Travel inspiration: 21 travel ideas to plan for in 2021

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The 59,000-acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma is less than a four-hour drive from Wichita.

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My husband Lee and I have an annual tradition of spending time during the last few weeks of the year plotting out long weekends and vacations for the upcoming year.

Like most everyone else, we got two months into realizing our 2020 plans before canceling every remaining trip we’d mapped out. I don’t regret spending that time planning, though, because I find researching energizing and the anticipation of a trip as exciting as traveling. Well, almost as exciting.

We’ll eventually get to use those itineraries when we reschedule the vacations. When will that be? Nobody really knows how 2021 will unfold and that certainly altered our recent planning sessions. We had to factor in contingencies, guess when we might feel comfortable flying (and check when our canceled travel vouchers expire) and think more regionally, though we’ve now had nine months to get into that mindset.

For us, plans have to be flexible until COVID-19 infection rates drop, vaccinations reach more people and restrictions on travel ease. Still, it makes me happy to think about what and where our next adventures might be.

Here are 21 regional travel ideas to inspire you to plan for 2021. If you need a deadline for motivation, Jan. 26 is the U.S. Travel Association’s annual National Plan for Vacation Day.

Explore the Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Considered the country’s first international commercial road, the Santa Fe Trail turns 200 in September. Bicentennial events are planned (the Symphony in the Flint Hills Signature Event is scheduled for June 12 near the trail town of Council Grove) but could change based on COVID-19. Regardless, you can follow sections of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail on your own and stop at attractions based on your comfort level.

About 750 miles of the trail’s 1,200 are in Kansas, the remainder are in parts of Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico. There are scenic byways, auto tours, forts, museums, geocaches and other ways to wrap a day trip or vacation around learning the cultural significance of the trail. More information at nps.gov/safe and through the Santa Fe Trail Association, santafetrail.org.

Olympic-size fun in Colorado Springs

The United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum opened July 30 in Colorado Springs and was a finalist for best new attraction of the year, voted on by USA Today readers. Twelve interactive galleries offer physical, digital and virtual experiences.

New Arkansas nature center

The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center, opened in December 2020 in the northwest Arkansas, is a 61-acre complex with walking and biking trails, live wildlife and fish, 25-acre native tallgrass prairie restoration project, native plant demonstration gardens, outdoor 3-D archery range as well as an indoor marksmanship center and high-tech exhibits.

Luxury train travel through Colorado

Rocky Mountaineer, known for its luxury train excursions through Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies, is launching a scenic route between Denver and Moab, Utah. The Rockies to the Red Rocks route is a two-day journey in glass-domed train coaches offering daytime scenery, regional cuisine and an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Operators plan a preview season of 40 departures across 10 weeks from August to October 2021.

Harry S. Truman Library and Museum reopening

The country’s first presidential library created by the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act is expected to reopen by the spring with a $30 million facelift. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., will have all new interactive exhibits to tell the story of the country’s 33rd president.

75th anniversary of Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech

During his first year as U.S. president, Truman invited former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to deliver a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, a small town in the middle of Missouri. Twenty years after the March 1946 speech, the town established America’s National Churchill Museum to commemorate “The Sinews of Peace,” Churchill’s address that became famous for its iron curtain metaphor and as the start of the Cold War.

Learn about that speech and more of Churchill’s life by visiting the museum housed underneath the St. Mary the Virgin Aldermanbury church, which was moved from England stone-by-stone and rebuilt on the college campus. The complex is reopening this spring after using the pandemic to accelerate $3.1 million in preservation work, updates and interior renovations.

Meow Wolf comes to Denver

The immersive art pioneers behind Meow Wolf are expanding beyond Santa Fe and two new locations should open this year. Las Vegas’ experiential art museum is expected to open in early 2021 followed later in the year by a five-story version just outside downtown Denver.

Missouri celebrates bicentennial

Missouri became a state on Aug. 10, 1821, and communities across the state will have online and in-person events and activities throughout the year. Track 200th activities at missouri2021.org.

New Highlander Hotel in Iowa City

The Highlander Hotel is a 90-room urban resort in Iowa City that revives a 1967 inn where celebs Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer and Joan Baez stayed in the 1970s. There’s a retro feel with an indoor resort pool and record players and vinyl albums you can borrow from the lending library.

International traveling Holocaust exhibition in Kansas City

The most comprehensive Holocaust exhibition to be exhibited in North America is scheduled to open in June at Kansas City’s Union Station. Specific dates of the exhibition have yet to be announced. “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” is 20 thematic galleries with more than 700 original artifacts and 400 photographs.

Northern New Mexico resorts

Two upscale resorts are opening this spring in northern New Mexico, within a day’s drive of Wichita.

