Michael Pearce

Five great hiking trails within two hours of Wichita

The Buffalo Tracks Canyon Nature Trail at Kanopolis State Park lets hikers access some of the most rugged terrain in central Kansas.
The Buffalo Tracks Canyon Nature Trail at Kanopolis State Park lets hikers access some of the most rugged terrain in central Kansas. The Wichita Eagle

You don’t need to head to the Ozarks or Rocky Mountains for a quality hiking experience. Kansas has more than 2,000 miles of recognized and maintained trails. Some are the best in the nation.

Here’s a list of five of my favorite trails, ranging from one well within Wichita to about two hours away. Between these five are some of the most diverse, and scenic, landscapes in Kansas.

Chisholm Creek Park Nature Trail, Wichita

▪ Two miles, flat and paved.

Several times a year, reporter Roy Wenzl comes to my desk smiling, ready to show me some fresh, neat nature photo. He’s shown images of small fawns and adult deer peacefully feeding and drinking from a broad pool, and some species of stunning wildflowers I never knew existed in Kansas.

He’s shot them, and lots of other great photos, with his phone on or around the paved nature trail within Chisholm Creek Park, near 29th Street North and Woodlawn. He has written about his experiences there, as well.

The path is flat enough for easy walking, and things like strollers and wheel chairs. Boardwalks cross wetlands and ponds, and the trail winds through well-maintained prairie, forest and classic riparian areas. Note that the rules say no pets or bicycles on the nature trail. It’s also illegal to capture wildlife, like snakes or frogs, or to pick any of the wild flowers.

In the heart of town, the trail can get quite a bit of traffic. Those who want the best experience should go at first light when human traffic is minimal and wildlife traffic is at the best. Binoculars would be a good idea since more than 100 species of birds have been documented.

Elk River Trail/Table Mound Trail, Elk City Reservoir

▪ Up to 15 miles, well marked but primitive.

If there’s any place that doesn’t look like Kansas, it’s in the Chautauqua Hills around Independence. Steep-sided hills have tall grass prairie on top and towering hardwood timber in the bottoms. The special part, though, is between where there are often boulders bigger than most dump trucks.

There are two options, and both give great chances to walk through the rimrock areas that make this region so special.

The Elk River Trail is 15 miles from end to end, with several access points along the way as the trail traces one side of Elk City Reservoir. Some of the best rock formations are at the trailhead at the edge of the lake’s dam, where you’ll cross a neat stream, climb up a zig-zagging trail and eventually squeeze through sections of the trail that meander in and out of the great rock formations.

The other option is to take the 2 3/4 mile Table Mound Trail which features much of the same jagged topography, in much less distance. In fact, one access point lets you park directly atop some of the best formations, and work your way down.

Keep your eyes looking for columbine flowers, with delicate lavender petals that grow naturally in the thin crevices of the big boulders. You should see ferns and other vegetation that grows no other place in Kansas. There are snakes in the area, but pay more attention to ticks. I highly recommend treating your clothing, from boots to caps, with Permethrin the day before you make the hike. Actually, I recommend such treated clothing for about any spring or fall outdoors activity.

Buffalo Tracks Canyon Nature Trail, Kanopolis State Park

▪ 1 1/2 miles, round trip, dirt trail, but easily walked and followed

The tall and mid-grass Smoky Hills of central and western Kansas are my favorite prairies in the state. That easily makes the Buffalo Tracks Canyon Nature Trail one of my favorite hikes, too, especially if I don’t feel like covering a lot of ground but want to see a lot of great sights.

In the Horsethief Canyon portion of Kanopolis State Park, the trail heads up Bison Creek to the namesake spot where thousands of years of millions of buffalo hooves crossing the canyon left unmissable scars of buffalo tracks in the rock. The trail can take hikers to two legitimate caves near the cliffs where legend has it Cheyenne and other tribes drove buffalo to their deaths.

Speaking of cliffs, since the days of the first pioneers in the 1860s people have etched names, dates and some images in the soft sandstone. Many are modern, but some near the trail date back to at least 1865. A favored is a detailed etching of the crucifixion. Some high points of the trail give good views out across the prairie traveled by Kit Carson, George Custer and other famous western figures.

Since the trail is at the upper end of Kanopolis Reservoir, high water could be a problem at low spots on the trail A state park permit is required to access all parts of the trail, but that will also allow you to access playgrounds, beaches, shower houses, restrooms and other scenic areas in the state park ranked as one of the most scenic in the nation.

Teter Nature Trail, El Dorado State Park

▪ Three-quarters of a mile, round trip, dirt with rocky areas.

The Teter Nature Trail is well-marked and can be handled by most families. It begins at the archery range just below the lake’s dam. Don’t worry, hikers go one direction, arrows are shot another.

The trail does a nice loop through woodlands with some impressive hackberry and walnut trees. Look for the super-sized, tear-shaped leaves of paw-paw trees near the back of the trail. In the early fall they’ll produce four-inch, green fruit that tastes like a sweet banana when soft and ripe. Resist the temptation to cross the dilapidated barbered wire fence where the trail turns back towards the parking lot. Land on the other side of the fence is private property, and trespassing is strictly forbidden.

Some park by the ball diamonds across the road from the trail to avoid the state park permit that’s needed to use the parking lot by the archery range. Those who buy the daily permit will also get access to the other six trails, that total nearly 30 miles, within El Dorado State Park. If you have time, the Walnut Ridge Trail is about the length of the Teter Nature Trail, and also goes through nice woodlands. The 2 1/2-mile Walnut River Trail is open to mountain biking as well as hiking.

Chaplin Nature Center, Arkansas City

▪ About five miles of trails, most easily traveled on foot.

The Chaplin Nature Center is a jewel of a property shared with the public, at no charge, by the Wichita Audubon Society. The 240-acre property seems much large because of the diversity of habitat that ranges from wonderfully maintained tall grass prairie to a nearby stretch of the Arkansas River.

The trail system has a variety loops and is usually maintained very well. If it’s open, spend sometime in the guest center to learn more about the property. Also pick up a schedule for some of the great events - like butterfly tagging, wild flower tours, guided nightime hikes and bird-watching events - held regularly at Chaplin.

If you’re making a day of it, you can grab lunch in Arkansas City and head east to Camp Horizon, and check out its 10 miles of hiking/biking trails. The topography and elevation changes will surprise you, and wear you down if you’re not in good shape.

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