Top 3 trails that you’ve never heard of. . .

Part of the allure of hiking and biking in Kansas is the opportunity to get off the beaten path and explore all that the state has to offer. For the intrepid adventurer, here are three hidden gems that are worth venturing off the interstate to experience.

Allegawaho Memorial Park

Kanza Trail at Allegawaho Memorial Park

1. Allegawahoo Memorial Park – Council Grove
Rich in both history and scenery, this 2-mile trail west of Council Grove allows hikers to trek through a site that was occupied by the Kaw Indian Nation until 1872. The trail includes killer views along the upland ridges of the pristine Flint Hills tallgrass prairie, and historical sites including ruins of limestone cabins and the federal agency building for the reservation.

2. Agave Ridge Trail – Cedar Bluff Reservoir
You know that a trail is relatively unknown if the front desk staff at the state park office isn’t even familiar with it.  Despite the lack of publicity, we think that the Agave Ridge Trail is one of the top trails in the western part of the state.  The chalky white limestone bluffs and steep canyons throughout the trail provide a hiking or riding experience with sweeping views and some dramatic elevation changes.  The overall landscape is similar in some ways to the acclaimed Switchgrass Trail at Wilson Lake but with even more solitude (and wildflowers).

3. Camp Alexander – Emporia
The Flint Hills is the ultimate destination for many Kansas hikers and most people are familiar with the excellent hiking opportunities at Konza Prairie and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. For those wanting to venture out and explore more of the Flint Hills, we recommend the 5-miles of trails at Camp Alexander. Bikers will find a mix of terrain, with a few technical sections mixed in with some fast-riding singletrack routes.

These are a few of our favorite “hidden gems”, what trails have you enjoyed that have taken you on the road less traveled?

Discovering the Flint Hills Discovery Center

“The Flint Hills don’t take your breath away; they give you a chance to catch it.”

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

This Jim Hoy quote is included in an exhibit at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in southern Manhattan, Kansas, and I couldn’t have expressed it better myself. The subtle beauty and the quietness of the space in the Flint Hills can be difficult to describe.

Having gone to school in Manhattan, coming back to the town to research the bike trails by the river, I figured that I knew all the city had to offer. But the Flint Hills Discovery Center opened in April 2012, and it’s a great place to go and get lost in the history and lure of the Flint Hills for an hour or two, especially for those with kids or who have any interest in Kansas, history, geography, biology, or ecology.

What’s special about the Flint Hills? Once 250 million acres stretching from Canada to Texas, the tallgrass prairie is now 95% gone – plowed under and turned into farmland.

Thanks to the rocky soil, mostly limestone, in the Flint Hills area, the prairie here was saved. This rare and delicately balanced ecosystem is home to all kinds of flora and fauna from grasshoppers to bison and snakes to butterflies.

Looking through the first floor exhibits at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, you see the prairie from all angles: formation of the rock layers and the rolling hills over thousands and millions of years, the plants and wildlife that make the prairie what it is – including beneath the soil’s surface, the importance of fire to keeping the prairie healthy, history and culture of the Native Americans who called the prairie home or hunting ground and were then relocated with the European influx, the cowboys and ranchers who have driven cattle to and from the grassland for grazing.

Native American exhibit

Native American exhibit

What stands out is the mix of exhibits like the rolling video of interviews with people of the Flint Hills and the interactive activities. While appealing for kids, they’re also interesting/entertaining for adults – like the Auctioneer’s Karaoke (I couldn’t keep up!).

You can also see how you’d do keeping a section of prairie healthy with a touch screen simulation – balancing the amount of cattle or bison with the number of burns over a 7-year time span with a luck-of-the-draw amount of rain. My first try ended poorly with my bison hungry and with non-native, invasive species encroaching on the prairie. Whoops! I tried it again with better results. I’ll let you see how you do!

Also on the first floor is the auditorium for the multi-media “immersive” program: “Tallgrass Prairie: Tides of Time.” The 15-minute presentation takes you to the prairie throughout its seasons, including blowing wind and falling snow. I’ve never been in a museum presentation quite like it, and I’m sure that it’s a hit with kids who might find other “educational” presentations boring. It’s also got some pretty great cinematography and photography that really show off the prairie at its most beautiful and dynamic.

