The origins of the largest city in northwestern Kansas go back to a U.S. Army frontier outpost founded on the Smoky Hill Trail in 1865.
Soldiers at Fort Hays were tasked with protecting travelers and freight wagons against the Arapaho and Cheyenne who hunted bison on the Great Plains.
In the frontier days, Hays was beset by the violence typical of the Old West, and a number of now legendary figures like “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Calamity Jane ”Wild Bill” Hickok and Billy Dixon spent time here in the 1860s and 1870s.
Part of the fort’s reservation became the Fort Hays State University, home to one of the country’s great natural history museums, while a handful of the buildings around the parade grounds survive at the Fort Hays State Historic Site.
1. Sternberg Museum of Natural History
The star attraction at FHSU is a world-class museum that attracts people from across the region and is a leader in paleontology research in the 21st century.
There are more than 100,000 square feet of exhibits at the Sternberg Museum, and you could easily pass half a day here.
With a focus on the Great Plains, the vast collection runs to more than 3.7 million specimens, mainly for paleontology and geology, but also fields like archeology, botany, entomology and ornithology.
One famous exhibit is the fish-within-a-fish, the fossil of a 14-inch xiphactinus with an intact, 6-inch gillicus in its stomach.
Other exceptional fossils are the skull of a pteranodon sternbergi, the type specimen for the nyctosaurus (pterosaur), the tylosaurus (mosasaur) and dolichorhynchops (plesiosaur).
As well as these fantastic specimens, the museum also has wonderful life-sized models of the marine and land-based dinosaurs that would have called Kansas home hundreds of millions of years ago.
2. Fort Hays State Historic Site
The surviving buildings and 177 surrounding acres at Fort Hays are preserved as a state historic site managed by the Kansas Historical Society.
The fort was founded in 1865 on the land of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans, to protect railroad workers and migrants on the Smoky Hill Trail.
Fort Hays was abandoned in 1889, but four original buildings including a blockhouse, guardhouse and officers’ quarters survive, along with the foundations of many more.
The whole place resonates with Wild West history, and you can view rich exhibits about the fort’s history, life at this outpost and the conflict between the United States and the Plains Indians.
3. Downtown Hays (The Bricks)
With its brick-paved streets, historic architecture and Wild West heritage, downtown Hays is one of the best central business districts in the state.
Housed in these fine historic buildings are scores of locally-owned businesses, whether you’re hunting for a gift you won’t find anywhere else or hankering for BBQ, burgers, tacos, sushi, artisanal cocktails, craft beer or dainty sweet treats.
There’s a market on Saturdays at the Union Pacific Plaza, while Main Street is an elegant backdrop for community events like Wild West Days in early July.
If you want to get in touch with Hays’ rowdy past, the 1860s and 1870s are brought to life on a self-guided walking tour, with a map available from the Hays Welcome Center. Some 25 bronze plaques mark the trail and recount the story of each site.
4. Fort Hays State University Campus
Initially the Western Branch of Kansas State Normal School (now ESU), the Fort Hays State University is a public university established in 1902.
The elegant campus is set within walking distance of downtown Hays, and skirted by the picturesque Big Creek, just before it enters Frontier Park.
There are over 40 limestone-clad buildings here, many of which are magnificent, so a tour is definitely worth your while.
The Hays tourism site has details of a self-guided tour, taking in some of the eye-catching art on the campus, including Interlude (1992), Deeply Rooted (1999) and the Contemplation Garden Sculpture (1997).
5. Frontier Historical Park
North and east of the state historic site is a pretty park covering almost 90 acres on the old grounds of Fort Hays. Now taken over by lots of old trees, Frontier Historical Park is a great place to go for a walk or ride a bike.
There’s an 18-hole disc golf course, four shelter houses and playgrounds and an enthralling, history-rich nature trail that we’ll come to later.
Maybe the most evocative sight of all is the city’s buffalo herd, in pens at the west end of the park. This herd was created in 1953, with a bull named Wild Bill and a cow named Calamity Jane.
6. Wild West Fest
Celebrating the city’s Old West heritage while marking Independence Day, Hays’ annual Wild West Festival takes place in the first week of July.
This is a five-day bash, with a Main Street parade, fireworks, carnival and a variety of other community events including a 5k run.
At the soul of Wild West Fest is country music, and the list of past performers is full of stars like Cody Johnson, Neal McCoy, Chris Janson, Lainey Wilson, Maddie & Tae, Parmalee and Blackhawk.
The parade takes place on a Saturday morning, featuring a slew of local businesses and organizations, with horses, “hogs” and hot rods, to name a few.
7. Ellis County Historical Society Museum
In a grand old Presbytarian church building downtown, this museum preserves and portrays Ellis County’s captivating history.
