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Sand Hills State Park offers unique prairie experience

The Wichita Eagle

Jerry Schmidt and friends walked roller-coaster trails past shoulder-high big bluestem grasses that bobbed in the breeze, where four or five kinds of wildflowers could be seen at once.

Myriad songbirds – including scarlet male cardinals and brilliant yellow goldfinches – flitted about jungle-thick clumps of wild plums, while bobwhite quail whistled nearby. As well as hikers’ boots, the sugary-soft trail bore the marks of coyote, deer and fresh horseshoes.

Centuries of steady south winds are to thank for the rolling sand hills prairie that is probably the most unique landscape in south-central Kansas.

“All of this sand, the dunes, got here because the south winds blew it here from the Arkansas River,” Schmidt said this week as he looked out over a rolling landscape a few miles northeast of Hutchinson. “It took thousands and thousands of years to create these dunes.

“It’s always been a real pleasure to be here. The thing about Sand Hills State Park is that it’s about the only place where these sand dunes, and the prairie, have been preserved around here.”

Schmidt was hired by the Kansas Park Authority at about the time Sand Hills State Park was created in the early 1970s. The park totals 1,123 acres and came from a combination of land given by the state reformatory, the Dillon family and federal grants.

For 31 years, Schmidt was manager of the state park as well as the one at Cheney Reservoir. Though he retired in 2005, he still works part time at the park.

Never has the park looked so good. As nature did eons ago with lightning, Schmidt said, park staff members have been doing with controlled burns on the property the past several years.

Before the burning program, the park had become choked with invasive eastern red cedars, thickets of wild plum and blackberry, elms and cottonwoods. Now it’s as the sand hill prairie is supposed to be.

Those who go to the park appreciate it all.

“I just love to come out here, because the prairie is so pretty, and we see a lot of deer and a lot of turkey,” said RaChel Stucky of Pretty Prairie, sitting atop her horse, Streaker. “I like to ride here, but we probably hike it a lot more just so we don’t have to haul the horses around. The trails are always kept up really nice.”

Ryan Stucky – no relation to RaChel – is the manager at Sand Hills and Cheney state parks. He said there are 15 miles of maintained trails open to hiking and mountain biking, though bikes often bog down in the soft sand. Horses are allowed on 11 miles of those trails.

Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the trails.

Sand Hills State Park has become one of the most equestrian-friendly public areas in Kansas. Around the perimeter of many of the 64 campsites opened at the park last summer are small corrals with room for large horse trailers.

There are full utility hookups at 44 sites. The rest have water and electricity. Many of the sites are set up for pull-through parking. A 5-acre pond sits in the center of the campground.

Cabins are in the park’s future, as will be more amenities around the campsites, such as grills and lantern stands.

Ryan Stucky expects the park to be full most of the time during the Kansas State Fair next month. Within the past year, the park also has hosted two large competitive equestrian events with at least 50 riders.

Still, he and Shayn Koppes, the park’s ranger, said much of the use at Sand Hills is day use. Some people come out and just sit; some walk a bit down a trail and then come back. Others walk deep into the sand dunes.

Koppes warns those who’ve never hiked in the sugary sand to prepare to head home tired, because feet sink into the sand with every step.

“It’ll wear you out a lot quicker than most places,” Koppes said as he toured the property, “but it’s such a neat area. I know I really like it out here.”

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

Sand Hills State Park

Where: Northeast of Hutchinson, about an hour’s drive from Wichita

Cost: Standard state park permits are required and can be purchased at the park if staff or camp hosts are around. Permits can also be purchased at ksoutdoors.com. Daily vehicle rates are $3.25 for seniors, $5 from a vendor or $6 if purchased online.

Things to do: As well as hiking and horseback riding, the park offers excellent bird watching, fishing and sand hill plum picking during the season. This year’s crop is poor, according to Ryan Stucky, state park manager. Users are advised that ticks and poison ivy are common in the park.

More info: Call 316-542-3664 or go to ksoutdoors.com.

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