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Kansas lakes, trails offer opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 18, 2013, at 5:29 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

Every year, thousands of Kansans head to the Ozarks or the Rockies to enjoy the outdoors, leaving some danged fine fishing, hiking and other fun behind.

Here are some suggestions for where you may be able to enjoy the best of Kansas outdoors this summer.

Fishing

Kansas may not have much trout fishing in the summer, but there’s plenty of other piscine creatures to be pursued.

• McPherson and Butler state fishing lakes – These two bodies of water of 100 or so acres offer some of the best public bass fishing in Kansas. Both are about 50 miles from Wichita.

McPherson is especially promising once aquatic weed beds begin to develop as the water warms up during the summer.

Both fish well from small boats, float tubes or by wading.

Although the law allows anglers to keep fish of certain sizes, catch-and-release angling is the key to keeping quality bass in these fisheries.

Other small lakes worth checking out are Chase State Fishing Lake and Marion County Lake.

Most state fishing lakes also have feeding programs that help fatten and concentrate catfish through the summer.

They’re also great places to take kids. Thread a piece of a worm onto a small hook about 2 feet below a tiny bobber. Dangle the worm by the weed beds, rocks or brush along a shoreline, and kids are about guaranteed to catch bluegill or sunfish.

• Milford and Wilson reservoirs – These two lakes just north of I-70 annually vie for the informal title of the best fishing reservoir in Kansas in debates among anglers.

Out on the open water, anglers trolling or using electronics to find brush piles or submerged river and creek channels stand good chances of catching walleye at both lakes. Some of Kansas’ best wiper fishing is at Milford. The big fish are stripers at Wilson.

Closer to shore, anglers casting plastic jigs tipped with nightcrawlers, minnows or leaches can often have fun mixed-bag angling (fishing for multiple species) by wading and casting off points that jut out into the main lake or large coves. Channel catfish, white bass, drum, walleye and largemouth and smallmouth bass can be caught this way.

Both lakes offer some of Kansas’ best largemouth and smallmouth bass populations, for those with the boats and gear.

State parks

Kansas state parks offer good camping sites and services. Most, though, have a few things that set them apart from the others.

• Scott State Park, just north of Scott City, looks more like a set for an old John Wayne movie than a Kansas state park. The park and its lake sit well within a high-walled canyon in a land of prairie dogs, mule deer, yucca cactus and steep rimrocks.

Compared to other state parks, Scott is pretty small, as is the lake that winds its way through the park.

It was once rated as one of the top 50 state parks in the nation by National Geographic’s Traveler magazine, and last summer USA Today said it had the best beach in Kansas.

• Kanopolis State Park, about 80 miles north of Wichita, is Kansas’ oldest and one of the most scenic. Rather than rolling hardwoods found in eastern Kansas parks, it has rolling prairie and the Horsethief Canyon area.

Like Scott State Park, the landscape is like a scene from a western filmed in New Mexico or Arizona.

The area – and the trails that cross it – contains clear streams, cliffs and caves, and all are full of history.

A good way to see the region is on a horseback trail ride with Walt Gove, a wrangler who for several years has been guiding rides through an area he compares to Yellowstone. He can be reached at 785-826-0743.

If you go, check out Mushroom Rock State Park a few miles to the north, which, as the name suggests, is filled with large mushroom-shaped rocks.

• Cross Timbers State Park is along the Toronto Reservoir in southeast Kansas, but it is named after the unique geographic region where it sits. Hiking trails through the area go through stunted oaks that may be about 200 years old, past ferns and wildflowers found in no other region and down through steep rimrock canyons.

It is also one of the few state parks that offers free use of kayaks and canoes. The Blue Water Trail along the lake’s shore has about 15 interpretive stops and takes less than an hour. Reservations can be made at 620-637-2213.

(Oh, by the way, the water’s really not blue, but it’s still a scenic and enjoyable paddle.)

• El Dorado and Cheney state parks are both less than an hour from Wichita and are two of the most popular in Kansas based on the number of visitors. Both offer good beach areas for swimming, playgrounds and well-maintained hiking trails.

• Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton, about 50 miles north of Wichita, is home to about 200 bison, which can be viewed from an observation tower or from the road while driving through the refuge. Friends of Maxwell offers tram tours at 10 a.m. Saturdays and upon request throughout the week, giving visitors a chance to see the bison up close. Cost is $8 for adults and $5 for children under 12. Reservations are required; call 620-628-4455. Campsites and a cabin are available at the adjacent McPherson State Fishing Lake.

For more information, go to www.kdwpt.state.ks.us.

Trails

Imagine walking from Wichita to Baltimore and then back again. That’s about 2,000 miles – and there are about that many miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding and floating trails in Kansas.

Here are a few of the better ones to target for fun this summer.

• Switchgrass Mountain Bike Trail – This roller coaster of a biking and hiking trail loops through the Smoky Hills prairie alongside Wilson Reservoir. In places the trail crosses shoreline rocky cliffs that tower 30 or more feet straight above one of Kansas’ clearest lakes.

The entire trail is about 25 miles, but you can bike shorter sections.

Spend a few hours on the Switchgrass Trail and you’ll see why it’s gaining national acclaim as arguably the best biking trail on the Great Plains.

• Elk River Trail has also won national awards as one of the top hiking trails in America. Mostly along Elk City Reservoir, the trail is about 15 miles long and passes through some amazing rimrock and mature hardwood forests.

Be prepared for ticks. Spraying Permethrin directly onto your hiking clothing a day or two in advance is your best bet. The stuff lasts up to six weeks, even after washings, but don’t put it directly on your skin.

• As its name implies, the Flint Hills Nature Trail runs about 80 miles through Kansas’ tallgrass country, mostly along an abandoned railroad bed that’s been modified for easy hiking and biking.

With little elevation change, the trail can be handled by most kinds of bikes. Late May and June are prime times to see many kinds of wildflowers. Picking up the trail at Council Grove may be the best bet. Riders can either turn around and head back to Council Grove after a few hours or leave a second vehicle where one of many country roads cross the trail near U.S. 56. For more information and a map of access points, go to www.kanzatrails.org.

• Both the Arkansas and Kansas rivers offer good floating opportunities. The latter is gaining attention as additional access sites are added from Junction City to Kansas City.

The Friends of the Kaw, the river’s leading conservation group, offers float trips and online information on the Kansas River. Check www.kansasriver.org.

The Arkansas River Coalition, www.arkriver.org, is the group that offers float trips down the Arkansas River. There is generally no charge for their services, and they can provide all of the needed equipment. They generally have monthly evening floats in the immediate Wichita area, too.

Other outdoors activities

Geocaching is one of the fastest-growing outdoors pastimes in the world, with more than 2 million cache sites spread across most countries.

The sites are placed by geocachers, who offer GPS coordinates and hints online to create a kind of high-tech scavenger hunt. Most sites have a sign-in sheet and places where people who leave a small trinket can take another.

Kansas is very well represented, with about 200 caches just within Wichita. There are several within most parks, state parks and along hiking trails. It’s an outdoors pleasure that’s perfect for families wanting to get kids outside to burn some energy and seniors looking for an excuse to exercise.

All that’s required is a GPS, of which some hand-held units sell for around $100. Many smartphones also can get GPS applications. For all you need to know, go to www.geocaching.com.

Via Christi Bird Show – With such legendary wild places as the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area near Great Bend and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Stafford, Kansas offers some tremendous opportunities for watching wildlife.

One of the best, believe it or not, is smack dab in the middle of Wichita.

Seriously.

For the past several summers around Aug. 1, up to 50,000 purple martins have been gathering to roost in a line of ornamental trees on the east side of the parking lot in front of Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis. The martins are probably from local birdhouses, gathering before their big migrational push.

It’s a pretty quick show with the first of the birds usually gathering high overhead a little before sunset. At some unknown signal, they start pouring downward from the sky like water from a hose, spraying a wide swath of martins into the trees.

It’s become a big enough deal that some local families make the viewing an annual event, complete with a picnic dinner. It’s also bringing wildlife lovers in from other towns.

Don’t procrastinate. The bigger numbers of birds are usually gone by about Aug. 10.

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