While much of the downstairs area is kid-friendly, upstairs is primarily the kid’s area, and, bonus, it’s actually ideal for kids of all ages. A lot of museums or centers like this one include activity zones that are better for older kids and leave nothing for younger ones. This has a 30lb and under section where kids can crawl and explore. Then there’s a dress-up area, a reading spot, a “prairie pipe organ” and even a slide.

Flint Hills Discover Center

Flint Hills Discovery Center

Also upstairs is the temporary exhibit space. Until September 8, 2013, the exhibit is Conservation Quest. All about how to save energy, it also has plenty of interactive stations. The building itself is energy efficient and sustainably designed.

To commemorate your visit, there’s a little gift shop with many items made in/from Kansas with a mix of books, jewelry, candles, and toys.

I was lucky to be staying in the Fairfield Inn, which is right next door; otherwise, since I hadn’t heard about this spot before, I might have missed out. Don’t risk making that mistake!

If you go:
315 South 3rd Street

Adult: $9.00
Youth: $4.00
Military, College Students & Seniors (65+): $7.00
Children under 2: FREE

Monday through Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 5 p.m.

Monday through Wednesday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 5 p.m.

Kansas Rail Trails: Interview with Clark Coan

Rail Trails of Kansas

In the 1960s and 1970s, railroad tracks were abandoned across the country, and now, long stretches of former rail tracks have been, or will be, turned into trails.

And in Kansas, the rail-trail conversion and creation process has resulted in over 100 miles of usable trail throughout the state with 100+ either in the concept or project stage. See above for a map of the current and proposed trails.

The longest trail in the state will be the 117 mile Flint Hills Nature Trail, and with a $2.4 million grant, by 2014, it should be completed between Osawatomie to Herington. It will also connect up to the completed and open Prairie Spirit Trail in Ottawa, which runs between Ottawa to Iola and connects to the Southwind Rail Trail, which runs between Iola to Humboldt.

The Flint Hills Nature Trail also links up with the 300+ mile Katy Trail in Missouri via the Indian Creek Streamway Trail and Blue River Trail in the Kansas City area.

Making these trails is a huge undertaking. Planning out the location and getting funding, clearing brush and installing crushed limestone, then maintaining the trail – it’s a big job, and the work is primarily volunteer. One non-profit converting these former railways into trails for foot, bike, and horse traffic, is the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy.

Prairie Spirit Trail

On the Prairie Spirit Trail

Former Director of Development at Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy, Clark Coan agreed to answer a few of our questions about the Kansas rail-trails.

Kansas Trail Guide: When did the rail to trail conversion start in Kansas?

Clark: The Rails-to-Trails Coalition of Kansas began working on railbanking the Landon Trail in 1987.

Kansas Trail Guide: How many volunteer hours does it take to create a rail-trail?

Clark: It depends upon the length of the trail. The longer the trail, the longer it takes. Funding is the main thing which slows up development. Generally, it takes 1,000s of volunteer hours to complete a trail.

Kansas Trail Guide: Is there a trail or part of a trail that’s a personal favorite to walk or ride?

Clark: I guess my favorite right now is riding the Flint Hills Nature Trail from Rantoul to Osawatomie. It has a tree canopy and goes along bluffs towering above the Marias Des Cygnes River.

Kansas Trail Guide: Is there anything that most people don’t realize about the rails-to-trails program in Kansas that they should know about?

Clark: Many Kansans don’t know they exist but they are gradually being discovered. They allow Kansans to have adventures close to home.

Kansas Trail Guide: What is the historical significance of the rail-trails?

Clark: The railroads helped open up the West to settlement. Towns sprung up along railroads and settlers rode the trains to their new homes. The rail lines generally followed historical trails such as the Santa Fe Trail which typically followed Indian trails.

Kansas Trail Guide: What do you feel is the impact of the rail trails on Kansas tourism?

Clark: Tourism from rail-trails can help small towns survive. Trail users need food, gas, lodging and souvenirs. The boost to a small town’s economy may help it stay alive.