When I mentioned to my friend Jake Deckert, a fellow Kansan ultra-runner, that I wanted to better my technical trail running skills, he simply replied, “go west.” Initially, I presumed he alluded to the Rockies, roughly an eight-hour mind-numbing drive across America’s prehistoric ocean bed from where we lived in Lawrence, Kansas. I guessed wrong. Jake didn’t want me to bypass western Kansas. Instead, he recommended going way out west in Kansas. Jake is a born and raised Kansan. So much so, that many of my memories of him, apart from following him on trails, are of him planting sunflower seeds deep into his cheek pockets while driving his pick-up. Jake grew up in Larned, where the red Kansan dirt became embedded in his fingerprints from labouring on his family’s ranch and playing on the school’s various athletic teams. Despite exchanging his cowboy lifestyle for graduate studies in Physical Therapy at the University of Kansas (KU), the western plains never left his American heart. I suppose I have him to thank for igniting my romanticism toward Kansas’ western semi-arid plains.
After Jake pointed to some challenging trails, my daydreaming commenced. I had visited western Kansas before, mainly to take advantage of a friend’s salt-water swimming pool and to raid their parent’s fully stocked fridge while attending KU, but never exclusively for trail running. The more Jake’s descriptions burrowed in my mind, the less I could wait to see it for myself. In many ways, some of the trails, such as the ones found at Wilson Lake State Park, are still the picturesque prairie landscapes early frontiersmen encountered. The backbreaking winds sweeping across the grasslands push with similar intensity as ones I’ve encountered in the Alps. However, Wilson Lake is a friendlier taste of Kansas’ Wild West. To experience truly adventurous Kansan trails, you have to be willing to go off the beaten path. These trails are technical, hazardous, and at times littered with rattlesnakes or cacti, but always graced under western skies. the Kansas badlands Normally, I picture adventure-running destinations far from the likes of western Kansas, but why pass an opportunity for something new? Cedar Bluff State Park and Castle Rock near town of Quinter, otherwise known as the Kansas’ Badlands, are full of thrilling trails in exceptional settings. Both contain different flavours to dig your soles into. Cedar Bluff’s trails are rockier, which meander up and down the cliffs paralleling the reservoir. If you’re looking to scramble up some decently sized and challenging cliffs, this is the best place in Kansas. Along the beaches you can traverse boulders that have tumbled from above and find new difficult ascents to the bluff line. A warning though: if you find yourself navigating patches of pine trees, watch out for cacti. Out of neglect, I’ve brushed up against a cacti once or twice resulting in bloody ankles. The lake makes this location a great weekend getaway. Rent one of the cabins, hit the trails during cooler temps and, during the heat, spend the day boating. I have shown countless people photos of the Kansas Badlands and asked them to guess its location, no one has ever Out of neglect, I’ve brushed up against a cacti once or twice resulting in bloody ankles guessed right. It’s hard to believe it is in Kansas. Getting to the trails is an adventure in itself. You’ll need a four wheel drive car to reach the main parking lot. If you don’t have one, park at the entrance gate and run the road in. My first time visiting was with my friend, Zach Rose, and in true Kansas fashion, the weather switched in seconds from a perfectly sunny day to tornado filled skies littering hail. The setting truly does resemble a smaller version of the Badlands in South Dakota. While you can play it safe and stay on the main trail looping the Mars-like atmosphere, you’ll have a blast exploring the side trails through caverns, caves, and rock towers. Watch out for the rattlesnakes. A swarm once encircled Zach while I quickly attempted to rescue him by throwing pebbles to scare them away. I’m not in Kansas now, but after a couple of years trapped in cities steering cluttered sidewalks on my runs, western Kansas is like a dream.
Plan your trip…
Getting there: The trails discussed here are way out in western Kansas and the best airports to fly into Kansas are Kansas City (KCI) and Wichita (ICT)
Once you’re there: Great trails outside of those mentioned here are: Elk River Hiking trail; Swope Park; Clinton Lake State Park; Perry Lake State Park; Kanopolis State Park; and Horsethief Canyon.
Where to stay
Camping: Try the Wilson State Park and Cedar Bluff State Park
Hotels: Reliable hotels in Hays are Hampton Inn & Suites, Sleep Inn & Suites, and Haysville Express Inn
Getting around: You’ll need a car. Kansas is a huge state and will require a car to get to most areas outside of Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City.
Get kitted out: You will need light day gear and trail shoes with solid thread. Water is mandatory during summer heat!
Visit ksoutdoors.com for more advice and information