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Midwest National Parks Road Trip from La Plata, MO

Midwest National Parks Road Trip from La Plata, MO

Western Missouri & Eastern Kansas

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

July 1-3, 2014

The authors of this article tour Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one of three
National Park Service units within a day's drive of La Plata, Missouri.
(Photo by Robert & Kandace Tabern)

As you might have read in previous articles, we are the Coordinator (Robert) and Assistant Coordinator (Kandace) of the new APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago, IL and La Plata, MO. This means we know the approximate 300-mile route between Chicago and La Plata fairly well, but, due to the nature of the program, we usually have a somewhat quick turn-around in La Plata and don't get much time to explore Missouri and what is beyond La Plata. Typically, we arrive around 8:00p.m. on Train #3... stay at the Depot Inn & Suites... and then head home around 10:00a.m. the following morning on Train #4. We have actually done more than 20 trips between Chicago and La Plata on the Southwest Chief over the past 18 months, but never spent more than a single night in La Plata before turning around and heading home to the Chicago area. Since we had to conduct some safety training for Trails & Rails in La Plata during the first week of July 2014, we actually had the luxury of spending two nights at the Depot Inn & Suites instead of our usual one. Once the training was completed, we had most of the day to explore around the area. Being as interested in national parks as we are about trains, we decided to rent a car and hit the road to explore some of the National Park Service units in western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

We began our trip on Tuesday, July 1, 2014 from Chicago Union Station on the westbound Southwest Chief. The train left a few minutes late due to being held for connecting passengers from the very late Lake Shore Limited.  We faired pretty well due to the 3:00p.m. departure time... the Texas Eagle and California Zephyr both left over an hour late.  Chicago's Union Station was very busy with travelers ahead of Independence Day, luckily we did our usual maneuver of boarding the train early as Trails & Rails docents in order to set up our displays and visuals. The Sightseer Lounge Car quickly filled up with passengers by Naperville, IL and we had a great time presenting our program and making more than 10 children "junior rangers".

Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern swears some
junior rangers aboard the westbound Southwest Chief on July 1, 2014
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

We made arrangements through the Enterprise Rental Car office in Kirksville, MO to have a car available to us in La Plata upon our arrival. We were told by Bob Cox, the station caretaker in La Plata and President of APRHF, that they offer this service to customers when requested (at no extra cost too!). It went very smoothly, but we felt it was important to call the office a few days in advance and remind them about what was agreed upon... as well as to call them the day of our trip to know the color, make, and model of the car that would be waiting for us in the parking lot of the train station in La Plata.  But yes... as soon as we got off the train... our car was waiting for us at the station.

Our rental car was waiting for us at the station upon our arrival on Train #3
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Map of the sites covered in this trip report 
(Designed in Microsoft Image Composer by Robert & Kandace Tabern)

Knowing that we had a lot of ground to cover in a day, we hit the road fairly early in the morning on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. We took U.S. 63 South from the Depot Inn & Suites to U.S. 36 West in Macon, MO. From there it was a little over an hour before we hit I-35 South which takes you right in to downtown Kansas City. Driving a little above the speed limit, we were able to make it from La Plata, MO to downtown Kansas City, MO in exactly 2.5 hours flat. We got through Kansas City just before the morning rush hour and didn't experience any significant traffic delays, however we hear that road congestion can be quite bad with several  interstate highways converging in the downtown area. Our first stop for the trip was actually at a Waffle House just outside of Overland Park, KS. We both spent time living in the South (Kandace a lot more than Robert), and missed not having a chance to eat at the greasy spoon. When we had our fix of "smothered, covered, and capped", we got back on I-35 South and continued our way to the first National Park Service unit that was on the list... the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Robert & Kandace Tabern on a hiking trail at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

"Do Not Approach Bison" sign on our walk through Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

According to the National Park Service, tallgrass prairie once covered 170,000,000 acres of North America. With a generation, the vast majority was developed in to farms and plowed under. Today, less than four percent remains, mostly in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve protects a nationally significant remnant of the once vast tallgrass prairie and its cultural resources. Here the tallgrass prairie takes its last stand. We had about two hours scheduled at the park and we decided to first stop by the Visitor Center which had numerous displays and a small gift shop with items about the prairie. Up until August 2013, the National Park Service offered bus tours of the prairie, however we learned the tour road got washed out and was still waiting to be repaired. That meant the only real way to explore the park was by foot. We ended up doing a two mile hike up a small trail that brought us through the tallgrass prairie and then into a pasture where bison roam. We didn't see any bison on our hike, however they roam a large area... which means sometimes they can't be seen by folks who hike the trail. Overall, we had a great time. While it wasn't Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, the Tallgrass Prairie was worth a visit to see the unusual ecosystem.

