Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Abilene

In this article, we’re exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Abilene. We had already visited Wichita, Dodge City, and Hays. These four cities were mentioned often during the old Gunsmoke television and radio show series. They were all cowtowns in the mid- to late-1800s, as cattle were driven up on trails from Texas to be loaded onto trains and shipped east.

Life could be rough on the Western Frontier, as cowboys came off the trail and got paid after months of hard work. Whooping it up in saloons, gambling houses, and brothels was common for these guys, and being a lawman in these cities wasn’t easy. It took tough characters like the legendary Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp to keep some semblance of peace.

Today, these former cowtown share their Old West days with visitors through museums, artwork and events. Here are the Old West attractions we visited in Abilene.

This is Part 4 of a 4-part series on the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail.

“Wear” the World’s Largest Belt Buckle

World's Largest Belt Buckle

We had visited Abilene for several days the year prior to our Kansas Gunsmoke Trail trip. We experienced most of the Old West attractions then. But, when we heard about their newest roadside attraction, the world’s largest belt buckle, we had to revisit the city.  The belt buckle itself is nearly 20 feet wide by 14 feet tall.

Our favorite part about this attraction is you can climb up the stairs behind it for a photo op that looks like you’re wearing the belt buckle.

Old Abilene Town Recreates the Wild West

Abilene was the first of the Old West cowtowns. Today, Old Abilene Town recreates those days with buildings that simulate 1870s Abilene. A museum on site tells the history of the Chisholm trail, cattle drive, and Abilene life in the days of Wild Bill Hickok.

Listen to our podcast (or read the article) about Old Abilene Town and the history of Abilene’s fascinating Wild West days.

Dickinson County Heritage Center and Museum

We visited the Dickinson County Heritage Center and Museum first thing in the morning on our 2022 visit. The reason? Being a huge carousel fan, I wanted to get to the oldest known, still operating J.W. Parker carousel before a crowd arrived. My plan worked. I scored a private ride on the carousel and a chat with staff member Wade Needham, who shared the history of the C.W. Parker carousel company with us.

C.W. Parker carousel

There’s lots more to the museum than the carousel, of course. The huge telephone history display is the largest we’ve ever seen. And the Old West exhibits includes a gun that once belonged to Wild Bill Hickok.

Read “Cowtown to Carousels: Explore the Dickinson County Heritage Center”

See the Big Spur

Big Spur in front of Rittel's Western Wear

The belt buckle wasn’t the first BIG roadside attraction in Abilene. In fact, it isn’t the first world’s largest object in Abilene either. From its installation in 2002 until 2017, the Big Spur that stands in front of Rittel’s Western Wear held the World’s Largest title. Although it no longer holds that title, the Big Spur still makes an impressive photo op.

Find Cowboy Boots and Murals

Speaking of photo ops, you can’t miss the artistically painted cowboy boots on display around town. From Wild Bill Hickok to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, each boot represents a piece of Abilene heritage.

While you’re wandering around town, check out the murals on the sides of buildings, as well.

Mural of a postage stamp in Abilene. The four-cent stamp commemorates the Kansas Statehood centennial in 1961

Witness Wild West Adventure at the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo

Man riding a bull in the rodeo

Our 2022 Abilene visit happened to coincide with the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo. What a fun event! Named several times as one of the top five professional outdoor rodeos in America, we saw buckin’ broncos, bull riding, rodeo clowns, and more…just like we’ve seen in movies. We met that year’s Miss Rodeo America, too!

Check out our slideshow of the event here.

Ride a Steam Train at the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad

Steam locomotive with puff of smoke coming out of the smokestack

As we were hitching our travel trailer onto our truck, getting ready to leave Abilene on last year’s visit, we heard the echoing blast of a steam engine’s whistle. We still had time before we had to check out of the RV park, so we unhitched and drove toward that sound.

The whistle blast was coming from the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad. It was one of the last times the train would be pulled by the steam engine before the engine went in for an overhaul. We didn’t have time to ride it, but we did ride it on our first Abilene visit.

In fact, that ride was particularly special. We were in town for a media event, and Abilene did it up big. They had brought in longhorn cattle to demonstrate the way the cattle were loaded onto railroad cars in the city’s cowtown days. We then rode in vintage passenger cars as the conductor narrated the trip.

When the steam engine isn’t available, the trains are pulled by a diesel locomotive. They offer both excursion trains and dinner trains. For further information, check the attraction’s website.

Eat at the Brookville Hotel

If you have one meal to eat in Abilene, we suggest the Brookville Hotel. With their family-style dinner, you will not leave there hungry. In fact, you’ll most likely walk out with leftovers. First come the relishes, then mounds of your entree (order the fried chicken) and several side dishes, plus homemade ice cream for dessert. Yum!

The End of the Trail for Us

We spent two weeks exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail. Part of that time we attended a media event in Wichita. We had already visited some of the attractions in the past, but we also added in non-Old West attractions, like Eisenhower’s Boyhood Home in Abilene, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, and Botanica, the Wichita Gardens.

So, I’d say plan at least ten days to explore the trail if you haven’t visited any of the towns before…and longer to add in some of the attractions beyond the Old West. 

If You Visit the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Abilene…

Click here for more information on the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Abilene.

Other articles in this issue of Midwest Wanderer Explores…

Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Wichita
Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Dodge City
Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Hays
Wild West Wichita Comes Alive at Old Cowtown Museum
The Keeper of the Plains and Mid-America All-Indian Center
Time Travel at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
Boot Hill Museum: Discover the Wild West Legacy
Home of Stone: The Mueller-Schmidt House—A Living Heritage
Boot Hill Distillery: Soil to Sip in a Historical Location
Historic Fort Hays: Tracing the Footsteps of Frontier Defenders
Cowtown to Carousels: Explore the Dickinson County Heritage Center

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