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.”


Riding the George Mickelson Trail in South Dakota

Riding the George Mickelson Trail in South Dakota’s Black Hills has been on my list since I first read about it in a magazine that Rails-to-Trail Conservancy sends me periodically.  So I scratched out a three day weekend here recently and packed my bike, gear and, oh yeah, my wife and fourteen year old daughter in to the car and up from Olathe, Kansas we drove.

Driving was part of the adventure.  We stayed in Omaha on Thursday night and took in their Old Market District.  Then it was up to the Badlands of South Dakota where I had my wife drop me off so that I could get in a twelve mile (or so) ride as they did a little hiking and visiting the Visitor’s Center.  Beautiful!  And there was this descent that would have been even more fun had it not been for the van from Nebraska in front of me… Yet, he was taking in the beautiful scenery, too.

bicycling south dakota
Pausing at the end of my short ride.  Such a beautiful place, the Badlands.

As a final “pit stop” on the way to our destination in Deadwood, we were legally required to stop off at Wall Drug.  I mean, anyone putting up that many signs for 500 miles deserves to capture at least a few of our expendable dollars, right?

769 miles later we arrived at our hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota.  As my wife and daughter planned their shopping and sight seeing for the next day I readied my Masi CXGR gravel bike and supplies for the ride on the Mickelson Trail.  At 6:54 am the next morning I turned on my Garmin Edge 25 and made the first kick towards Custer.

You can find my ride on the George Mickelson Trail here.

There was some construction creating a single lane on the main road leading to the trail and yet it was early in the morning, traffic was light and a police officer was right behind me to block any aggressive driving.  As I pedaled I realized that one block to my right was “downtown” Deadwood so I hung a right and pedaled down and back the two or three blocks of brick covered streets to take in the sights and odd names of many of the stores in front of me.

Then it was on to the trail announced by bold architecture where I registered my ride and paid the fee for trail use.  I believe the trail use for one day was $4.00 I only had one $1 bill and the rest were $20s.  So, Merry Christmas Mickelson Trail!

One of my early observations of the ride was how well the trail was taken care of and, at least in the Deadwood portion, how it appears that they didn’t take up the old tracks. They simply covered the rails with chit gravel.  I know this because in more than a few places the rail bleeds through and my tires were riding on steel.  Not in a dangerous way, mind you.  I had just never seen that before.

My second observation was how beautiful the Black Hills are.  The smell of the pine and feeling the crunch of the gravel under my tires sparked my senses.  And there was the noticeable coolness in the shadows as the cold water cast off waves of relief in the unseasonable heat…even at 7:15 in the morning.  The sound of that rushing water.  Of our five senses…the only thing missing was the taste.  And with all the rain they’ve been having there wasn’t much dust to eat.

Riding the George Mickelson Trail
There were a couple of buildings protected by the fence.  Was the fence to there to keep the ghosts in?

Up and Up and Up or Down
One of the things I probably should have done, especially as a Kansan, is check the elevation map. Listen, I promise you Kansas isn’t as flat as you’d like to believe.  At least in the eastern third of the state.  Yet, we do not have anyway to simulate hills that climb for the better part of 16 miles.  Yes, our Flint Hills can have steep rollers, yet they do not go on for the distance per climb you get in the Rockies or Black Hills.

Look at the ride.  Essentially, I only “climbed” four hills in the entire 67 miles.  Yet, except for a very short respite, the first hill goes on for 16.9 miles.  AND, I ride at 800′-1,000′ most days.  This ride bounced me between 4,500′ and 6,200′ throughout the day.  With only one night’s sleep at “altitude” this may have effected me more than I realized as I was climbing and climbing.  Sure, my overall speed on the ride was respectable considering all the stopping I did for sightseeing and pictures along the way, yet I began to feel that ride in that last climb before Custer.

Mickelson Trail Black Hills South Dakota
Roughly 8 miles in from Deadwood there is this beautiful rest stop at the Russell “Uncle Russ” Vermann memorial picnic table. Thank you to whomever provided this in Uncle Russ’ memory.

LESSON: For my friends in western Kansas, southern Illinois  and most of Florida, you are either riding up and up or descending when you ride the Mickelson Trail.  Very little, if any, flat. 

And speaking of descents…WOW!  Look at that first real descent.  That’s over an 18 mile free ride!  Well worth the climbing that precedes.  I was torn between hitting speeds of 25 mph and taking in every sight as slowly as I could.  The experience was truly a remarkable time on the trail and perhaps my primary lasting memory as time goes forward.

A couple of snakes of unknown species, a deer clearly unafraid of my being on the trail, a chipmunk here and again…that was really the only wildlife I saw on the trail.  So I was disappointed on this front. It has been unseasonably warm in the Black Hills and this may account for the animals bedding down in the shade where I could not see them.

George Mickelson Trail railroad tunnel
One of the three or four railroad tunnels I traveled in my 67 miles. We don’t get many of these in Kansas.

I will write more about the George Mickelson Trial in the near future.  The trail was simply inspiring and I took more pictures and notes along the way. The journey was renewing, relaxing, exhilarating and hard work…all in the same day.  That is a good day of bicycle riding in my book.