Flint Hills Nature Trail Challenge

Flint Hills Nature Trail Challenge

Earl Shaffer

Earl Shaffer on Katahdin

Long-trail hikers are blessed (or perhaps cursed) with a relentless drive to explore and push boundaries.

A good hike consists not only of a leisurely stroll or an opportunity to soak in the beauty of nature, but becomes a great adventure that tests the limits of possibility.

In 1948, after serving his country in WWII, Earl Shaffer set off on foot from Georgia on an epic journey of over 2000 miles that culminated at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.   With gear that would be considered primitive by today’s standards, Shaffer became the first individual to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  At the time, this feat was thought to be an impossibility to complete.  According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, thousands of hikers now attempt to thru-hike the trail each year but the majority fail to complete the journey.

The longest trail in Kansas is the Flint Hills Nature Trail, a rail-trail that spans the rugged Flint Hills from the eastern terminus in Osawatomie west to Herington.  The trail is partially developed, but untamed sections remain with the longest being from Council Grove to Herington.  As the longest trail in the state, we are posing a challenge to any intrepid hiker to become the first to thru-hike the trail in a single trip.

Flint Hills Nature Trail

Flint Hills Nature Trail

To the best of our knowledge, no one has completed the entire trail by foot.  While the daunting exposure of the Flint Hills, lack of water sources, and length of the trail make it a true Kansas challenge; the rewards of the trail are great, with some of the best scenery and pleasant hiking along the way.

We will offer a signed copy of the “Kansas Trail Guide” to the first person to complete the challenge and a custom made leather patch to any individual that makes it all the way across by foot.

A trail services directory from the Kanza Rail Trails Conservancy provides a guide to essential services along the route.  Camping options are limited, but take advantage of Neosho Park Recreation Area at Council Grove Reservoir and the Vassar State Park area at Pomona Lake.  Plan carefully, be prepared, and don’t underestimate the grand challenge posed by the trail.  Keep us posted on your progress and the adventures you encounter along the way!

2015 Symphony in the Flint Hills Location Announced

2014 Symphony in the Flint Hills

2014 Symphony in the Flint Hills

On June 13, 2015, the Symphony in the Flint Hills is coming home!

For the 10th anniversary of the event, it will be held at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

From the Symphony in the Flint Hills site:

We are thrilled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Symphony in the Flint Hills Signature Event back where it all started at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve,” said Jim Hoy, Board Chair for Symphony in the Flint Hills, Inc. “Our milestone anniversary and this historic location lend themselves to help us further our mission of heightening appreciation and knowledge of the tallgrass prairie. We plan to take it a step further with the theme, ‘Grasslands of the World,’ and The Nature Conservancy as our partner for the education programs.”

What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with A Kansas Bestiary authors and artist

As a part of our what’s so special about Kansas series, we reached out to the authors and artist of A Kansas Bestiary. Read our review of the book here and read on for their thoughts about what makes Kansas so special.bestiary_cover_t180

A bit about them from their website: Jake Vail lives in the Wakarusa watershed and works as a librarian in Lawrence, Kansas. Doug Hitt holds an M.A. in Earth Literacy and has studied with eco-philosopher Joanna Macy. Lisa Grossman is a painter and printmaker in Lawrence, Kansas, whose work focuses on the wide skies, prairies, and river valleys of Kansas.

Kansas Trail Guide: Our book with University Press of Kansas is all about trails in Kansas for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

Many of the trails are in state and county parks. Do you have a favorite park or favorite trail in Kansas? If so, what is it that makes it special for you?

JV: I’d pick the long loop at Konza Prairie (my first exposure to the Flint Hills), and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Doug and I went for a two-day meander on the trails there during the writing of A Kansas Bestiary. From free-ranging bison to box turtles to scissor-tailed flycatchers and the great surprise of prairie chickens booming in the evening, it turned out to be a Kansas highpoint.

But remember that almost all of the state is private land. I’ve been fortunate to get to know some farmers and ranchers and see sides of Kansas that many people haven’t. We need more parks! (And “we” includes the critters.)

DH: My favorite trails are in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City. The open vista of horizon and multi-hued flora, the breezy soundscape punctuated with insect hum and sparrow call unleash me from too-much-thought.

Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS

Black-footed ferret. One of the animals in A Kansas Bestiary. Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS

LG: By far, the trails I frequent most in all seasons for biking, hiking and foraging are the Kansas River Trails along the Kansas River in Lawrence. These start at the 8th St. boat ramp and wind eastward through the woods for a total of 13 miles (- I think) Experiencing them on an almost every-other-day basis allows me to feel the subtle and sometimes dramatic shifts in weather and season.

But for sheer inspiration and grandeur I’ll choose the main trail into the back country of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. It only takes about a mile of hiking to get yourself into the most vast, quiet expanse of prairie with very few obstructions on the horizon, which is so rare. You can really lose yourself there with a few miles of easy walking. Plus there are bison and it’s open 24 hrs.

Kansas Trail Guide: What inspired the writing of A Kansas Bestiary?

JV: Indirectly, moving to Kansas and then realizing so many people fail to appreciate it – here and elsewhere. More directly, Barry Lopez’s essays and Rebecca Solnit and Mona Caron’s A California Bestiary.

DH: The impetus for writing the Bestiary actually came from Rebecca Solnit and Mona Caron’s book, A California Bestiary; but, the actual inspiration–the driving force–came from the deep pleasure of encountering the creatures that we had chosen to honor.

LG: This is Jake and Doug’s to answer!

Kansas Trail Guide: What are some of the biggest Kansas misconceptions you think people have?

JV: That the opening scene of the Wizard of Oz portrays Kansas accurately.

DH: Foremost, the Great Plains are “plain.”

LG: That it’s big and empty.

Kansas Trail Guide: Out of staters often think of Kansas as “flyover country” – what would you say to change their minds?

JV: It wouldn’t change minds, but the history of Euramerican travel here is instructive. After Coronado and Zebulon Pike, eyes on a particular prize, both got lost, Kansas became “walk-over country,” to get most directly to the markets of Santa Fe, the green fields of Oregon, and the gold fields of California and Colorado. Now we drive the interstates (which started near Topeka, thanks to a Kansan) or move from big airport to big airport. Really, what isn’t flyover country?

DH: All ecoregions have their unique language. Some, the front range of Colorado for instance, shout grandeur. Others are quieter, more courteous, subtle. Attuning ourselves to the latter is a deep pleasure akin to reading haiku.

LG: Spend a few nights in the Flint Hills. That should do it.

Kansas Trail Guide: For someone who’s never been to Kansas, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

JV: If you’re interested in the bestiary, you’d be interested in the fairly new Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan and the Wetlands Education Center at Cheyenne Bottoms. But mainly I’d recommend getting onto the back roads, and striking out on foot and taking time to explore.

DH: Tallgrass National Preserve, Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira Refuge.

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

LG: I’d like to suggest different criteria for exploring Kansas. I’d ask you to seek out places rich in biodiversity, a natural silence, and the widest spans of unimpeded horizon you can find. If you find a place with all three it’s a treasure indeed.

Kansas Trail Guide: For someone who grew up in Kansas and feels like they’ve seen everything there, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

JV: Following Heraclitus, I believe you can’t step into the same Kansas twice. Visit a favorite place in all seasons, from different directions, in all kinds of weather, day and night, for a short time or a long time, and it will be different every time.

DH: I am one of these people! When I find local lodging in small towns like Council Grove, Herrington, Stafford and then spend several days attuning to the nearby wild areas, I experience unexpected adventure. The key word is “expectations.” How do these cause us to dismiss or minimize what is right before us? “Plain” is a state of mind.

LG: I’m from Pennsylvania and didn’t come to Kansas City until 1988, and I wondered where I could find the prairies. Local friends directed me to the Flint Hills and that changed everything for me. The open expanses and vast skies became my inspiration and vocation. Luckily, PrairyErth was published right after I got here so that deepened my understanding and appreciation for exploring the Flint Hills initially.

As I’ve lived here over 25 years now, I’ve come to appreciate the waterways, especially the Kansas River, where I’ve kayaked and encountered a whole new side of Kansas––170 miles of the Kansas Water Trail – all open to the public for recreation with boat ramps nearly every 10 miles. It’s fabulous.

Kansas Trail Guide: What makes Kansas special for you?

JV: It boils down to open skies and the frequent surprise.

DH: Expansive horizons, the subtle play of light on cloud and grass, the stormy intersection of high and low pressure zones.

LG: Especially as an artist, I can use the fact that Kansas is largely under-appreciated to challenge myself to convey the immense beauty I find here to those who don’t see it. Places like Santa Fe or Sedona are so obviously beautiful that there are 1000’s of artists there and I would find that a much more difficult situation!

