50 Miles on the Flint Hills Nature Trail

My two fitness goals this year were to summit another 14,000-foot peak and do a 50-mile hike in four days. I completed Huron Peak in Colorado in August. My first attempt at the 50-mile hike was in May on the Knobstone Trail in Indiana but got rained out among other challenges. When it came time to buckle down and re-schedule my 50-mile hike, I decided to plan it much closer to home on the Flint Hills Nature Trail in east-central Kansas.

Winding Creek on the Flint Hills Nature Trail in Kansas
A creek trickles down a gentle slope in the Flint Hills area of Kansas

I reserved my family’s barn in central-eastern Kansas as a home base I could return to after each segment of the hike. I can imagine no better elevation of my Flint Hills Nature Trail hike than to wake up to farm fresh eggs enjoy gorgeous sunrises and sunsets from the highest point in Coffee County. As every Kansan knows, there’s no place like home.

Farm Fresh Eggs at a Rustic Barn in Kansas
Farm fresh eggs while staying at a modern rustic barn in central-eastern Kansas

I hiked in the latest part of October, as the prairie’s green was transitioning to fields of gold. This part of the country is what “America the Beautiful” meant by “amber waves of grain,” especially the parts where the trail passed behind local farms growing corn, wheat or soybeans.

Zig-zagging Slopes of the Flint Hills Nature Trail in Kansas
Harsh midday shadows draw attention to the zig-zagging shelves down the hill

At 117 miles long, the Flint Hills Nature Trail is among the top 10 longest rail-trails (decommissioned railroad corridors converted to public use trails) in America, and it takes the top spot for trail length in Kansas. It roughly follows the route of the historic Santa Fe Trail.

Black & White Fall Foliage on the Flint Hills Nature Trail in Kansas
Black-and-white photography captures the texture and pattern of the prairie

The Flint Hills Nature Trail is part of one of the last remaining tallgrass prairie ecosystems in the world, according to the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy that maintains it. According to the National Parks Service, tallgrass prairie at one time covered more than 170 million acres in North America, but today, less than four percent remains, making this tallgrass prairie one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in the world.

Wooden Farm Fence in the Fall on Flint Hills Nature Trail in Kansas
A collection of wooden fence posts with a lone tree on the horizon

The Midwestern climate, the grazing of Bovidae like deer, antelope and bison, and periodic prairie fire have shaped this unique landscape for centuries. It makes the fertile soil of this one-of-a-kind environment the perfect home for a diverse range of native prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Small Pond & Flint Stones on the Flint Hills Nature Trail in Kansas in the Fall
White stones lead to a small pond against a backdrop of shallow hills

I wondered if 50 miles on a straight and flat trail like the Flint Hills Nature Trail would get old, but I discovered that each segment of the trail was little bit different. From Vassar to Osage City, the trail has little tree cover, and the trail is lined with farmland and the occasional stone outcropping. From Bushong to Council Grove, the trail is more wooded and hilly, and at one of the road crossings I emerged upon the ruins of the historic Kaw Agency building at Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park.

Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park Historic Kaw Agency Building Ruins on the Flint Hills Trail Near Council Grove, Kansas
Historic Kaw Agency building ruins at Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park near Council Grove, Kansas

Of course, I wanted to capture some warm, colorful, and textured details of Kansas in the fall. Having grown up in the Midwest, it can be easy to take these beautiful little abundances for granted. I couldn’t pass over the last remnants of summer before all the flowers and foliage give way to fall, and soon to winter.

I read earlier this year when began to study professional landscape photographers that sometimes you capture your best photos on the way to the places most people photograph. It taught me to be fully present in my surroundings.

I have crossed the dam at the John Redmond Reservoir on the Neosho River going back and forth between Kansas City and our family farm my entire life. And countless times, I stared curiously at the scene and made a mental note, but kept driving.

This time, on my way home from the farm, the timing and the light were perfect. I pulled off the road and wound through the park looking for a good place to shoot on this extra windy evening, and set up my tripod as quickly as I could to capture the light. Right as I finished framing my shot, the sunset lit up the lake in the dramatic, bright hues you see below.

Sunset at John Redmond Reservoir on the Neosho River near New Strawn, KS
Though this is the final cut, I also really liked this landscape orientation version of the scene!

Two perfectly parallel contrails from planes dart into the scene. The foreground stones anchor the image, and a slow shutter speed helped me capture a subtle ghostly effect on the water on this windy day, lapping around the branches protruding through the surface of the water.

A poetically pristine ending to my time on the Flint Hills Nature Trail.

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