Spreading along the northern bank of the Arkansas River at the northernmost point on its sweep across central Kansas, Great Bend (pop. 15,427) was originally established as a fort along the Santa Fe Trail, but really began to grow after the railroad came through. As with Dodge City to the southwest, the arrival of the railroad in 1872 attracted cattle drovers from the Chisholm Trail, who turned Great Bend into a raucous Wild West town. It's now a quiet rural city, earning its livelihood from wheat farms and, since the 1930s, oil.
There's not a lot to see or do in Great Bend, though the outskirts of town are more promising, starting with the engaging Barton County Historical Society Museum, (1-4pm Tues-Sun; $1; 316/793-5125), just south of the railroad tracks and the river along US-281. Farther afield, the Great Bend area holds two of the largest wildlife refuges in Kansas, Cheyenne Bottoms to the northeast and Quivira to the southeast, both of which offer excellent birdwatching opportunities.
Great Bend does have a fairly good range of places to eat, with franchise fast-food supplemented by a handful of Mexican restaurants like La Mexicana, La Estrella and the Kiowa Kitchen, all along 10th Street (US-56); the Black Angus Steak Ranch, 2920 10th Street serves excellent steaks as well as family-friendly breakfasts and lunch. Along with a Holiday Inn, a Best Western and a Super 8, another reliable place to stay in Great Bend is the Traveler's Budget Inn, 4200 W 10th Street (316/793-5448), with double rooms for under $30.
** Marginal: From Great Bend, Hwy-96 and US-183 run 35 miles northwest to the town of Lacrosse, home to the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, at 202 W 1st Street (913/222-2607).