Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

The Most Epic Road Trip Through America’s Heartland

Arkansas Kansas Oklahoma Texas Road Trips
by Johnny Motley Apr 6, 2021

Snide jokes about “flyover states” be damned — America’s heartland is not to be left out of travelers’ road trip plans. The region is home to many quirky, vibrant, and woefully underrated cities — urban centers with world-class BBQ, rich musical history, and art museums rivaling the best in Washington DC. Not to mention world-class breweries that alone make this trip worthwhile.

This road-trip itinerary — starting in Fort Worth, Texas, and making stops in Oklahoma City, Wichita, Kansas City, and Arkansas — is the ideal route to get acquainted with some of the major cities of America’s heartland. And with a playlist of Oklahoma Red Dirt music or Kansas City jazz coupled with views of sunsets over the prairies, this road trip will pass as pleasantly as the breeze over a Kansas wheat field.

Fort Worth, TX

Herd of cattle

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Considered the entryway to West Texas, CowTown, as it’s affectionately dubbed, is steeped in the mythology of the frontier and the cowboy, two of the most enduring and cherished symbols of the West and America’s spirit writ large. Dallas, notorious for glitz and glam and raucous nightlife, is about 45 minutes east of Fort Worth, and the two cities together — an area referred to as the Metroplex — represent the most heavily populated region of Texas.

For food, libations, and people-watching in Fort Worth, head down to Magnolia Avenue, a strip of stores and restaurants with hipster vibes that’s also an ideal place to find an affordable, centrally located Airbnb. Heim BBQ, on Magnolia, slings some of Fort Worth’s finest smoked meats, but be prepared to brave long lines. Brisket and jalapeño pork sausage are Texas classics, doled out on trays covered with butcher paper and paired with white bread, pickles, and jalapeños. Heim executes the classics superbly well, but don’t sleep on its more unorthodox plates — like brisket and mac and cheese sandwiches or baked potatoes heaped with BBQ and chives. Once you can safely rouse yourself from your BBQ-induced food coma, check out Fort Worth’s fantastic breweries; Windmills and Panther Island are particular stand-outs.

Fort Worth hits heavy with excellent museums and cultural monuments. Check out the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the more traditional Kimbell Art Museum. Finally, Fort Worth would not be Cowtown without the famous Stockyards, an area that doubles as actual cattle stockyards and something of a Western-themed amusement park. Two-step your way over to the iconic Billy Bob’s to throw back some Lonestars (the state beer) and listen to live country-western music.

On the road

Shortly after crossing the Oklahoma-Texas state line, the Winstar Casino, “The Official Casino of the Dallas Cowboys,” looms large on the horizon. The Winstar casino has craps, slots, poker, roulette and all the other classic games to separate gamblers from their money, and if you get sick of the tables, there are concert venues and fine dining on site.

University of Oklahoma

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Norman, Oklahoma, the town built around the University of Oklahoma, promises all the rip-roaring good times of a town containing 32,000+ college students. In homage to the German influence in Oklahoma, Das Boot Camp in Norman brews up exquisite German-style beers that pair deliciously with plates of Bavarian fare.

Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma City

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Oklahoma City is about three hours north of Fort Worth. OKC is a small state capital that punches well above its weight in terms of nightlife, culture, and memorable breweries and restaurants. Two to three days should be enough time to get a feel for OKC, and the Midtown neighborhood — located close to both downtown and historic Bricktown — has plenty of affordable Airbnbs.

OKC takes craft beer seriously, and Prairie Brewery, one of the most innovative breweries in the country, is a must-visit. Prairie’s off-the-wall brews — like Bomb!, a stout brewed with chocolate, ancho chile, and coffee, or Rainbow Sherbet, a sour infused with a panoply of fruits — are not only creative but flawlessly crafted and delicious.

Bricktown — a former manufacturing district whose weathered red-brick mills have been converted to bars, restaurants, and shops — keeps the party buzzing until the small hours. Similar to the Riverwalk in San Antonio, TX, a walkable canal runs through Bricktown, with multi-story bars and restaurants overlooking the water.

