6 Reasons You Shouldn't Fly Over Flyover Country
How would you like a steak dinner that makes New York’s Peter Luger Steak House seem like an overpriced deli? Or maybe you’d like to see a wildlife migration so incredible that Jane Goodall has flown in to see it more than a dozen times? You’ll find that steak dinner at Cattlemen’s in Oklahoma City, and you can see the annual migration of a half-million sandhill cranes in Nebraska.
I’ve been to all 50 states, and I can honestly say that my favorite experiences have been in places like these — destinations that too many people write off as "flyover country." But to me, these destinations are as enticing as Tuscany or Thailand, in part because they’re not on everyone’s bucket list.
You’ll also find that your points go farther when you vacation away from major cities and tourist hotspots. A weekend in April in Los Angeles, for example, could cost you up to 60,000 Marriott Rewards points per night (think: the Ritz-Carlton; the SLS). But that same weekend in Oklahoma City, you can’t even find a room that’s more than 35,000 points (the Ambassador Hotel, an Autograph Collection property). And if you’re willing to stay at a Residence Inn a few miles from downtown — but still in Oklahoma City — it’s just 7,500 points per night.
Here are six places in flyover country worth touching down for, and what to do when you arrive.
If Indianapolis weren’t so far from New York, it would attract a great many Brooklyners to its downright hipster neighborhoods — places like Fountain Square and Mass Ave., along with trendy restaurants like Black Market and Tinker Street, and cool outdoor art installations like “Ann Dancing” by Julian Opie and “Park of the Laments” by Alfredo Jaar. The Indy 500 is May 26, but you can visit the racetrack’s museum any time.
And let’s not forget native son Kurt Vonnegut, who became a counterculture hero with his antiwar novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” There’s an annual VonnegutFest in November, a restaurant named for his novel “Bluebeard,” and a 40-foot mural of the author on Mass Ave. A Vonnegut museum and library, temporarily closed, should reopen later this year. Also on the horizon: a hotel from the West Elm home decor company, and Tiny Urban Escapes, offering overnight lodging in renovated shipping containers.
Tallgrass prairie once covered much of the Midwest. But 150 years of farming and ranching destroyed most of that landscape. Today, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is one of the last remaining tracts of tallgrass prairie — just 4% of what was once 170 million acres. Here, guests will discover miles of trails to explore, but you can also get a quick immersion by walking the two-mile Southwind Nature Trail. There are colorful wildflowers and tiny lizards, snakes and grasshoppers navigating the fields of slender reeds. A 19th-century ranch and a one-room schoolhouse located in the park help tell the story. The prairie preserve is near Strong City in the Flint Hills region, about a two-hour drive from Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport (ICT)
Every year, a half-million sandhill cranes stop in central Nebraska to prepare for their trip north to Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They arrive mid-February and are gone by mid-April. They spend their days scavenging fields for food, but the real magic takes place at sunset and sunrise. The birds spend each night roosting on sandbars on the Platte River. As they take off at dawn and land at dusk, they fill the skies by the thousands, creating a wall of sound with their caws. Local nature groups offer tours, but there are plenty of public vantage points along the river, too. Birdwatchers will want to fly into Omaha's Eppley Airfield (OMA), then drive 185 miles west along I-80. You’ll find plenty of hotel accommodations (largely Hampton Inns and Fairfield Inn & Suites) in Kearney and Grand Island.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is itself worth a flight to the Peace Garden State. A 36-mile scenic driving loop around the park’s southern unit offers nearly 20 stops, from lookouts to full hikes. Sage perfumes the air and the Badlands’ stone formations etch the sky in earthy hues. You’ll see prairie dog towns, wild horses and bison, and you can visit Roosevelt’s tiny cabin near the visitor center in the small town of Medora.
Roosevelt sought solace here after his mother and wife died the same day in 1884. His experiences living the cowboy life in what was then America’s last frontier turned him into one of history’s greatest conservationists. As US president, he set aside 230 million acres of land, which led to the creation of the National Park Service. The closest airport (BIS) is technically in Bismarck, North Dakota, about two hours away, but my favorite way to get here is to fly to Denver International (DEN) and settle in for a solid day of driving. It’s 600 miles, but roads are empty and the drive is beautiful.
Fly into Milwaukee on a Friday and head straight to the art museum. Some say it looks like a bird about to fly away; others say it’s a ship setting sail on Lake Michigan. Either way, the winged white building is a masterpiece by Santiago Calatrava (the same architect responsible for New York City's new World Trade Center Transportation Hub). For dinner, head to Braise, an outstanding restaurant focused on ingredients from local Wisconsin farms. The following day, drive 75 miles west to Madison, where you can catch the Dane County Farmers’ Market, featuring cheese curds galore. Another hour west is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Preservation. (Plan your visit between April and November, when the market is outdoors and Taliesin tours are offered.) For more rustic adventures, follow the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive and hike the Ice Age Trail.
It’s not just Cattlemen’s Steakhouse that makes Oklahoma City one of my favorite destinations in the central US. There’s also the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, with 168 empty chairs as a haunting tribute to victims of the 1995 bombing, and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, a thought-provoking look at the history and culture of the American West, from Native American culture to rodeos. Finally, take a stroll or water taxi through Bricktown, where historic warehouses have been transformed into hip restaurants, boutique shops and clubs.
This story originally stated that Madison is to the east of Milwaukee. It has been corrected to read that Madison is in fact due west of Milwaukee.