On Trails: An Exploration book review

On Trails: An Exploration book review

When hiking it’s easy to appreciate the scenery, but how often do we stop and think about the trail itself? In his book On Trails, Robert Moor draws from his own experience on the Appalachian Trail to contemplate the nature of trails.

He reflects on the intricacies and origins of all types of paths that serve to connect places.  Moor delves deeply into the process of trail creation by organisms ranging from ants to elephants and connects this process to the trail experience of modern hikers.

The book has weighty thoughts on trail origins and it is indeed interesting to consider the natural development process that creates trails and paths.

The foray into the intersection of ecology and trail-building can be somewhat fascinating, but a hiker may gravitate more towards the chapters on modern trails including an insightful glimpse into the development the International Appalachian Trail which spans continents and exists as a ‘trail’ that is not physically connected or continuous.

iat

International Appalachian Trail Marker

Moor also tells tales from the trail itself, recounting AT hiking trips and tagging along with the ultimate long-distance hiker, Nimblewill Nomad (whose mind-boggling walks have followed all the major trails and recently included a sweep across Kansas along the route of the old Pony Express Trail).

For trail buffs, this book will be a thorough guide to trails of all kinds and a reflection on how trails are ultimately shaped by travelers.

Trail Profile: South Mound Trails

Trail Profile: South Mound Trails

“And when in the great future of the matchless State, farm shall be added to farm, and town to town, and the great cities of the future shall have come, the mounds shall still stand and still keep silent watch over the noble landscape forever beneath their feet.” -William G. Cutler 1883

fredonia-trail-view

View from South Mound

One of the most striking natural landmarks in Wilson County are the Twin Mounds which rise up to an elevation of over 1,000 feet to tower over the surrounding plains.  Noted by William G. Cutler in his 1883 “History of Kansas”, early hikers were said to take a “well-worn path” to the summit and upon reaching the pinnacle can see “unrolled before him one of the finest sights of the new world. Southward runs the somber timber lines which mark the course of Fall River. Westward lies the second mound and between the fertile fields to the far north can be seen the fringe of the Verdigris”

The mounds still keep watch over Fredonia and present a sweeping view of the Fall River valley. The South Mound is now graced by a picnic area, playground, observation tower, and what appears to be the largest American flag west of the Verdigris. Through the work of the Kansas Trails Council and the Cultivate Fredonia Healthy Living Action Team, the South Mound also regained a short trail network that allows hiker and bikers to explore the rocky wooded areas along the rim and steep slopes of the mound.

fredonia-south-mound-flag

Flag & playground on the South Mound

In a patriotic spirit, the trail network is christened the “Old Glory Trail” and trail segments include the 0.34 mile Liberty Trail which traverses the rim of the mound, and a slightly longer loop trail lower on the hillside known as the Freedom Trail.  Both trails have a natural surface and the upper trail offers sweeping views off the side of the mound and some fun rocks and boulders for a little off-trail scrambling. Check out the map below for the trail location and route options.

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.

 

Elk River Trail: saving the best for last

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.

Venerable patriarchI 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.  Rock bluffs along trailAfter 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 thisHiked our soles off 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).

IMG_5223After 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.Hiking on Elk River Trail

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.

Probably.

Well, let’s just say you’ll want to read the book to find out.

Happy trails!

Gunn Park Trails: Interview with Frank Halsey

A lot of people think I’m just plain nuts, but what they fail to realize is the sanity I gain from the simply being out in the woods and creating something.

In Gunn Park in Fort Scott, down by the river, you can find a well-maintained mountain bike trails. I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet with the trail designers while I was mapping out the trail for the upcoming book. Frank Halsey worked hard to develop these trails, starting without permission, but carrying on. He opens up here about what it was like to create, from nothing, an entire set of trails.

Kansas Trail Guide: What inspired you to create the trails?

Halsey: My brother-in-law sent me an email video of some downhill riders flying through the woods and it looked like fun.

Kansas Trail Guide: How long did they take to build?
Halsey: It took me a couple of months to build the first mile or so, and we’ve been working on the other three to four miles for a couple of years. Maintenance takes up a lot of time that we could be building more trails.

Kansas Trail Guide: When did the process begin – the planning stages?

On the trails at Gunn Park

On the trails at Gunn Park

Halsey: I actually started building in the fall of 2009 without much planning or even permission.  The city made me stop for all of 2010 while they did their due diligence.

During this time I worked on maintaining the original mile loop, and scoped out other areas of timber in the park.  In the spring of 2011 the city granted permission to proceed, and a few great volunteers got involved.

We built about 2 ½ miles during the spring and summer of 2011, and then another mile or so in the spring of 2012.  Because of ongoing maintenance, there really hasn’t been much opportunity to build the additional two miles that we have planned.

