Kansas, with a racing season that runs from May to early September.
Race day is normally Saturday, with a weekly lineup of A Class Micro, Restricted Winged Micros, Junior Sprint Junior, Junior Sprint Senior and Quarter Midget races.
For special events, the last weekend in May is the Annual Midget roundup, while the weekend on or just before July 4 is the Fast Cars and Freedom 40, with a program of races for Restricted Winged Micros, 600cc Winged Micros and 600cc Non-Winged Micros.