KANOPOLIS STATE PARK — Six horseback riders crossed a tallgrass savannah, then had hilltop views of a sprawling lake.
The horses were stirrup deep as they crossed a clear stream in a valley that looked straight from a classic John Wayne western, framed by towering rim rock with a pair of sizable caves and scarred where buffalo hooves had cut into rock for centuries. Eventually the riders traversed dense woodlands and toured a rugged canyon of giant, rose-colored boulders.
Paula Avery, of Salina, thought of her North Carolina relatives who wonder why she lives in Kansas.
Theyve just never seen this side of what Kansas can look like, said Avery, as she rode a buckskin-colored horse named Mariah. This is so beautiful.
Wrangler Doje Kosek had led the crew on about 11 of the nearly 30 miles of public trails in and around Kanopolis State Park. The 1,600-acre park at the reservoir of the same name is about a 90-minute drive northwest of Wichita.
Unknown to most Kansans, its gaining national attention. Kanopolis was ranked 14th nationally by the Active Times in a recent article on stunning state parks.
The ranking is tough to dispute. Save the flood control reservoir, most of the rugged Smoky Hill River valley has changed little since the days when it was roamed by the likes of Carson, Custer, Cody and the Cheyenne.
There are a lot of places where you can feel like youre the first person whos ever ventured there, said Wendy Bowles, a state park conservation for 24 years.
Kanopolis State Park holds standard state park fare, like about 200 primitive campsites and about 130 with utilities. There are shower houses, playgrounds, outdoors worship services on Sundays and a kids pond heavily stocked with fish. The 3,000-acre reservoir can have good fishing, holds a marina and offers enough room for pleasure boating.
Wildlife thrives in the park. Prairie and woodland songbirds are seen and heard through the day, and deer and turkey come out at dusk and dawn. For those with binoculars, a nesting pair of bald eagles and their young can be watched from a park road.
But it is the parks northern end, the Horsethief Canyon region, that Bowles says makes the park special. Most of the best places are readily accessed.
Bowles said most of the trails are open to horseback, mountain biking and foot traffic. One of the shortest, the Buffalo Track Canyon Nature Trail, is family-oriented and only for hikers. Less than a mile each-way, it may hold more wow moments per stride than any trail in the Midwest.
Tuesday morning, Bowles headed up the sandy trail, through yucca cactus and in and out of towering sandstone cliffs. Crossing a small brook, she climbed a tall, rocky mound and entered Oven Cave.
They say the Indians used to dry buffalo meat in this cave, after stampeding them over that cliff, said Bowles, pointing to a daunting canyon face across the small valley.
Further up the valley she climbed to check the trails namesake buffalo hoof-carved stairs in vibrant red rock and another sizable cave. She stopped to read names and inscriptions etched in the soft sandstone. Some are fairly recent, others from the 1800s. Scattered about, for those who look very closely, are symbols and signs made pre-civilization.
Though popular with all levels of hikers and mountain bikers, the Kanopolis trails are well known in equestrian circles. Bowles credits the enjoyable terrain, long rides and the parks horse-friendly flavor.
It was the first state park with special facilities for equestrian campers. Several Midwestern riding clubs are regulars. Bowles said its known as a fine horse hotel for those traveling with horses along nearby I-70 or I-135.
With the only trail ride concession based in a Kansas state park, even those without horses can ride into the back country.
About 12 years ago, Kosek and her business partner/companion Walt Gove started the Goverland Stage Stop near the horse campground. Gove died last summer, but Kosek is back in business this year.
With no clients on Tuesday, she took to the trails with Avery, three other friends and a photographer. The ride lasted about 4 1/2 hours and covered some distant areas even Kosek seldom sees and other places she guides almost daily.
Long evening shadows paralleled the horses as they made their way down from the rimrock and along pools created by beaver dams before fording two streams to access a main trail well worn by Koseks horses.
I had a guy ask me if I ever got tired of riding the same trails, said Kosek, an East Coast native who swears she will never move back. I told him never. Theres just so much to see and things are always changing, like the flowers, the wildlife.
It seems like I waited my whole life to get out here. Now it feels like I can finally breathe.