When many people consider travel, they do so with images of sandy beaches, exotic locales and enough of the unusual to be appealing but not off-putting. But while those things and more are readily available at the pantheon of great vacation destinations around the world, many are also available in America’s heartland and often within just a few hours drive from much of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma’s neighboring states offer a host of terrific, often underexposed attractions and destinations that can easily become the foundation for any summer vacation, weekend getaway, or romantic escape.
But where to start? To address that question, Oklahoma Magazine sought the recommendations of top tourism officials in their respective states for thoughts on the top five can’t-miss attractions, regions and towns – an ideal recommended itinerary of sorts for those who want to get to know their region and have a good time simultaneously.
Show Me A Good Time
To get to know Missouri’s cities and quaint towns, Missouri Division of Tourism director Katie Steele says to consider traversing the 300 miles of Route 66 across the state. Famed Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is along the scenic route, as is the Big Piney River and ample canoeing opportunities, Carthage and its historic courthouse and numerous small stops featuring memorabilia and a taste of the legendary highway’s history.
Steele also recommends the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. “It’s one of the more iconic sites in the country, not only because of the amazing architecture, but also because the experience of riding to the top is not something one soon forgets,” she says.
Missouri is home to five professional sports teams and several gaming establishments, but it is a lesser-known site Steele recommends for sports or history fans and for families – the Negro League Hall of Fame. The Hall tells the story of the league in which African-Americans played baseball prior to racial integration. “Jackie Robinson is just one player whose story is told there; you can also learn about many great players who never made it to the Major Leagues,” Steele says.
Of course, Missouri is famous for its spectacular scenery and outdoor opportunities, and Steele cites Elephant Rocks State Park in southeast Missouri as one of the most popular. Billion-year-old granite boulders appear like great elephants and appeal both for the natural amazement and for the sporting chance to climb them.
No visit to the Show Me State is complete without a visit to Branson, the Las Vegas of the Midwest, with its stellar host of theaters, famed live performers and shows and numerous other sources of entertainment. “It’s a great family destination, and Branson has a special vibe because of the number of performers who work and live in the city,” Steele says.
The Natural State Meets Cosmopolitan
Arkansas has forced its way into the national consciousness with a couple of recent significant events – the Bill Clinton presidency and the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville. Both figure into the state’s top five must-see destinations.
Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice cites the astounding Crystal Bridges Museum as one of the keys to northwest Arkansas (Fayetteville, Bentonville, Eureka Springs) and as being one of the must-visits in the state. “The building alone is worth the visit because of its architecture and the way it is built into the surrounding environment,” Rice says. “And that’s before you even consider the unrivaled collection of American art.”
Other visitors will find fast-growing Fayetteville and its many University of Arkansas attractions appealing. Quirky Eureka Springs continues to be one of the most popular destinations for visitors from all over. “Eureka Springs is eclectic and unusual – a quaint little town that people find fascinating and enjoyable,” says Rice.
Central Arkansas’ Little Rock and North Little Rock is another region that makes the list. Since the opening of the Clinton Library, more than $1 billion has been invested in the area in new restaurants, shops and even a trolley system. A new ballpark and trails along and bridges over the river provide plenty of green space from which to observe the incredible growth the city and region are undergoing.
Hot Springs is “probably the best family oriented destination in Arkansas,” Rice says. He cited the combined Magic Springs water park and Crystal Falls amusement park as key attractions to families. Garvan Woodland Gardens draws those interested in lush botanical gardens while The Gangster Museum of America re-tells the story of Al Capone and other famous 20th century mobsters who sat aside their weapons while relaxing and scheming in Hot Springs. Honeymooners also find the guesthouses and quaint splendor of the town appealing.
Established in 1972 as the first National River, Buffalo National River flows for 150 un-dammed miles out of the Ozarks and is a natural marvel. “It’s a place where you can still see the natural beauty of the Ozarks,” Rice says. The upper stretch of the river is for experienced canoers, while the central and lower areas are perfect for those of any level, as well as floaters and others who enjoy placid outdoor recreation.
