Flint Hills Nature Trail

The Flint Hills Nature Trail is a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy project that has been taken over by the State of Kansas in May 2018 to become a new state park.  To be sure, it is a bicycle, walking and horseback riding trail that is not quite ready for prime time…and yet, is ready for exploration immediately.

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I love riding this trail.  When you ride the length of the trail, in part or in whole, you get to see the many different ecosystems of Kansas.   On the eastern portion of the FHNT you are often riding your bicycle along the Marais des Cygnes River and therefore you are in lowlands, farmlands or shaded, flat paths. This is especially true when riding from a couple miles east of Vassar to Osawatomie.

bicycling the flint hills nature trail
This stretch between Council Grove and Bushong allows you to see may a cattail and to look in to the cutouts created by the railroad to see the exposed flint rock.

Council Grove to Bushong, especially a mile or three west of Bushong, is gorgeous.  I mean gorgeous.  The Flint Hills, especially in the early spring/summer when the hills roll in emerald green and the prairie flowers are in bloom, are spectacular.  There are the endless sight-lines afforded by the climbing to the top of a hill to take in the deep ocean blue of the Kansas sky meeting the emerald green of the Flint Hills in Spring.

Oh! And in this stretch you can keep your eyes open for other rail lines long ago forgotten.  You’ll see the bridge abutments and it may take a minute or two, as I did, for it to register that the lands above those abutments are flat and with purpose.

Much of the trail around Vassar and to the east is well cared for and you sit very high on the Plains and can even see Pomona Lake off to the north.  When you ride from west to east here you get a bit of a free ride as the Kansas topography goes from higher lands to lower lands.  Of course, you’ll pedal harder going from east to west into Vassar from Pomona.

The ride from Ottawa to Osawatomie is just plain relaxing.  Much of this part of the trail is flat, shaded and easy on the eyes.

Treasure Hunt: Look for the bus in the Ottawa to Osawatomie section.

Flint Hills Nature Trail bridge
This bridge crosses US Hwy 75 between Osage City and Vassar.

Wild Life and Wild Flowers
As I have traveled and bicycled across the United States I am continually amazed at the beauty that can be found in each environment.  Here in Kansas I have a perpetual fascination with the prairie flowers found along my rides.  Different ecosystems and times of year provide subtle color and pollinator viewing opportunities on each ride.

Wild life I have encountered on my rides along the Flint Hills Nature Trail include;

  • Turkey (quite common to see)
  • Deer (quite common)
  • Reptiles of all kinds; black snakes, snakes of other species, lizards, skinks, turtles of all shapes and sizes
  • Bird species too numerous to mention, yet here are a few of my favorites; Meadowlark, Baltimore Oriole, Cardinal and the Indigo Bunting
  • Badgers…yes, badgers
  • Skunks, porcupines, rabbits, squirrels

Wind, Woods, Hills and Open Prairie
Depending on when you ride, please take the time to be prepared.  You will bicycle through dense woods, climb long hills (albeit not too steep…this is a former rail line, after all) and open prairie.  If you are not from Kansas and think it would be fun to sit on the top of a hill and watch a thunderstorm roll in, well, make sure you have life insurance. Lightning is not to be taken lightly.

And the wind. People from all over the world are struck by two things when they come to Kansas to bicycle;

  1. How windy it can be.  We may not have mountains like Colorado…yet ride in to a 18-22 mph headwind for five or eight hours and see how fun that is.
  2. How humid it can be.  (Aren’t we in the middle of the continent?)  When the jet stream pulls airflow out of the Gulf of Mexico it can become downright oppressive.  Make sure you carry, or have access to, plenty of water.

NOTE: Kansas is named after the Kanza peoples, the People of the South Wind.

Primitive Trail
In the past and up to this day,  FHNT has been a trail cobbled together by a band of volunteers pitching in on their time off from work to develop the trail as it exists today (July 14, 2019).  Their time and efforts should be appreciated by all.

