Gravel Grinding in the Flint Hills

Kansas has an abundance of unpaved roads and a scarcity of cars driving on them. That may not sound too useful to the average outdoor recreationalist, unless you know about gravel biking. Gravel biking is literally just biking on dirt roads, that’s all (where I grew up we just called this biking). But there’s something about getting off the pavement, slowing down your pace, and enjoying the rural, country scenery that can eat up a day pretty fast.

This Saturday was the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel bike ride. The DK has gained notoriety world-wide as an extreme endurance challenge. Riders generally take between 12 and 20 hours to complete this grueling circuit across rural Kansas countryside and small towns. The race begins and ends in Emporia. I had a couple friends that were going to be there so I decided to stop by. I heard that the race organizers were looking for volunteers to help set up the starting line and I love having a reason to wake up absurdly early, so I signed up for the 4AM shift. Setting up was kind of disorganized but it didn’t take long. Shortly after I watched the riders take off on their voyage.

Personally, I’ve never been into racing. I would rather make frequent stops to look at weird insects, take unscheduled exploratory detours, and not pay money to do it. Therefore, after the riders cleared out, I set off to find some gravel roads of my own. From Google maps I identified Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge nearby. I briefly worked at a National Wildlife Refuge long ago and remembered lots of gravel roads with nobody on them. FHNWR was not very different. In fact many of the roads were closed to vehicles due to flooding, making it even more quiet than the average wildlife refuge. The terrain was mostly wetlands. It’s on the flood plain of the Neosho River and has been managed to be ideal grounds for migrating waterfowl. I’m thinking this place would be spectacular in the fall. Some of the roads were easy to ride. Others were so muddy that they clogged up my wheels and stopped me in my tracks. The summer heat has arrived and it got into the 90’s with sections of no cover. So it wasn’t too long before I ran out of water, putting an end to my own little Dirty Konza.

flbike map

I headed back to Emporia to hang out with friends while the riders started to come in. They looked pretty whipped. This year, over 1000 riders showed up to bike either 200, 100, or 50 miles. The normally quiet town of Emporia was dense with crowds awaiting the riders and enjoying the festival. I heard that the party is pretty lively until at least midnight. The Dirty Konza is a pretty unique event and it seems to be growing in popularity each year. I recommend checking it out or even racing in it if you dare.


On Sunday, I biked from my house to Pillsbury Crossing Wildlife Area. This is a neat little spot where Deep Creek crosses Pillsbury Crossing Road. It’s generally less than a foot deep, allowing you to drive or walk over it with ease. There’s a waterfall and it’s not a bad spot to picnic or just cool off on a hot day. It’s also a great place to wash off your bike after a day of riding in the mud.

My total biking mileage for the weekend: 46


Dirty Kanza
Tips on gravel riding
Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge


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