Steer down byways in Western Kansas, and you may stumble across some remarkable and unexpected scenery. In the state’s extreme northwestern corner, Parks Road leads to the Arikaree Breaks (a two-mile wide “break” in the terrain), a rugged badlands landscape of yucca-studded cliffs, caves and gullies. Formed during the Ice Age, the loess soils harbor two species of sage and16 rare native plants and grasses ideal for cattle and wildlife. Stop in St. Francis for a self-guided tour brochure.
Southeast of Oakley, a soft sedimentary layer known as Niobrara Chalk has been exposed and sculpted by eons of wind, water and river ice. The result is spots like Monument Rocks (from Oakley, 20 miles south on US-83, eight miles southeast) where otherworldly bright-white turrets, spires and other formations rise from the prairie like dissolving sand castles. Fifty miles east, Castle Rock (15 miles south of Quinter) resembles a moonscape, a bizarre maze of narrow cuts and canyons cleaved into green cropland.
“What we find out here either swam in the ocean or flew above it,” says Chuck Bonner, who has an educated eye that comes from a lifetime of fossil hunting. He and his wife, Barbara Shelton, have explored Western Kansas’ fossil beds for decades. They display their finds at Keystone Gallery and Museum (18 miles north of Scott City). Their guided fossil hunts—on nearby private land they have access to—give novices an opportunity to unearth prehistoric treasures dating back 80 million years.
Standing atop Point of Rocks in Cimarron National Grassland, hikers can sense—and see—the human history that passed this way. Washboard ridges furrow the prairie earth, a well-worn path left by thousands of covered wagons traveling the fabled Santa Fe Trail. Hikers can follow in their footsteps. Cimarron’s 108,000 acres in the southwest corner of Kansas protect 23 miles of the route designated as a national historic trail, one of the longest public segments between Missouri and New Mexico.
The Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area (a half mile south of Garden City) offers the chance to see bison (commonly called buffalo) in a setting of native prairie reminiscent of what pioneers saw 150 years ago. A volunteer group, Friends of the Sandsage Bison Range, leads free guided tours of the 3,670-acre refuge. Visitors bump along the roads in a truck or open-air trailer, eager to spot the 100 or so bison that roam among feathery sage and blooming wildflowers.
“Roughing it” is relative in Webster State Park (eight miles west of Stockton). A new knotty-pine cabin, one of many for rent in Kansas State Parks, stands atop a hill with a vast lake view. It makes a great base for exploring the park, where 3,700-acre Webster State Lake spills across the Solomon River Valley. Anglers and pleasure boaters share the waters, casting for walleye and bass, and skimming across the surface on wakeboards and water skis.
On shore, sand beaches and docks rim protected coves. Recreation areas provide plenty of diversions for campers, with a baseball diamond, sand volleyball court and horseshoe pits. The cabin provides the perfect respite after a day filled with activity. Stoke up a blaze in the fire ring, ready the fixings for s’mores for the kids, and settle back on the wide covered porch to watch a pastel sunset transform into a star-filled sky.
The skies themselves seem to be in motion during spring and fall migration at Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge (15 miles southeast of Phillipsburg). Thousands of sandhill cranes and tens of thousands of geese—Canada, snow and white-fronted—settle at the refuge in February and March, and again in October and November. Occasionally, birders here thrill to the sight of a whooping crane, one of the most endangered birds in the nation.
The birds come to rest among 10,800 acres of prairie grasses, creeks and bottomlands. Visitors seek refuge in the landscape, too, biking on dirt roads and walking along dikes and interpretive nature trails, accompanied only by the trill of meadowlarks and the mutter of ducks. Many species make Kirwin their year-round home, including the greater prairie chicken and songbirds like Bell’s Vireo, Dickcissel and a variety of warblers. Overlooks and observation platforms with binocular stands provide good viewing opportunities. The best way to experience the beauty of this remnant prairie land is as the birds do—down among the waving grasses and wooded riverbanks.