Here you can get to know the many Wild West figures with links to Hays, and these include George Armstrong Custer, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, ”Wild Bill” Hickok and Billy Dixon.
There are also exhibits for the Fort Hays Experiment Station and other aspects of local agriculture, along with the impact of the railroads, the buffalo trade and the role of Volga Germans who arrived in the mid-1870s.
On the grounds are the replica Volga German Haus, 1879 Stone Church and Hays Fire Department Museum. When we wrote this article the museum was temporarily closed due to water damage.
8. Merci Boxcar
In the east of the city, Veterans Memorial Park has a wonderful monument to French-American relations. One is this boxcar that was a gift from France to the State of Kansas in response to the Friendship Train.
This was packed with food, medicine and supplies to help the people of France recover after the destruction of WWII.
The Gratitude Train in return was made up of 49 boxcars dating back to WWI, one for each state and the District of Columbia and was loaded with gifts from France.
The Merci Boxcar stopped at 120 communities around Kansas in 1949 before reaching its permanent home in Hays.
9. Basilica of St. Fidelis
Arriving in the little town of Victoria, just east of Hays, you’ll be met by this magnificent Romanesque-style church, one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas.
Dubbed the Cathedral of the Plains, the Basilica of St. Fidelis was built from native limestone in 1908-1911 and was the largest church west of the Mississippi when it was completed.
The two bell towers on the west front are more than 140 feet tall, and are visible over the plains for many miles, while the nave can hold over 1,100 worshippers.
Visitors are welcome, and it’s well worth taking a self-guided tour of the interior. You can admire the intricately carved column capitals in the nave, the German stained glass windows, the altar carved from Italian carrara marble and hand-carved stations of the cross, produced in Austria.
10. Hays Arts Center Gallery
Run by the Hays Arts Council, this dynamic community art center has something new to see throughout the year.
The Hays Arts Center is downtown, near the intersection of Main St and 11th St, and is the stage for the the longest running, juried exhibition in Kansas, the Smoky Hill Art Exhibition.
Running for more than 50 years now, this show opens on the last Friday in April and continues through May.
The opening of this exhibition coincides with Hays’ Spring Gallery Walk, with up to 20 local businesses participating downtown. There’s also a Fall Gallery Walk on the last Friday in August.
11. Massey Park
A cute neighborhood park, this space northeast of downtown was once the location for Hays’ community pool.
There’s no shortage of things to do at Massey Park, and the spacious shelter/pavilion is a great birthday party venue in the summer.
The playground is large too, with a range of equipment for all ages, while there are also basketball courts, multi-use trails and several acres of grass for games. All of the amenities are carefully maintained, from the restrooms to the picnic tables.
12. Hays Aquatic Park
Hays has an action-packed, modern water park, looking like a fort from the main entrance. Hays Aquatic Park is large enough to keep kids entertained for hours, but small enough that parents won’t lose sight of their children.
For attractions there’s a zero-depth entry leisure pool, an eight-lane competition pool, a play feature with a large dump bucket, three water slides and a long lazy river that bends through the entire park.
For parents in need of some peace, there’s an upper deck sunbathing area and several shaded lounging areas among flowers, trees and native limestone.
13. Big Creek Nature Trail
In Frontier Park, this meandering 1.7-mile trail follows the course of the namesake creek around the southern edge of the Fort Hays State University Campus and across Main Street.
You can download an excellent map on Hays’ city website, pointing out some 14 points of interest like the buffalo herd, former ice-making facilities, the original bridge linking the city to Fort Hays and the site of the first Hays county fair in 1883.
On the route are marvelous old trees to appreciate, including red mulberry, boxelder, catalpa and eastern redbud.
14. Downtown Hays Market
At the east end of Union Pacific Plaza stands the handsome Downtown Pavilion, recently completed and now maintained by Hays’ Parks Department.
On Saturday mornings, May through October, the pavilion hosts the Downtown Hays Market, which is a combined farm and arts market with vendors from all over Kansas.
On a normal week you might find seasonal produce, meats raised on local farms, jams, honey, fresh roasted coffee, kettle corn, cut flowers, baked goods, and all kinds of handcrafted items made by talented artisans.
15. Ellis County Fair
The county fairgrounds are in the northwest of Hays and of course the big date on the calendar is the fair, normally around mid-July.
As ever, 4-H exhibitions are at the foundation of the fair, and members spend the whole year working on their projects.
It would be impossible to list everything going on across these 7+ days, but some highlights are a KPRA rodeo, the 4-H livestock auction, races at the RPM Speedway, a thrill show with stunts and monster trucks, carnival rides and games, live music and a ton of midway food and drink vendors.