Plenty of room to roam, relax at El Dorado State Park

08/29/2014 9:13 PM

08/31/2014 8:32 AM

With Wednesday’s sunrise, Seth Turner found El Dorado Reservoir’s surface so smooth it perfectly reflected the pastels of a colorful sunrise, and wakes could be seen trailing five mallard ducks 100 yards from shore.

The setting was so serene that a whitetail doe and bespectacled fawn calmly stepped from where they’d been grazing in a vacant campsite and disappeared into a wall of wildflowers when Turner drove by. All was so quiet that from a quarter-mile the assembly call of a female quail gathering her scattered chicks for a day of feasting on grasshoppers was easily heard.

It was the quiet before this weekend’s storm of activity at El Dorado State Park.

Over this holiday weekend, Turner expects 40,000 or more visitors. That means that with the exception of Wichita, and maybe Hutchinson, El Dorado State Park could be the largest community in the southern half of Kansas this weekend. Watercraft with skiers, anglers and pleasure boaters will be zipping across the water. The popular campground Turner shared only with wildlife on Wednesday will be equally alive with activity.

Looking for a place to get away from it all?

“No problem,” said Turner, manager of Kansas’ largest state park. “The park is 4,300 acres and we’ve got 8,000 surface acres of water and 98 miles of shoreline to be walked. We’ve got a lot of room; there’s a lot people can do.”

After more than three hours of patrolling Wednesday morning, Turner had only seen a portion of what the park has to offer. Some years the park attracts 1 million or more visitors. Most years it’s the most popular state park in Kansas.

Leaving the park’s office near the lake’s dam, Turner mentioned that the park has more than 1,100 camping sites scattered amid four campgrounds located well apart on three sides of the lake and below the dam. Within those are 18 camping loops. Even on prime Flint Hills prairie, the campsites are laid out so most campers only see a few nearby sites.

Turner said even the 53 miles of roads that connect all the sites are drawing people to his park.

“We‘re getting more people training for triathlons,” he said. “Because they can go to the beach, swim, jump on their bike and ride, then jump off their bike and run as far as they want.” The open spaces between the campgrounds, and their respective loops, also are popular with wildlife watchers.

Tuesday evening a photographer slowly cruised those roads photographing flocks of around 40 turkeys racing each other for grasshoppers, and the does and fawns with spots that seemed to glow in the last rays of sunlight. Better was the birding on the roads that bisected woodlands, marshes and grasslands. Several species of sparrows, bluebirds, swallows and many common songbirds were about.

The most entertaining were the strikingly gorgeous scissor-tailed flycatchers. Gathered in pre-migration flocks of a dozen or more, they dipped and dived in mid-air, using their namesake long, V-shaped tails for rudders as they feasted on mayflies rising from the grasses.

Wednesday morning Turner stopped and watched a group of guests wanting to experience nature away from the roads and from the high-up view of a saddle.

El Dorado State Park has about 30 miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers. Of that, 22 miles are open to horseback riding and one campground is especially designed for riders, with corrals and water.

“There’s also two miles of cement trail in our Walnut River Campground,” Turner said. “We also hook into the trail that leads you right into El Dorado, and I think it’s about another 11 miles.”

For water fun, Turner said the state park has two maintained beaches and seven boat ramps, most of which have courtesy docks. The lake, Turner said, is prime for fishing this year with good populations of channel and blue catfish, walleye, wipers and other popular species. About any of those species can be caught using white perch for bait.

An invasive species, the small, silvery white perch must be killed by anglers whenever caught. (Signs at boat ramps and docks tell visitors how to identify the fish.) Turner said anglers have been placing all or parts of the dying or dead fish on a hook and using a stout weight to fish it on the lake’s bottom. Those in boats can let the wind take their boat and bait over flats where fish might be feeding. Shoreline anglers do well, too, especially when casting from areas where an old river or creek channel passes near shore, like in the Shady Creek Campgrounds.

“There have been some really big channel catfish caught along this bank and some great blue catfish over around those trees,” Turner said from Shady Creek, pointing across the lake, near the Blue Stem Point Campground, then pushing his hands wide to indicate the length of some fish measuring 40 or more inches. “We’ve got plenty of really quality fish in here these days.”

There are plenty of other quality things to experience at El Dorado State Park, too.

El Dorado State Park

This is the fifth in a six-part monthly series on Kansas state parks. For more information on Kansas state parks, go to www.ksoutdoors.com.

El Dorado State Park borders the northeast city limits of El Dorado, about 35 miles from Wichita. The park has a full-service marina, and most supplies are readily available in town, too.

The daily vehicle rate to access the park is $5; the annual rate is $25. Annual permits can be purchased for $15.50 when vehicle licenses are renewed. The park has 10 cabins, and some campsites offer utility options that can cost up to $12 per day.

El Dorado Reservoir does contain a high number of zebra mussels, which attach to rocks in the shallows and can cut human skin. Those wading in the lake are advised to wear footwear. The lake has fish limits different from many reservoirs. Signs near ramps and docks list size restrictions and daily limits.

Hiking trails have limited maintenance, so care should be taken. Insect repellent is recommended.

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