From flower-filled plains, limestone-rich hills and rolling tallgrass prairie to beautiful rivers and lakes, Kansas is a hidden outdoor gem in the middle of the country. Agriculture continues to be king in the state, but its hardy residents have found many ways to make a living in its remote areas, including guest ranches, agricultural tourism, and meeting and event activities. Here are a handful of outdoor venues that take advantage of everything Kansas has to offer.
Exploration Place, the Sedgwick County Science and Discovery Center, is a museum in the heart of Wichita. Its exhibits highlight Kansas history, space, science and Wichita’s proud aviation history. The Design Build Fly exhibit showcases Wichita as the air capital of the world.
“It is not about the science of flight but how planes are put together,” said Christina Bluml, director of marketing and communications for Exploration Place.
Like many museums across the country, Exploration Place rents out its indoor and outdoor facilities for meetings and events. The Festival Plaza and Picnic Grove outside the museum is a popular spot for large corporate events, employee picnics and client appreciation gatherings. Many groups will rent the entire museum, allowing their guests to eat and mingle outside and then tour the museum on their own. Because the museum sits on 20 acres, it can host groups of almost any size outdoors. Inside, the museum’s theater, exhibit building, main lobby and promenade can all be rented out. The museum itself can host groups of up to 1,000 people.
The museum has open catering and offers tables and chairs, as well as setup and tear-down for events held on-property. Groups can take advantage of the museum’s scientific experts as part of their events. The museum can arrange private tours of different exhibits and bring in guest speakers.
Clover Cliff Ranch Bed and Breakfast
About 30 minutes west of Emporia, the Clover Cliff Ranch Bed and Breakfast is first and foremost a working cattle ranch. The property, which was first homesteaded in 1860, sits on more than 4,000 acres. Susie and Walter Harshman are the fourth owners of the property. They purchased it at auction in 2014. It had been vacant for eight years, and it needed a lot of TLC. The couple refurbished four houses on the property, including the main house, as a bed-and-breakfast. They filled the main house with antiques dating from 1840 to 1900.
“It was a labor of love,” said Susie Harshman. The property can sleep 31 people, but it also hosts events up to 250 people in its indoor and outdoor spaces. Three years ago, the couple built a stone event pavilion north of the main house to host corporate retreats, weddings and family reunions. It has a floor-to-ceiling limestone fireplace and large windows with panoramic views of the rolling hills.
The large outdoor patio has two stone fire pits. Teambuilding activities include a professional 18-hole disc golf course that takes players on a three-mile hike. It also has horseshoe pits, cornhole, bocce ball and other patio games groups can play. Horseback riding and skeet shooting are some of the most popular activities on the property. Clover Cliff also is home to a 400-head bison herd that guests can see with a guide as part of their event.
Lazy T Ranch and Guest House
The historic Lazy T Ranch sits on 400 acres in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The property features native tallgrass prairie and incredible views of the Kansas River Valley. Ron and Chris Wilson took over Ron’s family ranch in 2006. Ron, who works for Kansas State University, was interested in getting into agritourism. The Wilsons started small by offering chuck wagon dinners for tour buses. They now run a guest house and host corporate events, weddings, picnics and bonfires.
The property rents four buildings for events: the Tallgrass Arena, which can hold up to 300 people; the Prairie Pavilion, a building with 20-foot doors on both ends that can be opened for great views of the ranch’s historic stone barn; the Bluestem Barn, which is open on one side and fantastic for barn parties; and a gazebo with native prairie and a beautiful meadow as a backdrop.
Groups enjoy a chuck wagon meal before taking part in fun ranch activities like a hay rack ride or a hike to the top of Sugarloaf Hill, with its spectacular views of the Flint Hills. They also can play a game of laser tag on the ranch’s three-acre laser tag field. The animals are a big draw, and groups also love to let their attendees make a stuffed animal in the ranch’s workshop.
Carroll and Becky Walters were looking for ways to keep the family farm in business back in the 1980s, so they explored agritourism. Although the farm still grows some crops, such as soybeans, pumpkins and grass to feed cattle, it spends most of its energy on various seasonal festivals and hosting private events for up to 700 people on its property.
The owners built an events barn with a large banquet hall with room to set up a dance floor and a bandstand. It hosts many weddings, as well as corporate events, private campfires and picnics. Located about 30 minutes northeast of Wichita, the farm has a couple of open-air pavilions that groups can rent. The owners are happy to cater events on the property, but guests are welcome to bring in their own food. The site does have a licensed commercial kitchen.
The couple’s annual Pumpkin Festival brings in 30,000 people each summer, and a sunflower event will be held this fall.
“We are trying different things we like doing. If we don’t like doing it, we don’t do it a second time,” said Becky Walters. “We decided that as a business plan a long time ago.”
Groups can take advantage of numerous fun activities on the farm, including two giant jumping pillows, a corn maze, pedal cars and Boo Mountain, a slide that takes willing participants underground. It also is converting a former grain bin into an outdoor beer and wine bar.
Black Jack Hills
Black Jack Hills is a 13-acre event venue in the foothills of Kansas, about 10 miles outside Manhattan. Originally part of the Fields of Fair Wineries, the property was purchased by the Webster family 17 years ago and turned into an indoor and outdoor entertainment facility, hosting everything from weddings and birthday parties to outdoor concerts and corporate meetings.
The size of the property and its remote location make it a destination for folks in the area who want to get away from it all. The venue has a beautiful event building with a dance floor and a full-service bar that can host 250 people. Outside, it has a large event patio and a gazebo that can be used for outdoor picnics, receptions or barbecues.
Black Jack Hills’ catering specializes in smoked meats like brisket, pork, ribs, turkey, ham and chicken. Guests can select their choice of meat and sides. Groups that want to include teambuilding activities can take advantage of the property’s sand volleyball and horseshoe pits and basketball hoops. Groups can also wander the property’s many trails winding through the beautiful woods that cover the property and overlook the neighboring vineyards.
Because of the pandemic, Black Jack Hills has opened its doors as an outdoor barbecue restaurant one night a week.
“It is open to the public, and there is plenty of room for social distancing or outdoor seating on those evenings,” said Joni Webster, owner of Black Jack Hills. “That has been working out well.”