2,000 miles of Kansas trails

The Arkansas River Coalition’s monthly twilight floats give kayakers a chance to enjoy a short summertime float. All gear can be provided by the group.
The Arkansas River Coalition’s monthly twilight floats give kayakers a chance to enjoy a short summertime float. All gear can be provided by the group. File photo

From short paved paths through tiny town parks to gnarly, “what have I gotten myself into” trails that snake for dozens of miles, Kansas is home to an estimated 2,000 miles of trails.

Here are our picks for the best trails in the state and some of the better ones in the Wichita area.

Hiking Trails

The Elk River Trail covers about 15 miles that looks more like the Ozarks than what most people associate with Kansas. Tracing the steep shoreline of Elk City Reservoir, a few miles west of Independence, the trail cuts through house-sized boulders, runs the edge of tall rimrock bluffs and bisects stands of ancient oaks. At the right time of the year you may find delicate columbine flowers that appear to sprout from sheer stone. A section of northern part of the trail passes where a natural spring creates a waterfall of about 15 feet, though it may not be flowing during drought.

The trail has several access points for those who don’t want to do the entire trek. Starting at the north end of the Elk River Trail, near the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office, you can walk a half-mile and experience a neat creek crossing on a small bridge, climb a serpentine trail up the hill and find some suck your tummy in passages through the legendary giant rock formations.

A nearby alternative for those with limited abilities is the 2.75-mile Table Mound trail, with a parking lot at the east end of the lake’s dam that allows people with children quick access to the mega-sized rocks. There’s plenty of camping, shower houses and a swimming beach at nearby Elk City State Park.

Closer to Wichita, the Teeter Nature Trail, below the dam at El Dorado Reservoir is only 3/4 of a mile long. The trail starts through nice prairie and eventually goes down into woodlands pristine enough to hold ancient oak trees and stands of fruit-bearing paw-paw trees. It’s a great place to find a diversity of bird life. The trail sits within El Dorado State Park so a park permit is required.

If you want to stay in Wichita, the assorted trails at Chisholm Creek Park are easy to traverse and wind by placid ponds, marshy wetlands, over streams and through both prairie and woodlands.

Biking trails

There’s plenty of reason the Switchgrass Trail was designated an “Epic” biking trail by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, making it one of the top 100 biking trails in the world. It goes through Wilson State Park, which last year was named one of the 35 most scenic state parks in America according to Active Times.

Seriously, the area is gorgeous. Hikers are also invited to use the trail.

The trail winds through some gorgeous sections of Smoky Hills prairie, a place reminiscent of the Flint Hills of 40 years ago, with native grasses and wild flowers. In many places the trail traces the lip of red Dakota limestone cliffs that may fall vertically 50 feet before reaching water so clear you can see small fish swimming several feet below the surface of Wilson Reservoir.

The trail is 24 1/2 miles long, but there are plenty of places where riders can start or stop mid-trail. There is a section of about five miles that’s perfect for beginning trail bikers.

Wilson State Park offers plenty of campsites, plus some nice cabins for those who make reservations. Wilson Reservoir is usually rated as possibly Kansas’ prettiest reservoir, thanks to water as clear as any Canadian lake, the surrounding prairie and stunning rock outcroppings. Due to drought, the lake has been about eight feet below normal meaning lake’s scenic beauty may not be up to standards, and some boat ramps may be closed or difficult to use.

Thanks to the Air Capital Memorial Park Trail, bikers can enjoy some serious trail riding in Wichita, at the southeast corner of Kellogg and Maize Road. The Kansas Singletrack Society has created two miles of ups and downs, round and rounds, back and forth on just 10 acres of land. Most of the topography has been created by construction site leftovers. Even if you’re not on a bike, it’s worth seeing what this dedicated group of trail builders and maintainers have created.

Paddle trails

Kansas has three rivers open to public floating – the Arkansas, the Missouri and the Kansas. The latter has the most to offer. In 2012 the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Kansas River a National Water Trail, one of less than 20 American streams with such a designation, for what it has to offer recreational paddlers.

In the 150 miles from Manhattan to the confluence with the Missouri River in Kansas City, there are access points every 10 to 15 miles. Double T’s Snack Shack and Canoe Rentals in St. George rents canoes and kayaks, and offers an affordable shuttle service. Call 785-494-8081 and be sure to ask for river conditions.

For a short float, there’s no better place than downtown Wichita when the Arkansas River Coalition is hosting two- hour twilight floats in the spring and summer on the Arkansas or Little Arkansas rivers. The group offers the floats for free, and will furnish all equipment needed with proper notice. Check arkrivercoalition.org.

Equestrian trails

Kanopolis State Park offers about 30 miles of equestrian trails with steep, box canyons, sandstone cliffs and vast stretches of pristine prairie. Unless the area is in a drought, there are several stream crossings to add a bit of adventure to a trail ride.

Also in the Smoky Hills, and rated at 14th in the nation for scenic state parks by Active Times, Kanopolis State Park has a special horse-friendly campground complete with stables, sites for large horse trailers and full utility hook-ups. The park is about 90 miles northwest of Wichita, and 20 miles west of Lindsborg.

Unfortunately, Kanopolis State Park does not currently have trail rides for hire for the first time in about 13 years, though the staff is searching for another outfitter for the park.

Those who want to experience the unique, Wild West flavor of the area on foot can do so at the park’s Buffalo Tracks Canyon Nature Trail. It’s less than one mile each-way, but includes two legitimate caves, one known to have been used by Native Americans, cliff etchings left by pioneers, and the namesake steps left in the limestone by thousands of buffalo using a trail that crossed the valley for centuries.

Closer to Wichita, Sand Hills State Park, which is about 10 miles northeast of Hutchinson, offers about 14 miles of equestrian trails that roll through, over and around sand dunes that grow thick with thickets of wild plum, yucca cactus, prairie grasses and flowers.

For more information on state parks go to www.kdwpt.state.ks.us.