No sign says “Nelson Island.” Only committed hikers and bikers know it as such.
Near the south bank of the Kansas River around Shawnee, Nelson Island is a starting point for southbound users of the Gary L. Haller Trail. All the way down to Olathe, the paved trail follows a 17-mile sliver of scenery called Mill Creek Streamway Park.
Google “Nelson Island,” and you’ll first come upon places of that name in Alaska, Montana, Trinidad, Egypt and the South Shetland Islands off Antarctica. Search further, and a group called Friends of the Kaw offers the definitive history of the Johnson County site:
“The island is named for Cleggie Nelson,” the Friends website says. He “ran a speakeasy here during Prohibition, but then spent the rest of his life as a hermit.”
The story is more or less confirmed by Bill Maasen, county superintendent of parks and golf courses. Long after Cleggie Nelson’s death, his daughter and grandchildren donated the 27 wooded acres that he alone occupied, Maasen said.
“For us, the whole concept was to acquire cheap flood-plain property with no purpose for development,” thus rounding out the north trailhead of Mill Creek Streamway Park, Maasen said.
From a parking lot and playground at 19425 Wilder Drive, the island is a short walk over an arching bridge. That’s where Mill Creek deposits into the Kaw.
Bucolic, not really. A high, grassy mound to the south marks the edge of the county landfill, behind which heavy machinery growls. Across the rippling Kaw, gravel pits and low-slung factories line its north bank.
Despite the industrial surroundings and a view of the Interstate 435 span, Nelson Island is quiet but for the whistling of songbirds. Migratory waterfowl splash along the river.
Bald eagles might be perched in the tall cottonwoods and sycamores, especially in winter. Painted turtles catch rays atop logs.
Bicycling here can be interrupted by fallen timber blocking the trail. Johnson County Parks Police Capt. Rob Weber recalled a day off when he tried pleasure-riding his mountain bike over an 8-inch tree trunk. The front wheel quit turning halfway up. “It was one of those slow-motion falls,” he said.
Circle the island and you’re just getting started. Seventeen miles of asphalt trail await on the other side of the creek.
To the novice bicyclist, a trek the length of the Haller trail — then back toward Cleggie Nelson’s isle — may seem daunting. But this is doable in four or five hours, said Cycling Kansas City president Sam Swearngin.
“It’s on the easy-peasy level compared to other trails around the metro,” he said.
However, Maasen urged cyclists to take the well-marked lowland bypass around a steep grade through a section of Shawnee Mission Park.
Sights along the streamway will impress, with prairies, old-growth forests, wetlands and an occasional train vying for your attention all the way to 119th Street.
Five dozen nest boxes for bluebirds line the Haller route, helping give flight to more than 300 fledglings a year.
Just bring water and a snack for the ride. You’ll find shelters, picnic areas and restrooms along the way.
Nelson Island, Mill Creek Streamway Park
Address: Parking at 19425 Wilder Drive
Hours: Dawn to dusk
Directions: Exit Interstate 435 at Holliday Drive, near the Kansas River. Head west on Holliday. When the road forks, veer right onto Wilder. Mill Creek Streamway parking is on the left.