NOTE: As you head out on the trail, remember to follow the guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. For resources on how to #SharetheTrail and #RecreateResponsibly, go to railstotrails.org/COVID-19.
The geographic center of the contiguous United States, Kansas has, geographically, played a role in many of the major human migratory events that have shaped the country. Today, the state hosts five National Historic Trails: the Oregon, California, Santa Fe, Pony Express and Lewis & Clark trails. In the latter half of the 19th century, the railroads came through. Years after many of these rail corridors fell into disrepair and disuse, local Jayhawk communities saw an opportunity to offer fun, safe human-powered connections between cities, towns and parks throughout the state (and some horse-powered ones as well!). This includes the creation of one of the longest rail-trails in the country.
Here is a list of 10 top trails in Kansas.
Counties: Allen, Anderson, Franklin
A Hall of Fame Rail-Trail and National Recreational Trail, the 51-mile Prairie Spirit Trail should be on every outdoor enthusiast’s bucket list. The mostly crushed-limestone path follows a former Leavenworth, Lawrence and Fort Gibson Railroad line between Iola and Ottawa, passing through multiple rural communities, prairie and a few wooded areas. Locals like to brag that the trail showcases everything great about Kansas in its 51 miles. In Iola, the Prairie Spirit Trail connects with the 9-mile Southwind Rail Trail leading to Humboldt, while at its northern terminus, it intersects with the mammoth 117-mile Flint Hills Trail State Park.
This gorgeous 12-mile rail-trail crosses over a refurbished railroad trestle, offers spectacular views of the Big Blue River and travels through several miles of limestone cliffs to the Nebraska state line. There it meets the Chief Standing Bear Trail, which connects to the Homestead Trail, providing an uninterrupted route from Marysville to Lincoln, Nebraska. You can also check out a separate, unconnected section of the trail in Marysville to see a monument to the Pony Express, which—before the transcontinental telegraph—delivered mail across the West for 18 months, in 1860 and 1861.
Counties: Franklin, Lyon, Miami, Morris, Osage
The 117-mile Flint Hills Trail State Park follows a former Missouri Pacific Railroad line through five counties in eastern Kansas and somewhat parallels the National Park Service’s Santa Fe National Historic Trail, a travel route used between 1821 and 1880 that led settlers of European descent into the American West. (To honor the bicentennial of this historic route connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, several towns along the current National Historic Trail will host celebrations throughout 2021.)
It’s not difficult to imagine those days; horseback riders frequently use the Flint Hills Trail, and you can still see the remnants of wagon ruts left behind just off the trail. As you might expect, there are plenty of other cultural and historical sites along the trail, including the Allegawaho Heritage Memorial Park (honoring the history of this former Kaw tribe homeland) and the John Brown Museum, celebrating the famous abolitionist.
Counties: Jackson, Johnson
You’d be forgiven if you thought the Indian Creek Bike/Hike Trail was longer than 26 miles. That’s because its two connections—the Blue River Parkway Trail, near the confluence of Indian Creek and the Blue River in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Tomahawk Creek Trail—extend your trip on the greenway by a combined 17 miles. Visitors will be shaded from the harsh sun by a thick tree canopy in the summer months and can take in a small waterfall along the trail. The trail ends at Leawood City Park, where you can play on the swings or take a dip in the pool.
Named after a beloved local parks and recreation director who helped transform the local community, the Gary L. Haller Trail is a fitting tribute to his legacy. The 17-mile trail runs through Mill Creek Streamway Park, which in turn links to several other trails throughout the cities of Olathe, Lenexa and Shawnee. Interpretive panels next to the trail provide history on many peoples of the area, including the Delaware, Shawnee and Choctaw Native American tribes. Nature enthusiasts can learn about the area’s successful blue bird reintroduction program. About 6 miles of the trail runs parallel to an active rail line, making it a rail-with-trail.
Built on a former BNSF freight line, the Redbud Trail starts in Wichita, then heads east to Andover, where it continues southeast for several more miles. The greenway is part of a nice trail hub throughout much of Wichita that connects to the K-96 Bicycle Path and McAdams Bike Path, among others. The trail is half asphalt, half gravel, but most road bikes should be able to tackle it with no problems. A fun signpost between 127th and 143rd streets directs travelers to communities both near and far (like the North Pole!) and makes for an excellent photo stop.
Following a former Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line, the Southwind Rail Trail extends the 51-mile Prairie Spirit Trail 6 miles further south from Iola to Humboldt. The crushed-limestone trail crosses a restored railroad trestle and several bridges, while offering beautiful pastoral views.
The Landon Nature Trail highlights both Greater Topeka’s natural beauty and intense history. The trail starts near the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, where you can learn about the landmark Supreme Court case that led to the end of school segregation, and traverses 18 miles down a former Missouri Pacific rail line to southeast of Berryton. The northern part of the trail follows Camp Creek for several miles, then heads into hickory forests, prairie and two wetlands teeming with wildlife.
The trail currently connects with Topeka’s 7-mile Shunga Trail, but local leaders hope to extend it more than 20 additional miles to intersect with the Flint Hills Trail State Park; ultimately, this would also link the Oregon National Historic Trail and the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.
Built on former Missouri Pacific and Union Pacific rail beds, the Välkommen Trail winds more than 4.5 miles through Lindsborg, a city that looks and feels as if it were shipped from Sweden in a flat box and constructed in Middle America. (The town’s motto is Little Sweden USA, after all.) Visitors pass by plenty of European-inspired buildings, as well as the 1904 World's Fair Swedish Pavilion and the Erickson Brothers Workshop, a historical site that honors the brothers who invented the dial telephone. After you explain to your kids what a dial telephone is, you can take them to the north end of the trail, where they can enjoy the local skate park.
Built upon an old rail bed that once carried the Cannonball Stage Line, the Prairie Sunset Trail passes underneath canopies of oak and black walnut trees, past parks and pastoral farmlands, and across babbling creeks over its 15 miles on the western outskirts of Wichita. Visitors can find sustenance in several places along the crushed-limestone trail, including the Goddard Farmers’ Market in the warmer months. In time, trail stewards hope to extend the trail eastward to connect with other Jayhawk greenways.