Mile after mile, Scott Allen can travel in near silence as his bicycle rolls over a surface so smooth there’s seldom a bump. His only company may be meadowlarks singing from fence posts and red-tail hawks soaring through an endless sky.
There is no automobile traffic, which is good because Allen admits he seldom has his eyes on the trail. His view often stretches for many miles of native grasses and vibrant wildflowers, both of which roll and sway in the ever-present Kansas wind.
But if he stays on the same trail long enough, Allen can be riding through a tunnel of trees that mesh high over the trail, then across bridges that span clear, rocky streams, and along the lip of a deep and steep valley of hardwood forest, reminiscent of the Ozarks in many ways.
“It’s undeniably special, with such uniqueness going through the Flint Hills and then the woodlands,” Allen said of the Flint Hills Nature Trail. “It’s something you can’t get on any other trail in the entire country. It’s special, very special.”
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At more than 90 miles long, it’s the longest of Kansas’ more than 3,000 miles of trails for hiking, biking or horseback riding.
What began as a “you gotta be crazy” dream for a few Kansans 16 years ago is now open for public use. A few spots are a bit rough, though certainly passable, but hikers and bikers can go 90 miles, end to end, if they like.
Linda Craghead, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism assistant secretary, said the Flint Hills Nature Trail is already becoming a destination for people who overnight in state parks, private campgrounds or motels near the trail. She thinks trail use will grow rapidly, once Kansans find out all it has to offer.
“Most people don’t realize the interest Kansans have in trails these days, said Craghead, who runs the state’s tourism department. “People want to get out, and get away from the cities and towns. It’s a huge, huge desire.”
It’s only a matter of time, Craghead believes, until the trail stretches to nearly 120 miles and meets with other Kansas trails of 38 and 53 miles. She also sees the growth of more services along the trails, which could be an economic benefit for small communities nearby. That, in turn, will also draw more people to the trails.
“The more we can bring on, the better people like it,” said Craghead.
From rails to trails
For about 100 years, trains traveled what’s now the Flint Hills Nature Trail. Allen said the Missouri Pacific Railroad quit using the rails in the early 1990s. Rails and ties were removed, and brush and trees soon began reclaiming the pathway. In 1996 the Kansas Horseman Foundation acquired rights to the old line, hoping to make it a multiuse trail.
When it failed, a group of residents living up and down the line formed the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy in 2001, taking on the monumental goal of turning the abandoned rail line into a trail.
“When I first got involved, so many people told me I was crazy,” said Allen, of Council Grove, the group’s vice president. “The only idea crazier was not building this trail. It’s too much of a natural resource to let it go to waste. It’s too beautiful not to share.”
During the first few years, trail improvements were done by volunteers who cut trees and brush back to the edge of the original railroad bed. Allen said they also battled erosion damage from the years of neglect and from removing thousands of railroad ties and heavy sections of trail.
“Many tens of thousands of hours have been put into the trail,” Allen said of the volunteers. “Some of the guys, especially on the eastern end of the trail, purchased a lot of the equipment they needed on their own.”
Through time the conservancy received money from private foundations. Craghead said lately about 80 percent of the money used to improve the trail has come from federal transportation funds earmarked for alternative transportation.
Wildlife and Parks also got involved, and helped get money and offered expertise. Trent McCown, manager of the department’s 53-mile Prairie Spirit Trail, has lent his experience working on rail trails.
McCown said workers and volunteers have added many tons of finely crushed limestone to the layer of rock already on the old railroad bed of the Flint Hills Nature Trail. When packed and rolled, it became a surface smooth enough for parents to push strollers on, without waking the baby.
Most of the original railroad bridges have been upgraded or replaced and strong side rails added. The finished products are wide and strong enough in case an ambulance needs to access a remote area
But while the entire 90-plus-mile trail is deemed “traversable,” improvements continue in some areas. McCown said a 15-mile stretch of trail, roughly from Quenemo to Ottawa, is largely complete, with finished bridges and velvety surface. Most other areas need a bit more attention.
Near the trail’s center, the 15.5 miles from Osage City to Admire have an unfinished surface Allen compares it to “a typical gravel road.” In some places, the trail detours onto country roads for a mile or two.
In a few places the trail has some old-style railroad bridges, including gaps of several inches between the ties. Between Bushong and Council Grove, considered the prettiest stretch of the trail through the Flint Hills, the bridge above Rock Creek has no side rails but is more than 10 feet wide and of smooth crushed limestone.
Even better in the future
Allen, McCown and Craghead think the trail will be finished within the next few years. Some of the trailheads where people can access the trails could one day offer camping, large parking lots for horse trailers, shelter houses, bathrooms and interpretive kiosks to explain that area’s history.
There’s another section of the old railroad between Council Grove and Herington that could be added to the trail, which would stretch it to 117 miles.
The trail already intersects Prairie Spirit Trail, which snakes southward from Ottawa for about 53 miles. It also intersects the 38-mile Landon Nature Trail, which comes southward from Topeka. Some parts of that trail still aren’t open.
Craghead said the ultimate goal of the Flint Hills Nature Trail is to rival Missouri’s famed Katy Trail, which runs the width of Missouri for about 240 miles, with its own trail-based economy. Someday, she said, the two trails may be connected, giving hikers and bikers a stretch of nearly 400 miles of trails through the Ozarks and the Flint Hills.
A ‘wonderful asset’
But that’s not to say Kansas’ largest trail isn’t already popular.
“It’s not uncommon to see cars from other counties, and even other states, like Missouri, Iowa and New York,” Allen said of the trailhead in Council Grove. “On a Saturday or Sunday it’s not uncommon to see 10 to 12 horse trailers at the trailhead at Rantoul.”
At the edge of Ottawa on a recent Friday afternoon, McCown and Craghead found a half-dozen groups of people along a small section of trail, ranging from a couple probably in their 80s to parents with young children. Still, they said, those who want solitude need travel just a few miles outside of most of the towns along the trail.
Carol Retzer and her husband, Rick Antisdel, live near the trail between Osage City and Vassar. Their Salt Creek Ranch has primitive camping, and “horse hotels” where people wishing to ride the trail can use the ranch’s pens and bunkhouse. Business is growing, Retzer said.
“We get people, for the weekend, who just want to camp and ride their horses along the trail,” said Retzer, who also leads trail rides with horses from her ranch’s herd. “It’s a perfect place to get out, and get away, especially if you have young riders or young horses. It’s quiet and no competition from cars and trucks. The trail’s a wonderful asset for our area. It’s a wonderful asset for the state of Kansas.”