Canyon Madness Ranch offers all-inclusive stays for a maximum of 16 guests in eight luxury suites in a newly built 18,000 square foot lodge stunningly perched on a cliff in northeast New Mexico. Large indoor common areas and two decks filled with amenities overlook the Canadian River Canyon. The surrounding 14,000 acres is available for outdoor pursuits, from a championship quality sporting-clay course to horseback riding.

Auberge Resorts has transformed a historic homestead into Bishop’s Lodge, a luxury resort on the northeast edge of Santa Fe. Guestrooms, suites, casitas and a 12-bedroom bunkhouse are available year-round, along with a healing arts studio, shopping, dining and outdoor activities on 317 acres bordering the Santa Fe National Forest.

Hit the Taco Trail in KCK

The Kansas City Kansas Convention & Visitors Bureau launched an official Taco Trail last year to help you explore nearly 50 local taquerias. The trail is ongoing but if you’re serious about your tacos and want to win prizes, complete the trail by Oct. 31. Visit visitkansascityks.com/tacotrail for mouth-watering details.

Indoor and outdoor art in Bentonville

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., turns 10 this year, while its contemporary art satellite space, The Momentary, celebrates one year in February. Both have indoor exhibitions and outdoor installations, plus a full schedule of online programming. See their websites for the upcoming schedule.

First Americans Museum in OKC

Set to open Sept. 18 near downtown Oklahoma City, the First Americans Museum will share the collective stories of the state’s 39 federally-recognized tribes who were removed from their ancestral homelands to what is now Oklahoma. Explore nearly 140 objects on long-term loan from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian and taste Native inspired cuisine in the full-service restaurant.

Hot Springs National Park turns 100

The 5,500 acres about 50 miles southwest of Little Rock that preserve and protect 47 thermal springs were first set aside in 1832 and became Hot Springs National Park in 1921. Now the park is surrounded by the city of Hot Springs. Soaking is limited to two bathhouses but there’s hiking, camping and other outdoor activities.

New visitor center at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, 10 miles southwest of Springfield, Mo., interprets the first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River. A 5-mile paved road allows you to drive, bicycle or walk a self-guided tour with eight stops at significant locations. Considered one of the best-preserved battlefields in the National Park System, Wilson’s Creek is opening a new visitor center this spring that will allow it to exhibit more of its artifacts. A large weapons display will showcase 80% of the site’s edged weapons and firearms, including a rare 1860 Henry Rifle, that transformed the outcome of the war.

Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Hike, fish, watch bison or drive the scenic roads inside the 59,000-acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma, less than a four-hour drive from Wichita. The 3.5-mile paved road to the summit of Mount Scott provides views from 2,464 feet.

New ways to explore the Flint Hills

Keep an eye on developments at The Volland Store, the community gathering space in the Flint Hills near Alma, about 140 miles northeast of Wichita. The gallery and event space is working on ways to allow visitors to safety experience the traveling Smithsonian exhibition “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” March 13 to April 25 and complementary exhibits and events. One project in the works is staging an original play this summer in the ruins of a home on the grounds of The Volland Store.

Pikes Peak attractions reopen

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway reopens in May after a multi-year closure for repairs. Whether you reach the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak west of Colorado Springs by train, car, bicycle or foot, you’ll also be able to enjoy the new Pikes Peak Summit House complex.

Experience WWI sights and sounds through virtual reality

The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City is the new permanent home of an immersive virtual reality experience that puts viewers in the trenches during an active World War I battle. Podcaster Dan Carlin leads the thought provoking “War Remains” experience, which is expected to be available for ages 14 and older beginning in May.

Get your kicks on Route 66

While they are working on a centennial celebration that will culminate in 2026, Route 66 organizations and businesses expect an uptick this year in visitors exploring sections of the 2,400-mile Chicago-to-Los Angeles route.

There are just 13 miles of historic Route 66 in Kansas, but there’s plenty more to explore in nearby Missouri (317 miles) and Oklahoma (430 miles). Restaurants, roadside attractions, museums, visitor centers and motels are among the 66 stops on Oklahoma’s new Route 66 Passport project (order a passport at TravelOK.com/Brochures, where you also can download a guide of what to see and do along the road). Among the newest attractions is the Classen Inn, a restored 1963 motor inn along Oklahoma City’s stretch of Route 66.

In Springfield, Mo., stay at the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven, see more than 70 models from the personal collection of Guy Mace at Route 66 Car Museum, grab a burger at the recreated Red’s Giant Hamburg and then see artifacts from the original 1940s restaurant on display among other memorabilia in the comprehensive Route 66 section of the recently renovated History Museum on the Square.

As operations continue to change, always check the latest procedures for visiting outdoor or indoor attractions as well as any state travel guidance.