Founded in 1871, Great Bend started out as a stop on the Santa Fe Trail, where the Arkansas River literally bends from northeast to east.
Buffalo hunting was a way of life in those early years, and once the Great Bend was connected to the railroad in 1872 it became a rowdy cowtown typical of Kansas settlements in the 1870s, before finding some peace once the cattle trade moved westward.
You can get a sense of those early days at the excellent Barton County Historical Society Museum and the preserved site of Fort Zarah just east of the city.
For today’s travelers, Great Bend is the gateway to a vast expanse of wetlands, encompassing the Cheyenne wildlife area and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
In spring and fall, millions of migrating shorebirds make a pit stop in these marshes, and it’s a sight that will live long in the memory.
1. Cheyenne Bottoms
The largest wetlands in the interior United States can be found just out of Great Bend to the northeast. Encompassing some 41,000 acres, this Ramsar site occupies a marshy natural basin that is skirted by natural bluffs rising as high as 100 feet.
Spring and fall is a special time at Cheyenne Bottoms, when around 600,000 shorebirds from as many as 40 different species, including terns and piping plovers, come to feed at these mudflats.
For wildlife lovers, this is a rare opportunity to see such a dazzling diversity of birdlife in one place. If you have to pick one time to come, make it between April and mid-May when there’s an especially high concentration of shorebirds with vivid breeding plumage.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks has produced a series of guides for bird watching and other activities, available on their website.
2. Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway
Cheyenne Bottoms is on a 77-mile, winding scenic byway that connects this wildlife area with the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge not far southeast of Great Bend.
The latter is another of the 29 sites in the United States on the Ramsar list, and combined with Cheyenne Bottoms is one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas.
The byway takes you around more than 60,000 acres of wetlands, where you can witness the spellbinding spectacle of millions of migrating birds.
In fall there’s a vast migration of geese and ducks, heading towards the Gulf Coast and Mexico, as well as occasional sightings of endangered whooping cranes.
The wetlands mingle with the familiar wheat fields of central Kansas, and as well as a stretch of the Santa Fe Trail and six welcoming communities, including Great Bend.
3. Great Bend Zoo at Brit Spaugh Park
Great Bend’s main park is towards the north of the city on Main Street, and features an adorable little zoo that has been open since 1953. With free admission, Great Bend Zoo is open 362 days a year and is constantly making improvements.
This attraction runs a raptor rehabilitation program, and at the Raptor Center you can view numerous birds of prey including eagles, owls and kites, finding out about their habitats, diet and conservation with the help of modern exhibits.
Among the 60+ other species at the zoo are bison, capybaras, alligators, grizzly bears, African lions, numerous parrot varieties and ring-tailed lemurs. One memorable exhibit is the walk-through butterfly house, a delight in summer.
4. Kansas Wetlands Education Center
To get to grips with the mind-boggling natural splendor in Great Bend’s backyard, you can make a stop at this education center at Cheyenne Bottoms.
Naturally the migration seasons are the best times to come, when you can get some expert insight into the awe-inspiring spectacle unfolding outside.
This attraction is operated by Fort Hays State University as an annex of the famous Sternberg Museum, and 2,000 square feet of state-of-the-art exhibits.
These explain Cheyenne Bottoms formation in the Ice Age and relate some of the challenges facing the site in the future. You’ll discover the full wonder of these wetlands and the many wild species that visit or reside here year round.
You can also see a variety of habitats on a half-mile, accessible trail, and check out live exhibits of distinctive local species like grasshopper mice and spiny soft-shell turtles.
5. Barton County Historical Society Museum and Village
This top-notch museum is on a five-acre campus just south of Great Bend. Accompanying the modern museum building here is a cluster of intriguing period buildings, like a native stone house (1873), a church (1898), a railroad depot (1910), a schoolhouse (1915) and a post office, all with genuine period furnishings.
The main exhibition approaches the county’s fascinating history from many different angles, with special attention to the history of the Santa Fe Trail in this part of Kansas.
There’s an almost overwhelming array of artifacts to pore over, from antique cars to tractors, antique dolls, textiles, costume, paleontology, Native American archeology, lacework and interiors from historic local stores and services like a dentist’s office, barber shop and general store.
6. Great Bend Hike & Bike Trail
You can hike, jog or walk along the Arkansas River’s floodplain for around six miles in Great Bend.
This trail was developed in several phases in conjunction with the Great Bend Flood Control Project, and can be accessed on the southeast side of downtown, at the Front Door Community Center.
If you’re starting on the west side of the city there’s a trailhead and parking lot at 308 W Barton County Rd.
The trail has a mix of paved and dirt and is especially pretty in its southernmost sections, leading you through a wooded riparian corridor and wetlands, all abounding with birdlife.