From there, we made a quick stop in nearby Strong City, KS to see a small railroad park and Santa Fe caboose that was open for the public to explore. Make sure you head west of town just a little bit and see the old Santa Fe bridge.

The old Santa Fe Depot in Strong City, KS
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

An old Santa Fe bridge, just west of Strong City, KS
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

From Strong City and the Tallgrass Prairie, we decided to avoid the interstate highway and take a scenic drive on Kansas State Highway 177 North. The rolling hills were really beautiful and were a nice change after spending several hours looking at trucks and endless rest stops between La Plata, MO and Strong City, KS. It's funny... a lot of people think that Kansas is very flat... but that is not the case... especially around the Flint Hills. From a recent report that we read, Illinois is actually a lot more flat than Kansas is. We took KS-177 North all the way to I-70, where we began heading back east. Our next stop was at the Green Memorial Wildlife Area, a small state-owned parcel of land about 10 miles west of Topeka, KS (take the Willard exit off I-70 and follow the signs). The reason for this stop was that visitors can actually see ruts left from wagon trains that traveled the Oregon and California Trails back in the 1840's and 1850's. There really wasn't much here... and the trails were not well maintained... but it was worth the hike in order to actually stand on the Oregon Trail and feel like you are part of history. The ruts are about a 2/3-mile walk from the parking lot area off a small gravel road.  Just a few words of warning if you visit... wear long pants and bring bug spray... we ended up picking up some ticks here!!... also, there was a self-guided trail, however all of the brochures were gone... make sure you hop online (see link below) and print one out so you know what you're seeing during the hike!!  For the less adventurous soul, there is a road crossing of the Oregon Trail just outside of the natural area boundaries that is marked with road signs.

Walking in the steps of pioneers of the Oregon Trail near Willard, KS; this
marker shows the spots where ruts can be seen from wagon trains of the 1840's and 1850's
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

After seeing the Oregon Trail site, we got back on Interstate 70 East and headed in to Topeka, KS. We made a brief stop at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Site, a relatively new unit of the National Park Service that we have never been to before. According to the National Park Service, the story of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in public schools, is one of hope and courage. When the people agreed to be plaintiffs in the case, they never knew they would change history. The people who make up this story were ordinary people. They were teachers, secretaries, welders, ministers, and students who simply wanted to be treated equally. The park is inside an old segregated school near downtown Topeka. Visitors go on a self-guided tour of the building which features a movie, exhibits, and restored segregated classroom.  It is worth about an hour stop if you are traveling through.

A stop at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, KS
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

From Topeka, we continued on Interstate 70 East through Kansas City and back to Missouri. Our final stop of the trip was in Independence, MO, which marked the start of the Oregon Trail and is home of the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, the third and final National Park Service unit that we wanted to see on the journey. You first report to the Visitor Center, get your tickets, and then walk over to the house for the actual 30 minute guided tour. President Truman grew up in Independence, MO and returned there to live out his days after the presidency. You also get to see a classic car, which Truman bought just 6 months before he died in the early 1970's.

The Harry S. Truman National Historic Site in Independence, MO
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

This marker shows visitors the beginning of the Oregon Trail
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

After we were done sightseeing in Independence, MO, it was getting late, so we hit the road and head back to La Plata, MO. We decided to take a different route back than taking U.S. 36, so we drove U.S. 24. We enjoyed the drive on U.S. 24 because it followed parts of the Missouri River and was close to the route taken by Lewis & Clark during their historic expedition west. That night... we spent some time back at the Depot Inn & Suites in La Plata... enjoying the hot tub and other features of our room... the Sportsman's Suite!

Enjoying some time in the Sportsman's Suite at the Depot Inn & Suites in La Plata, MO
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

On Thursday, July 3, 2014, we caught Train #4, the eastbound Southwest Chief, back to Chicago... marking the end of our three day get-a-way. 

While yes... we covered a lot of ground in one day... we would recommend this trip to anyone who loves a nice long day road trip sandwiched in between a train ride. Come out and explore the National Park Service units of western Missouri and eastern Kansas the next time you are in La Plata, MO... and use the Depot Inn & Suites as your base.


Depot Inn & Suites | Enterprise Rental Car - Kirksville, MO | Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Green Memorial Wildlife Area (Oregon Trail Ruts) Brown v. Board of Education Nat'l Historic Site

Harry S. Truman Nat'l Historic Site | National Frontier Trails Museum


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