WICHITA — Visitors to one of the state’s newest parks can hike or bike over rocky streams and travel through hills, wetlands, tallgrass prairie and hardwood forests.
But the Flint Hills Trail — the longest nature trail in Kansas — also serves as an artery to rural Kansas that pumps economic development into towns left behind when the railroads stopped coming through.
Now several towns along the trail in east central Kansas are planning music festivals, opening breweries and bike shops, and converting old buildings to Airbnbs to serve visitors.
Once a piece of the Missouri Pacific Railroad line, the Flint Hills trail will stretch 117 miles across the Kansas terrain when it is complete.
Today, close to 95 miles of the state park are open to the public, running through six counties.
The Flint Hills trail was first acquired by Kanza Rail to Trails Conservancy which takes old railroad lines and turns them into nature trails. Last summer, the trail was officially named a Kansas state park.
“There’s not another state park that has this much diversity in it,” said Jim Manning, natural resource officer for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
That being said, the trail has had a slow start.
There’s still a lot of work to be done and it hasn’t been as popular as other trails in Kansas like the Prairie Spirit Trail — a 51-mile trail that runs between Iola and Ottawa in eastern Kansas. Manning said he isn’t worried.
“Prairie Spirit has been established for awhile now and everybody has gone around that,” he said. “This trail will get there too.”
But the remaining work on the trail and the eventual maintenance has a hefty price tag attached to it.
That’s where communities and local businesses come in.
Manning said volunteers from communities around the trail, local governments and businesses are contributing to the progress of the trail.
“Some of the cities really help us out, and we try to return the favor as much as we can,” Manning said.
The eastern-most point of the longest natural trail in Kansas is in Osawatomie.
The trail, as it sits now, actually starts about a half a mile outside of town, but the city recently purchased a plot of land to connect the trail to the town, said Doug Walker, president of Kanza Rail to Trails Conservancy.
The Trail Task Force, a group that’s sole purpose is to get the trail into the town, Walker said, has raised $250,000.
“The community is really excited and has gotten behind it,” Walker said. “It’s gone like we’ve hoped, but better than we expected.”
For now, there’s not an access point for the trail in town, but that’s an addition in the works for next year, Walker said.
The plan is to run the trail through Osawatomie and connect it with the local recreational center.
Right now, Walker said, the town’s claim to fame is being home to John Brown’s cabin which doesn’t prompt a lot of return visitors.
“The trail offers an appeal to a wider demographic, and they’ll come back more than once,” Walker said.
“We’re just excited, it’s going to happen. It’s getting better everyday.”
Ottawa, which sits on the convergence of the Flint Hills Trail and the Prairie Spirit Trail, plans to open an outdoor events pavilion called Legacy Square Park in September.
The park, which will cost a little more than $4 million, is a project started by a foundation called Onward Ottawa.
It’s a joint effort between the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce and the Franklin County Development Council.
It was expected to take close to five years to secure the funds and finish construction, said John Coen, CEO and president of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce. It took 8 months.
When it’s done, it will be able to host car shows, farmers markets, music festivals and other events that could attract people who use the trail.
In addition to the park, Ottawa has seen an uptick in new businesses. A new brewery, cafe and bowling alley are just a few examples, Coen said. Some of the older buildings in town, like the old City Hall building, are being converted into apartments and residential spaces for short-term rental options like Airbnb for people passing through on the trail.
It’s all part of a decade-long push to make Ottawa more bike friendly, an effort that began when traffic through town picked up when the Prairie Spirit trail became accessible.
“It’s all very positive momentum in the community ... it’s what we wanted to see happen,” Coen said.
One of the corner-stones of the momentum, Coen said, was the opening of a bike shop.
Jeff Carroll, owner of Ottawa Bike and Trail, said he opened his store because of the Flint Hills trail. His shop does bike sales, rentals and guided trail rides.
“There hasn’t been a bike shop in town in years,” Carroll said.
His shop is near to where the Flint Hills and Prairie Spirit trails intersect with each other. Additionally, Legacy Square Park is right behind the strip where the store is.
“I don’t think any of those things really on their own would have happened without (the trails) so it’s spurring a lot of that along,” Carroll said.
It’s a domino effect, but in a good way, Carroll said. The trails brought business interests, which inspired more businesses and modernization in the community.
