4 best little-known trails to hike in Kansas this spring
It is springtime in Kansas. Blooming redbud trees have the countryside highlighted in lavender. Early April showers are bringing on the season’s first wildflowers. Many small streams that will be dry most of the summer are now flowing with clear water.
And Kansas offers more than 3,000 miles, roughly the distance from Wichita to Miami and back, in maintained trails, according to GetOutdoorsKansas.org.
Here are a few trails, unknown to many hikers, that offer great places to celebrate spring.
–Badger Creek Trail, Fall River Reservoir, 7.1 miles long
The Badger Creek Trail is a fun trail for hikers and mountain bikers. Serious trekkers can walk the entire system, or parents with young kids can take one of several smaller loops for a half-hour hike that gives a good feel for the region’s steep and rocky topography.
The trail is one of several around Fall River Reservoir, about 70 miles east of Wichita in Greenwood County. It’s roughly 20 miles southeast of Eureka and about 5 miles north of U.S. 400.
To find the trails, take the road near the northern corner of the Fall River Reservoir’s dam and follow the signs toward the Whitehall Bay Campground. A sign, with maps and a gravel parking area, shows the start of the north section of the trail. The trail starts in a mature oak forest and gradually winds upward.
It’s all gorgeous woodlands, but it’s the rocks along the crest of the hill, maybe 20 minutes from the parking area, that make it special.
Boulders the size of bulldozers are covered in lime-colored lichen and moss. Delicate ferns sprout from any crack or crevice deep enough for soil. Delicate Columbine flowers, like those in the Rocky Mountains, will soon bloom on the same rocks. Centuries of gravitational pull have slid some of the rocks downhill enough for the trail to weave in and out of the huge rimrocks.
Almost within sight of the parking lot, a steep, rocky arroyo has a falling stream, flowing this time of year, worth a few minutes of looking and listening. There’s another small waterfall on the trail just before the trail winds back down to the parking lot.
Frequent switchbacks mean there are few really steep portions of the trail. Mud’s not much of a problem, because the trail is mostly stone. It’s OK to venture off the trail a bit to look for morels, tan-colored, spongy-looking mushrooms that take a keen eye to spot amid the fallen leaves. (Do some research if you’re not sure what you’re looking for.)
Located on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, the trail can be hiked for free.
Pack a lunch and take plenty of drinks, because the trail’s quite the drive from any town. You might want to take a fishing pole, too. When the water clears and the lake level holds steady, Fall River Reservoir can offer good chances to catch crappie and catfish, especially in the upper reaches by the Badger Creek Trail.
–Chautauqua Hills Trail, Cross Timbers State Park, 11.75 miles long
Cross Timbers State Park at Toronto Reservoir is named after the geographic region also known as the Chautauqua Hills, a thin finger of rugged country that begins in Texas and comes north into southeast Kansas. This trail, with three sections, winds through classic Flint Hills prairie and down into the rocky and heavily wooded area that’s typical for the Chautauqua Hills.
The state park is about 85 miles east of Wichita, near the town of Toronto, just south of U.S. 54.
Of the three trail sections, marked with either blue, red or yellow trail markers, the latter probably gives the best overall feel for the region. It can easily be accessed by a trail head within the Toronto Point area of the state park. A state park vehicle permit will be required to access the trail. It can be purchased at the park entrance for $5. Seniors 65 and older and the disabled pay $3.25.
The trail follows the shoreline of the reservoir, including up and across some tributaries. Some places could be tough, or impossible, to cross after heavy rains. In several places, the trail runs near the lip of steep bluffs that rise above a stream. The state park staff has been working and widening the trail. One major benefit is that it helps keep hikers or mountain bikers from coming into contact with brush that could hold ticks or other insects.
If you’re properly sprayed with insect repellent, spend some time off the trail. There’s a great grove of redbud trees just southeast of where the trail has a concrete path across a stream. The first wildflowers of the year are just beginning to show on the grasslands. Columbine flowers will soon start to sprout amid the large rocks.
A neat addition is that the Chautauqua Hills Trail offers three remote campsites for backpackers. Prior arrangements must be made through the state park office at 620-627-2213.
If you have time for another hike, take a look at the Overlook Trail at the east end of the lake’s dam. It’s less than a mile and is a bit more rugged than most of the Chautauqua Hills Trail.
At times, Toronto can offer good fishing, especially for crappie and catfish, though the lake has a nice population of white bass that should be making their spawning runs up rivers and creeks.
There are a few good places to eat in and around Toronto. Sassy Sisters serves lunch downtown 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Courtney’s Place, just down the block, serves legendary Italian food Friday and Saturday evenings, and a Sunday brunch. Check at courtneysplaces.com or call 620-637-0175 for reservations and other needed details.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, 3 miles long
The 11,000-acre Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy near Strong City, is famous for pristine Flint Hills grasslands, with about 40 miles of trails.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is 77 miles from Wichita, just north of U.S. 50 in Chase County.
The 3-mile-long Fox Creek Trail is unique because it traces a gorgeous, clear prairie stream. The trail is open only to foot traffic and gets mowed only a few times a year.
As well as wildflowers, the trail goes past blooming redbuds and towering sycamores and cottonwoods. Fishing is allowed in the stream that holds nice populations of native spotted and largemouth bass, channel catfish and assorted species of sunfish. The fish spook easily in the shallow, clear water. Light line and tiny lures are a must, as is catch-and-release to keep the fish population strong. Some places are conducive to fly-fishing.
A road from the cemetery that’s just north of the junction of U.S. 177 and U.S. 50 heads east and down to the stream and trail. Another option is to park at preserve headquarters, cross the highway and walk the ranch road east down to the stream.
While you’re there, check the preserve’s visitor center that’s currently open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Staff members may be able to recommend another trail that could take you within sight of the preserve’s herd of 83 buffalo, with calves to be born soon. Heed the warnings to stay well away from the animals.
Both Strong City and Cottonwood Falls are within a few miles of the preserve and offer a variety of shops and places to eat. That includes Ad Astra Food and Drink in Strong City and the Grand Central Hotel and Keller Feed and Wine in Cottonwood Falls.
Split Boulder Trail, Kanopolis State Park, 2 miles long
This trail is easily overshadowed by others around Kanopolis Reservoir, including the Buffalo Tracks Nature Trail, but it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Within Kanopolis State Park, the oldest in Kansas, the trail is 96 miles north of Wichita and about 25 miles west of Lindsborg.
It was actually created as an Eagle Scout project and designed for hikers and beginning mountain bikers. The trail is easily traversed by foot or on bike and winds from typical Smoky Hills prairie to along the lake’s shore, passing near some sizable boulders along the way. Even though the grass looks familiar, you could see plant life you probably wouldn’t see in the Flint Hills. There’s a lot of yucca, other cactus and wildflowers.
The trail head is also near an active bald eagle nest, so bring binoculars. Trail users are asked to stick to the trail and refrain from any noises or activities that might disturb the mature eagles or their young.
The trail is in the Horsethief Canyon portion of Kanopolis State Park, east of the Eagle Point Campground. A small metal bicyclist, attached to a boulder, is the only sign that shows where the trail begins. A state park permit is required.
Kanopolis State Park has hundreds of camping sites and several cabins. Prime campsites, with utilities, and cabins should be reserved. Walking or bicycling through the park gives a good look at the Smoky Hills region, a part of Kansas many think rivals or beats the Flint Hills for natural beauty. Bring your food and drinks, because most kinds of shopping are many miles away. Fishing can be good in the lake.