A Highway Runs Through It: Driving I-70
This week I’ve been traveling to see family in Colorado. Most of the time has been spent driving I-70 from St. Louis to Denver and back.
In the past, I’ve generally flown home or when I had to drive, I’ve powered through the 13-hour trip. The interstate is flat and straight – a perfect place to test automatic cars if it comes to it. Just put the foot on the gas and go. If your tires are well balanced, you barely even need to steer!
This trip I decided to enjoy the journey and see what photographic opportunities I could find along the way.
As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t really photograph while I’m driving along an interstate. By the time I see something, I’m miles down the road and it’s really not safe to stop on the shoulder. The interstate tends to be built too far from anything photographically interesting anyway.
I could of course take back roads the entire way, but I did want to get to Colorado at some point! I decided to balance fast interstate driving with photographic detours along the way. It cost me some driving time, but added value to the trip.
In this post, I’ll review some of my favorite stops along I-70, but I also hope to inspire those of you making long road trips this summer to stop, detour, and generally enjoy the ride – Making the journey part of the destination.
When planning my trip, I looked at what cities I’d go through on I-70. If you’re in a hurry, there are often ways of bypassing cities on the interstate system, but I wanted to take advantage of at least one or two cities along the way.
Kansas City was the obvious place for me to break off my journey for some tourist photography. Personally, I need some sort of driving break every 3 to 4 hours and KC is about 4 hours from St. Louis – perfect!
I have quite a few things marked as possible stops in KC, but I was in the mood for some modern architecture (I’d just returned from Chicago and had the bug). The Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts was right along the interstate so this was barely a detour into the city at all.
With the mid-day sun shining in, I had all sorts of lines and shadows to play with. The Brandmeyer Great Hall was open for wandering around and taking photos. Since my schedule was not really fixed, I didn’t look into the architectural tours, but they do have tours available.
I lucked into a day when they were having an open dress rehearsal for the symphony and one of the ushers was generous with her time and basically gave me a personalized tour.
I spent about an hour at the hall and then I walked around the area a bit, but it was unseasonably hot, putting a damper on my exploration of the city.
If this had been my first time in KC, I probably would have taken a day or two to get to know the city. The next time I drive through KC, maybe it will be at night and I can enjoy the city lights, but it was time that I moved on.
Detour into the Flint Hills
I looked at a map and did a bit of research to find potentially interesting places along I-70. One of the areas that I’d driven through multiple times and not really noticed was the Flint Hills.
On this trip, I was determined to stop and explore.
I took a detour at Kansas City south on I-35 and got off at Hwy 177 north, a scenic road through the Flint Hills.
The Flint Hills is a region of Kansas and Oklahoma consisting of a scenic band of tall grass prairie. There are wide-open spaces – perfect for minimalist landscape photography – ranches, and small towns. My photography friends talk about the Flint Hills because in the early spring, they do controlled burns across the hills making for some spectacular fire photos. Next year!
I was aiming for the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Council Grove, and I’d re-join I-70 at Manhattan, Kansas. I left myself enough time to explore back roads and take many detours along the way.
On my travels, I often set destination points, but I always allow time to get lost. I was in no hurry to get to Manhattan (Kansas) and I was able to take a hike to see the herd of bison and enjoy the farm at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve as well as had a look in at a period schoolhouse just north of the preserve.
I was car camping and this seemed as good a place as any to lay my head for the night. I’d passed proper campgrounds, including what looked like a free one at Chase State Fishing Lake just west of Cottonwood Falls and there was a nice looking B&B in Council Grove for those who want to sleep in an actual room.
There was a storm coming across the plains that night and I wanted to be out in the elements. I should be careful what I wish for! The storm produced the lightening I expected and heavy gusts of wind, which I didn’t.
Quintessential Kansas storm!
Eventually, I wandered my way up to I-70 and resumed my journey west towards Denver, but not before taking some time out in the town of Council Grove.
Council Grove has a western history being on the Sante Fe Trail. I followed random brown signs – you know the ones that indicate some place of historical interest – and I ran across an archeological dig in progress at the Kaw Mission site. It seems that Kansas Historical Society picks a place every year to excavate for 2 weeks – amateur archeologists work alongside experts. This year happened to be in Council Grove!
You never know what you’ll find when you take a detour!
Off the Beaten Track: Geographical Wonders
On a trip like this, I can’t stop at every little town or tourist attraction or I’ll be on the road forever, so I target stops along the route. Which stops I make depend on my mood and what I want to experience and photograph.
Though I’d started the trip with city architecture in mind, the unspoiled nature of the Flint Hills put me in the mood for landscapes.
Along my route, I’d marked a couple of possible stops: Monument Rocks and Castle Rock. I stopped at Monument Rocks on my way west and Castle Rock on the way back east, but they are fairly close together and I could have instead done both in a day.
Monument Rocks was smaller than I expected and Castle Rock was on a larger site than I expected – plan hikes accordingly!
The dirt roads out to Monument Rocks are level and well-graded (thank you Kansas!) This is mostly true of the Castle Rock as well until you actually get to the site itself then the roads are rough. Castle Rocks is fairly well marked off of Exit 107, but I didn’t know where to go after I went across the final cattle guard. It doesn’t matter, the road goes in a circle. The road is slightly easier straight, past the oil wells, rather than right.
I happened on Monument Rocks for sunrise and Castle Rock for sunset. On a drive like this I can’t always plan where I’ll be for sunrise and sunset, but I can sometimes get the timings to work out. I did have to leave my hotel in Manhattan, Kansas very early to make Monument Rocks by sunrise, but driving on the Interstate at night is fast with light traffic so I didn’t mind.
I was doubly lucky with my timing at Castle Rock. I pulled up at sunset – on a cloudless night near new moon. The Milky Way rose about 3 a.m. over the rock formations. I was the only one there to capture it.
Monument Rocks is on private land, but there doesn’t seem to be any problem with being there even at night. Castle Rock was deserted. I car camped until the Milky Way was in position, listening to the cows lowing in the next field. At sunrise, I explored the rest of what is known as the Castle Rock Badlands, which is just up the dirt road. There are all sorts of nooks and crevices to explore. I was ever on the lookout for snakes, but mostly what I saw were hoof prints.
I’ll remember this night under the stars more than any random night in a hotel room alongside the interstate.
I may not have reached my destination in record time, but I arrived as an explorer, discovering places I’d never seen before and might never see again.
I passed through towns and saw the real America rather than flying through on the impersonal interstate system. I’d experienced a Kansas storm and found geographical monuments I didn’t know existed. I talked with archeologists and saw some modern architecture.
Getting off the interstate, if for only a few detours allowed me to connect with the area.
I eventually arrived at my family’s home feeling like I had already had a productive vacation.