The 105,000-square-foot, Smithsonian-affiliated museum, which was voted one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas in 2008, boasts the second-largest collection of space artifacts in the United States (behind only the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.). An all-day mission pass gets you access to all the museum’s treasures: the Carey IMAX Dome Theater, Justice Planetarium, Dr. Goddard’s Lab, and the Hall of Space Museum. Start by strolling through the Hall of Space, where notable space souvenirs such as the command module from Apollo 13 and the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule chronicle mankind's courtship with the cosmos. Then explore Dr. Goddard’s Lab, a replica of the 1930s laboratory where Dr. Robert Goddard pioneered modern rocketry. Explosive reenactments of the doctor's attempts to find the right rocket fuel, figure out how to circumvent gravity, and lick his elbows are performed daily to delight children and their copilots. Click here to download a basic museum itinerary.
Nine acres of natural habitats make up the Hutchinson Zoo, a place that nearly 160 animals—most of which are native to Kansas—call home. The zoo’s many exhibits feature local reptiles, birds, and mammals, a fossil pit where kids can dig for dinosaur bones, and the Wild Habitats Building that houses animals from afar, such as cotton-top tamarins, gila monsters, and mexican red-knee tarantulas. In the barrier-free aviary, visitors watch native Kansas birds flying untethered overhead while in the wetlands below, North American beavers gnaw old furniture back into the shape of trees. To keep the area's wildlife populations strong, the zoo's Cargill WildCare Center rehabilitates approximately 500 injured or orphaned Kansas-native animals each year.
There's a lot of history within Strataca at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum—about 275 million years' worth. It was way back then when the once mighty Permian Sea dried up, and its receding waters revealed something that would forever change the Hutchinson area: salt. Salt as far as a terrified slug's eyes could see. The mineral covered some 27,000 square miles, and it waited there for eons, until Ben Blanchard—an oil man—accidentally discovered it in 1887. Then salt companies began mining the area, eventually clearing out enough room for a museum, 650 feet deep within the Earth's crust.
To reach that depth, visitors travel down a mine shaft on Strataca's double-decker transport. And that ride is only the first of many. Surrounded by walls of exposed salt, the Dark Ride sends guests on a tram through the mine's exhibits on air flow, hazards, and history. The Salt Mine Express then journeys to an area of the mine virtually unchanged from the way it was 50 years ago. Aside from these permanent attractions, the museum also hosts special events, including its Salt Safari, which sends groups wandering through miles of dark tunnel with only a lighted hard hat.