Great Plains Wondering: Get engulfed in nature on the Flint Hills Nature Trail in Kansas
Whether you’re a cyclist, walker, runner, hiker or horseback rider, the Flint Hills Nature Trail was built for you.
The route, also known as Flint Hills Nature Trail State Park, promises an immersive experience in natural Kansas with its quiet, peaceful ambiance. Nevertheless, civilization is never too far away, as the trail passes through towns large and small, like Council Grove, Allen, Vassar, Pomona, Osage City, Ottawa, Rantoul and Osawatomie.
At 94 miles long (eventually the trail will total 117 miles when it stretches west to Herington), the FHNT is the longest stretch of public land in the state.
Whether you decide to complete the entire journey or just ride a section of it out and back, there are many access points and public parking areas along the trail. Near communities, you may see cars parked at an entry gate, with local residents out enjoying an hour or two of recreation.
During our weekday ride from Council Grove to Osawatomie and back, my wife and I saw trail users with walkers, young children with a parent or two, dog walkers, joggers, solo walkers and quite a few cyclists. While we didn’t spot anyone on horseback, we saw evidence that horses had been there.
The trail currently takes a detour west of Ottawa. On that dusty, gravelly five or so mile gravel road, all of the motorists (including several BNSF railroad vehicles) that passed us were very courteous, slowing and even stopping their vehicles so we wouldn’t be dusted and gravel-blasted as they passed.
There really isn’t a better way to experience Kansas’ tranquility and natural beauty than on the FHNT. Depending upon the time of year, the flora, fauna, insects and other creatures inhabiting this slice of public land will vary. For our post-Labor Day adventure, we had the good fortune of riding after rains had recently fallen in the area. Fortunately, the trail was mostly dry by the time we took off, but those rains undoubtedly contributed to the plethora of wildflowers we saw lining the trail. In hues of yellow, purple, white, pink and even orange, wildflowers painted the trailside with swales of color (with yellow predominating).
And then there were the enchanted leaves. That’s what we called them, anyway. The first time we passed one, with our bikes crossing on either side, I looked back to see a leaf sway from one side to the other but never fall to the ground. There were many such hanging leaves along the trail, each one attached to the trees above by a thin filament of spider thread and then left to dance, perpetually, in the breeze.
We saw numerous species of birds, primarily mourning doves, wood thrushes and sparrows, as well as a committee of turkey vultures socializing on the railroad tracks west of Ottawa. Besides dogs, we only saw one mammal: a coyote that crossed the trail immediately in front of us, early in the morning not long after we had returned to the trail after overnighting at Lamont Hill Motel in Vassar. We also spotted five or six snakes (two of which were Osage copperheads), stretched out on the side or in the middle of the trail, with a couple also quickly racing across the trail as our bicycles neared.
Above all, insects dominated, especially grasshoppers in the western sections (or less forested portions in the east). The cicadas droned along in bursts for the entire ride. I even had a large grasshopper hitchhike for a few miles on the neck of my bicycle jersey, which it also munched on, leaving a few rough spots along the collar before I finally flicked it off. A cicada also took a joyride on my shoulder for a mile or so.
One advantage of the FHNT is that there is a bike shop, Ottawa Bike and Trail, which is only a couple blocks off the trail in downtown Ottawa. So, if you have some mechanical issues that are still rideable or perhaps are down to your last tube, you can solve your problem here. Ottawa has a lot of great restaurants to sample (Council Grove, Vassar and Osawatomie also have some good dining options). As the trail intersects each town, you will have an opportunity to explore, perhaps even visit a museum or two (like the John Brown Cabin in Osawatomie). One unexpected surprise for us was a large field of vintage aircraft, in various stages of being dismantled, that borders the trail just south of Rantoul. You can barely see the planes that are owned by Dodson International Aircraft Parts during the summer, as there is a thick tree wall encircling the property. It’s just something you don’t expect to find out in the middle of rural Kansas.
And that brings up one of the trail’s advantages. When you tire of the noise and traffic of the city (such as Ottawa, the biggest town along the trail), it is generally only a short ride back to the trail. Within a mile or two you will be engulfed within the canopy of trees, quiet, and no cars.
All in all, the Flint Hills Nature Trail is an excellent way to discover a delicious slice of eastern Kansas. From the openness of the trail and the wondrous Flint Hills of the west to the cool and green and shady (to quote a John Denver lyric) riding conditions of the eastern section, the almost 100 miles of mostly uninterrupted trail is sure to put a smile upon the face of any Kansas gravel junkie, walker or horseback rider.