A fine, western Kansas winter afternoon, a good pair of hiking boots, a bottle of water and perhaps a few snacks are all that you need to visit the Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and the nearby trails at the Smoky Valley Ranch.
On the late January afternoon that we visited the park, license plates from Trego, Scott, Johnson, Wichita, Sedgwick, and Pratt dotted the parking lot.
Many were first time visitors, like my wife and I, who had come to experience the wonders of Kansas’ newest state park. Idyllic January weather and calm winds, a rarity in these parts, only added to the ambiance.
Trails here are well-marked and feature a good portion that is handicapped accessible. A short Overlook trail (1/4 mile) leads from the parking lot to an awesome view of the east face of the chalk rocks. The longer Life on the Rocks trail (1 ½ miles) twists and turns as it traverses almost the length of the badlands. Visitors who opt for this trail can expect to see, at its end, perhaps the best view of this unique limestone formation. It’s Grand Canyon-esque, on a Kansas scale.
Interpretive signage throughout provides an opportunity to learn about native grasses, flowers, birds (including raptors), mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. One sign featured a photograph of a turtle with a grasshopper in its mouth and a quote from American author Bruce Feiler: “Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause.” These words perhaps best capture the mood at Little Jerusalem. It’s a good spot to slow down and contemplate.
When you finish your hike at Little Jerusalem, it’s only a few more miles north and west to the trailhead at Smoky Valley Ranch, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Perhaps you’ll be lucky, like we were, and see the large bison herd grazing on ranch lands.
Again, you’ll have two options: a short one mile loop encircles some additional chalk-rock formations and a six mile loop (which incorporates the one mile trail). Both trails include numbered, interpretive stops along the way that are explained in a brochure available at the trailhead kiosk, where you should also sign in and out for your hike.
A day spent at this new state park and nearby ranch lands is a great way to discover the beauty and open spaces of northwest Kansas.
For directions to both of these Kansas wonders, visit the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center in Oakley, which has maps available (as well as other interesting things you can do, like match scat and prints to the right animal). To get to the center, take Exit 70 (Highway 83) south for 4 miles. Look for the giant sculpture of Buffalo Bill, bearing down on a bison, on the right hand side.