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Kansas Road Trip: Maxwell Wildlife Refuge and McPherson State Fishing Lake

About an hour north of Wichita, the buffalo roam (bison, really – and elk too) at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge. It shares a boundary with McPherson State Fishing Lake, so this is a great two-for-one family road trip! 🙂

Check out our video that has a few of the bajillion pictures and videos we took on our family day trip:

Maxwell is also located at one end of the Prairie Trail Kansas Scenic Byway.

End of the Prairie Trail Kansas Scenic Byway near Canton
The end of the trail…or the beginning, depending on which way you’re driving! One end of the Prairie Trail Kansas Scenic Byway near Canton, Kansas.

The Byway runs along a few of the other destinations we’ve written about, including Coronado Heights, Kanopolis State Park, and Mushroom Rock State Park. In late summer or early fall, you might also pass by some Kansas sunflower fields in bloom along this byway. (We found one on our way to Coronado Heights one year.)

The actual address of the refuge (if you want to map it) is  2565 Pueblo Rd, Canton, KS 67428. This is just north of the town of Canton, KS.

Related: Kansas Road Trip Travel Essentials

The refuge is maintained by a group of volunteers and supporters, the Friends of Maxwell. The Friends of Maxwell do offer tram tours year-round by reservation that will get you up close and personal with the bison, and you may also see elk, birds, and wildflowers. The tours are very affordable at $15 per adult and $7.50 for children 4-11, or you can book a tour for your educational group (like scouts, a school class, etc.) for $7 a person for kids or $10 per person for college tours.

Tours Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton, KS
The Friends of Maxwell group offers inexpensive guided tours of Maxwell Wildlife Refuge. Go out into the field on a tram to see the wildlife and natural beauty of the prairie.

Our family decided on a whim one day that we would drive up to Maxwell, and although they were offering a tour that day we knew we weren’t going to make it in time. The person I talked to on the phone said that the road that runs through the preserve is open 24/7 and that there’s an observation tower that we could use. So we hopped in the car with some snacks and bottled water and drove north from Wichita.

What was really great about our timing was that we arrived just as the tour was getting done, and the bison happened to be right up near the road! We got a great view of them as we were driving in.

Bison along the road at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in Kansas
Bison finding shade near the road at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.
Bison seen from the road at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge Canton Kansas
One of my favorite pictures from the day.

This may not be the case 100% of the time, so you should know that before you go. The refuge encompasses about 2800 acres, so that gives the wildlife plenty of room to roam, and quite a few shade trees to hide out under. For instance, we didn’t see any elk the day we visited. This is a great reason to plan ahead – unlike us – and book a tour. I’ve seen pictures from folks who went on the tour, and it would be totally worth it!

Anyway, we did get to see the bison from the road and I managed to get a few pictures. Then we found the observation tower and climbed up. Just so you know – the stairs are pretty steep and that tower is tall. I would have been better off with sneakers than flip-flops, I think.

Observation tower at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton, Kansas, along the Prairie Trail Kansas Scenic Byway
The observation tower at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge is open 24/7. It’s quite steep; wear good shoes.

But once you get up there, the view is pretty great! We saw acres and acres stretch out before us, and the bison grazing in the distance. It was pretty neat!

Bison grazing in the distance - view from the observation tower at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton, KS

Bison grazing near the road at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in Canton, KS

After the observation tower, we went off in search of McPherson State Fishing Lake. We turned north on the road that runs through the refuge and then somewhere (I’m sorry I don’t remember where!) turned left onto a dirt road.

We followed the fence line of Maxwell Wildlife Refuge until we found the fishing lake
We followed the fence line of Maxwell Wildlife Refuge until we found McPherson State Fishing Lake.
Wildflowers on the way to McPherson State Fishing Lake
This path to McPherson State Fishing Lake took us past some beautiful August blooming wildflowers.

That was a really “natural” and twisty road, for sure! If it’s been raining a lot, I would not recommend it. Since we’ve been back I’ve looked at a map and I think we just turned too early.

Tip: Out in the prairie, cell phone reception might not be great. You might want to actually print out your directions. 🙂

But our day was dry and hot, so we meandered along the fence bordering the wildlife refuge until eventually we found the main road through the park. And we were thrilled with what we found! Shade, glorious shade, from a hot Kansas summer day, and a really cute picnic area.

Picnic table on the edge of McPherson State Fishing Lake
Picnic and primitive camping area at McPherson State Fishing Lake.

McPherson State Fishing Lake also has a campgrounds. There’s one cabin that can be reserved, but otherwise the campsites are all first-come, first-served, which – according to the Kansas Wildlife and Parks website – is true of all camping sites at Kansas fishing lakes and wildlife areas.

Great Blue Heron taking flight at McPherson State Fishing Lake near Canton, KS
Great Blue Heron taking flight. These birds are easy to spot as they’re fishing Kansas lakes and wetlands. They’re huge!

When I was finished taking a gazillion pictures at the lake, our family loaded back up into the car and drove to the town of McPherson in search of coffee. We found a coffee shop on Main Street. When we parked and walked along the sidewalk, I gradually became aware of some fun fifties-style music playing. It fit in so well with the small-town vibe of Main Street McPherson that it took me a few minutes to even notice it. I guess I just thought I was on a movie set or something!

I looked around to see where it was coming from, expecting to see an event happening, or a business with its doors open and the music turned up loud. But no – they have actual speakers on the street, hidden under plants, so you bebop along as you run your errands. It was pretty cool. Chalk up some points for McPherson!

All-in-all, this day trip from Wichita was about seven or eight hours, including driving. It would probably take longer if you did go on the tram tour at Maxwell, and you will probably want to pack a picnic lunch if you want to spend time at the lake. If you need gas or food, Canton is very close by, and McPherson isn’t too far away.

One thing we did not do that I really wished we had: Canton, Kansas has two water towers, and they’re labeled Hot and Cold. I must have been too focused on my map and not getting us lost that I never even noticed them, and only read about it when we got back. So if you like to take pictures of fun Kansas things, that would be a good one!


Kansas Scenic Byways – Prairie Trail

Maxwell Wildlife Refuge

Kansas Outdoors – McPherson State Fishing Lake

CantonKS.org (Hot and Cold water towers)

More Kansas Road Trips / Day Trips from Wichita

Chase State Fishing Lake and Waterfalls

Cowley State Fishing Lake Waterfall

Kansas Sunflower Fields (late summer/early fall)

Mushroom Rock State Park and Kanopolis State Park

Henry’s Candy Company in Dexter, KS

Coronado Heights

Coming soon…

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Winfield Lake Camping and Swimming

Save money on recreational trips in Kansas: 

Kansas State Parks Passport (free state park admission with pass)

Senior Lifetime and Multi-Year Youth Fishing Licenses

365 Hunting and Fishing Licenses in Kansas

Free Kansas Guidebooks and Maps

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