Kansas pitches Flint Hills and new salt museum to travelers

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Kansas, perhaps best known in tourism circles for its role in the saga of America's Old West, is emphasizing its other charms. Becky Blake, director of the Kansas Travel and Tourism Division, said the state's latest ads promote the Flint Hills region, the largest swath of tallgrass prairie in the U.S., and a new Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson.

The tourism division has a $1 million promotional budget for 2007, up from about $750,000 last year.

"It's not big, compared with some states," Blake said, but it does provide Kansas with some opportunities to return to TV.

Kansas is buying TV ads in Midwestern states in cooperation with partners. Other ads are appearing in magazines, newspapers and on the Web.

Blake acknowledged that the state has its challenges.

"It does not have a bad image with the public," she said. "The problem is we don't have enough of an image [at all]."

Publicity is as good as any advertising, and the April edition of National Geographic magazine gave Kansas a boost with a spread on the Flint Hills. The magazine's signature photographic treatment includes shots of broad horizons and open spaces that some might say have nothing in them except for all that grass.

Those grasses have been spared from farming because of the region's hilly terrain, thin soil and lots of flint and limestone that could break many a plow.

The Flint Hills region, in eastern Kansas, is effectively a wide band of hills and valleys running north to south and into northern Oklahoma. It encompasses the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Kansas City and Topeka are the largest cities east of the hills, and Wichita is the gateway from the west.

There is no obvious or well-known circuit for seeing the Flint Hills, but Blake pointed to her division's Web site, at www.travelks.com, where a button on the home page, labeled Ready-Made Adventures, takes trip planners to a series of suggested itineraries for seeing the state.

One trip is a three-day plan for the Flint Hills. The itinerary combines elements for nature lovers, such as hikes and interpretive tours to learn about the ecosystem, with a glimpse of early Kansas history as experienced by settlers and Native Americans.

Suggested overnight sites are the 1870 Cottage House Hotel in Council Grove; the 1884 Grand Central Hotel and Grill, the state's only AAA Four-Diamond property, in Cottonwood Falls,; and the Clover Cliff Ranch Bed N Breakfast in Elmdale.

Restaurants include the 1857 Hays House Restaurant and Tavern, the oldest continuously operating restaurant west of the Mississippi River, and the Trail Days Bakery and Cafe in the Historic Terwilliger Home, both in Council Grove. The cafe is an 1861 Santa Fe Trail landmark.

The Kansas tourist office offers several other multiday itineraries and will be adding more, Blake said.

Meanwhile, the new salt museum, which is slated for a formal opening next summer, can be toured by appointment this year. Tours are offered daily, except Mondays.

The salt museum is 650 feet underground and encompasses 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.

It also is on the site of a working salt mine that produces 500,000 tons of rock salt a year, making this the only salt museum in a working mine in the Western Hemisphere.

The Kansas mine is part of a vein of underground salt that stretches from Missouri to New Mexico, Blake said.

Visitors take the so-called Dark Ride by tram through the mine to see unusual features of the mine and get a sense of what it is like to work there. In the exhibit halls -- more precisely, caverns -- there are displays that highlight the story of salt, the mining process and geology.

Visitors also can see the extent to which the salt mine is a huge storage locker. Blake said the mine provides a large dry space for art, movies, valuable documents, government papers and the like. It is safe, too, she said, noting that "there is only one way in and only one way out."

To schedule a preview visit, call (620) 662-1425 or (866) 755-3450. For more info, visit www.undergroundmuseum.org. For more on Kansas tourism, visit www.travelks.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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