Finally, Great River Road in Arkansas parallels the Mississippi River as just one component of a path that continues through numerous states. It is here that the Blues were born and the inspiration for the tales of Mark Twain occurred. Along the scenic route are Civil War battle sites, plenty of green spaces and wildlife, making for a distinct Arkansas travel experience.
Rockies And Regional Rewards
Colorado’s geographic diversity provides plenty of attractions beyond the ski resorts famous to most sports-oriented Oklahomans.
“Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the country’s most iconic national parks,” says Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office. “The 415-square-mile park has more than 350 miles of hiking trails, 150 lakes, 450 miles of streams and 72 named peaks higher than 12,000 feet. There is so much to do in the park, from hiking and rafting to camping and wildlife watching. The park is also home to Trail Ridge Road, one of my favorite spots. It sits at more than 12,000 feet in elevation, the highest road of any U.S. national park. The views are amazing, as more than a quarter of the park is above tree line.”
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is another must-see. The fort is a meticulously reconstructed trading post on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Starting in the 1840s, traders, trappers, travelers and Cheyenne and Arapaho American Indian tribes gathered peacefully for trade and commerce. “The Fort recreates that experience today, thanks to some very talented living historians, who can transport you back hundreds of years ago and give visitors a real window into frontier life,” White says.
He also recommends the Colorado National Monument. “This is a very special place in Colorado, just outside of Grand Junction. It’s a favorite spot for photographers, who can capture some amazing shots of amazing canyons and rock formations. Visitors to the park can enjoy hiking and bicycling as well as wildlife watching. The Monument is home to red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, ravens, desert bighorn sheep and more,” says White.
Central Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is another fascinating attraction. The Royal Gorge is home to an engineering marvel: one of the world’s highest suspension bridges, measuring 956 feet high and stretching a quarter mile across the canyon. The Arkansas River, one of the longest rivers in the country (and one of the top whitewater rafting rivers, too) churns below the bridge.
Finally, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is a distinct Colorado experience.
“Outside of Alamosa in southern Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes are home to the largest sand dunes in North America,” White says. “The dunes attract visitors who hike and even use modified skis and snowboards to traverse the sandy slopes. It’s much different than skiing Colorado’s world-renowned powder, of course, but it’s a favorite activity for visitors to the park.”
Tourism Is Bigger In Texas
It isn’t easy for even the most informed Texan to narrow down the massive state’s many attractions to a top five. Given its relative size and population, some of its cities alone can be terrific, fulfilling vacation destinations. But the state’s tourism officials were happy to share ideas, some of which might be relatively new even to Oklahomans next door.
In Galveston Island, the past is becoming present with the recent opening of the Historic Pleasure Pier. Based on the original Pleasure Pier that was built on the island in the 1940s, this amusement park offers 16 rides, a full-service restaurant, midway games, shopping and live entertainment, all overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Mexico.
The Perot Museum of Nature & Science – the result of a 2006 merger of the Dallas Museum of Natural History, The Science Place and the Dallas Children’s Museum – provides a world of exploration at its current Fair Park campus. But the Museum has its sights set on creating a new, world-class venue at a centrally located 4.7-acre site in Dallas’ Victory Park to supplement the Fair Park museum. The new, $185-million museum features the latest technology and innovations in conjunction with authentic collections and hands-on activities, all designed to educate present and future generations.
“2012 and 2013 have brought many new opportunities for family-friendly travel in Texas,” points out Texas Tourism’s director of Tourism Brad Smyth. “The Perot Museum of Nature & Science brings a world of interactive exploration to Dallas, while along the Texas Gulf Coast, The Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier stretches more than 1,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico offering rides, games, food venues and more.”
The Texas BBQ Trail is another sure-fire hit for foodies and families. Travelers can sample some of the best slow-smoked barbecue in the state on this trail that takes visitors through barbecue joints in Elgin, Lockhart, Luling and Taylor. While open year-round, most of the trail’s big events take place during the summer months, including the Taylor International BBQ Cook-off in September.
Similarly, the Texas Hill Country Wine Trails celebrate the state’s wine renaissance. Many might recall that in the 1970s, a wine revolution swept through Texas, jumpstarting the birth of vineyards and wineries throughout the state. Today, Texas ranks fifth among wine-producing states.