The rumble of your car down a rural gravel road is enough to flush pheasants in northwestern Kansas, a region rich with the ringneck beauties. And, Kuhrt Ranch (20 miles northeast of Goodland) puts hunters right in the middle of the action. The four-generations-old working ranch covers 4,000 contiguous acres of prime bird habitat, a mix of pastures, creek bottoms, woodlands and fallow farm land. Pheasants, turkey and quail begin roaming the fields in the pre-dawn darkness. So do hunters. With ranch owner Brent Flanders as their guide and a good bird dog at their side, they seek out the birds’ favorite hiding places, hoping to flush them from cover to the broad and brightening skies above. Successful hunts end with a fine feast, gathered around the table at the ranch’s stately hand-quarried limestone “Prairie Castle” house or the casual apartment-style lodge next door.
The subtle beauty of the Gypsum Hills really resonates from the seat of a bicycle. Surrounded by red-rock buttes and deep canyons, it’s easy to hear the cluck of a wild turkey, catch whiffs of honeysuckle and spot the occasional glare of a prairie falcon perched on a fencepost in this region known as the “Kansas Outback.” West of Medicine Lodge (75 miles southwest of Wichita), backcountry trails strike off into red-rock country: buttes, rocky spires and canyons thick with cedars that resemble the set for an old western.
Cyclists also can ride along the Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway, which winds through the hills for about 40 miles on US-160, extending from Medicine Lodge west to Coldwater. Startling scenery awaits around every turn on this route. Along some sections of the road, it’s more common to meet an armadillo or a Hereford than another rider or a car.
Giggles carry across the waters of Lake Scott (15 miles north of Scott City), echoing off bluffs of limestone that rise from the water and evaporating into the skies above. Two teenage girls zigzag their canoe toward a sandy crescent. They beach their craft and explore the shore.
Boating on Lake Scott, and the state’s many other recreational lakes, is an easygoing, unfussy affair. Take your pick at The Beach House, which rents canoes and paddleboats. Then, you can cruise along the cattails and spy on sunning turtles, cast a line for hungry bass, or set out on a scenic ride along a shoreline of shady cottonwoods. The 100-acre lake, with lots of coves and high canyon walls, provides easy-to-navigate protected waters perfect for a relaxing outing.
The Bridle and Mountain Bike Trail—ideal for horseback riding, hiking or mountain biking—has easy to moderately difficult terrain on a seven-mile path that circles the lake. A horse-camp area provides amenities for equestrian visitors.
Fishing lakes are Kansas’ hidden gems, sparkling oases tucked in the folds and creases of prairie. Clark State Fishing Lake (70 miles southeast of Garden City) hides at the base of a golden limestone canyon. With a curvaceous shoreline that provides plenty of coves and shady cover, the protected waters harbor healthy populations of white and largemouth bass, walleye, channel catfish and panfish. And, waterfront campsites mean you can fish from dawn until dusk.
Smaller lakes like Clark are just the beginning of angling opportunities in Western Kansas. The 2,300-acre Keith Sebelius Lake (five miles west of Norton) is known for crappie, walleye and wiper, a feisty striped bass hybrid. Wiper and white bass also thrive at Cedar Bluff Lake (20 miles southeast of WaKeeney). No-wake rules keep the 80-acre lake serene at Meade State Park (12 miles southwest of Meade).
The low angle of the morning sun casts a bronze patina on the waters of Cheyenne Bottoms (nine miles northeast of Great Bend), silhouetting a striking array of birds. A slender white ibis stalks through the shallows. A pelican with its telltale pouch drifts in a nearby bay. Black-bellied plovers dip their wings and circle low for a landing.
That’s the kind of avian Grand Central Station you’ll find in west-central Kansas, where lush eastern and arid western prairies and low-lying wetlands converge. Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (18 miles southeast of Great Bend) provide a varied and abundant habitat that attracts more than 300 species of migrating birds from both the eastern and western United States. Naturalists believe more than half the nation’s shorebirds—as many as 500,000 geese and ducks—stop here for a rest on their way north.