The space itself is what I revel in here. My work invites folks to slow down and take the long way–to stop long enough to see which way the clouds are moving, how the light changes, to sharpen their awareness and senses to the place.

What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with William Least Heat-Moon

Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon.

William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

We have to admit, that we have used this series on the site as an excuse and reason to reach out to some of our favorite authors. We heard back from Rolf Potts and Marci Penner, and now, we’re honored that we got some face time, or rather Facebook time, with William Least-Heat Moon.

To start with, yes, we know he lives in Missouri, but he spent a great deal of time in Kansas researching his book PrairyErth: A Deep Map, and he’s an advocate for the prairie and the small town.

He’s written extensively about America and its landscapes in books like Blue Highways: A Journey into America, where he writes of checking out the back roads of the country after his divorce and in River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America, sets off aboard a small boat named Nikawa (“river horse” in Osage) from the Atlantic at New York Harbor in hopes of entering the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon.

His work isn’t just about travel within America; his most recent book Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road is a collection of his selections of his best shorter travel stories.

His insightful, thoughtful writing paints the pictures of lives and places that may be far beyond our own experience, but he brings them close and takes us with him on his journeys. His writing is intensely good and will stay with you.

Deep in working on his own book, and not knowing us beyond our cautious request that he write the foreword for our book, he graciously answered a few questions for us.

Kansas Trail Guide: You wrote PrairyErth, an in-depth book on Chase County, Kansas, which is situated in the Flint Hills. Part of the area has been set aside as a national preserve. Why do you think that the Flint Hills ecosystem is an area worth protecting?

Heat-Moon: It’s the American uniqueness of the tallgrass prairie and its rarity today.

[Kansas Trail Guide: The tallgrass prairie is at 4% of what it once was, and one of its largest intact swathes is in the Flint Hills. Thanks to the underlying rock, it’s a landscape that is unfarmable, and so was saved from being plowed under, but there has been a switch, it seems, from seeing the land as useless to a unique ecosystem.]

Kansas Trail Guide: What do you think is the appeal of a landscape like the Flint Hills that some may think is uninteresting or uninspiring compared to mountain or beach landscapes?

Heat-Moon: The tall prairie asks people to look more closely and deeply (hence the subtitle of PRAIRYERTH–“A Deep Map.”)

Kansas Trail Guide: In our upcoming trail guidebook, we’re focusing on the trails that can be accessed on foot, on a bike, or on a horse as compared to any highways or byways, forcing people to slow down to experience the area.

What value, if any, do you see in getting off the paved sidewalks and onto trails through the woods and the prairies?

Heat-Moon: Our human origins do not lie along sidewalks and paved surfaces; rather they lie where living things arise from soil and water.

Kansas Trail Guide: Your writing has focused around traveling, often more slowly than most people travel. Do you have another big trip in the works? Or one that you’re working on writing up?

Heat-Moon: My days of writing about long travels are likely at my back now. I hope now to look more closely at what I find on the little place in the woods where I live.

[Kansas Trail Guide: We’re looking forward to reading more from him.]

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

The Flint Hills culture is built on prairie grasses.  Too rocky to be tilled, the rugged limestone underlying the prairie soils spared the majority of this landscape from the homesteaders plow.  While the sodbusters moved on to more amenable locations, the ranchers established a stronghold in the Flint Hills.  The expansive cattle ranches throughout the area have effectively kept large contiguous tracts of tallgrass prairie intact to this day.   While much of the Flint Hills is in private hands, there’s no better place to experience the sublime beauty of the prairie than at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Strong City.  A multitude of hiking trails follow old ranch roads throughout the preserve, and the trails are open 24/7 affording opportunities for night hiking as well. Kids will enjoy hiking the Southwind Nature Trail to the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse, a one-room country school, built in 1882 and still standing strong.

Ranch house

Stephen Jones Ranch House Photo by Mark Conard

Lower Fox Creek School Photo by Mark Conard

Lower Fox Creek School
Photo by Mark Conard

The schoolhouse is open for tours on Saturdays from 12-4 during May-June and September-October. Hard-core hikers will want to experience the expansive backcountry trails that start behind the historic stone barn, and we recommend the Scenic Overlook Trail or Crusher Hill Loop for spectacular views of wide-open prairie. Watch your step when crossing through Windmill Pasture as bison roam freely through this area and there have been recent reports of aggressive behavior. Front-country trails winding along Lower Fox Creek are sheltered from the wind and are a great spot to view a diverse assortment of wildlife.