“A lot of people in Ottawa are feeling like we’re on an upswing,” Carroll said.
Council Grove on the trail
The town used grant money to attach the trail to the preexisting Neosho Riverwalk park in Council Grove. The local Rotary Club raised funds to pave that new part of the trail with cement to make it easier to cross, Diane Wolfe, executive director of Council Grove and Morris County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said.
Right now, Scott Allen, vice president of Kanza Rail to Trails Conservancy, said the riverwalk is essentially a discontinuous arm of the trail, but that will change.
“We are planning on extending the riverwalk ... so it comes back in and intersects the trail so it makes a loop,” Allen said.
The city hopes to add a bike share program and someday a bike shop, Wolfe said.
Each fall, Council Grove serves as the finish line for the Rush the Rails race that starts in Osawatomie. The third annual bike, run or relay race is on Oct. 5 this year.
Deidre Knight, an organizer for Rush the Rails and a Council Grove resident, said the ride isn’t competitive, but participants can request their overall race times if they so choose. There are a variety of distances, Knight said, ranging from 14 miles to 100 miles.
“We’ve expanded it to get all ages and abilities ... to get them on the trail on the same day,” Knight said. “What we focus on in this event is more community based ... (it’s) a community for people who want to enjoy the trail together.”
The event is part of a statewide push to drive traffic to the trail, Allen said.
“The views are breathtaking ... you can see the rolling hills and the prairie and the tallgrass,” Allen said. “It’s good for anyone with any riding ability. ... It’s a much easier path than a lot of other routes that you can take.”
And it’s not just the city and local philanthropies getting involved, Allen said. Business is booming as well.
Two restaurants in particular benefiting from the trail are the Trail Days Cafe and Museum and the Saddlerock Cafe, Allen said.
“We are really trying to get development in the area for activities and things to do when people get to Council Grove along the trail,” Knight said. “People just see the opportunities and want to provide that for people along the trail once they get here.”
Knight and her husband also are planning to open a brewery in the coming year.
“It’s incredible to see bikes outside of restaurants downtown,” Knight said.
Flint Hills Trail in the future
As for the future of the trail, Manning said it should progress in loosely-outlined stages. There’s not a set-in-stone timeline.
“We are still working. Everything is in phases, of course, because it is insane the amount of money it takes to do everything,” Manning said.
There’s not a set price tag on the whole project, but a lot of it will be paid for with grants, donations and assistance from local governments.
Manning said he is confident it will all be finished.
“We’re just slowly starting to figure it out and we’ll figure it out,” Manning said. “We’re out here hopscotching along trying to keep things as maintained as we can.”
Walker, of the Kanza Rail to Trails Conservancy, said a lot of the process has been an “uphill battle” since the group first set out to turn the trail into a state park.
“The attitude has totally changed and the momentum has been on the side of building the trail,” Walker said.
One of the most pressing additions, Manning said, is adding bathroom and water stations along the trail.
“Every five to six miles, you can get your water and take a break, and that’s what we are foreseeing with this,” Manning said.
Once the important amenities are added, Manning said he wants to make the trailheads similar to those on the Prairie Spirit trail. Complete with bathhouses and information kiosks that illustrate local wildlife and share tidbits of the area’s history, the starting points of the trail would be clearly marked.
One of the special things about the Flint Hills Trail is the amount of space available at the trailheads. A lot of them are spacious enough to allow accommodate people interested in riding their horses on the trail. Travelers could park their trailers at any number of the trailheads with the cars of hikers and bikers.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has already started making plans for trail maintenance once everything is complete, Manning said.
The department recently hired a naturalist to be mindful of the native species of wildlife on the trail. Seasonal employees also have been added to the rotation to make sure the trail stays passable and clear of overgrown plants or fallen limbs.
Everything accomplished on the trail so far, Manning said, is due to the commitment of local volunteers.
“A lot of times when a storm comes through and there’s a bunch of trees down, I’ll go out and I find that somebody has already been through there with a saw and that helps me out,” Manning said.
He said it speaks to the support of the communities around the trail.
“A lot of towns relied on the railroad and aren’t doing very well without them,” Manning said.
Knight of Council Grove agreed, saying essentially the trail can be second chance for some communities in Kansas.
“I think we fight enough battles in rural Kansas. It’s hard to keep moving and drive ahead,” Knight said. “We are on board and ready to welcome anyone in this community.”