“For travelers who want an experience beyond our dynamic cities, The Texas Hill Country provides scenic landscapes, charming historic towns, 185 wineries and 220 family-owned vineyards to explore, making for a truly unique experience,” Smyth says.
Finally, the Sea-World Aquatica Park is a relatively new Texas draw, having opened just over a year ago. Aquatica – an extension of the water park in Orlando, Fla. – features three terraced pools, a giant wave pool, meandering rivers and racing rides – including a one-of-a-kind family raft ride that goes underwater through a reef filled with stingrays and tropical fish and another ride that sends family rafts up a zero-gravity wall where riders experience weightlessness. More than 42,000 square feet of white, sandy beaches also cover the park.
Where Desert Meets Sky
New Mexico is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and each makes the list of must-see stops in the diverse state. Taos Pueblo is one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in North America. The multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years. Archaeologists say that ancestors of the Taos Indians lived in this valley long before Columbus discovered America. The Chacoan people of Chaco Canyon combined many elements – pre-planned architectural design, geometry, landscaping, astronomical alignment and engineering – to create an ancient urban center of spectacular architecture. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to 117 known caves all formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone.
“The large cave chamber, The Big Room, is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 255 feet at its highest point, making it the third largest chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world,” says Veronica Valencia, New Mexico Tourism Department director of marketing and communications. “There is an incredible exodus of Mexican free-tail bats out of the cavern in the summer.”
The Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail is an entirely different type of New Mexico attraction. Green chile gives the region’s cuisine a distinctive style and is widely used in the green chile cheeseburger. This culinary creation is New Mexico’s passion. Restaurants across the state include the signature dish on their menu, which has led to the creation of the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, comprised of 48 chile-devoted restaurants. The trail maps out where each restaurant is located so visitors and locals can enjoy the infamous cheeseburger to their hearts’ content.
Although New Mexico has several interesting cities and countless scenic small towns, a visit to Santa Fe is a must. The combination of Native American and Southwest-inspired arts and culture and distinct artsy vibe of the city make it a must as either a base of vacation operations or a targeted visit.
Still, much of New Mexico’s appeal rests outside major urban areas, Valencia says. “It’s a place for travelers with an adventurous spirit and thirst for authenticity, looking for discovery of the off-the beaten path experiences, connection with the past, the land, their families and an adventure that feeds the soul.”
More Than Meets The Eye
Kansas conjures images of cornfields, slow small towns and wide-open spaces. But it is also home to fascinating attractions, many of which are just a short distance from the Oklahoma border.
Chief among those sites is the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene.
“The Museum continues to evolve, and it is very well done,” says Kansas Tourism marketing director Richard Smalley. “It documents his role in World War II with a timeline that extends into his presidency.”
Kansas’ version of Manhattan might not be home to Madison Avenue, but in and around the city are a number of attractions that make it a singular destination. “If you take the National Scenic Byway along Highway 177, you will go through Cottonwood Falls – a little town with a five-star hotel with only 15 rooms,” Smalley says. “There is a café there where on Friday nights they have jam sessions right on the street in front.”
Farther north is the National Tall Grass Prairie Reserve, Smalley says, and the brand new Flint Hills Discovery Center is a must. “One thing that often blows people away is the short video there that talks about the Great Plains, the great storms, the prairie,” Smalley says. “It actually snows inside the theater.”
Hutchinson is home to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, another can’t-miss, Smalley says. “It has the largest collection of U.S. space artifacts outside The Smithsonian and the largest collection of Soviet artifacts outside Russia,” he says. “In addition to being fascinating, it is also great for kids because there are hands-on components. It takes you through the early era of the Space Race with a side-by-side comparison as equipment and procedures developed on either side.”
Finally, Smalley says that those seeking something different should visit the town of Lucas. There, S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden is one of the state’s great wonders. Created more than 100 years ago by Civil War veteran Dinsmoor, the massive, diverse sculpture collection towering over visitors’ heads is impressive and unique.