COUNCIL GROVE — From the edge of town, Scott Allen can ride his bicycle east for about 60 miles.
The smooth trail splits lush farm fields and passes beneath long, leafy tunnels of over-hanging trees.
It goes over bridges that split the tops of some ancient elms that grow along the banks of a clear stream far below.
Allen’s favorite sections, though, are where the Flint Hills Nature Trail lives up to its name.
“This is one of the hidden gems of the Flint Hills,” said Allen, as he passed a wide vista of waving prairie grass and vibrant wild flowers. “You can go 6½ miles without crossing a road.”
Someday, he’ll be able to ride much farther on the trail.
Allen is a member of the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy, a private group that’s been working on the 117-mile trail for about 10 years.
According to Doug Walker, conservancy president, it’s the sixth-longest rail trail in the nation and the largest in private hands.
The route got its start in the 1870s, when railroads pushed westward to serve a spreading civilization.
By the mid-1990s, the line had been abandoned because of low profits and rail trails were permitted.
When complete, the Flint Hills Nature Trail will run from Herington, which is 25 miles west of Council Grove, to Osawatomie, which is about 12 miles from the Missouri border.
The section from Council Grove eastward 60 miles to Quenemo is the longest stretch of the about 80 miles that are currently open.
Funding from private foundations, corporations and individuals has been fairly consistent.
“We’ve raised over $800,000 in about 10 years,” Walker said. “People who have given money in the past are usually willing to give again once they see what we’ve accomplished with the initial gift.”
Allen said volunteers are usually found in and around the towns the trail crosses. Some donate a lot.
Allen, a Council Grove manufacturer, has his pickup loaded with tools so he can work on the trail over his lunch hours.
Frank Meyer, of Herington, purchased an old road grader so he could work and level many miles of trail.
On a Wednesday tour, Allen showed how original railroad bridges were covered for easy crossing by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
In most places, the trail is covered with crushed and packed limestone.
Walker and Allen look forward to the days when people can make multi-day biking, hiking or horseback riding trips along the trail.
The diversity of the surrounding geography and topography should be a good draw.
“It’s kind of amazing how much the trail changes from season to season,” Walker said. “It’s not the same trail in the fall as in the spring or in the winter. It seems like there’s always something new to see. It never gets old.”
There’s hope the trail could lead to other trails.
The Flint Hills Nature Trail already intersects the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail, a 50-mile state park trail that goes south from Ottawa. It also meets the Landon Nature Trail, another conservancy project of about 40 miles near Topeka.
Allen hopes for even more.
“It’s kind of a goal to connect our trail to Kansas City, and people in Kansas City are trying to find a way to connect with the (237-mile) Katy Trail,” Allen said. “When that happens, you could bike all the way to St. Louis. That would be fun.”