Trail of the Month: January 2004
Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail, Kansas
If you want ancient stone bridges, lush river valleys, small-town history and landscapes awash in native blooms, then the Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail is the place for you. Located on a former Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) rail corridor (which was sold to KCT Railway two years before abandonment) between Ottawa and Welda, Kan., the Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail, with its abundant attributes, is a shining example of the importance of the railbanking provision that was added to the National Trails System Act in 1983. This legislation allows for interim trails use on railroad corridors and preserves the corridor for possible rail use in the future. All current and future users of the Prairie Spirit are fortunate that the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks had the foresight to railbank this valuable corridor in May 1992.
At its north end, the 33-mile trail begins in Ottawa, Kan., almost 30 feet over the rushing Marais des Cygnes River (River of Swans) on a steel pillar railroad bridge. A slight downhill slope drops quickly into quiet residential and commercial backyards, flanking the trail before it merges with Walnut Street for four blocks. The first rest area, adjacent to Ottawa's rodeo and fairgrounds, is located two miles south of the trail's start.
As you leave the Ottawa city limits, pavement gives way to packed limestone and backyard views open up on cropland with heavily wooded borders and lazy winding streams. As the trail coasts across narrow creek bridges, it reveals a blurry glimpse of an endless, undulating horizon of soybeans, milo and wheat.
Cutting a straight south course, the Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail soon lands in the town of Princeton. A trail rest area and parking lot are followed by City Hall, the post office and the tavern that make up the tiny town's main drag. Cows roam pastures that dot the horizon. A tidy farmstead off to the west nicely completes this home-on-the-range postcard before the trail plunges back into forests. Beyond the cottonwood, sycamore and pecan trees you'll spy more rolling hills and pastureland as the trees fall away and a sea of tallgrass and hay meadows surround you.
In Richmond, Center Street intersects with the trail, offering easy access to a few eateries. Continuing south, the gradually climbing six miles between Scipio and Garnett offer the trail's best vistas and the greatest opportunity for viewing bobcat, coyote, wild turkey and fox squirrels. Arriving at the 320-foot stone bridge spanning the Pottawatomie River, flycatchers, herons and even the occasional bald eagle may be visible riding the air currents over the steep stream valley. Shift your gaze down to the wooded banks of the Pottawatomie and you're sure to spot deer there.
In about three miles the trail curves into Garnett, signaled by a return to pavement and the placid 55-acre Lake Garnett and North Lake Park. Nostalgic street lamps line the trail as it rolls to the town square surrounding the historic Anderson County Courthouse, then on to the bustling Santa Fe Depot and Tourism Center. Another large park heralds the Garnett city limits and the return of the limestone surface. Next up is Welda, the last tiny town before the trail's end where you pass through rolling hills of pristine prairie. Nearby Sunset Prairie Preserve is a swirling 300-acre palette of yellow and gold and is a stronghold for the endangered Mead's milkweed.
The Welda trailhead is where the Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail currently comes to rest. In the next few years, 17 miles of trail will be developed further south of Welda, stretching the Prairie Spirit into a 50-mile rail-trail that will run from Ottawa to Iola, Kan. At the trail's northern terminus in Ottawa, there are plans to connect the Prairie Spirit with an extension of the Flint Hills Nature Trail, another Kansas rail-trail that has benefited from railbanking. The makings of a regional trail network are well underway in eastern Kansas, with Ottawa set to become the hub of this trail system.