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.
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.
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.
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;
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”