Named for its location where the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers become the Kansas River, Junction City has a history entwined with Fort Riley, a major U.S. Army Post close by.
Fort Riley needs to be on your agenda for its museums and historical sites linked to George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876), and the U.S. Cavalry.
In the mid-20th century the base gave rise to plenty of bawdy establishments in Junction City, but these were cleaned up in the 1980s, and there’s now a family-friendly small town vibe.
The largest reservoir in Kansas, Milford Lake is a matter of minutes from downtown and is a joy in summer, with beaches, campgrounds, a marina and miles of trails to navigate.
1. Fort Riley
Home to the 1st Infantry Division, this facility was established as a frontier post in 1855 and has volumes of history to uncover at museums, monuments and other points of interest.
A few famous figures associated with the fort are General Lewis Armistead, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, General and George S. Patton.
George Armstrong Custer served here as lieutenant colonel of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in 1866-67, and his house has been preserved as a museum, one of several on the base.
We’ll talk about the U.S. Cavalry Museum below, but you’ve also got the 1st Infantry Division Museum, recounting The Big Red One’s story from 1917 to the present.
To visit the base you’ll need to get hold of temporary Fort Riley Access Pass, and it’s best to do this in advance by stopping by the Visitor Control Center.
2. Geary County Historical Society Museum
To get acquainted with Junction City and its surroundings, your first stop needs to be this free local history museum downtown.
The building is the former City High School (1904), built with rusticated native limestone blocks in a Romanesque Revival style.
There was a school here until the late 1960s, and the building was handed over to the Geary County Historical Society in 1982.
Head inside for a chronology from the Native American period to the present day, enhanced with a trove of artifacts and turn-of-the-century photographs by the likes of J.J. Pennell, A.G. Emery and A. P. Trott.
One gallery that children will adore is Main Street, recreating six businesses from the early 1900s, while a room on the third floor is filled with ticket office and waiting room artifacts from the Union Pacific depot.
3. U.S. Cavalry Museum
A priority on Fort Riley has to be this riveting museum documenting the history of the U.S. Cavalry, from the Revolutionary War to World War II.
This museum has been here since 1957, but the grand building goes back way before that. Raised in 1855, this was originally a hospital, before being converted into the Cavalry and Light Artillery School in 1890.
In neatly presented galleries you can check out Buffalo Soldier artifacts, a wide array of weapons, art by the likes of Frederic Remington, uniforms, horse equipment and learn about different chapters of Fort Riley’s rich past.
4. Milford State Park
The largest man-made lake in Kansas is a little way northwest of Junction City. At 15,700 acres and with 161 miles of shoreline, Milford Lake took shape with the construction of the dam in the mid-1960s, and has a variety of important roles, from flood control to water supply.
The lake is also a haven for wildlife and a place for people to enjoy the outdoors.
A go-to is Milford State Park, which has miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails, as well as boat ramps, swimming beaches, a full-service marina, picnic shelters, a splash pad and five different campgrounds, offering a combined 120 electric/water utility sites and over 100 primitive sites.
5. Milford Nature Center & Fish Hatchery
Slightly closer to Junction City, next to the dam, is a nature center where you can get to know the natural habitats of Kansas.
Inside you can peruse engaging dioramas, and a host of live animal exhibits including lizards, snakes, turtles, amphibians, prairie dogs and more.
Also here are several interactive displays, letting you print your own animal tracks and identify natural items by touch.
On the grounds are yet more live animals, with aviaries for birds of prey and a bobcat enclosure.
The Fish Hatchery is also on this land, and is one of the few in the country maintaining its own brood stock for hybrids (wipers). Tours of the hatchery take place in March and April via the nature center.
6. C.L. Hoover Opera House
A cultural reference point in Junction City for more than 140 years, the C.L. Hoover Opera House (1882) is a stately performing arts venue downtown.
The building was reconstructed following a fire in 1898 and in its time has hosted a courthouse, jail, fire department and movie theater.
In the late 20th century the building was an empty shell until being placed on the National Register of Historic Places and undergoing a thorough restoration that was completed in 2008.
This is now the seat of the Junction City Arts Council, Junction City Little Theater and the Junction City Community Band, with top-notch performances across a whole spectrum of artistic genres and disciplines.
7. Rathert Stadium
Easy to miss in the northwest of Junction City is a handsome baseball stadium with a fine grandstand that has a native limestone facade.
Rathert Stadium was a Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, and has been described as the “finest baseball stadium in Kansas.”
