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.

Snow daze

With a thick blanket of white over most of the state, it may be easy to start suffering from cabin fever.  There are plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy the snow this month, so don’t let shoveling the driveway by your only outdoor activity this winter.  Before the snow melts, make sure and take advantage of some of these great opportunities to enjoy the winter!

1. Cross-country ski at Clinton Lake

Located along the North Shore of Clinton Lake State Park, the trailhead starts near the park office and there are around 5-miles of cross-country ski trails through the park. With the bare trees and the blanket of white, you can more easily spot wildlife.  The best (and only) designated cross-country ski trail in the state!

2. Sled at Shawnee Mission Park

Cross country skis. Photo by Jeremy Bronson

Cross country skis. Photo by Jeremy Bronson

During the summer, the numerous trails at Shawnee Mission Park are frequented by singletrack enthusiasts and trail-runners.

During the winter, there is more solitude and with a deep snow there are great opportunities for sledding along the steep hills (just watch out for trees!).

Another top sledding location is Indian Rock Park in Salina.  The 35-acre park is centered around a high steep hill and when the snow flies, the parks department will close the gates and turn the long steep driveway leading to the top into a massive sledding hill.  The downhill run is popular, fast, and free of obstacles.  Personal experience and a broken sled leads to the recommendation to not venture off onto any insanely steep, tree-ridden, but oh-so tempting side trails.

3. Go ice-fishing at Kanopolis State Park

The bonus of sub-zero temperatures is that the ice will thicken on many state fishing lakes and reservoirs.  Venture out with caution and make sure to drill to check the depth of the ice before getting started.

4. Ice skate outdoors at City Park in Manhattan

With the winter Olympics underway, take your best shot at a triple lutz (or just enjoy gliding around the unique outdoor rink).  Access to the rink costs $3 per skater and skates can be rented for the same price.  Open through February 28th.

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!

Christmas on the trail: 10 gifts for the trail lover in your life

While the north wind blows cold and snow blankets the trails for the season, it’s time to turn your thoughts towards finding the perfect gift for the next big adventure.

Here are our annual recommendations for 10 unique gifts that trail-lovers are sure to appreciate.

Garmin Oregon

Garmin Oregon

1. A gift membership to the Kansas Trails CouncilKansas Singletrack Society, or the Kansas Horse Council.  As the leading organizations devoted to building and maintaining trails throughout Kansas, each of these organizations provides a great opportunity to get involved and make a difference.

2. Garmin Oregon 650t – If you want a top-line GPS unit on the trail, this should be at the top of your wish list.  The GPS is highly accurate with a large display and touch screen that makes for easy navigation.  The built-in camera is a great feature that allows you to instantly geo-tag your photos.

3. Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas: A Field Guide – The best of the botanical world at your fingertips, finally you can own a usable guide full of color photos that is specific to Kansas.

Leatherman Squirt4. Leatherman Squirt PS4 – Lightweight yet fully functional, the Squirt PS4 is packed with an assortment of useful tools.  On the trail the pliers are particularly handy to remove all of those stubborn thorns that may have embedded themselves in your bike tires.

5. Heartland Beef Jerky – Buy local with this savory jerky made in Kansas by Del and Jenny Wyman.  An impressive assortment of flavors to choose from (and you can’t go wrong with any of them!), like Siracha Teriyaki, Bacon, Orange Apricot, Cherry Maple, Caribbean Spice, Caribbean Black, and Chipotle.

Switchgrass earrings by Gayle Dowell

Switchgrass earrings
by Gayle Dowell

6. Gayle Dowell Jewelry – First spotted during a trip to the Manhattan Flint Hills Discovery Center, Gayle Dowell’s jewelry reflects the beauty of the prairie. With earrings, pendants, rings, and more, her jewelry has imprints of real prairie wildflowers and seeds in the metal.

7. Kansas State Parks Pass – An annual pass to the state parks of Kansas is one of the best deals going.  For less than $20, you can have an entire year of unlimited access to some of the best outdoor recreation in the state.

8. 8 Wonders of Kansas Guidebook – After getting off the trail, this book is the perfect guide to appreciating and experiencing the most awe-inspiring parts of Kansas.  Written by a true expert on the Sunflower State, this guide is an invaluable part of every explorers library.

Buff9. Original Buff – A bandana has infinite uses on the trail.  This is even better.  Sun-protection, clean-up duty, neck warmer, or even make-shift potholder, do everything in style with this Buff from REI.

10. Go Pro Camera – Document your greatest exploits on the trail in high resolution and vivid clarity. Easy to attach whether you’re on foot, on a bike, or on a horse, it’s easy to use and makes it easy to share your adventures.

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.

Kansas trails you can’t access with the government shutdown

We’re not here to get into politics, but we want to keep Kansas trail lovers updated on the current situation as to how it applies to them. Most of the trails in Kansas are on state, city, or private property, but there are some federally controlled sites.

So while the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism is state-run and the state parks are open for business during the government shutdown, there are a few places in the state that you can’t get to right now.

A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds flying into the sunset. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cimarron National Grassland
Two major trails pass through the Cimarron National Grassland, a region reclaimed by the government after the disastrous Dust Bowl years: the Turkey Trail and the Companion Trail, so named because it runs parallel to or occasionally on the path of the historic Santa Fe Trail.Both trails will be included in the upcoming book and the region will be one of our top historic trails.

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
While the birds pay no mind to government shutdowns and are flying through the area on the fall migration, the shorter, family trails in the refuge are not currently open. This region will be included in the book as one of our top wildlife/wildflower trails.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
A total of 41 miles of hiking trails cross one of the nation’s only remaining stretches of original, native tallgrass prairie. A few of the best of the trails will be mapped out in our book as featured trails, and all additional trails will be mentioned.

Paola Inn & Suites

About 20-30 minutes south of Kansas City and 15 minutes southeast of Hillsdale State Park and its miles of horse and walking trails and about 40 minutes northwest from La Cygne Lake with its winding horse trails is the city of Paola.

Tired from hiking for hours and occasionally getting lost in the winding trails of Hillsdale Lake (won’t be a problem for you with the guidebook!), I pulled into the Paola Inn & Suites, and to my surprise, I got a Jacuzzi Suite room. It means exactly what you think it does from the name – it features a large spa bathtub. For someone who’s been on the trail all day, it’s about as good as it gets.

Jacuzzi Suite

Jacuzzi Suite

That’s not the only option for rooms. They have standard double queen rooms up to king suites with a separate living area with a fold out couch, seems like the best option for families or groups traveling together. They also have handicap accessible options with walk-in showers and handrails in the bathrooms.

Paola has a couple of bed and breakfasts, but this is the one full service hotel. All the 39 rooms (not just the ones with giant bathtubs) in the 3-story hotel have a microwave, mini-refrigerators, an iron and ironing board, and free WiFi. And in the morning, there’s a full, free! continental breakfast spread. During the summer, you can enjoy a dip in the pool outside, and if the trails nearby weren’t enough of a workout, there’s an exercise room at the hotel.

It’s on the east side of town, just off the Highway 169/7. It’s listed as two-star, and I stayed in some not so nice two-star hotels over the summer working on the book, but this is definitely one of the good ones! It’s clean, the beds are comfortable, and the staff seemed genuinely happy to help.

If you go:
Rooms from $107

1600 Hedge Lane Court
Paola, KS 66071
913-294-3700 or 877-402-3700