It was mid July when I decided to take a trip that not many would. I decided that it was time to revisit familiar, and not so familiar, old haunts of eras long gone by the wayside. I decided it was time to ride to many of the forgotten old towns and small metropolises along some of Kansas’ most untraveled and obscure highways and byways. It was time, the road was calling me, and it was telling me that I should visit some of Kansas’ modern day ghost towns.
That July morning started out as any in Kansas, rather warm and somewhat sultry with very few intermittent dark clouds floating through the sky. However, in my mind, it was unlike any other day at all. I was about to set off on an adventure that would forever change the way I viewed the Kansas landscape. I felt like a modern-day cowboy about to climb on my horse and ride into the West to see what was out there. Dressed for the road, I had my black leather chaps, my black leather jacket, and my helmet (my modern-day cowboy hat). My feelings about being a “modern-day cowboy” were dashed when my son, who is 5, looked at me and said, “Daddy, you look like a space man.” Not being able to resist, I looked at myself and thought he was right. With that last thought I started my journey.
Since it was just me, I was able to go in any direction I wanted, so I decided that I would head south on US 169. I went through numerous towns while on 169. Olathe, Spring Hill, Paola, Osawatomie, to name a few. Then I started to hit the smaller ones that I was hunting for, like Greeley. Greeley is a very small town, very sparsely populated. Their main street is very short, with just a few stores and a café that seems rather nice from the outside. Their claim to fame is the beautiful church you see as you wind into the valley from the north on 169.
As you travel farther south you will come upon Garnett. Garnett is a larger town full of all the amenities: hotels, gas stations, and grocery stores. You better get gas there because the farther south you travel, the less frequently you see a filling station. Keep in mind that my goal was to visit ghost towns, and Garnett really didn’t qualify, so I kept moving on. On my way south, I happened upon the town of Colony. Colony was very interesting because there was a main street but even the street was a bit antique. The buildings here had a sense of history yet an air of ghostliness. The once proud buildings now house farm implements and what seem to be trinkets from people’s garages. To look into the windows of some of the buildings you would think that you were looking at the remains of a flea market.
While traveling down 169 I decided I would visit the town of Independence, a small town located off of 169 and Kansas 160 West that is very nice and large enough to have hotels, restaurants, bars, and, yes, even a Wal-mart, for sunscreen. Yes, even the most seasoned rider forgets a few things, and one I forgot was sunscreen. Independence is a town that would make a great turn-around point for a good day ride; you can find any type of place there to eat or drink before turning around and heading back to Kansas City. However, if you do that, you will miss out on some of the best ghost towns, but that is when it turns into a two-day ride.
As you leave Independence traveling west you will hit some of the best small towns like Oak Valley, Elk Valley, Longton, and Elk Falls, then Howard (on 99 North). These towns have some of the kindest and most caring people in them, and they love to talk and tell you about the history and the up-and-coming events. They exhibit so much enthusiasm and pride for their town, no matter how small, that it is incredible.
Oak Valley is the exception to what was said above. This town is truly on the edge of absolute extinction. The main street is gravel with grass growing on it, the buildings are very ramshackle and quite dangerous to approach, and what makes this town interesting is that for every dilapidated building there is a dilapidated mobile home next to it. Truly a sight to see, it is like this town tried to die once a peaceful death but then got revitalized some years ago, and it is in the throes of death once again. When riding through, make sure you keep your feet down and feather the brakes so you don’t wipe out, but rest assured this is a truly neat, and, at night, a creepy place.
The next town is the beautiful and rustic city of Longton. Longton is a very small town as well, one in which the people are very friendly. When I rode in, the people on Main Street also looked at me as if I were some sort of space man. They stopped what they were doing and just watched me ride in and park. Some even had the guts to come up to me and talk, which was very refreshing. They were going to call one of the townsfolk to come unlock the café so I could see pictures of the town in its heyday. I told them that was not necessary, but that shows the hospitality and friendliness that these people have.
The next stop I made was just down 160 to a town of Elk Falls. This town was called Elk Falls because of the falls that are there on the Elk River. They boast the first iron bridge in Kansas, and it was erected in the 1860s, quite a feat back then. Today it is a tourist attraction (if you can call it that), and as you are near the bridge you can see the falls. Quite nice to see falls in a Kansas river. They say there is a café there in town but I never saw it, but I did see the remains of an old theater that was quite small and very nostalgic.
As I made my way west I came to 99. At that intersection I decided it was time to head north. While heading north I came upon Howard. Once there I needed fuel and I needed food so I stopped at a place called Toots. It has been said that Toots has the best cheeseburgers in the state of Kansas, and I had to agree. That cheeseburger was delicious.
