From the Rockies to the Appalachians, Steve Siebele has hiked and backpacked hundreds of miles through country as rugged as it is beautiful, spending his nights camping beneath the stars.
Yet one of his favored trails is a half-hour from his home in Fredonia – the 15-mile Elk River Hiking Trail.
“It’s such a special place and it’s right here in Kansas,” said Siebele. “It’s so beautiful, and a perfect place for an all-day hike or a two-day backpack, camping along the trail.”
The trail runs along the northern shore of Elk City Reservoir, near Independence. The trails, and two others by the lake, are more reminiscent of the rugged Ozarks than prairie.
On Wednesday, Ron Boyer, a trail fan who’s traveled much of the world, gave a tour of the path his family has enjoyed for more than 20 years.
“It’s a great trail with a lot of diversity,” said Boyer, also from Fredonia. “There are places you can run and places where you have to claw your way up and along. It’s not what most people expect for (Kansas).”
From the east trailhead, Boyer crossed a meadow, then a stream, and followed the trail’s serpentine course through mature hardwoods as it climbed towards the trail’s famed rock formations.
Like castle walls, the tall stones rise up from the ridges. Some rocks are as big as small houses, and boulders as big as bathtubs are scattered about.
Rather than below or atop the escarpments, the Elk River trail weaves in and out of the massive formations.
“The trail never takes the easy way,” said Boyer, who, along with Siebele, cares for the trail for the Kansas Trails Council. “If there’s a neat rock to see up some steep climb, that’s where the trail goes. It has some challenging places.”
The trail leads through tight passageways where hikers use both hands, both feet and maybe a little mid-section wriggling to traverse.
Dozens of times the trail passes near overhangs that seem to defy gravity, and through massive, stone-covered passageways.
Many sections climb and descend at rates that offer lung- and leg-tiring reminders that not all of Kansas is flat.
In fact, the Elk River trail is rugged enough to continually host Kansas’ first and largest ultra trail run – the FlatRock 50/25-K race held each September since 1995.
Eric Steele, race director, frequently hears participants say the trail is one of the toughest races in the Midwest.
Most who use the trail are probably in no hurry, as every bend brings a new view. From some places, much of the 4,000-acre reservoir can be seen, while others offer many-mile vistas across the countryside.
Closer in, velvety green moss carpets wide stretches of stone. Delicate pink columbine flowers sprout from rocky crevices.
The path sometimes crosses streams or passes pools so clear a 2-inch tadpole can be seen in 2 feet of water.
With only six hours for a tour, compared with the 11 hours most budget to hike the entire trail, Boyer drove to various locations and hiked in to show his favorite spots.
He saved the best for last.
After lunch, Boyer traversed traditional hardwood forests before tracing the Elk River near the trail’s western end. The hike often passed beneath two- and three-story cliffs.
At the mouth of a small canyon, a smile crossed Boyer’s face when he heard the sound of falling water.
Within minutes he was at the back of the canyon, staring up at about 10 small streams free-falling through the air, with some of the waterfalls falling 10 feet or more.
He said the amount of water falling depends on the amount of recent rains.
Save his guest, Boyer didn’t see another hiker Wednesday. Deer, raccoon and bobcat tracks outnumbered those left by boots when he got more than a mile from an access point.
All three Elk River trail experts say trail use has increased the past three or four years. It’s gotten some attention from publications and online sources.
Steele is sure that visiting runners at his race take home good reports.
“It’s just word-of-mouth advertising,” he said. “People like it and they tell others.”
All agreed the trail can handle more visitors. In fact, Boyer said more boots would help trample the trail and keep the surrounding vegetation from re-claiming it so easily.
Save the discomfort of summer heat, Boyer and Siebele say there’s no bad time to see the Elk River trail.
Taking a seat below a significant rock overhang to watch the falls and enjoy air cooled by the stone, the water and a nice breeze, he reflected on the seasons.
He talked of the trail’s spring beauty, with thousands of lavender redbuds in full bloom, and of fall colors.
Like Siebele, he especially likes the trail in the dead of winter. Then, the foliage is down so the views are broader and the details of the rocks more visible.
“Several times I’ve come out here to hike and camp along the trail on New Year’s Eve,” Boyer said. “That’s always nice.”