7. Fort Zarah State Park
Three miles east of Great Bend is the site of a fort, first established by the U.S. Government in 1863, almost a decade before Great Bend was officially founded.
Fort Zarah was part of a line of forts between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Dodge, built to protect commerce on the Santa Fe Trail amid tense relations with Native American tribes in the area.
The original fort was abandoned in 1866, and a few months later was relocated half a mile northwest to the site of the state park before being abandoned for good in 1869.
These buildings, constructed from Dokota sandstone quarried from nearby bluffs, have long since gone, but the earthworks are still clearly visible, and you can stop by to reflect on this tumultuous period in history.
8. The Wetlands at Great Bend Aquatic Facility
In the same park as Great Bend Zoo is a summer water park paying tribute to the great marshlands east of the city.
The Wetlands Waterpark is easily one of the top facilities of its kind in Kansas. For just a quick intro to all the attractions here, you’ve got eight slides, a giant main pool with a divided shallow end and an amazing splash pool, with zero-depth entry and a huge, 300-gallon tipping bucket.
It might be hard to believe, but the pool has been here in some form since the 1930s and was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
The entire complex was reworked in 2005 with a renovation, installing the present attractions and adding a new bathhouse and concession area.
9. SRCA Dragstrip
The dragstrip next to Great Bend Municipal Airport has a special place in drag racing history. It was here in 1955 that the very first National Hot Rod Racing U.S. Nationals took place in 1955.
By the late 1950s the event had moved to Oklahoma City, before ending up at its current home in Indianapolis.
May through October there’s a loaded schedule of bracket racing, in a spectrum of categories including super pro, pro, street legal, sportsman, motorcycle, high school and junior dragster.
This is a spotless and well-run facility thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers.
10. Veterans Memorial Park
A place to relax or be active on the west side of Great Bend, the 78-acre Veterans Memorial Park contains a 12-acre lake.
Popular with waterfowl, the lake has an accessible fishing dock and lots of quiet spots in the shade to drop a line.
There’s a walking trail here with a floating bridge, as well as a fitness trail installed with exercise equipment, several picnic shelters with grills and a playground.
For sports facilities you’ll find a baseball/softball complex with four fields across the tracks on the west side, along with tennis courts and sand volleyball courts.
11. Barton County Courthouse
A striking monument for Great Bend, the Barton County Courthouse testifies to Great Bend’s position as Barton County’s administrative center.
The building warrants a closer look if you’re passing by. Completed in 1918, this is the second county courthouse, replacing an earlier brick building from 1873.
The architecture is an Eclecticist style, combining Neoclassical and Modern elements, with a series of six massive Ionic columns on each side of the building from the second story to the cornice. Concrete was used for much of the construction, and the main entrance is framed by black stone.
12. Heartland Farm
Out in the prairie west of Great Bend is an idyllic 80-acre farm maintained by a Christian community belonging to the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
Heartland Farm is an agritourism attraction, with a herd of alpacas, vegetable gardens, a brood of laying chickens, a wooded creek, an art center, an outdoor pavilion and extensive pastures.
You can get in touch to arrange a variety of activities, be it meeting the alpacas, ambling along the wooded trails and pastures, bird watching, meditation, picnics or attending one of the many workshops.
13. Great Bend Sports Complex
The premier sports facility for the area is in the southwest of Great Bend. Recently opened, the Great Bend Sports Complex is geared towards baseball/softball, and has five fields, each with Musco lighting, perimeter fencing and more than 11,000 square feet of shaded space across the facility.
If you’re a fan of America’s favorite pastime, and want to see some up-and-coming talent in action, the complex hosts the 2A-1A KSHSAA State Baseball Tournament, as well as KCAC Championships and Recreation Commission Leagues.
14. Kansas Oil & Gas Hall of Fame and Museum
At the time of writing, this museum devoted to Great Bend’s fossil fuels was closed for renovations and only open by appointment.
The museum was established in 1990 to document the oil and gas industries that drove the local economy between 1930 and 1960.
As well as exploring those boom years, the museum also explains the process of oil and gas production, from geological surveys and drilling to product manufacturing.
The Hall of Fame honors men and women who have dedicated their lives and careers to this industry, and you can browse portraits and biographies of over 50 local and state inductees.
15. Barton County Fair
Made possible by a small army of volunteers, the Barton County Fair is a heartwarming community event across five days in July.
Above all this is an impressive showcase for local agriculture, livestock and traditional skills, with a high standard on show at the multitude of 4-H and open-class exhibits.
There’s a whole world of fun to go with this, including contests of all descriptions, a tractor pull, “mutton bustin’”, a pedal tractor pull (for kids and adults) and some great live music.
Saturday is traditionally kids’ day, while the event closes on Sunday with the Sale of Champions at Aarons’ Repair Arena.