As I traveled up 99 toward Emporia I hit smaller towns like Severy, Climax, Hamilton, and Madison. These towns ranged in sizes and were each quaint in their own ways. All of the people in these towns were very curious to see me and quite a few people were very interested in talking to this leather-clad man who rode in on a black iron horse. All were very friendly and offered any help they could. The closer I got to Emporia, I swear I could smell the world-famous chicken cooked there in the small town of Olpe, at the world famous Olpe Chicken House, and this was after a wonderful cheeseburger at Toots.
I hated to pass through Olpe without stopping at the Chicken House, but all the people waiting had me thinking twice because it was getting dark and the deer come out at night in that part of the country. We know what that means: be very alert and look after our four-legged bringers of motorcycle destruction, not to mention the rider. I went through Emporia like a bullet and got on US 50 and made my way to Newton. I knew Newton wasn’t too far, and I’m glad I followed that route because it took me through such towns as Strong City, Elmdale, Cedar Point, Florence, and Peabody.
Strong City is just west of Emporia on US 50. It has fuel and a place to eat. It also has rodeo events that take place on what seems at least once a month or so. But the really great town was Elmdale, which is a ghost town that is visible from the highway; the dilapidated storefronts and old buildings are tattered and run down enough to look like a true ghost town, very scenic and rustic. It was the reason I wanted to take 50 and it was worth it. I saw nobody in that town which made it a little eerie, and that was the great part.
At this point it was truly dark and I was thankful to finally see Newton. My butt was thankful too. So I checked in for the night at a hotel to get rested for the second leg of the trip. The second leg of the trip would take me up I-135 to Lindsborg where I would hit Kansas Highway 4 and follow it all the way to 77, then follow that north to 24 Hwy back to Kansas City.
As I left Newton I was traveling into the very heart of darkness. The clouds were dark and it was cool; I thought there would be trouble, but I went for it. As I traveled north, the clouds broke and the sun came out, and when I got to Lindsborg it was absolutely ideal for a beautiful Midwestern day ride. Lindsborg is a very large town just south of Salina. This town is like a little Switzerland, very clean and quite quaint. All buildings looked like they were transplanted from an area in the Alps. That town alone would be a great day ride from Kansas City. It is here I hit one of the most beautiful and secluded roads I have ever been on, Kansas Hwy 4.
Hwy 4 was very scenic and beautiful, with farmland and old rundown buildings and lots of treed creek runs, truly a beautiful road. Not too far on Ks 4 East, I hit a town called Gypsum. Truly a small town that really has very few people in it, but what people were there were some of the friendliest. I parked my bike in front of the old gas station with outdated pumps and snapped a couple of shots then drove back down Main Street to shoot some other shots and noticed a truck driving on the wrong side of the street right at me and my bike. He pulled up beside me and said, “I noticed that you were parked at the gas station and it is closed, but I have a gallon of gas that I will give you to make it to the next town.” I was in complete shock. Here was a person willing to give something to a complete stranger with no strings attached. That is something I haven’t witnessed in a long time, so it was good to see that it was alive and well in that small town.
Further along on 4, I hit a town called Hope. Hope has one of the best bars in it, a great place for a cold beer and really good food. Papa T’s will hold about 100 people, and that is about the whole town. A great little rest for what seemed like a long day of riding. When you’re there, be sure to tell Janet and Papa T, “Hello.” They are very friendly and will talk your ears off and tell you all there is to know. This town does have a fuel stop as well, so fill your body and fill your ride because the next town is quite a ways away.
So while I was traveling out of Hope on 4, I somehow got lost and ended up traveling north on 77 which took me into Junction City, towards Manhattan, Kansas. I rode by Milford Lake and the Fort Riley military reservation. That was neat because you get to see the some of the tanks parked at the entrance of the Fort Riley military reservation, but shortly after that, I ended up on Hwy 24 headed east again toward Manhattan.
I blew through Manhattan like it wasn’t even there. By this time my back and butt were killing me so I decided to do something I rarely do I decided to take a fourlaner. I jumped on I-70 and headed east to Kansas City through Topeka.
This 700-mile ride was a great ride. It was full of beauty and a type of tranquility you rarely get while riding on familiar and mundane roads. There was a sense of adventure because there was no specific destination. This ride was about the ride; the destination was nothing more than a secondary thought. Because I ride on my own and rarely have people with me, I am able to do this. When I want to turn left I do, and as long as you are the leader of a group you can do the same. I did this article because I know what it is like to have a group of people together and all asking the same question, “…. where should we go?” Now you know.
I encourage everyone to just make it so you can leave and don’t pick a destination, but a direction. This area has so much to offer in history, beauty, and rideability. An adventure is what you make of it. It is about your perception and reception of the visual stimulation you get from where you are and your feelings about where you have been. When you see a small green sign telling you there is a small town, take the time to go into it and experience the warmth of America’s Heartland. It is a refreshing feeling from that, that we feel every day living in a larger city.
Enjoy the Road,
By Brad Gustin