Yet, for the casual bike rider, choosing which stretch of Flint Hills Nature Trail you choose to ride will go a long way to how much you enjoy the ride.  For instance, Vassar to Ottawa is well taken care of as is Council Grove to Allen.  From Admire to Osage City can get downright brutal with some of the large gravel rock followed by washboard ruts, etc. To me, this section is NOT recommended for skinny road bike tires at any speed…proceed with caution as you really should not relax and enjoy the scenery through much of this stretch.

And heck, to this point Osage City should be more than a little embarrassed about their portion of the trail. In fact, it simply disappears at one point because nobody has bothered to mow it down. The good news is, Osage City is one of the few places with many services for cyclists.  More on that later.

Flat tires in the flint hills
When you ride your bicycle in the Flint Hills, just be prepared. If the sharp flint rocks don’t get you there are still Goat Head Thorns might. You can ride all day with no worries…or have two flats in a day. Just be prepared.

What Kind of Bike?
In my estimation, and it is just a guess, I’d say about 38%-40% of the Flint Hills Nature Trail can be ridden by most anybody on most any bike.  Another 40% of the trail is good enough to ride on most any bike by someone paying good attention.  And the remaining 15%-20% should be ridden by prepared cyclist on wider tires such that you would find on gravel bikes, mountain bikes, cross bikes or even sturdy cruisers.  I would NOT recommend, for skinny-tired “10 speed” style bikes, the Admire to Osage City portion of the ride. 

Kanza on the Flint Hills Nature Trail
Just south of the trail at 525 Rd just east of Council Grove is Allegawaho Memorial Park. There is much to explore here with the Kanza Heritage Trail and Kanza Memorial.

Don’t Expect Cyclist Services
Most of the trail you are on your own as a bicyclist. Unlike the George Mickelson Trail where trail heads were accompanied by bathrooms (though primitive) and, quite often, well water and even a few times bike tools stations, the Flint Hills Nature Trail is much younger and there are no such conveniences.  Heck, even the Prairie Spirit Trail that connects with the FHNT in Ottawa is far superior in the category of bicyclist services.  There is a stretch between Council Grove and Admire where there is a memorial park bench under a nice shade tree and the Boy Scouts of America (probably and Eagle Scout project) have installed more than a few park benches to rest on a stretch west of Bushong.

Yet generally, if you didn’t bring it, you don’t have access to it.  So make sure you have a spare bike tube or two…even if you, like I, run tubeless tires.  Last week I slashed a tubeless tire and without a handy dollar bill and a tube I would have been SOL miles and miles and miles from the closest available store to purchase a bike tube.

Oh, and your cell phone may, or may not, work.  Remember, you are in rural Kansas.  And by the way, this is part of the charm, right?  I mean, being on a nature trail doesn’t necessarily have to mean having the modern convenient world at your fingertips.

Water Tips and Services
Here are a few places that I know you can re-fill your water bottles and, if lucky, find a bathroom;

Osawatomie – Plenty of services before hitting the trail, including hotel.

Rantoul – There is drink machine “downtown.”

Ottawa – Plenty of services including hotels.

Pomona – A couple indy restaurants (pizza and Mexican food) as well as a Casey’s convenience store.

Vassar – A well pump in the middle of town.

Osage City – Plenty of services including a grocery store, Casey’s, Sonic, and a few small restaurants.  I cannot remember if there is a hotel around.

Admire – Bathrooms and water at the ball fields on NW side of town…never seen them closed.

Allen – There is a meat locker there that, when open, you can buy some water.

Council Grove – Plenty of services including hotel.

Osage County Flint Hills Nature Trail
Many of the bridges have no side railing at this time. So be sure to keep an eye on the young ones.

Listen, I love riding my bicycle in Kansas. And while the Flint Hills Nature Trail does not yet rate with it’s brother the Prairie Spirit Trail or the Katy or the George Mickelson, it is a great ride to be ridden.  It is my hope this post will allow you to be prepared and to be inspired to get out there and explore the FHNT.  If you see me there, say “hello.”


