WILSON STATE PARK — On a recent evening Bob Nicholson and friends spent a few hours pedaling one of the best biking/hiking trails in the world.
His dog, Tuzi, in the lead, Nicholson and crew did a roller-coaster ride up and over, around and down hillsides of lush prairie grasses, past assorted wild flowers and cactus in full bloom. Rock outcroppings challenged the riders often. Rare straightaways had their trail a yard from where sheer cliffs fell about 50 feet to water so clear they could count tiny stones five feet below the surface.
Eventually they stopped at a place on the Switchgrass Trail as a stunning sunset unfolded over a lake that mirrored every color, and shadows smothered Wilson State Park.
Meanwhile, seven miles to the south on I-70, west-bound vacationers hustling toward the mountains probably ignored the exit to Wilson Reservoir.
“A lot of people know we’re here, but have never been here because they think we’re like most of western Kansas,” said Willis Ohl, Wilson State Park manager. “But once they’re here they say they never expected to see scenery like this or water like this. Most quickly think it’s a special place.”
Special enough that this spring, Active Times ranked Wilson as America’s 34th most scenic state park out of more than 7,000 state parks nationwide.
And within that state park, the Switchgrass Bike Trail – also open to hiking – was ranked as one of 66 Epic Trails in the world by the International Mountain Bicycling Association for its beauty, challenges, upkeep and overall experience.
“You look at a map and it’s the only Epic Trail between Arkansas and Colorado, and Texas and North Dakota so that’s saying something,” said Nicholson, the trail’s volunteer steward for the Kansas Trails Council. “There aren’t many that earn the designation. It’s a really big deal.”
At normal levels, Wilson Reservoir spreads about 9,000 acres through the Smoky Hills, a prairie region of central and western Kansas with less accolades, but some say more beauty, than the better-known Flint Hills.
The red Dakota sandstone, which varies in size from pebbles to towering cliffs, is reminiscent of parts of New Mexico or Utah. Filtered by many thousands of acres of unbroken prairie, the blue water is as clear as that in Canadian backcountry or high in the Rocky Mountains. Rated by many as Kansas’ prettiest reservoir, Wilson State Park also is one of the state’s most popular.
Separated by the Hell Creek arm of the lake and several deep, narrow bays, the park’s 18 individual campgrounds seem fairly private. Ohl estimated the 927-acre park has about 150 campsites with full utilities and 200 primitive sites. There are eight lake-view cabins.
A tour with Ohl found boats at many campsites, ranging from large water-sport craft to canoes and kayaks perfect for exploring the backs of the bays. The lake has a full marina and basic supply and bait store.
Most years Wilson is rated as one of the top fishing lakes in Kansas, with the current state-records for striped bass and walleye. The lake is about six feet low because of drought, but fish populations are strong and access good.
Nicholson, who dedicates about 500 hours annually to maintaining the trail, said all 24 1/2 miles of the Switchgrass Bike Trail are operational for hikers and mountain bikers, with opportunities for about all levels. Totally contained within the state park, the trail contains few straightaways and a seemingly endless series of turns. Some of the more difficult sections have easier cut-offs.
There’s also a 5 1/2 mile section especially designed for new riders. The trail is seeing increased usage by trail runners, too, and is used for races.
Nicholson said the trail has probably been enjoyed by hikers and mountain bikers from all states, and gets year-round use.
“We have people that come down from Minnesota in the winter time,” he said. “They can leave several feet of snow at home and come down and ride.”
Interest has greatly increased since the prestigious Epic Trail recognition in 2012. The trail has become more than just a day-long detour and is becoming more of a destination trail and is popular place for challenging mountain bike races. That means a serious riders from some of the nation’s most mountainous states are coming to Kansas.
“We had some professional racers in May, out here from Colorado,” Nicholson said. “They were very impressed and extremely complimentary. They thought it was a very good trail.”
And for a change, that means vacationers coming from the mountains to Kansas, might look for the I-70 sign to Wilson Reservoir.