Six horseback riders crossed a tallgrass savannah, then had hilltop views of a sprawling lake.
The horses were stirrup deep as they crossed a clear stream in a valley that looked straight out of a classic John Wayne western, framed by towering rim rock — with a pair of sizable caves — and scarred where buffalo hooves had cut into rock for centuries. Eventually the riders traversed dense woodlands and toured a rugged canyon of giant, rose-colored boulders.
Paula Avery, of Salina, Kan., thought of her North Carolina relatives who wonder why she lives in Kansas.
“They’ve just never seen this side of what Kansas can look like, “ said Avery, as she rode a buckskin-colored horse named Mariah. “This is so beautiful.”
Wrangler Doje Kosek led the crew on about 11 of the nearly 30 miles of public trails in and around 1,600-acre Kanopolis State Park.
Unknown to most Kansans, it’s gaining national attention. Kanopolis was ranked 14th nationally by the Active Times in a recent article on stunning state parks.
The ranking is tough to dispute. Save the flood control reservoir, most of the rugged Smoky Hill River valley has changed little since the days when it was roamed by the likes of Carson, Custer, Cody and the Cheyenne.
“There are a lot of places where you can feel like you’re the first person who’s ever ventured there,” said Wendy Bowles, a state park conservation worker for 24 years.
Kanopolis State Park holds standard state park fare — about 200 primitive campsites and about 130 with utilities. There are shower houses, playgrounds, outdoors worship services on Sundays and a kids pond heavily stocked with fish. The 3,000-acre reservoir can have good fishing, holds a marina and offers enough room for pleasure boating.
Wildlife thrives in the park. Prairie and woodland songbirds are seen and heard throughout the day. Deer and turkey come out at dusk and dawn. For those with binoculars, a nesting pair of bald eagles and their young can be watched from a park road.
But it is the park’s northern end, the Horsethief Canyon region, that Bowles says makes the park special. Most of the best places are readily accessible.
Bowles said most of the trails are open to horseback, mountain biking and foot traffic. One of the shortest, the Buffalo Track Canyon Nature Trail, is family-oriented and only for hikers. Less than a mile each-way, it may hold more “wow” moments per stride than any trail in the Midwest.
Bowles headed up the sandy trail recently, through yucca cactus and in and out of towering sandstone cliffs. Crossing a small brook, she climbed a tall, rocky mound and entered Oven Cave.
“They say the Indians used to dry buffalo meat in this cave, after stampeding them over that cliff, “ said Bowles, pointing to a daunting canyon face across the small valley.
Further up the valley she climbed to check the trail’s namesake buffalo hoof-carved stairs in vibrant red rock and another sizable cave. She stopped to read names and inscriptions etched in the soft sandstone. Some are fairly recent, others from the 1800s. Scattered about, for those who look very closely, are symbols and signs made pre-civilization.
Though popular with all levels of hikers and mountain bikers, the Kanopolis trails are well known in equestrian circles. Bowles credits the enjoyable terrain, long rides and the park’s “horse-friendly” flavor.
It was the first state park with special facilities for equestrian campers. Several Midwestern riding clubs are regulars. Bowles said it’s known as a fine “horse hotel” for those traveling with horses along nearby Interstate 70 or Interstate 135.
With the only trail ride concession based in a Kansas state park, even those without horses can ride into the back country.
About 12 years ago, Kosek helped start the Goverland Stage Stop near the horse campground.
“I had a guy ask me if I ever got tired of riding the same trails, “ said Kosek, an East Coast native who swears she will never move back. “I told him ‘never.’ There’s just so much to see and things are always changing, like the flowers, the wildlife.
“It seems like I waited my whole life to get out here. Now it feels like I can finally breathe.”
Kanopolis State Park
Kanopolis State Park is located in central Kansas, about 200 miles west of Kansas City. Direct calls can be made to (785) 546-2565.
The daily vehicle rate to access most Kansas state parks is $5; the annual rate is $25. Annual permits can be purchased for $15.50 when vehicle licenses are renewed.
Kanopolis State Park has cabins that start at about $75 per day. Primitive sites cost about $11 per day and utility campsites can cost up to about $22 per day.
Care should be taken on all trails, which are mostly in primitive form. Insect repellant is recommended.
Reservations are needed to schedule a trail ride with the Goverland Stage Stop Line. Rides can be from one hour to four or more hours. Rates begin at $40 for the first hour and are about $30 per hour on longer rides. Questions and reservations can be handled at (785) 826-0743.