If all that beer puts you in the mood for a cheesy pie, Halls Pizza and Empire Slice are local favorites. Hall’s brisket and potato pizza makes for an unlikely flavor combo that somehow works perfectly. Waffle Champions, located in downtown OKC, offers scrumptious variations of chicken and waffles as well as sweet, doughy creations. For classic cocktails, live music, great food, and a beautiful ambiance check out Jones Assembly, not far from downtown.

After a memorable night in Bricktown, shake the cobwebs off with a well-crafted espresso beverage at Prelude Coffee or Coffee Slingers. Then spend the afternoon at the Oklahoma Museum of Art, Cowboy Museum, or the soon-to-open First Americans Museum. The Cowboy Museum has a superb collection of art and photography focused on the culture and nature of the Great Plains, as well as outdoor exhibits with replicas of traditional dwellings of Great Plains Native American Tribes.

On the road

Edmon Low Library

Photo: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

Outside of the city limits of OKC, you’ll find yourself deep in the open prairie. The road here is quiet and pleasant. Stillwater, OK, home to Oklahoma State University, is about an hour north of OKC. The OSU campus houses the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, a museum of the ancient sport and homage to the greatest Americans to ever take the mat.

Wichita, KS

Keeper of the Plains

Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

After two and a half hours driving north from OKC, you’ll get to Wichita, KS. Twenty-four hours is enough time to see the charms of the Sunflower State’s largest city. If OKC feels like a small city, Wichita hardly feels larger than a town; nonetheless, here’s a burg full of good beer, Midwestern charm, and some good food.

For an unforgettable burger and local beer, check out Dempsey’s Burger Pub, but be ready to wait around 30 minutes for a table during popular times. Their wagyu burger with duck fat fries will leave you very satisfied. Dempsey’s is located in a leafy retail park with an assortment of restaurants, artsy stores, and ice cream parlors nearby.

If you’re a cocktail aficionado, Dockum, a speakeasy in the basement of the Ambassador Hotel, will be the highlight of your sojourn in Wichita. The subterranean tavern, accessible only through a maintenance closet in the hotel’s basement, was, in fact, an actual clandestine bar from the Prohibition era. The speakeasy’s aged wooden tables, ancient bank vault full of bottles, and magnificent multi-tiered mirrored bar attest to its outlaw history. Dockum specializes in infusing its potions with aromatic smoke from blow-torched wood chips, and the barside showmanship is guaranteed to garner likes from even the most jaded of your Instagram followers.

The next morning will call for a good cup of joe at Reverie Coffee Roasters or Leslie Coffee Co., located in the Douglas Design District. After a delicious pick-me-up, take a stroll through the Delano neighborhood’s historic streets, which cowboys once roamed and are now filled with cool shops and eateries.

On the way out of Wichita, be sure to visit the Keeper of the Plains, a memorial and small outdoor museum to the Native American tribes of the Great Plains. Located on the banks of the Arkansas River, the Keeper of the Plains stands on the place where Native American tribal leaders from various Great Plains nations met in pre-Columbian times to maintain peace.

On the road

Kansas Tallgrass

Photo: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

Traveling through Tornado Alley, it’s a three-hour drive to Kansas City, that Midwestern metropolis situated partially in Kansas and partially in Missouri. En route to KC, you’ll pass Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one of the nation’s best-preserved sections of the eponymous grassland ecosystem. Here is one the last places where the American buffalo still roams, and where the sky, clouds, and land extend into an inconceivably expansive horizon.

Kansas City, KS/MO

Kansas City

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Immortalized in the lyrics of Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, and countless other giants of jazz and the blues, KC’s culture — a melting pot of African-American, Italian, Mexican, Irish, and many others — is as rich and delicious as the apricot- and honey-based BBQ sauce at the fabled Q39. It also has the unique honor of being one of the only major cities to straddle state lines — Kansas and Missouri.

Two must-see museums in KC are the Nelson Atkins Art Museum and the Jazz Museum. From its architecture to the exhibits themselves, the Nelson Atkins is stunning, rivaling the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Even better, tickets are free, so you can save that money for the museum’s cafe or impressive gift shop. We recommend two to three hours to enjoy the museum, although you could easily spend an entire day marveling at the exhibits. Make sure to save time for the museum’s outdoor sculpture gallery as well.