If you’re able to visit this weekend (April 26th) there’s a special event “Let’s Experience the Great Outdoors” sponsored in partnership with Backwoods, which includes opportunities for volunteer service, kids activities, crafts, and demonstrations.  There are great hiking opportunities as part of the event and knowledgeable park rangers will lead a family-friendly hike along the Southwind Nature Trail (12:30 – 1:30), a longer nature hike into the backcountry (1:30 – 3:30) and even a special night hike from 9:00 – 10:00 PM.

After a day on the trail, take some time to experience the ranching culture of the Flint Hills,  which is still alive and strong in the nearby towns of Strong City and Cottonwood Falls. The annual Flint Hills Rodeo in Strong City will be held from June 5-7 and is the longest-running consecutive rodeo in Kansas.  Cottonwood Falls is also home to the legendary Emma Chase Cafe and Music Hall. The food is certainly good but the main attraction each Friday night is the acoustic jam session. Check out the full schedule of performers and get ready for some authentic music from the heart of the Flint Hills. It’s an experience like no other and has been named one of the “8 Wonders of Kansas Customs” by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.  Each Friday features a different genre, ranging from acoustic country, gospel, bluegrass, and old-fashioned rock-n-roll.

 

Flint Hills Nature Trail

Flint Hills Nature Trail

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”  -Robert Frost

The long trail holds an allure unlike any other.  The good ones are the stuff of legend; the well-worn Appalachian Trail, rugged Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail are universally revered.  But the truly great long trails once cut through the endless expanse of prairie that we now call Kansas.  The names themselves are legendary; Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Chisholm Trail.  But all of these legends slowly died with the advent of the railroad.

There’s more than a bit of irony in the fact that well over a century later, the modern decline of the once wide-spread railroad has driven the establishment of the new long trails spanning the plains.  One of the best known trails in the Midwest is the acclaimed Katy Trail, which runs 225 east/west from St. Charles to Clinton, Missouri.

Kansas boasts multiple long rail-trails, including the Prairie Spirit Trail, Landon Nature Trail, Blue River Trail, and Meadowlark Trail.  However, the most ambitious rail-trails project is the Flint Hills Nature Trail.  When completed, this section of rail-trail will be the seventh longest in the nation and will stretch 117 miles from Osawatomie to Herington.  Currently, the trail is not fully open but there are many sections that are ready to ride.

Flint Hills Nature Trail

Flint Hills Nature Trail

Here’s a summary of our favorite sections that are open to explore:

Osawatomie to Ottawa (18.9 miles):  The easternmost section of the Flint Hills Nature Trail is well-maintained and easily accessible as it runs along the bluffs of the Marais De Cygne river east through Rantoul and on to the historic Old Depot Museum at Ottawa.  The depot also serves as the northern terminus for the Prairie Spirit Trail and is open for tours from March – December.

Vassar to Osage City (11.1 miles): To the west of Ottawa, the trail is intermittent with 1.2 miles open between the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa west to the Marais De Cygne River and a 2 mile finished stretch east of Pomona.  However, the longest continuous section along this part of the trail currently stretches from Vassar to Osage City.  Check out the unique assortment of merchandise at the Vassar Mercantile and enjoy the gradual downhill as you cross US-75 and continue on the trail west to Osage City.

Osage City to Council Grove (39.7 miles): From Osage City the trail runs west through Admire and Allen and enters the heart of the Flint Hills.  There are a few rough stretches but this entire section is certainly passable on foot or bike.  The section between Bushong and Council Grove is one of the most scenic and remote sections of the trail as it cuts through the rugged and vast Flint Hills landscape.

Wildflowers along the Flint Hills Nature Trail

Wildflowers along the Flint Hills Nature Trail

Before Council Grove a short side trip will take you to the Allegawaho Memorial Park just to the north of the trail.  This park is located on land that formerly served as the Kaw Indian Reservation.  The end of the trail is currently at Council Grove, once the last outpost of civilization for travelers heading west along the Santa Fe Trail.  While in Council Grove visit the Kaw Mission Historic Site and dine at the Hays House which has served fine food to weary travelers since 1857.

These sections of trail are some of our favorite, but we look forward to the completion of the trail which could occur as early as 2015.