In what will likely be the last hiking day for 2013, I decided to hike the Elk River Trail near Independence earlier this week. This trail is consistently ranked among the top trails in the state and so after hiking my way across the trails of Kansas for the past year I wanted to see if it lived up to the high expectations.
I was accompanied by the venerable patriarch of the family; official photographer, reliable shuttle driver, and all around great trail companion.
Luckily, we caught a break with the weather and enjoyed a balmy December day which made for perfect hiking conditions. Actually, some of my best hiking days have been during warm days in the winter. No ticks, no crowds, no poison ivy. Not a bad combination for a hike.
I started at the east end of the trail around 11:00 and set off in high spirits. The trail did not waste any time getting to some amazing scenery and rugged ascents. The rock bluffs are truly like nothing else in Kansas and within the first 1/2 mile the trail was going right through the midst of these spectacular formations. After winding for several miles along the rocks outcropping along the edge of the bluff, I stopped for a power lunch (think: PBJ, trail mix, and Clif bar) before continuing on down the trail. The entire route had a nice wilderness feel, there were no intersecting roads, no views of civilization, and we didn’t see another hiker the entire trip.
Continuing along the top of the bluffs, the trail soon began to switchback across a series of ravines, each complete with small stream crossings that could be negotiated by using the native rock as stepping stones. Around 9.5 miles and 4 hours later, the trail crossed an old paved park road through the former Oak Ridge Public Use Area; I thought about pushing to the end of the trail, but decided that this location would make a good spot to stop for the day and break the hike into two sections. Despite what Google Maps may show, this is really the only spot on the trail that is intersected by a passable road, and so it does make a good location to resupply, camp, or catch a ride back to the trailhead.
Starting the next morning from this point, my legs were protesting a bit from the 9.5 miles logged the day before. I suppose this isn’t unreasonable, since I had spent most of the last month at my desk job and the trail is technically designated as “rugged”. Despite the designation, I thought that there wasn’t any single section that is unreasonably “rugged”, but the rock trail does require a cumulative effect to repeatedly ascend and descend through the limestone formations and across the steep ravines. However, before writing the trail off as less than rugged, in all fairness I should note that it did produce several pairs of sore feet and lay claim to one boot sole (see picture).
After a solo hike on the first day, I was joined on the second part of the hike by my Dad (aka: venerable patriarch and designated photographer), which was fortunate since we soon reached one of the most scenic spots on the hike. Before reaching mile 10, there was a stream running slightly off the trail, in which a stately sycamore grew up out of the banks of the stream under a rock ledge. Although some guidebooks would have you believe that the western part of the trail is less scenic, the section between miles 10-13 was actually my favorite part of the hike. This section parallels the Elk River as it flows towards the reservoir and there are several overlook points and an area where the trail passes through rivulets of trickling water cascading over a wide broad-brimmed rock ledge. Over the last several miles, the trail parted ways with the Elk River and crossed through oak and cedar woodlands before reaching the western trailhead near US-160.
All told, I tend to agree with the outstanding reviews about this trail. It’s one of the few trails in the state that could provide a legitimate backpacking experience, the rocks are flat-out amazing, and the views are sublime.
In fact it just might be the best trail in Kansas.
Well, let’s just say you’ll want to read the book to find out.