On Tuesday evening, Matt Bain traveled across miles of sprawling fields and pastures. Oil wells and utility poles were the tallest things in sight.
But when he rounded a bend on a dusty two-track road, Bain stopped his pickup at the mouth of a valley of rising rock formations, some reaching 100 feet into the air. Up to 200 yards in each direction were towering, blonde-colored rocks that ranged from spires rising to sharp points to straight-sided, flat-topped buttes.
Any Kansas backroads traveler worth their DeLorme Atlas could tell the formations dwarfed the legendary Pyramid Rocks – billed as one of the eight wonders of Kansas – in both size and beauty.
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“This is maybe 10 percent of Little Jerusalem,” Bain said of what was in sight. “These rocks are a mile long, the largest rock formation in Kansas.
“It’s nothing short of amazing, really.”
And the day is coming when the public can wander these natural wonders that sit between Scott City and Oakley.
Last week, the Nature Conservancy of Kansas bought a 330-acre tract that holds the 250 acres of giant rocks.
“It’s such a unique piece of property, we wanted it open to the public and not turn (it) into a four-wheel drive park or a hunting resort someday,” said Jim McGuire, 67, whose family had owned the rocks through at least five generations. “I wanted it so people could walk down in those rocks and enjoy someplace special.”
McGuire doesn’t know how the formation got named after the city in the Holy Land. Bain said the rocks were prominently mentioned by explorers and travelers who crossed the nearby Smoky Hill River Valley throughout the 1800s.
Bain, manager of the conservancy’s nearby 17,000-acre Smoky Valley Ranch, said the land’s history dates back 85 million years, when it was part of a giant sea. Events – including glacial periods and centuries of rain and wind erosion – left the rocks that now rise in select spots.
“It’s Niobrara chalk, the same kind of rock they have in the Badlands of South Dakota,” Bain said.
Western Kansas’ chalk formations have long been some of the most valued features in the region. For nearly 150 years, people, including scientists, have prowled the high-reaching rocks to find fossilized shark teeth and complete aquatic dinosaurs 20 feet or more in length.
Some wildlife watchers prefer the rocks to any other place in the state.
Within a few minutes, Bain spotted three nests of ferruginous hawks, large clusters of sticks somehow attached to small, level places atop or on the sheer sides of the rocks. Ferruginous hawks, North America’s largest, prey heavily on prairie dogs.
Soon, migrating golden eagles will perch on the rocks to look for prey such as rodents and small pronghorn antelope. Through the spring and summer, large colonies of dainty cliff kites live amid mud nests attached to the stone.
Rob Manes, Nature Conservancy of Kansas director, said the group has long thought the rocks would be a good addition to the Smoky Valley Ranch, which the conservancy purchased in 1999. The ranch and the Little Jerusalem rocks share a half-mile of common boundary.
The price of the sale hasn’t been made public, but Bain said the Nature Conservancy never pays above fair-market value.
Of the purchase, Manes said, “We did it like we do everything: through privately raised donations.
“Actually, we had two individuals put up most of the money. They were that excited to see something like this preserved.”
As with nearly all of the 50,000 acres the conservancy owns in Kansas, the prairie amid Little Jerusalem will be used by local ranchers who lease grazing rights. One reason is to help support the local ranching economy. Another is that since the days of the buffalo, prairies have needed grazing to remain healthy.
“That’s also one of our main goals, to prove that good wildlife management and profitable ranching can exist hand in hand,” Bain said.
As well as several hiking trails, he said, Smoky Valley Ranch has big herds of cattle and buffalo and areas managed to help lesser prairie chickens, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.
McGuire said he appreciates what the Nature Conservancy has accomplished in Kansas. He likes that Bain, also a western Kansas native, will watch over Little Jerusalem.
There’s no timeline for when the public will be allowed to tour the area. Bain said conservancy officials hope to make the area accessible to those with disabilities. They must also protect the rock formation from damage.
“It will have to be foot traffic only,” Manes said. “That’s really such a very fragile area, with the soft rocks. Things could get damaged and destroyed too easily.”
Only 2 to 3 percent of Kansas land is open to the public, which makes this purchase even more critical.
“People crave getting outside, and in Kansas, we always need more places to go,” said Linda Craghead, assistant secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“This is also a face of Kansas that most people never have the opportunity to experience.”
Bain agreed and hopes people will take time to really experience the rock formations. That could include sitting atop a butte to watch the sunset while coyotes howl in the distance.
A few minutes after sundown, the light-colored rocks seem to glow in the moonlight.
“You can’t really appreciate the western Kansas prairies until you get into a place like this,” Bain said. “It’s almost impossible to not be inspired.”