The Jazz Museum, located in the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood, is small but mighty. The museum is packed with interactive exhibits, audio samples of jazz classics, and memorabilia from the legends of the genre. As the saying goes, jazz was born in New Orleans but went to college in Kansas City. This is the town, after all, that raised Charlie Parker and created the complex and seductive genre of bebop.

To get your fix for live jazz, the Green Lady Lounge and the Blue Room are classic venues to sip cocktails and stand (or sit) in awe at KC’s jazz virtuosos.

No trip to Kansas City would be complete without BBQ. Anthony Bourdain, proclaimed that Joe’s Kansas City (formally known as Oklahoma Joe’s) was the best BBQ joint in the US. Located on the outskirts of town and connected to a gas station, Joe’s opens at 11 AM, and long lines form even before opening. If you want to eat inside, you have to wait out the line, but we suggest the time-saving pro-tip of ordering your BBQ over the phone, picking up curbside, and eating at Joe’s outdoor tables. Everything at Joe’s — from the mac and cheese, beans, and world-famous sauce, to the white oak-smoked meats — is delicious, but the “Z-man” sandwich — brisket topped with cheese, onion rings, and pickles on a kaiser roll — is the stuff of dreams. Q39 opened more recently but has already made a name for itself as one of KC’s finest. It’s more expensive than Joes, but the waiting time is shorter.

On the road

The Arkansas state line is about three hours from Kansas City, and the terrain changes from prairie to rolling hills, winding roads, and forests the closer you get to the Natural State. Driving south through Arkansas will take you back to North Texas, but there is plenty of natural beauty, adventure, and detour-worthy food along the way as you come back full circle to Fort Worth.

Driving through Arkansas

Walmart Museum

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Fayetteville, a brick and stone hamlet home to the University of Arkansas, is about four hours from Kansas City and has all the charm, good food, and rowdy good times of a proper college town. Airbnbs abound in Fayetteville, and you can find decent lodging for as cheap as $20/night.

Arsaga’s and Puritan Coffee are great places to start your morning. For lunch, tuck into the outrageously good burgers and local beer at the quintessential college-town pub Hugos.

Bentonville, home of Walmart, has become a hotspot for mountain biking, and the mountains and rivers around the town are full of trails. There are some beautiful murals in the town’s alleyways honoring Albert King and other benefactors to the rich blues and jazz history of Northwest Arkansas.

For those curious about the history of the world’s largest retailer, check out the Walmart Museum. But even more impressive is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, one of the most beautiful collections of American and Native American art in the world. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the exterior of Crystal Bridges Museum is as impressive as the art works within.

Deeper yet into the Ozarks, Eureka Springs, a centuries-old resort town whose sulfur- and mineral-filled waters continue to beckon the health-conscious, is about two hours from Bentonville. Eureka Springs no longer has outdoor hot springs open to the public (however, Hot Springs, another Arkansas town about two hours from Eureka Springs, does), but you can reap the benefits of the restorative waters pumped into a bathtub or steambath at Palace Bath House. A nice long soak in a private tub costs about $20, and you can add treatments like a steam-soak in a wooden barrel or a massage. The Palace Hotel is allegedly one of the most haunted hotels in the country, and employees affirm that the hotel’s ghost frequently makes her presence known in the nocturnal hours. Brews, a coffee shop cum Irish pub, is a great place to grab coffee or sample Arkansan brews. Arkansas-Mexican cuisine — Ark-Mex — is a legitimate cuisine there, and Amigos whips up comforting plates of enchiladas to be washed down with frozen margaritas or a well-mixed michelada.

Completing the circuit

From Eureka Springs back to your starting point of Fort Worth, the drive is about seven hours. It’s a picturesque route that cuts right through the heart of the Ozarks and the formidable forests of Choctaw Nation in Eastern Oklahoma, and we suggest driving during the daylight to take in the views. If you want to break up the long drive, stop in Hochatown, OK, a vacation town constructed around the lakes of Eastern Oklahoma. Cabins rent in Hochatown for around $100/night, but prices vary by season. Hochatown is a great place to listen to live honky-tonk music, learn about Choctaw culture, and soak up some rays lakeside.

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