For many folks from the Midwest or the East Coast, Kansas is a state you have to get through to get to the Rocky Mountains. Kansas is flat, but flat doesn’t equal boring. In fact, Kansas ranks seventh in terms of flatness. Florida and Illinois rank first and second, respectively.
There are some great places to roam in the Sunflower State, and you won’t bust a lung doing it. Many of these hikes are in state parks, which require permits from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism. A yearly pass costs $25, and a daily permit costs $5. Most of these hikes are also close to Interstate 70, which means that those driving east or west can take a quick walk to break up their drive.
1. Kings Creek Loop Trail, Konza Prairie Natural Area
This hike offers an incredible glimpse into what early travelers saw when deciding to put down roots: acres of bluestem prairie grasses.
The Kings Creek Loop Trail at the Konza Prairie Natural Area is about 4.5 miles long. Students from Kansas State, just up the road, study this region, hoping to preserve the prairie. This is where the prairie and forest meet in the Flint Hills. These hills go from Oklahoma to the far north part of Kansas along the east central part of the state. In many areas, the flinty rocks have surfaced on the prairie dirt, giving some of the hills broken glades. Plan for a sunset walk, when the prairie turns gold.
No dogs, no bikes, no collecting -- this is a research area.
2. Flint Hills Nature Trail
This rails-to-trails project follows the route of the Missouri Pacific from Osawatomie, near Kansas City, to Herington, 117 miles west. The Flint Hills include the last remaining tallgrass prairie ecosystems in the world. The eastern part of the trail follows the Marais des Cygnes River. This river looks more like a robust creek, but looks can be deceiving. Over the years, this creek has been known to flood. Now it is encased in levees and floodwalls.
This trail is heavily used by bicyclists and horseback riders. Even with that traffic, it’s a good stroll with some wonderful river views. This trail was once privately operated by a group that wanted to preserve the rail corridor as a trail. Eventually, the state of Kansas took it over.
There is some talk of the trail being extended to the Missouri border and linked up to the Katy Trail, which would result in a nearly 400-mile-long biking and hiking trail.
3. Horsethief Canyon, Kanopolis State Park
This is my pick for the best hike in Kansas. Check out TravelAwaits’ picks for the best hikes in all 50 states here. The Horsethief Canyon hike is in Kanopolis State Park near Ellsworth. Kanopolis was the first state park in Kansas and includes sandstone bluffs, caves, and Horsethief Canyon. The orange-marked part of this walk is one of the more strenuous walks on this list and goes in and out of narrow, rocky canyons. There are also some water crossings, which can make for interesting times. The hike is only about 5 miles long and relatively flat, and the trail is well marked. You’ll be treated to great views of the man-made Kanopolis Lake. Be sure to walk to the dam and check out the waterfall at the spillway.
Near the Horsethief Canyon hike are a couple of spots to check out. My favorite is Mushroom Rock State Park. Unusual erosion created these rock pillars topped with larger rocks. The rocks are made of beach sands and sediments that eroded, but the harder rock on top stayed. This was a meeting spot for both native tribes and pioneers.
The Faris Caves are also intriguing. Hand dug in the 1880s, these caves served as coolers in the summer months -- and at one point, even as a schoolhouse.
4. Badger Creek Trail, Fall River Badger Creek Trails
This hike will take you around Fall River Lake, about 70 miles east of Wichita. It’s unusual for Kansas in that it is fully covered by forest. In the fall, when the leaves are down, it can be hard to find the trail among the leaf litter, so bring a map. In addition, there is no cell phone service, so you’ll need paper. Badger Creek is a great little trail, including a 7-mile loop with views of the lake.
There are some steep switchbacks on the trail, but the going is easy enough. There are some large rock formations at the top of the hills that some folks like to climb on. Look for columbine flowers in summer among the rocks.
5. Perry State Park
Perry State Park is located just northeast of Topeka, the state capital. The crown jewel of this park is Perry Lake, created by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1966 to control flooding and to provide recreation. The nickname says it all: “Paradise of the Plains.”
There are 29 miles of trails accessible to the public around and near the lake. The hikes include varied terrain -- some easy slopes and some more strenuous climbs. Most of the hikes offer spectacular views of the lake, which has 160 miles of shoreline. The trails do dip down close to the water’s edge in some areas.
The trail is only for hikers and dogs and is maintained by the Corps of Engineers. The area can get buggy, so be prepared.
6. Agave Ridge Loop, Cedar Bluff State Park
The Agave Ridge Loop is located in Cedar Bluff State Park, which straddles the Cedar Bluff Reservoir. The trail is named for the Great Plains yucca plants that dot the area. The beginning portion is paved and offers lots of signage about the flora and fauna in the area. After about a mile, the trail becomes a rather primitive dirt and rock path. On the western end of this hike, keep an eye out for the 100-foot-tall bluffs that plunge into the water. They are topped with the cedar trees that give the park its name.
Pro Tip: This is western Kansas, so cowboy boots are okay.
7. Dodge City Trails
Dodge City is in the far southwestern part of the state. It was once an important cowtown thanks to a tick that forced Texas cattle drives to move to the western part of the state; farmers on the east end of Kansas demanded a quarantine line to keep the ticks away from their herds.
Today, Dodge City has a variety of trails and walking paths. The Gunsmoke Trail, named for the popular TV show of the 1950s and ’60s, winds through the town, and there’s plenty of Old West history to see along the way.
About 9 miles west of Dodge City are remnants of the Santa Fe Trail, which was the way west for many pioneers. You can see the rut trails left behind 150 years ago by wagon wheels.
8. Elk River Hiking Trail, Elk City State Park
This hike takes you around Elk City Lake and is 15 miles point to point. However, you can do as much or as little as you’d like. This hike has a National Trails designation. Be prepared for some up-and-down hiking, thanks to the canyon streams that feed into the lake. The trail is rugged and rocky, so wear good hiking shoes. Also notice the bluffs that line the lake, providing some dramatic views.
9. Chisholm Creek Trail, Chisholm Creek Park
This trail is inside the Chisholm Creek Park, which is managed by the city of Wichita, and it is completely handicap accessible. It’s a great stroll that winds along the creek and features lots of side trails, including one to the Great Plains Nature Center.
Touring the center is free, and there is tons to see. The center highlights the Great Plains and the human impact on the prairies that stretched for hundreds of miles in either direction. There’s an aquarium featuring fish that inhabit the local waters. There’s also an unusual way to see wildlife from inside the nature center: a viewing area inside the building called the Bob Gress Wildlife Observatory. It overlooks the wetlands of Chisholm Creek Park and, thanks to the feeders, songbirds, woodpeckers, turkeys, and even four-legged critters can be seen with the binoculars offered by the center.
Take your time on the trail, and for a treat, walk it at sunrise. You’ll enjoy some solitude and more chances to see wildlife.
Hopefully, this quick review of Kansas hikes will get you off the interstate, out of the car, and onto a trail. Kansas isn’t just a place to suffer through on the way to someplace else -- it’s a place to enjoy in its own right.
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