On the southwestern edge of the Kansas City metropolitan area, Gardner is a suburban city surrounded by prairie and farmland.
For much of the westward expansion in the 19th century, travelers passed through this land on long and arduous wagon journeys.
Just outside modern day Gardner was where the Oregon and California Trails diverged from the Santa Fe Trail, and you can visit this site, which is now a small roadside park with a big story to tell.
All of the attractions of the KC area will be close by, while this patch of Johnson County has lovable rural attractions from wineries to berry farms, and is home to the County Fair every July/August.
1. Celebration Park and Sports Complex
A place for community events, sports, passive recreation and outdoor fun for children, the 83-acre Celebration Park sits on Gardner’s northwest shoulder.
There are tons of amenities packed into the park, with walking/jogging trails, a 10-acre lake, a choice of playground units, three shelters/picnic areas, baseball fields, soccer fields, concessions and spacious passive areas for family activities.
Celebration Park is the venue for Gardner’s Fourth of July celebrations, which we’ll talk about later in this article, and Halloween’s Boo Bash, with an evening of live music, trail spooks and giveaways.
2. Gardner Junction Park
Dedicated in 2008, this unassuming roadside park on U.S. 56 can be found just west of Gardner.
Despite the low-key setting, Gardner Junction Park has huge historical significance as the place where the Oregon and California Trails divided from the Santa Fe Trail.
Starting in the 1820s and continuing for decades, migrants would arrive at this point every spring, continuing southwest for Santa Fe Trail, or turning northwest if they were heading towards Oregon or California.
The junction itself has been lost to time, but there’s a historical marker and several interpretive boards under a shelter, explaining the momentous history of the site.
This is also a fitting place to contemplate the journey that faced those settlers, in a landscape of native grass and wildflower species.
3. Gardner Historical Museum
As soon as the Gardner Historical Society was founded in 2002, it set about acquiring this historic residence at 204 W. Main Street to turn it into a museum.
Built in 1893 by Herman B. Foster, co-proprietor of Bigelow-Foster Mercantile downtown, the house was designed in Folk Victorian, with lots of embellishments that point to the wealth of its owner.
These include high ceilings, oversized windows, intricate door & window moldings, art glass in the front door and staircase, filigree on door hinges, a spacious pantry off the kitchen and closets in each bedroom.
Check the opening times and you can take a tour, for an insight into upscale domestic life in Gardner at the turn of the century. The society’s archives, offices and meeting rooms are in the 1950s Bray House, also on the property.
4. Groundhouse Coffee
At the intersection of Main Street and Elm Street, Gardner has a small but endearing downtown district.
One of the grandest buildings, standing on the southeast corner of the crossroads is Gardner’s former Masonic Temple, built in 1907.
Since 2011 this has been the home of the independent Groundhouse Coffee, a welcoming coffee house that practically doubles as a community center.
As you admire the preserved historic details inside over a cup of coffee brewed one roast at a time, or locally crafted tea.
The pastries are baked in-house and the crepes have a lot of fans. This is a fine place to meet up or make the most of the Wi-Fi to get some work done in a quiet corner. The company has also opened a second, drive-thru location in the last few years.
5. Gardner Aquatic Center
A couple of blocks north of downtown Gardner, in Cornerstone Park, the city’s aquatic center is a wonderland for kids in the summer.
This facility is normally open Memorial Day weekend through mid-August and is staffed by professional, Red Cross-certified lifeguards.
The sprawling main pool here has zero-depth entry and a large in-water play area. There’s also a lazy river, three great water slides, spray grounds, climbing nets and a separate tot pool for the littlest members of the family.
The concessions area is better than you might expect from a public pool, and does accept credit cards.
6. Lanesfield School
Five minutes out of Gardner off U.S Route 56 you’ll come to the last remaining building in the town of Lanesfield. It’s apt that this should be a one-room schoolhouse, as such schools were a hallmark of rural America for decades.
Lanesfield, founded by the abolitionist Union general, James Lane (1814-1866), was on the Santa Fe Trail and had a hotel, three churches and several residences at its peak.
Built from native limestone, the school opened in 1869 and helped educate generations of children up to its closure in 1963.
There’s a modern visitor center on the site, open on the second Saturday of the month, or you can pay a visit year round to peruse the interpretive panels retelling the story of James Lane and the rise and fall of his town.
7. Prairie Center
North of Gardner, this 300-acre preserve shows off the majestic tallgrass prairie native to Kansas. At the Prairie Center, trails weave through restored and remnant grassland, with grasses that climb to eight feet at their highest in mid-summer.
Also on the property are creek-side riparian woodland and a series of ponds with wetland habitats. Around springtime there are controlled burns to synthesize an important event in the prairie’s natural cycle.
