Pour a glass of wine, sit back and take in the holiday lights. These are just some of the fun things you can do in WaKeeney, nicknamed the “Christmas City of the High Plains.” Located in northwest Kansas, the community of about 1,800 attracts thousands of visitors during the holiday season.
WaKeeney – named for two men who bought the area from a railroad company in the late 1800s – celebrates its holiday kingdom status with a North Pole display, which is open year-round. With Santa’s chair waiting at the end of a small walk, a large mural depicts a North Pole community, along with signs and props.
The town even uses Christmas tree markers to highlight area attractions and businesses along its main street.
Smoky Valley Scenic Byway
However, you don’t have to wait for the temperatures to drop and snow to hit the ground to enjoy a visit to the anchor town along the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway. The byway, which covers about 60 miles off Interstate 70 between two exits only eight miles apart, provides an interesting look at the Smoky Hill River valley, including beautiful natural scenery tossed in with some history. The river valley got its name due to the hazy blue appearance at sunrise and sunset.
We recommend taking the Ogallah exit and drive south. The first stop was the Emanuel Lutheran Church. Built by Swedish immigrants more than 100 years ago, Kansas limestone was used for the exterior. The church continues to serve a small congregation.
Among the beautiful attractions anywhere in Kansas, limestone bluffs provide sentry duty at the Cedar Bluffs State Park and Reservoir. The lake, which attracts more than 160,000 visitors annually, serves as a popular vacation stop during the summer. Almost every campsite is booked on weekends. The lake’s limestone bluffs stand about 100 feet above the water in the park’s south side. The drive to the bluffs can be challenging during inclement weather, as you’ll drive on gravel and dirt roads. If it’s rained, the roads may be difficult to navigate with some vehicles. Once there, though, the view is spectacular.
We could have spent the day walking along the bluffs, taking in its beauty. The large lake provides an impressive view. It can be used for boating, fishing and swimming.
The visitors center provides an accessible stocked fishing pond dedicated to children and physically-challenged people. The fishing dock’s street lamp is designed to resemble a fishing rod with a bobber.
Located roadside along the byway, historical markers recognize the Butterfield Overland Desptach (BOD). Markers along the trail, constructed in the 1960s and follow the Smoky River trail, highlight information on the stagecoach route that took people from Atchison to Denver.
Wilcox schoolhouse marks one of the last remaining rural schools in Trego County. The locally-quarried limestone building once served as a meeting place for a motorcycle club before it was donated to the byway association.
Volga Germans (Russian immigrants) built a Lutheran church along the route. Serving a nearby German community, the church was built in 1905. That community has since disbanded, and ghostly remnants remain of the town. But, the church continues to serve a decently sized congregation of the immigrants’ descendants.
Our visit along the Smoky Hill Scenic Byway concluded with a view of the Trego County courthouse in WaKeeney. The limestone building was featured in the movie “Paper Moon,” which starred Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum.
Located near the county lines of Trego and Gove, Castle Rock is a beautiful chalk formation along the Kansas Badlands near Quinter. While technically not part of the WaKeeney area, the 48-minute drive is worth it, as the beauty of Castle Rock standing in front of the Badlands is impressive. Castle Rock is a reminder that you should never judge a state by its interstate views. If you truly want to learn about a state, get off the interstate, even for a short drive. You’ll learn more than just looking for the next truck stop.
About 17 miles southwest of the town sits Shiloh Vineyards and Winery. The 10-year-old boutique winery produces about 10 varieties of wine. Open year-round, the winery is a great spot for parties, receptions and other events. Or, just take a drive into the country for an afternoon of wine and cheese tastings.
WaKeeney is home to the Kansas Veterans Cemetery. Dedicated almost 15 years ago, the cemetery is the final resting spot for men and women from around the state who served their country. Currently taking up about 12 acres, the cemetery’s staff can provide tours and other activities, such as flag folding demonstrations.
Travelers along Interstate 70 can see a couple of military-related displays near the town’s exits. A tribute to the marines at Iwo Jima is on the eastern edge of town, while a F-14 sits at Eisenhower Park, named for the Kansan who served as president during the 1950s.
WaKeeney has a nice menu of restaurants to dine at. Our first evening in town, we enjoyed dinner at the Tropical Mexican restaurant, Chips and a variety of salsa and dips were a great way to start our dinner with the WaKeeney visitors bureau, who hosted our visit. Lisa and I each enjoyed a tasty dinner, featuring enchiladas.
Our second evening, we dined at Jake and Chet’s. The restaurant offers a variety of food on its menu. Lisa had her favorite meal – breakfast (which is available all day) – while I went with a more traditional dinner of chicken fried steak. We each enjoyed our dinner.
We spent two nights at the Best Western Plus hotel, which is located near the interstate. Our room was clean and spacious. The work area had enough space for me to lay out my laptop and camera equipment. As always, outlets are important for our trips and the room had plenty of them. Breakfast was your typical mid-size hotel buffet. We split a waffle featuring the company’s famous BW logo.
You may think a community of 1,800 wouldn’t have a lot to offer visitors. But, WaKeeney isn’t your typical small town. As the only incorporated town in Trego County, it serves as the main destination in the area. With its central location, WaKeeney is the perfect spot to use as your base when visiting the state park or Smoky Hill Scenic Byway.
Disclaimer: While we appreciate being hosted by the WaKeeney visitors bureau with dinners and our hotel accommodations, all opinions and views are our ours.