ELK CITY STATE PARK — Through ancient forests and past boulders the size of small houses, a trail winds through stone passages so tight hikers may wish they had eaten fewer pancakes for breakfast – while at the same time wishing they had eaten more as they tackled another taxing climb.
In a nearby campground along a sizable lake, tree-shaded dwellings from tiny tents to RVs better equipped than some homes sit on well-maintained grounds.
The trail and the campground are at Elk City State Park, a place many from the Wichita area utilize despite the two-hour drive. The area offers about 25 miles of hiking trails, quiet camping spots, boating, seasonally good fishing and usually few hassles.
“About 20 percent of our people are from the Wichita area,” said Chris Hammerschmidt, state park manager. “That’s pretty neat because they drive by some good lakes to get here. Most say they just like the peace and quiet.”
At about 900 acres and 150 campsites, Elk City State Park is dwarfed by many other parks. Elk City Reservoir, where the park sits in southeast Kansas, draws a fraction of the fishermen, boaters and hikers of better known areas. It’s not from lack of opportunities.
In 1998 Elk City Reservoir produced the world-record flathead catfish of 123 pounds. Smaller channel catfish are common, and at times Elk City is one of Kansas’ best crappie spots.
One of the lake’s best springtime spots is a wide cove in the middle of the state park.
“There could be 100 different people in here when the spawn is really going,” Hammerschmidt said as he drove by a half-dozen anglers in the state park one morning last week. “Sometimes it seems like everybody is catching fish, and other days (fish) are pretty rare.”
Hammerschmidt said large numbers of power boats are pretty rare, too. With no marina or long-term docks on the lake, boat traffic is mostly limited to a few locals and campers.
“You see some go speeding across the main lake a time or two but that’s about it,” he said. “After that, most just go over to (a cove tucked into the state park) and just anchor and swim or relax.”
For those with smaller craft, especially canoes or kayaks, the Elk River that feeds the reservoir is an ideal option. Chatt Martin, a well-traveled fishing guide from Lawrence, calls it “the prettiest section of river in Kansas.”
Martin said the river – which has a ramp and courtesy dock for the public – has good populations of crappie, catfish and bass, and is well protected from the wind.
“Man, what a river,” Martin said. “It’s just a beautiful and relaxing place to fish.”
Though some stretches can be physically taxing, hiking the many miles of trails that trace the lake or the river can be relaxing, too.
Hammerschmidt stopped often as he hiked the state park’s 2 3/4-mile Table Mound Trail, more for breathtaking sights than to catch his breath. He paused atop rock outcroppings that dropped scores of feet to the water’s edge. He stopped a few times by lavender redbuds and delicate columbine flowers just spreading from buds of lavender and white.
But mostly he stopped amid the giant rock formations along the trail’s ridge and like a child explored the tight labyrinths and small caves slightly off the main path. He stopped and commented on an old, stunted cedar tree seemingly sprouting from solid rock and admired broad blankets of moss and lichens that coated some of the rocks, and lush ferns where there was actual soil along the rocky trail.
The next morning he hiked more of the same on a tiny bit of the Elk City Trail, a nationally renowned trail that stretches through 15 miles of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land and is maintained by the Kansas Trails Council. One trailhead is near the state park.
Granted it was a weekday, but the only voices Hammerschmidt heard either day were from songbirds, and the only tracks along the trail were made by deer and raccoons.
Things were about as peaceful Tuesday evening when Eddie Dieker, of Iola, put up a small tent on a state park spot shaded by oaks and overlooking the lake, literally a stone’s throw away. After a trip to the shower house, Dieker sat at his site’s picnic table and slowly got gear organized for the next day’s travels.
Twice in an hour the sound of a power boat echoed through the campground. Other than that he mostly heard laughter from campers and anglers across the grounds, plus a non-stop symphony of bird calls that included the first distance whippoorwills of the evening.
“You just can’t beat this for a place to camp,” Dieker said. “You just can’t.”