The Great Plains Travel Guide

The rolling hills and vast grasslands of the Great Plains have been home to adventurers, artists and outlaws for centuries, from great Sioux warriors Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull to Jesse James and Mark Twain. Stretching west through Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota, the Great Plains are often stereotyped as an expanse of unvaryingly flat corn fields, the “flyover states” of conservative “Middle American” values. On the contrary, the region is loaded with attractions, from quirky Americana on Route 66 to dynamic art and culinary scenes in Omaha, Tulsa and St Louis, and is often not flat at all – there are canyons, forests, hills and splashes of unexpected colour, as well as two of the nation’s mightiest rivers: the Missouri and the Mississippi.

The Plains also share a complex, fascinating history. Once home to nomadic tribes such as the Sioux and a handful of hardy French traders, the region only saw US colonization really ramped up after the Civil War – by the 1880s the systematic destruction by white settlers of the awesome herds of bison presaged the virtual eradication of the Plains Indians, though their ancestors retain a significant presence in South Dakota and Oklahoma (the latter was settled primarily by tribes removed from the east). Despite harsh conditions and a series of droughts, emigrants poured into the region; after World War I wheat production doubled in the US, creating a boom across the Great Plains that ended with another drought in 1932 and dust storms that lasted three years; images of the devastating “Dustbowl” remain as potent as the fantasy of Dorothy and Toto being swept up from Kansas by a tornado to the land of Oz. Indeed, drama here comes in the form of such unpredictable weather as freak blizzards, dust devils, lightning storms and, most notoriously, “twister” tornadoes. Today farming – though still the major activity on the Plains – isn’t the only game in town; the region’s economy is booming thanks to oil and natural gas, especially in Oklahoma and more recently North Dakota. Though the lunar landscapes of South Dakota’s Badlands and stately Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills are easily the region’s most visited areas, there’s plenty of entertainment elsewhere, from Kansas City barbecue and the birthplace of Mark Twain, to wicked old cowboy towns like Deadwood in South Dakota and Dodge City in Kansas.

Having a car is practically imperative to make the most of the Great Plains, where distances are long, roads straight and seemingly endless and the population sparse.

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Andy Turner

written by
Andy Turner

updated 26.04.2021

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