Kansas Trail Guide: Do you have a favorite part of the trail?

Halsey: I actually have a couple favorite sections of trail.  The “North Ridge Ride” was our first attempt at building on the side of a hill.  It’s downhill and only slightly tricky, but fun.  The “River Ride” is cool because it runs right next to the river and has some fun rolling runs, and finally the “West River Ridge” because we initially didn’t think it could be done.

Kansas Trail Guide: What are some factors about trail building and maintenance that people should realize?

Halsey: I love it, but it’s a big commitment!  Much more than I ever imagined.  My wife (she’s an angel) is really the only person that truly understands how much time I spend on the trails.  Gunn Park is practically in my back yard, so for me it’s close by, relaxing, therapeutic, most of the time spontaneous, so I tend to lose track of how long I’m down there.  Probably like gardening for somebody that likes gardening. I spend a lot of time, by myself, maintaining and improving what we have.  Kind of like weeding a big garden.

We had a tremendous group of volunteers help build the trails initially.  Sadly, volunteers wear out after a while, and they don’t share the same passion.  We try to have regular work sessions but only a couple of us show up.  I get that, many of them still have kids activities, and other hobbies, I don’t.  This has become my hobby.  My golf game is suffering, but that’s OK, this is better for me.

A lot of people think I’m just plain nuts, but what they fail to realize is the sanity I gain from the simply being out in the woods and creating something.  I get a lot more credit than I deserve, because really I’m selfishly doing this for me.  That others can take advantage is just a bonus.  However, whenever I see anybody else on the trails, riding, jogging or hiking, it gives me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.

Probably what I would caution others about is the “volunteers wear out” part.  The city does not have the resources to maintain what we’ve built and likely never will.  I have a couple of guys I can expect to show up 50% of the time.  Other than that, people have other commitments.  So, if planning to build trails, be careful what you ask for, you might get it.  Also, if building next to a river that floods occasionally, be prepared for lots of cleanup time.

Hikes in Hutchinson

The State Fair may be over for another year, but there’s still plenty to do in Hutchinson. After a tour of the Salt Museum or the Cosmosphere, you can check out the nearby trails.

Martinez Trail

While this won’t be mapped and included in our trail guide since it’s primarily paved, the 3 mile trail winds around Carey Park and past the Hutchinson Zoo. The trail also connects Rice Park and Carey Park with a 3 mile section close to Cow Creek. It’s a smooth, easy ride with several access points along the way. All the parks and the trail are free entry with no cost for parking.

Dillon Nature Center

The area (3002 E. 30th Street) was originally owned by the Dillon Stores company which maintained the area as a private recreation spot for employees before donating the land to the city of Hutchinson. The beauty of the Dillon Nature Center can best be experienced by a leisurely stroll along the well maintained set of hiking trails that include several short family-friendly loops.

The pond at Dillon Nature Center

The pond at Dillon Nature Center

To learn more about the history of the area, check out the Discovery Center with its interactive exhibits. It also has an observation deck and picture windows overlooking the pond, which is stocked for fishing.

The trails encircle the spring-fed pond at the heart of the nature center where painted turtles bask lazily along submerged logs.  In late spring, there are an amazing profusion of colorful blooms in extensive beds of annual flowers planted throughout the area.

The nature center has been designated a National Urban Wildlife Sanctuary and the multitude of blooming flowers attracts a diverse array of pollinators including a variety of butterflies.  The Jim Smith Family Playscape is a safe, fun place for children of all ages to explore the natural world through play.

Sand Hills State Park

Northeast of Hutchinson, this 1,123 acre state park has several trail options available. The formerly active and shifting dunes of open sand have been stabilized by the roots of big sandreed, sand bluestem, and sand dropseed that are a core component of a unique assemblage of plants within the sand prairie landscape of this region.  The dunes themselves rise to heights of up to 40-feet and provide considerable topographic variation to an otherwise flat landscape.

The park includes eight interconnected trails ranging in length from 1-4 miles with a total of 14 miles of hiking and biking trail within the park.  To navigate the network of mowed trails throughout the park, it helps to keep an eye on the brown carsonite trail markers that provide a color-coded marker for each separate trail route.

This is one of the few state parks in Kansas that is not associated with a reservoir, and the trails weaving amidst the dunes are the main attraction.  The entire area is maintained in a natural state and there are no developed roads within the park itself.  All trails are accessible from parking lots located along 56th Avenue on the south border and 69th Avenue on the north border of the park.  Permits must be purchased from the self-pay stations located at each park entrance for parking at trailheads and no overnight camping is allowed.

 

Staying hydrated on the trail: Bottle or hydration pack?