This is home field for the Blue Jay’s Junction City High School’s team, but also the Junction City Brigade, a collegiate wooden bat team competing in the Mid-Plains League. The regular season, with 18 home games, is June through mid-July, and the finals are all wrapped up by the end of July.
8. First Territorial Capitol of Kansas
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this historical building at Fort Riley. The sole surviving building of the ghost town, Pawnee, is the structure that briefly served as the first Territorial Capitol of Kansas (1855).
Pawnee was capital for just five days before it was switched to what is now Fairway in the KC area.
This building was at the eye of a storm to decide whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state, which in turn had a big bearing on the nation’s history for the coming decade.
The building is typically open to the public on weekends, April through October, with exhibits examining the frontier, the Kansas/Missouri Border War (1854-1861) and the fight for freedom.
9. Riverwalk Trail
You can walk, jog or ride a bike next to the Republican River for five miles in Junction City. The Riverwalk Trail begins close to the dam at Milford Lake and takes you all the way to Fort Riley’s Washington Street entrance.
The path is paved with limestone screenings, and is unusual for allowing people on horseback, as well as snowmobiles in the winter months. If you make the trip at this time of year, keep an eye on the treetops for bald eagles.
10. Spring Valley Heritage Site
The Geary County Historical Society maintains this intriguing collection of buildings a short way west of Junction City.
Still in situ, the Spring Valley schoolhouse is a typical 19th-century school building that held classes until the late 1950s.
This was the last schoolhouse in the county without plumbing, and the water pump on the grounds, dating from the 1930s, is still in working order. There’s also a pony barn, and Wetzel’s Log Cabin Church (1857).
That building was originally constructed for a former army dragoon. After he passed away it became home to the Wetzel Family, and it was in this building that the state’s first congregation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod was organized.
11. Geary Community Farmers’ Market
At the Church of the Nazarene parking lot in the south of Junction City, Geary County has a well-attended farmers’ market with a long list of vendors.
On a good day there are well over 20 vendors here, for heirloom produce, eggs, fruits, honey, baked goods, teas, jams, jellies, preserves, sauces, spice rubs, handmade candles, skin products, jewelry and tempting BBQ food to go.
The market takes place on Thursday evenings, May through October, and some vendors accept online orders for convenient pick-up. .
12. Konza Prairie Research Natural Area
A short drive east of Junction City is a big expanse of native tallgrass prairie, the kind that would have greeted settlers in the 19th century.
This 8,600-acre preserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by Kansas State University as a field research station.
The Konza Prairie is at the northern tip of the Flint Hill, a range of rugged hills unsuitable for plowing and so accounting for around ⅔ of all the surviving tallgrass prairie in the United States.
Public access is restricted, but there are walkable trails 2.6, 4.5, and 6 miles in length, as well as a magnificent overlook on the roadside along K-177.
13. Geary State Fishing Lake and Wildlife Area
A brief drive south down Hwy 27 and you’ll soon be at this wildlife area over 180 acres, around half of which is made up of a scenic lake.
At the north end, by the dam, a trail will bring you to a stunning waterfall that is particularly impressive after a rainy spell. In the summer this is a popular place for families to cool off.
This lake is an important stop over for migrating waterfowl in the spring and fall, and the clear waters are perfect for fishing. At the most recent count there were good or fair numbers of crappie, catfish, saugeye, black bass and bluegill.
14. Swimming Pool & Sprayground
Less than a mile west along 5th Street from downtown, Junction City’s public pool complex is at the 5th Street Park, by Lincoln Elementary.
Ideal if you need inspiration for family activities in summer, this attraction has a full-size lap pool, wading pool, diving boards and a fun triple tube slide.
Recently the pool has been accompanied by a state-of-the-art “Sprayground”, with foam jets, water cannons, pumping jets and a host of other kid-friendly spray features.
The surrounding park has ample space for passive recreation, as well as five tennis courts and a large picnic shelter.
15. Rolling Meadows Golf Course
Open for more than 40 years now, this 18-hole course has been awarded 4½ stars by Golf Digest, putting it among the best places in Kansas for a round of golf.
On 160 acres, this Richard Watson-designed track has bent and ryegrass fairways, close to 30 sand bunkers, mature trees in the rough and six lakes.
There’s a fresh challenge on each hole, whether you’re a seasoned golfer or are just starting out. If you need to loosen up, Rolling Meadows has a dedicated driving range, open every day until sunset.