Trail of the Month: March 2010
Kansas' Flint Hills Nature Trail
On an expedition to the Southwest in 1806, American explorer Zebulon Pike discovered vast stretches of tallgrass prairie in present-day Kansas. From his journal descriptions came the name for this region, the Flint Hills, a sprawling landscape of fluttering grasses and endless horizons. More than 200 years removed from Pike's chronicling, the Flint Hills are now one of the last surviving tallgrass prairie ecosystems in the world. And striding right through the heart of this sanctuary is the 117-mile Flint Hills Nature Trail.
Hitching Osawatomie on the east to Herington on the west, this rail-trail is tailor-made for lovers of big skies and unbroken countryside. "You go out there in the Flint Hills, especially when the sun is ready to go down, and the breezes blow the prairie grasses like waves," says John Purvis, president of the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy (KRTC), which owns the corridor and the connecting Landon Nature Trail. "It's like you're in this giant sea of grass."
Pike wasn't the only early traveler to venture across this ocean of frontier prairie. Council Grove, right along the trail, used to be the last supply stop for wagons heading west on the epic Santa Fe Trail between 1821 and the early 1870s.
Though less than four percent of the original tallgrass habitat remains, that fraction still provides a valuable escape and resource for Kansas, where open park space is fairly scarce. Indeed Purvis says the Sunflower State ranks near the bottom in available acres of public land.
"Kansas is geographically a large state, like one of the Dakotas, [but] there aren't many places where you can go and lose yourself in nature," he says. On the Flint Hills Nature Trail, however, you can go birding and hear bobwhite quail and wild turkeys, or steal a glimpse of prairie chickens and bobcats. You can browse wildflowers and native prairie grasses, or track a thunderstorm gathering in the distance and watch the lightning show and blue sheets of falling rain.
The Flint Hills trail experience has been especially popular among equestrians. "Lots of people in Kansas own horses," says Purvis, "but they don't necessarily have a place to go and ride them. So we're getting a lot of horse riders and horse-riding clubs."
Of course, while the Flint Hills are the trail's namesake, tallgrass prairie actually defines only about half of the pathway's topography—roughly from Herington at the western end through Allen and Admire.
If you begin at the eastern anchor in Osawatomie, about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City, you'll find a surprisingly canopied, woodsy experience. For much of this stretch through Ottawa and on to Osage City., the Flint Hills Nature Trail follows the Marais des Cygnes River, with the water just north of the pathway and river bluffs to the south. "It does not look like a Kansas trail," says Doug Walker, a high school teacher in Osawatomie and vice-president of KRTC. "It looks like the Katy Trail [State Park] in Missouri."
A former Kansas state senator from 1988 to 1996, Walker had been a big supporter of the 51-mile Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail, which runs north-south from Ottawa to Iola. "I was always an advocate, but I was never on a trail," he says.
That changed on Father's Day about four years ago when his daughter took him out on part of the Flint Hills Nature Trail. Two weeks after their bicycle ride, Walker joined the KRTC board of directors. "I'm just amazed this resource is available to us," he says.
"This resource" had its roots in 1886 when several railroads started developing the line, including the Council Grove, Osage City & Ottawa Railway (which serviced coal mining) and the Missouri Pacific. The route fell out of service in the 1980s. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy later acquired and railbanked the corridor in 1995 and then transferred it to KRTC to develop.
By 2001, using funding primarily from private grants and foundations, the all-volunteer nonprofit had begun trail construction.
"We decided early on that the key to the entire project was to get parts of the trail open, and that was the best way we could build support," says Purvis. "So we just went out and started building pieces at a time. Every time we open a new part, we get more people coming out and asking how they can get involved. It's a snowball effect, and in the last year or two, we're building some really good momentum."
As the overseeing body, KRTC divided the trail into geographic sections, called divisions, which manage the day-to-day operations and development of their localized sections. So far, 43 percent of the trail—or 50 miles—have been completed, and Purvis hopes to have the trail fully smoothed-out with crushed stone in the next three to five years. At that point, the Flint Hills Nature Trail will be one of the 10 longest developed rail-trails in the country.
In the meantime, the full corridor is open to visitors with the caveat that unimproved sections are surfaced in ballast and best suited for horses, hiking and mountain bikes. Yet even the most rugged areas feel like a fitting homage to the once-daunting westward journey across the Kansas tallgrass prairie.
For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.