Hydration is key on the trails, and when it gets hot over the summer, the quickest way to get into trouble is to run out of water. If you find yourself with a headache or feeling thirsty, you’re already getting dehydrated. Here are some pros and cons we’ve found for the ways to stay hydrated on the trail.

Bottles

More traditional, the best bottle to carry is a hard plastic or stainless steel as compared to the softer plastic of disposable water bottles. One clear benefit to a water bottle is that it’s typically cheaper than a hydration pack system. Our favorite brand is Nalgene, in part because they’re guaranteed for life. The standard Nalgene bottle carries 32 ounces, which is just under one liter.

Other sizes are available, typically a half size bottle at 16 ounces or about half a liter. The options don’t end there; you can go for a wide mouth bottle (easier to put in ice, can be harder to drink from quickly) or a narrow mouth (won’t easily fit ice) or a squirt bottle.

Narrow-mouth Nalgene bottle

Narrow-mouth Nalgene bottle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With clear bottles, you can easily see how much water you have remaining, which can help keep you focused – if you’re halfway out of water and not halfway done with your hike, maybe you should turn around.

They are also easy to clean. You can put a hard plastic or stainless steel bottle into a dishwasher. Nalgene recommends using the top shelf in the dishwasher, and then just leave it to air dry – don’t screw the lid back on until it’s completely dry – better to store it with the lid off to help prevent any mold growth.

Smaller water bottles can be easily held in your hand, and this can make them more convenient than a hydration pack for trail runners as there is no pack to bounce around on your back as you run. Many bikes also come with water bottle holders.

Bonus! You can show off your love of your favorite hikes or other past times by plastering your water bottle with stickers.

Some things to aware of with bottles

For a full day of strenuous activity, you’d want to carry more than one or be close to a potable water source to refill.

You’ll likely have to stop, or at least slow down, to get to your water, unless you have an easily accessible squirt bottle.

You may still have to carry a backpack or bag for other essentials.

Hydration Pack

Instead of carrying your water by hand, you can sling it on your pack. Flexible plastic water reservoirs can be slipped into a backpack, and you get to it with a hose. Bite on the mouthpiece and suck, and, presto!, hydration. If you keep it clean and take care of it, it should last a long time.

I used a reservoir I got from Wal-Mart for awhile, and I often ended up setting my bag down on the mouthpiece, and losing water and getting clothes and other items in my bag wet as water pooled beneath the bag.

Coughing up a bit more cash, I got a Platypus Big Zip 3.0 L that comes with a mouthpiece that can be closed and will shut off the flow of water, and I fell in love. It was my hydration source of choice this summer doing research on the trails. Another brand we trust from experience is CamelBak. Both companies design water reservoirs and the packs to carry them.

Hydration pack manufactured by CamelBak

Hydration pack manufactured by CamelBak (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three liters (about 100 ounces) is on the higher end, and filled up, you’re looking at carrying nearly seven pounds of water. Though throughout the hike or ride it will get lighter, it can be too much. A two liter reservoir is fairly standard for a day hike or ride, and kids or those going on shorter trips can easily get away with carrying one liter.

Like a bottle, there are options beyond size. Most companies differ in the opening size for getting water in, though nearly all are big enough to easily add ice.

While you can carry the water reservoir in nearly any kind of backpack, there are specially designed hydration packs that have a space for the hose to come out without having to keep the bag open. You’ll find that many backpacking bags will have a hydration “sleeve” where you can slip in the water bag.

You can get minimalist packs for your reservoir that may not have many or any storage options, or you can go for a larger pack that has room to carry snacks, your Kansas trails guidebook!, and a waterproof layer.

Some things to be aware of with a hydration pack.

Combined with the pack, the water reservoir can be significantly more expensive than a water bottle.

Other than weight or stopping to check your water level, you can end up running out without noticing until you get down the last sips of water. And you have to pay more attention to cleaning, especially if you use a sports or energy drink in the reservoir.

Keeping it dry and free of mold can be a tad more challenging than with a bottle that can be tossed into a dishwasher easily. But as long as you rinse and dry it out after using it, it should be fine. I’ve kept water in it for a week at a time, just topping off the water until I had some days off when I wouldn’t be using it. Emptying it and setting it out to dry, and I had no problems with mold. But if you’re using a sports drink in it, you’ll want to rinse it thoroughly, possibly with a couple of teaspoons of baking soda and hot water, and leave it to dry every time that you use it.

Either bottle or hydration pack, if taken care of, can last you for years.

Finding the way to carry water that works best for you will help keep you safe and comfortable on the trail, and it will help you go further and faster. Always remember to balance your water intake with keeping your electrolytes and sugars balanced. Snacking on pretzels or salted nuts can help.

What’s worked best for you? Let us know in the comments.