Every April, the National Park Service highlights its work toward preserving natural and cultural resources during a themed National Park Week. This year’s theme was “sPark Connections” and it sparked an idea to share with readers that a visit to a national park is a lot closer to home than you may think.
If you aren’t aware that there are five units of the National Park Service in Kansas, you’re not alone. Many of us envision the Grand Canyon National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park when we think of national parks, but just 63 of the 423 individual units managed by the National Park Service officially carry the name “National Park.” There are 18 other naming categories — from National Battlefields to National Seashores — though all 423 units are commonly called parks.
Kansas has four National Historic Sites and one National Preserve, along with portions of five of the country’s 19 National Historic Trails (California, Lewis & Clark, Oregon, Pony Express and Santa Fe).
Rangers at the Kansas sites say visitors, especially those from within Kansas, often don’t realize they have a national park so close to home. It’s often the distinctive uniform of the rangers that make tourists ask about the park status.
“A lot of people see these parks as city parks, county parks or just haven’t really thought about what they are,” said Carl Brenner, acting superintendent for Fort Scott National Historic Site and Fort Larned National Historic Site. “These are national parks because something of national significance happened at each place.”
Admission is free at all five parks and hours and other visiting guidelines can be found on each park’s webpage on www.nps.gov.
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
In downtown Topeka
Why it’s part of the NPS: This park opened to the public in May 2004 — the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka that “ … Separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” This site is the former Monroe Elementary School, which was one of four segregated schools for African Americans in Topeka. The setting commemorates the landmark Supreme Court decision that established the legal framework for dismantling racial segregation in public schools and marked a major victory in the Civil Rights Movement.
What you’ll see: From the entrance to the auditorium to the former kindergarten room restored to how it appeared in 1954, you’ll get a sense of what it was like to attend a segregated school. There’s a park film on the history of racism and segregation in the auditorium. Throughout the building there are exhibits on the road to Brown v. Board of Education, a dive into the case itself and a look at the ongoing legacy of the case. Among the artifacts on display is one of four dolls used in an experiment conducted by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark that would later become critical evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Special event: Kansas Archeology Training Program Field School is June 3-18 and requires registration at https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-archeology-training-program-field-school/14622.
Fort Larned National Historic Site
Six miles west of Larned in the western half of the state
Why it’s part of the NPS: The site preserves the buildings, stories and historical themes associated with Fort Larned, which was established in the 1860s to protect travelers, trail commerce and the mail because of the rising tensions between American Indians and those using the Santa Fe Trail.
What you’ll see: This is considered one of the best-preserved and best-restored forts from the Indian Wars period. From officer’s quarters to barracks and a post hospital to commissaries, there are nine original buildings built between 1866 and 1868 and one reconstructed building. Historical exhibits were updated two years ago and modernized with features like holograms. Artifacts on display include historic and replica weapons used at the fort.
During summer weekends, there are living-history demonstrations depicting fort activities from 1859 to 1878. A one-mile history nature trail loop has interpretive signs and you can also visit nearby ruts left from wagons traveling the Santa Fe Trail.
Special events: Volunteers and staff bring the post to life on Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July, Labor Day weekend, an annual Candlelight Tour (second Saturday in October) and Christmas Past Celebration (second Saturday in December).
Fort Scott National Historic Site
In downtown Fort Scott, in eastern Kansas about 90 miles south of Kansas City
Why it’s part of the NPS: Fort Scott National Site preserves, commemorates and interprets Fort Scott and its role in a sequence of pivotal events that transformed the nation — forced displacement of Native Americans, westward expansion, Bleeding Kansas, the Civil War and the railroad years.
What you’ll see: This is an 1840s military post with 20 structures (11 historic and nine reproductions), a parade ground and 5 acres of restored tallgrass prairie. The former infantry barracks serve as the fort’s visitor center, offering a park movie and the start of a series of touch-screen displays that allow visitors to explore the fort through the eyes of six personas, for example a soldier, a Native American or a farmer.
You can explore on your own or time your visit for a guided one-hour tour, offered daily year-round at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Rangers take you through the grounds and allow you to explore exhibits inside the buildings on your own.
There’s also a short walking trail through the prairie.
Special events: Civil War Encampment (mid-April), Symbols of Sacrifice (Memorial Day Weekend), town-wide Good Ol’ Days (First Friday-Saturday of June), Independence Day Celebration (July 4 weekend), Labors of the Fort (Labor Day weekend), Veterans Day programs (Veterans Day weekend), and Candlelight Tour (first Friday-Saturday in December).
Nicodemus National Historic Site
On Highway 24 in northwestern Kansas
Why it’s part of the NPS: Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining Black settlement west of the Mississippi River. The small town was founded by newly freed slaves in 1877 and serves as a reflection of mass Black migration from the South to the Midwest after the Civil War.
What you’ll see: Five historic buildings make up the town site and you can also walk through the larger township, where about 30 residents live. See the park film and exhibits inside Township Hall, which serves as the visitor center. Some staff are descendants of original Nicodemus residents and are happy to share their family’s history. Walk or drive by the other historic buildings. The buildings are physical expressions of the five pillars of the African-American community — church, self-government, education, home and business. In addition to Township Hall being open, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was fully restored in 2021 and is open to the public during the day.
There also are two cemeteries on the outskirts of town, and a dugout created by Nicodemus homesteaders about 16 miles east of Nicodemus (note this is on private land).
Special events: Nicodemus Homecoming Celebration (the last weekend of July).
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Near Strong City in central Kansas
Why it’s part of the NPS: A collaboration between the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy, the preserve encompasses 11,000 acres among the largest remaining intact tallgrass prairie ecosystem left in North America. Tallgrass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America and today less than 4% remains intact, mostly in Kansas’ Flint Hills.
What you’ll see: The park’s visitor center is temporarily closed for renovation, though you’ll find rangers and some displays in the three-story limestone barn and the 1880s limestone mansion, which was restored recently and is now more accessible. There’s also a one-room schoolhouse to tour, and a stop at the schoolhouse gives you a good chance to see some of the preserve’s nearly 80 bison. A second pasture where you can see bison is accessible via the Scenic Overlook Trail, one of five hiking and nature trails totaling 40 miles at the preserve. Pay attention to the warnings and guidelines when hiking through the bison pasture. The guided bus tours that take you into the prairie shared with the bison are currently on hiatus. Watch the park’s website and social media for guided prairie walks.
Special events: Kids Farm and Ranch Animal Day (Memorial Day Saturday), Living History on the Prairie (June 11, July 9, Aug. 13, Sept. 17), Labor Day Quilt Display, Harvest Festival & Antique Tractor Show (Sept. 17), Candlelight Tour (November) and Old-Fashioned Christmas Family Fun (Saturday after Thanksgiving).
Visit Before Visiting
One tip for exploring the National Park Service sites in Kansas or elsewhere is to download the NPS App to your phone. Park rangers created the app, which gives you access to interactive and downloadable maps, self-guided tour information, lists of things to do at each park and more. Many parks spent time and resources over the past couple of years developing more ways for visitors to virtually connect with parks, from distance learning to virtual tours.
Find links to download the app and more information at go.nps.gov/app.