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This may be the best Labor Day weekend in years to visit a state park

Sunrise drone flight over Cheney State Park

(AUGUST 29, 2017) - Take a sunrise drone flight over Cheney State Park.
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(AUGUST 29, 2017) - Take a sunrise drone flight over Cheney State Park.

Labor Day weekend is always busy at Kansas state parks as campers and boaters say goodbye to summer.

This may be the best Labor Day weekend in years to visit a state park.

“The lake levels are good and the weather forecast is about perfect,” said Kim Jones, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism manager for Cross Timbers and Fall River state parks. “I honestly can’t remember the last time we had everything looking so positive going into a holiday weekend. The parks are looking so good and so green. Honestly, it should be one of our better weekends, all things considered.”

Linda Lanterman, state parks director, said except for some early spring flooding it's been a great year for most of the state's parks, with attendance and income both some of the highest in the history of the state parks.

“Our (staff) has been able to get so much done, and attendance has been great all year,” Lanterman said. “Who can remember an August like this one? This nice? Most of our parks are going to look as good as they have in a long time this weekend.”

Here are the four state parks closest to Wichita, with tips on where to camp, hike, and fish.

Cheney State Park

30 miles west of Wichita

Cheney State Park will have a Fourth of the July feel on Sunday evening, when the Ninnescah Sailing Association hosts a free fireworks display. The display will ignited near the sailing club’s facilities at the state park’s northwest corner just after sunset. Many watch from shore while some take their boats out to watch the display. Regulations for operating boats after dark will be enforced.

Mike Satterlee, state park manager, thinks the public will like what they see during daylight, too.

“Everything is green and all of the facilities are in working order so we should be good,” said Satterlee. “We’ve had several record months as far as visitation goes already. All of the boat ramps are open and the lake level is good. We should have a big weekend to signal the official end of summer.”

By early this week, all but one of the park’s reserved camping areas had been taken. People can call 316-542-3664 to get their names on a waiting list in case of cancellations. Some first-come, first-served camping sites are still available.

Satterlee said Cheney Reservoir hasn’t had any serious problems with blue-green algae this summer, unlike some past holiday weekends when state health officials warned against water contact due to high algae levels.

The park has a store on the east side of the lake selling groceries, beer, fishing lures and some camping supplies. O’Brien’s has been open for about a year.

“It just makes things a lot easier rather than having to drive all the way back to Wichita or Hutchinson for something like food or beer,” Satterlee said. “It lets people spend more time enjoying the park.”

Activities - The park’s main attraction will be Sunday’s fireworks display. For hikers and/or mountain bikers, Satterlee recommends the five-mile West Side Trail because it’s easy to hike, with several creek crossings and stretches of trail through woodlands and prairie. The mail trail head is beside the state park office on the lake’s west side. Signs make it easy to find

Fishing has been good lately at Cheney Reservoir. People from boats have been trolling crankbaits or drifting with shad or pieces of white parch to catch big white bass and wipers. Those without boats might try wading where points go out into the lake or casting from one of several rock jetties. Fishing with worms could be a good way to get kids into the lake’s high population of white perch. Signs in the park list special regulations, and identification of the invasive species. They are great to eat. It is illegal to release an invasive white perch back into the water.

El Dorado State Park

40 miles northeast of Wichita

Seth Turner is expecting El Dorado State Park to rival towns like Hutchinson and Salina in population over Labor Day weekend, with upwards of 50,000 visitors. So far visitation is up about 100,000 over this time last year and annual visitation could flirt with 1 million guests for the first time in about 20 years. Things are looking good.

“I think this August we’re mowing as much as we do most Aprils,” said Turner, El Dorado State Park manager. “We’re not used to having to keep up with (growing grass) this time of the year. Everything is green, green, green.”

All campgrounds are open at El Dorado, which has had to close sites due to high water some holiday weekends. There’s still some woody debris from high-water earlier this year, but Turner said that shouldn’t impact campers.

Turner said all of the reservable cabins and campsites at Kansas’ largest state park are taken. There are hundreds of first-come, first-served campsites ranging from full utilities to primitive spaces available but he thinks they’ll start filling quickly. Turner has seen an increase in tent-camping this year, and thinks mild weather may be part of the reason.

Activites - El Dorado State Park has 30 miles of hiking trails. Turner recommends the two-mile Shady Creek Trail for those wanting to hike or bike a trail through areas of timber, prairie and wetlands. It’s just east of the self-pay station for the Shady Creek Campground.

Shane Eustice, a fishing guide at El Dorado Reservoir, recommends shore-bound anglers fish for blue catfish, using pieces of baitfish, like shad, bluegill or white perch for bait. Fish the bait on the lake’s bottom. Fishing worms beneath bobbers or on the bottom could be a good way for kids to catch white perch. Be sure to check signs around boat ramps for special limits and size restrictions. It is illegal to release an invasive white perch back into the water.

Fall River State Park

75 east of Wichita

Kim Jones, park manager, thinks Fall River State Park is probably the public’s best bet for finding a nice campsite for Labor Day weekend.

“Labor Day is usually the slowest of the holiday weekends,” said Jones. “All of our reservable sites are full, but 70 percent of our sites are first-come, first-served. I think we should have some sites with utilities open even into Friday. I don’t think we’ve ever filled all of the sites for Labor Day.”

She urged the public to call the park office at 620-637-2213 if they’re set on getting a site with utilities.

Activities - State park ranger Adam Murray suggests the Post Oak Trail of the six miles of trails at Fall River State Park. The hiking/biking trail gives a good feel for the area, and is less than one mile long, and near the east end of the lake’s dam.

Murray “strongly recommends” families try the angling opportunities at the kid’s fishing pond at Fall River State Park. Only kids 15 and younger can legally fish the pond. Signs list restrictive limits.

“It’s got all kinds of fish and it seems like they’re always hungry,” Murray said. “It has a lot of channel cat around four pounds.” The pond is on the lake’s west side, just off Casner Creek Road.

Cross Timbers State Park

90 miles east of Wichita

Jones also manages Cross Timbers and said all’s looking well. All of the campgrounds are open and the 15 miles of hiking trails are mowed and in good shape. The Toronto Reservoir, where the park is located, looks good. All reservable camping sites are taken, but there are many first-come, first-served sites available. She’s confident primitive sites will be available through the weekend.

Activities - The mile-long Ancient Trees Trail in the Toronto Point campground is open for hiking through gorgeous rock formations and some oak trees more than 300 years old. It’s a shaded hike on hot, sunny days. Other trails at the park allow mountain biking.

Labor Day weekend can mean good fishing for channel cat at Toronto Reservoir, where Cross Timbers State Park is located. Drifting chunks of cut shad along the lake’s bottom can be productive, as can fishing area’s that have been chummed with sour soybeans in deep water near the east end of the dam.

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

State Park fees

Day pass per vehicle: $5

Camping fees: $10 per night and up.

Payment can be made at park offices, manned pay stations or self-serve pay stations at the campgrounds

To register online, go to www.reserveamerica.com

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