Then come summer you can marvel at a breathtaking variety of wildflowers, including Mead’s milkweed, Illinois bundle-flower, prickly poppy, and sensitive brier, which have leaves that fold to the touch.
Butterflies abound in warmer months, and there’s a rich array of birds, reptiles and mammals to look out for.
8. Kill Creek Streamway Park
Throughout Johnson County there’s an ongoing effort to lay down trails next to the many creeks that flow through the landscape.
One of these is Kill Creek, which flows northwards through the southwestern KC area, meeting the Kansas River at De Soto.
If everything goes to plan there will eventually be an unbroken path from Gardner to the river junction. As it stands, there’s around nine miles of paved trails in two separate sections.
The nearest access point is at 31430 W. 143rd Street, taking you into Kill Creek Park on a walk or bike ride through woods and grassland. The northern section in De Soto includes a 16-acre off-leash dog park.
9. Gardner Lake
This serpentine body of water is north of Gardner, not far from the New Century Aircenter.
Gardner Lake is outside the city limits but owned by the city, which also maintains the shoreline and some structures that were built in the 30s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
At the most recent survey the lake had fair or good counts of bluegill, crappie, channel catfish and largemouth bass.
There’s a boat ramp at the lake’s north end, at a 3.5-acre recreational area, which also has three shelters if you just want to enjoy the view. State fishing and boating permits are required, and this is a no-wake lake.
10. Fourth of July Celebration
Independence Day is always a treat in Gardner, when the city puts on a program of entertainment in Celebration Park before an awesome fireworks show after dark.
Live country music is central to the fun, and some of the big names to perform here in recent years are stars like Dylan Scott and Coffey Anderson.
Before the live shows kick off there’s a ton of family fun in the park, from facepainting to inflatables, carnival games and a photo booth. Food trucks are also on hand for the likes of BBQ, Italian specialties, Korean street food, kettle corn and shaved ice.
11. Gieringers Family Orchard & Berry Farm
Head west of Gardner, and within ten minutes you’ll be at this family-owned orchard open for U-Pick and pre-picked fruit, May through October.
Naturally, crop yields and harvest seasons change by the year, but for a rough idea, you can visit for U-pick strawberries in May, blueberries in June, blackberries mid-June – July, peaches late June – August, Apples in September/October and pumpkins late September – October.
If you’re pressed for time you can always find seasonal pre-picked fruits and vegetables at the farm market.
In fall, the pumpkin patch is combined with attractions and activities like corn mazes, picturesque sunflower fields, a jump pad, a hay mountain, a kids’ play area, food trucks and much more.
12. Johnson County Fair
The Johnson County Fairgrounds are within walking distance of downtown Gardner, and have officially hosted the Johnson County since 1939.
The community’s history of agricultural celebrations goes back much further, to the 1860s, and for decades Olathe and Gardner held rival fairs.
Today’s fair is a seven-day event taking place in late July/early August and bringing a packed schedule of 4-H shows and contests at the Livestock Pavilion, Rabbit & Poultry Barn and main arena.
There’s also a parade downtown, a carnival and a lineup of exciting nightly events, from demolition derbies to flat track races.
13. TimberRidge Adventure Center
Intended for corporate team building and group excursions for friends and families, the nearby TimberRidge Adventure Center (TRAC), is managed by the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.
Available by advanced registration, activities here enable individuals and groups to challenge themselves, solve problems, learn better communication and work as a team.
The centerpiece is a ropes course, with 28 low elements and five high elements including a 300-foot zip line and climbing tower.
This course is complemented by a range of outdoor activities like canoeing, paddle boating, archery, fishing and hiking.
14. KC Wine Co
The Kansas City area has a winemaking history reaching back to the mid-19th century and revived in the last couple of decades. The scene at KC Wine CO, a stone’s throw north of Gardner, is friendly and unpretentious.
You can come to sip varietal wines like Riesling, Chardonnay, Moscato, Cayuga White, Seyval Blanc, Merlot and Chambourcin, along with blends, hard ciders and popular wine slushies.
Food trucks are part of the experience in summer, and there’s also a succession of annual events like an Easter egg hunt, sunflower fest, pumpkin patch and winter wonderland.
15. Movies in the Park
Cornerstone Park, in the heart of Gardner, is the venue for all kinds of outdoor fun in the summer months. A long-standing favorite is Movies in the Park, organized by the Gardner Parks and Recreation Department.
Taking place on Fridays and starting at 9:00pm, there’s a series of family-friendly movies in May, June, July and August.
You can bring a picnic, a blanket or lawn chair, and no registration is needed for this free event.
Sometimes the Movies in the Park series coincides with Gardner’s summer concerts, so you can catch some live music before settling down to a movie.