Kansas has no naturally occurring lakes larger than 1/4 square miles. So how is it, that on one hot Saturday morning I found myself sitting on the sandy shores of the almost 20 square mile Tuttle Creek Lake, barely able to see the other end?
Twenty two of the twenty six Kansas state parks are on land bordering large reservoirs. Despite its shortfall, Kansas chose to not let nature stifle its potential for boating and fishing. A few Flood Control Acts were passed during the 1940s and 1950s and soon dozens of large dams and reservoirs (including Tuttle Creek) began to sprout up courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Instead of being at the mercy of the harsh weather and overflowing rivers, modern engineering marvels had conquered nature and made Kansas a safer and more productive land for all. The State Parks system was probably an afterthought.
Our previous home of Indiana is proud of its state park heritage and regards its founder, Richard Lieber, as a local hero. In Indiana, every state park is a hidden gem where you can experience the local natural history and we were compelled to visit all 24 of them before moving. In Kansas this isn’t the case. While Tuttle Creek might look like a lake, it isn’t what the Kanza or Osage saw when they sat where I was sitting. The land they were familiar with is now deep under water. Unfortunately most Kansas state parks are reservoirs rather than the grass prairies, gypsum hills, chalk badlands, and high plains that once made up this land. We ultimately made it to 19 of them and passed on the chance to see the last 7.
The good news is that where the state of Kansas has failed, other agencies are picking up the slack in protecting the state’s natural ecosystems. The Nature Conservancy purchased the land for Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve as well as Konza Prairie Biological Station where I’ve spent the last two years working. Both are spectacular places to experience pristine flint hills tallgrass prairies. TNC owns and manages properties in western Kansas including Smoky Valley Ranch and the brand new Little Jerusalem. The federal government has done a decent job with it’s spattering of National Wildlife Refuges. And the Kansas Land Trust has tackled conservation in a completely different way through conservation easements negotiated with private landowners. All of these lands are wonderful refuges for native wildlife.
Kansas is 98% privately owned and the majority of that is cropland. If you want to see the state protect what little is left of its nature, let the governor know. Even more importantly, let the Nature Conservancy know because they might actually listen. Join the Kansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the Kansas Land Trust. They are the one’s that will really determine the fate of the state. I’m leaving Kansas with a greater appreciation for these organizations which I plan to continue supporting.
Kansas was an incredibly challenging place to live as a nature lover. If you’ve found yourself in the same pickle that we’ve been in, I hope the information on this website helps you. There are many things to appreciate. There are hundreds of good free campsites. The sunsets are consistently spectacular almost every day. Experiencing a Kansas summer thunderstorm from inside a tent is something I won’t forget. And there’s absolutely no traffic.
Finally, I leave you with my personal list of best places in Kansas. Keep in mind I spent less than two years there, so this isn’t exhaustive. But it should get you started. And yes, it does include two state parks.
1. Konza Prairie Biological Station
2. Flint Hills Nature Trail
3. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
4. The Kaw River
5. Tuttle Creek State Park
6. Wilson Lake State Park
7. Gypsum hills caves
8. Cimmaron National Grassland
9. Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
10. The Elk River Trail