Why I Strava: Heatmap

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved cartography.  In elementary school my mother worried about my obsession with drawing maps of the world…especially as they related to World War II and how aggressive the Germans were and the Allies’ response…  I know. Silly, right?

Today I get my cartography fix through riding my bike and utilizing the Strava heatmap feature for premium members.

The featured image above is the Strava Global Heatmap for Kansas (pictured here and above) of June 23, 2019.  What is really cool is you can see the plainly see;

bicycling in the United States
A quick glance shows the places I ride a lot. Further examination shows travel that I have enjoyed on my bicycle.

Take a look at the map above.  The blue shows routes…the red shows frequent use. Clearly, without knowing anything else about me, you know I reside in the middle of the country…Kansas! And you can clearly see that I have had great bike rides in;

  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Arizona
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Maine

In addition, though it can be hard to see without zooming in, there are traces of blue in;

  • California
  • Nevada
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Washington DC/Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Cancun, Mexico
  • Tamarindo, Costa Rica

So, as a guy that loves cartography and bicycling you can see how I have come up with my #50Miles50States hashtag that can be searched on this bicycling blog. And clearly, I still have a lot of work to do.  Yet…that is the fun, isn’t it?

How can Strava heatmap help you create purpose and fun in your cycling?

Cycling Kansas
Clearly, I live in the southern suburbs of Kansas City and I get to ride quite a bit around Emporia, home of the Dirty Kanza and the Flint Hills.

Both of these Strava heatmaps are accurate as of June 23, 2019…except…

When I first started riding, I mean really paying attention to my riding I adopted Map My Ride. Map My Ride shows me with over 14K miles since I started tracking in mid-Summer, 2013.  And I still like Map My Ride. I just like the interface of Strava better along with the being able to track my miles per bicycle AND the heat map, of course.

I didn’t really start using Strava until the Fall of 2017…though I did go in and backlog some of my more significant rides…like Dirty Kanza, Seattle to Portland, Biking Across Kansas (BAK),  etc.  Strava has me at just barely over 9K miles.  Imagine how much more red the Kansas City area would be with those extra 5K miles!  Oh, how it pains me to think of all those uncharted rides.

Power meters and heart rate monitors  and the like are not how I interact with technology to make bicycling more fun for me.  Yet Strava heatmap is a classic case of how technology is helping someone like me to enjoy bicycling just that little bit more.  Thanks for reading.  I hope you feel inspired to turn a crank today.

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Flint Hills, Kansas Gravel Riding

I often have the pleasure of riding my bicycle in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Rolling. Rugged. Steep and flat.  And in the spring, emerald green.  As I pedal the miles away I am often torn between riding for time and miles or, as what usually wins out, is that I ride and stop, ride and stop, ride and stop and wonder.  The rides are for thinking, exercise and prayer.  The stops are to photograph, observe and to wonder.

Fascination has always clouded my logical thinking when I come upon structures that time has forgotten.  Of course, this isn’t true with just the Flint Hills…yet the wonder is especially amplified as I pass through this rugged land.

The photographs used in this post were taken on April 20, 2019 on a 32.96 mile ride through Chase County, Kansas.

Gravel Riding Kansas
An unnamed tributary of Buckeye Creek flows over an otherwise dry road.
Gravel riding in Chase County, Kansas
When you look back in time you see the men wrestling with the cattle to get them where they want them. Note the storage barn built above flood stage of the creek from the previous picture.
Flowers in bloom on the Flint Hills
A small concrete foundation remains. These flowers remain. The family and their stories are long since gone…as are the integrity of the structures they left behind.
Kanza gravel biking
Riding in the Flint Hills is a surprise to riders from all over the world. The endless stacatto of each rise and fall in a cloudless sky…humidity rising.
gravel riding in Kansas
Some see this and think…Kansas, boring. Yet when I ride I feel at one with my surroundings and the God that made me. This is a time to reconnect with our soul. No stop lights. No cars dangerously close. Only the sound of an endless array of birds.


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