Most US travel itineraries skip the “middle bit” – often stereotyped as a boring, endless and pancake-flat swathe of corn that makes up the Great Plains. But while the region lacks showstoppers – no Grand Canyon, no New York – the Great Plains are crammed with surprisingly intriguing attractions and great tracts are, well, quite hilly actually. Stephen Keeling, co-author of The Rough Guide to the USA, picks out ten highlights.
1) Route 66, OK
Though it was long ago superseded by the interstate highway system, Route 66 remains a prime target for all US road-trippers – if they can find it. Created in the 1920s to link Chicago and Los Angeles and “more than two thousand miles all the way”, much of the original route has been overlaid by newer highways. Not in Oklahoma: here there is a 644km plus section of raw Route 66, rich in Americana, from classic diners like Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger in Miami and the iconic Round Barn in Arcadia, to the Route 66 Museum in Clinton and the iconic Blue Whale at Catoosa.
2) Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, NE
Soaring above the plains like a fantastical Byzantine skyscraper, the Nebraska State Capitol is a genuine Art Deco wonder. Like all US state capitols, it’s open to the public and free to tour, but here the standard Neoclassical grandeur– South Dakota, Kansas and Iowa all have incredible state capitols – is ditched for something far more ambitious. Completed in 1932, the 122m tower is topped by a golden dome, but the interior is just as awe-inspiring, with a mural-smothered main hall and rotunda as grand as any Renaissance cathedral.
3) Kansas City BBQ, KS
Famous all over the US, Kansas-style barbecue is less well-known overseas, despite a decent claim to being the best in the nation. Here, meats are slow-smoked with a combination of hickory and oak wood, and no-frills, lowbrow joints flourish on word-of-mouth popularity (85 at the last count). “Burnt ends” is a particular Kansas specialty – tasty pieces of meat cut from the charred end of a smoked beef brisket, smothered with sauce. Each BBQ joint offers subtle differences in flavours, smokes and especially secret ‘special’ sauces. Oklahoma Joe’s and Gates Bar-B-Q are local favourites, but even the most famous place – Arthur Bryant’s – rarely feels touristy.
4) Dead Presidents: Eisenhower, Hoover and Truman
Aficionados of presidential history will find some big hitters on the Great Plains: Dwight D Eisenhower, Allied Supreme Commander in World War II and 34th President (1953–1961) grew up in little old Abilene, Kansas; his predecessor Harry Truman (1945–1952) was a proud Missourian from Independence; and the much-maligned Herbert Hoover (31st President, 1929–1933) grew up in similarly small-town West Branch, Iowa. All three places celebrate their favourite sons with preserved childhood homes, presidential libraries and some of the best museums in the nation, covering everything from the 1929 Wall Street Crash (blamed on Hoover) to the Cold War (partly blamed on Truman).
5) Tallgrass Prairie: Flint Hills Scenic Byway, KS
Forget those flatland stereotypes; the Flint Hills of Kansas are rolling, wild hills that seem as bleak as Yorkshire moors in winter, then erupt with colourful blooms and bright green grasses in the spring. This is the prairies as they were five hundred years ago. Get oriented at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in the college town of Manhattan, a futuristic building crammed with hands-on exhibits and superb displays. From here, drive south on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (aka Hwy-177), which cuts along the hills and through gorgeous rural villages that seem a million miles from anywhere; at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, just north of Strong City, there’s a small visitor centre and hiking trails.
6) Price Tower, OK
Surprise: the only skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright ever built is not in New York or Chicago, but Oklahoma – in tiny old Bartlesville, 72km north of Tulsa. Completed in 1956, this 67m-tall, incongruous copper pinnacle doesn’t disappoint, its verdigris-stained walls, triangular spaces and cubicle-like elevators retaining Lloyd’s distinctive, ornamental style. Stay the night (it’s a hotel), and the fantasy is complete; luxurious rooms decked out like a Mad Men set, with copper work, sleek Venetian blinds and stylish 50’s showers. You can also grab a drink at the Copper Bar on its top floors.
7) Indie, Red Dirt & Woody Guthrie, NE and OK
Live music is alive and well on the Great Plains, where Omaha, Nebraska sports a dynamic indie music scene featuring the likes of local bands Bright Eyes, Cursive, Neva Dinova and The Faint. Modest Stillwater, Oklahoma, is the home of Red Dirt Music, a blend of folk, country, blues and rock styles, with hometown bands the All-American Rejects, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, No Justice, the Jason Savory Band and the godfather of the genre, Bob Childers.
Tulsa, Oklahoma has its own musical legacy, a mix of rockabilly, country, rock and blues that emerged as the Tulsa Sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s (JJ Cale and The Gap Band were part of the movement). Today Tulsa is the home of the spanking new Woody Guthrie Center – crammed with videos and listening posts, fans of the Oklahoma-born folk hero should plan to spend several happy hours here.
8) Oklahoma National Stockyards and Cattlemen’s, OK
Surrounded by a vast sea of cattle pens, crammed with black angus and Hereford bulls, the Oklahoma National Stockyards auction house jerks into life every Monday and Tuesday morning, when frenetic auctions – free and open to the public – facilitate the sale of thousands of dollars worth of cattle between Stetson-wearing ranchers. You won’t understand a word the quick-fire auctioneer says, but you won’t need to. Vegetarians and animal-lovers should obviously steer clear, but everyone else should visit nearby Cattlemen’s afterwards, for some of the most juicy, buttery steak in the country.
9) Ozark National Scenic Riverways, MO
Deep inside the Ozarks, the forest-smothered hills that separate the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, this is the first national park to protect a river system; indulge in kayaking, fishing or that time-honoured tradition of tubing down the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. There’s nothing like floating down a crystal-clear river slouched inside a giant tyre on a hot summer afternoon, but the park is also home to hundreds of freshwater springs, caves, trails and historic sites.
10) The Cherokee and the Five Tribes, OK
Most Native Americans actually live in the ‘middle bit’, from the Great Sioux Nation of South Dakota to the 39 sovereign tribes of Oklahoma. It pays to remember there’s really no such thing as ‘Native American culture’; every tribe and nation is unique, with their own traditions, languages and customs. The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, OK is especially illuminating, with a replica ancient village and display on the Trail of Tears; the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, OK, highlights the art, history and culture of not just the Cherokee, but also the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes.