Last lap around Konza Prairie

Manhattan’s hiking options are relatively limited. That’s why when the director of Konza Prairie threatened to close the six mile Kings Creek loop last year, there was a public outcry. Konza is the most scenic, well maintained trail close to town, and one of the best hiking trails in Kansas. It would be a tragedy for outdoor lovers to lose such a great resource. But when careless hikers began ignoring the rules by bringing their dogs and going off trail, it interfered with the site’s scientific research and the trail was almost shut down permanently. Word of the potential closure spread through social media quickly. Whether the threat was taken seriously, or it just made people more aware of the rules, the illegal activities seem to have tapered off. It’s been some time since the director has had to make a statement about the violators. It’s a good sign that at least some people do care about hiking enough to change their behavior or speak up when others don’t. For now, the trail remains open to the public.

Konza has been my favorite place in Kansas to spend time (both on and off the clock), so it seemed like the appropriate place for my very last posted Prairie Fire trip. We had a group or 14 hike the six mile loop. Despite the previous night’s snow storm, the skies were blue and the temperature in the 50’s. Afterwards we ate downtown at Hibachi Hut.


The Kansas Situation

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?


Tuttle Creek

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.


Konza Prairie

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

Southeast Kansas Frontier

In the same vain as our Southwest Kansas road trip and our South central Kansas road trip, I bring you our official Southeast Kansas road trip! Who honestly hasn’t glanced at a map of the US and not immediately wondered what lies in this obscure sector of the country?

At Fort Scott, Kansas we wandered through the well-preserved buildings of the historic frontier fort that was established in the 1830’s to ease tensions between European settlers and relocated Native Americans. Fort Scott (the fort) is immediately surrounded by Fort Scott (the quaint town), making it difficult to imagine the surrounding landscape during the frontier days of the 19th century. We walked into the city where we stumbled upon the Lowell Milkin Center for Unsung Heroes and discovered the amazing story of Irina Sendler. In Nazi-controlled Poland, she secretly smuggled Jewish children out of Warsaw, putting herself in serious danger and saving thousands of lives. Sendler was still living in Poland until she died in 2008 and her story would be entirely unknown if not for the efforts of the students and researchers of the Lowell Milkin Center. The center now runs an exhibit about Sendler in Fort Scott. Additionally, they perform plays based on Sendler and organize international trips to see the sights associated with this story. Enriched with history, we left Fort Scott and camped at Crawford State Park.

We watched the morning sunrise from the Mined Lands, a rugged landscape of canals and berms that was a byproduct of mass strip mining for coal. These mines are distributed over a large region which would probably be pretty interesting to explore by kayak. We had to settle with a drive-through tour and quick hike. The next stop was Big Brutus – the largest known electric coal shovel in the universe. For $8 per person, we were allowed to run amok on and inside this unusual decommissioned behemoth that produced many of the mined lands we had explored that morning. The nearby city of Frontenac offers an interesting Italian Market with freshly baked bread which we were sure to try before heading out.

At Shermerhorn Park we hiked around the most northwestern reaches of the Ozark Mountain range. We peeked inside Schermerhorn cave (it’s gated off) and at the visitor we looked through some historical documents with old photos of our KSS caving friends. We drove from there to the city of Baxter Springs, poked inside some random antique stores, and then moved on to Elk City State Park to camp. We had a second night of unseasonably perfect weather.

On the final day of the trip, we hiked the Elk River Trail. Reviews by several native Kansans called it the best hiking trail in the state. Whether or not its the best is arguable, but it certainly lived up to the hype. Over the course of the fifteen miles, we encountered high bluffs along the river, lots of rock outcroppings, canyons, and relatively rugged hiking. We breezed through it at a fast pace since we still had a long drive home ahead of us. I biked 8.5 miles to get back to the car and we started the ride home. On the way we stopped at Fall River State Park to cook dinner and check off yet another Kansas state park.


As with any trip, another day or two would have been useful. There’s always more stuff to explore and while some people might not see the appeal in walking up and down quiet streets of tiny rural Kansas towns, interspersed with hiking, camping, and cooking rice burritos, I like it. The world is diverse. Pick a region on your own local map and spend a weekend exploring it.


Earning our Kansas trail karma

Given how much we hike on Kansas trails (and how much we complain when they’re overgrown) we decided to pay our dues with some trail maintenance. We met the Kansas City Sierra Club this Saturday at Perry Lake. The group of 16 made some pretty good progress on clearing away overgrown vegetation, repairing an old bridge, and re-routing a section that was getting dangerously close to a steep drop-off. It was nice to see the progress we made in such a small time. Swinging a hatchet furiously at things is a good way to de-stress while helping out your fellow hikers.

On Sunday we led a group of 9 members of Prairie Fire along with 5 dogs on the 8-mile Eagle Ridge Trail at Milford Lake State Park. The trail meanders around several meadows and fallow crop fields while skirting on the edge of Milford Lake, the largest lake in Kansas. After the hike we went to Bella’s Italian restaurant in Junction City before heading home.

Thank you to Kansas City Sierra Club Outings and Prairie Fire Meetups for providing some great opportunities to get outside.

Underneath the Gypsum Hills

After our last encounter with the Kansas Speleological Society, I had some doubts about the existence of caves in Kansas. But digging garbage out of holes isn’t the worst use of a weekend, so we decided to give them another chance and attend their fall meeting at Alexander Ranch in the heart of the gypsum hills.

We had previously passed through the area on our south west Kansas road trip and I was disappointed by the lack of public access and potential for exploration. Caving was a good excuse to spend some more time in a pretty scenic part of the state. The campsite was a sandpit on the ranch, ridden with needle-sharp sand burs that had an annoying talent for creeping into your shoes, tent, and even sleeping bag. Otherwise it was pretty cozy and more importantly, it was located in the middle of gypsum cave country.

We woke up Saturday morning and headed to Dancers Cave. In the middle of a vast field of grass, we found a sink hole. At the bottom lay a rocky entrance into the underworld. This was when we realized we were in for a fun weekend. Dancers cave started off with a crawl through a narrow water-carved tunnel. This took us to a 10-foot ledge (an impressive waterfall in the spring, we’re told). The down climb is a bit tricky because of the rough terrain below. There’s some scrambling over piles of fallen rocks and a very narrow squeeze that leads to the exit. Not everyone was able to make it through the final squeeze. Mere feet from the cave exit, we had to turn back and do it all over again (which we didn’t mind at all). Getting up the tall ledge was about as tricky as climbing down, but we managed.

The second cave, walking distance from Dancers, was called Triple Arch Cave. We scampered down into a canyon for the entrance, which was a walk-in. It led us through some very large, walkable passages with two skylight sections before going into a longer underground section. The exit involved a squeeze with our entire front side submerged in water.

Most of the group was pretty pooped at that point, but they were at least willing to point me, Kerry, and Allen in the direction of Walnut Cave. After examining a detailed map drawn in the sand with a twig, we crawled down yet another sinkhole and wormed our way into the ground. We spent another 40 minutes or so squeezing and crawling and popped out on the side of a canyon. Evidence of the Anderson Creek fire, back in the spring, was pretty clear from the charred cedar stumps. There’s also a good chance that this fire affected the cave morphology through erosion.

We made it back to the campsite where we conducted the KSS meeting where various highly classified secrets were discussed. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for late night adventures, so we went to sleep.

Sunday morning we mustered some of the group to take us to one last cave: Havards. Havards Cave involved a very short crawl followed by a series of rooms that are the largest found in Kansas. We spent a couple hours climbing on massive, truck-sized rocks. The cave wasn’t particularly long, but it was a fun one.

Want to explore some caves like these? Join the Kansas Speleological Society.

Kaw River: The Final Stretch

Some may think that I-70 is the best route from Junction City to Kansas City. They’re wrong. Over the last four weekends we discovered another way which involves sore shoulders, stiff backs, blistered hands, rain-soaked nights, lots of sweat, and painful sunburns. And you actually have to drive twice as much distance, so it’s pretty inefficient. But trust me on this.

Saturday, after running the Speedy-PD 5/10K race to support the Parkinson’s Program of Manhattan which Kerry works for, we drove to De Soto, Kansas. There are very few reasons that the casual traveler would visit this small, off-the-beaten-path town. But for us, it was the key to completing a project over a month in the making. Six of us launched our kayaks from the De Soto boat ramp, intent on paddling the final 31 miles of the Kaw River.

We had intended to finish the trip last weekend. Paddling 91 miles in a weekend sounded pretty reasonable at the time. It was not at all reasonable. Not even a little bit. We gladly stopped after 60 miles and left the last 31 for this weekend.

The last stretch of the paddle was noticeably dirtier than the sections before. Our kayaks were surrounded by puffy clouds of floating filth (some kind of bacteria?). As we approached Kansas City, the garbage was everywhere. It was interesting to see the transition from wilderness to urban sprawl and industrial wasteland. In De Soto the river still looks relatively natural. The closer we got to the city, the noisier it got as well. Trains passed on both sides. Planes were landing above our heads. We passed under many bustling bridges. It’s amazing that wildlife is able to live in this section at all.

We had to portage around a dam at Edwardsville which had absolutely no infrastructure to help out paddlers. Downstream of the dam, we hit a stretch of unavoidable rapids. We were almost through when one of our kayaks tipped, dumping the paddler in. We mounted a quick rescue and bailed out the boat. Then we found a nearby island (one of the last that we saw on the trip) to pull off and camp.

The next morning we awoke and got back on the river. We got a bit of excitement from a bunch of carp that jumped around, into the side of, and even over our boats. At around noon we paddled up to Kaw Point, the conclusion to our 172-mile trip. Kaw point is where the Kaw River meets up with the Missouri River and officially ends. It was here that explorers Lewis and Clark camped for three days before continuing their legendary voyage out west.

Once we loaded up the kayaks, we swung over to Overland Park to check out a free Indian festival, including some delicious food! It felt like we had gotten off the river in another country. After that we headed back home.

If you live in Kansas, I highly recommend that you take a weekend at some point and paddle a section of this river. You’ll see a part of the state that’s very different from what you’re used to. If you like it, go ahead and paddle the entire thing! I recommend taking more time than we did. Take more breaks and enjoy your time on the Kaw.

The Friends of the Kaw maintains a very useful website: It includes a detailed map of river access points, historical information, and a tool to report pollution (especially if you live near KC!). The FOTK also organizes paddle trips and funds boat ramps and other facilities at access points.

Finally, let people know how much fun river paddling can be. Kansas is one of the few states in which most rivers are considered private property and paddling is not allowed. We need this culture to change. Rivers should belong to everyone.

As always, thanks to Picky Bars for sponsoring this adventure. Also a big thanks to Darrin and his magic truck for getting dozens of boats and people where they need to be over the last month. Stay tuned for Kerry’s talk about this trip and more at REI Overland Park!


Still going on the Kaw

Most people call off a paddle when you have 100% chance of thunderstorms, but not us. Frank, Ben, Darrin, and I decided to not trust the Friday night forecast and go for a few miles before dark. As we paddled, we could hear the light rumble of thunder following us eastward and after only 13 miles, we set up camp in hopes to weather out the storm and get back out on the river. It was still calm, dry, and relatively quiet, but the dark clouds were definitely heading our way. We set up our tents, starting making dinner but without warning a giant wind wall came at us like a freight train. Darrin’s tent went tumbling down the island, Ben’s tent collapsed almost immediately, and strangely enough, Frank and I’s tent managed to stay standing. We yelled to each other to make sure everyone was all right and then hunkered down for what turned out to be an all night storm.

The morning came and only our tent remained standing. The four of us were wet, covered in sand, and Ben’s stuff was strewn across the island. It was a good lesson in trusting forecasts. We packed up our stuff and got back on the river. We had 22 miles to make up in order to get to Lawrence and meet up with our friends that were joining us in the afternoon. After a bad night of sleep, we still managed to make it to Lawrence by 11 am.

Two more friends met up with us for the next segment, from Lawrence to De Soto. After a long car shuttle, we didn’t get on to the river until about 2:00. The new arrivals were not intending to camp. Frank, Ben, Darrin and I still had another night on the Kaw River sand bars. It was sunny, but relatively cool out. Once we got around the Lawrence Dam, it was a relaxing and easy paddle to our campsite. We stopped about 8 miles short of De Soto and camped on a rather nice sand bar. The day-trippers continued on.

The camping conditions were perfect on Saturday night. We had clear skies to view the stars, cooler temps, no rain and nearly no wind. Frank built a giant fire and we chatted until we were too tired and went to bed. It was an easy night’s rest, especially after the epic storm from the night before.

With only 8 miles left on the river before De Soto, we decided to sleep in a little before slowly taking down camp. The sun was already high and the temps were rising, so we got on the river before it got too hot. The paddling was easy, but the navigation around sand bars was difficult, getting our boat stuck a few times along the way. At around 11:00 am we made it to the boat ramp and decided to leave the rest of the river until next week. So, next week we continue on, De Soto to Kansas City!


Total Mileage: 59.3