Bluestem Pastures: Exploring the Flint Hills of Kansas

Kansas motorcycle ride
Lower Fox Creek School at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Accessible by a decent gravel road and worth checking out. Photos by the author.

A couple of years ago I did an east-to-west and back ride across north central Kansas. One of the highlights was the Flint Hills, a narrow ecoregion famous for flint deposits just below the ground’s surface and rich grasslands above. It bridges eastern farmlands with the drier western plains and stretches from just south of the Nebraska line into Oklahoma. Early pioneers called it “the Great American Desert.” Rural Kansas at its finest, I spent a few days prowling its highways getting to know it better.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Many people believe Kansas is flat as a board and boring. This stretch of K-99 contradicts that perception.

I kicked off the ride at the Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka (read the story here), then pointed my trusty V-Strom west on K-4, the Native Stone Scenic Byway. An 1867 Kansas law closed the open range and offered settlers 40 cents per rod to build stone fences with the abundant material. Some of the work is original, some is undergoing restoration. The byway’s 48 miles includes sections of K-99 as well and ranks among the curviest I’ve ridden in Kansas. I took it to Manhattan, where I visited the Flint Hills Discovery Center, a good resource.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

North of town, I bedded down at Tuttle Creek Cove Park on Tuttle Creek Lake, one of several reservoirs built and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The projects are multi-faceted, providing flood control, drinking water and recreation. In contrast to my previous ride, the Flint Hills were markedly drier and it showed in the lakes and rivers. Thankfully, the region was spared the wildfire havoc that occurred farther west the previous summer.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Structures like this abound in Kansas. If you look closely, this one has some modern windows. A restoration in progress, perhaps?

K-99 was to be my primary north/south route on the eastern leg, but construction at Tuttle Dam altered the plan. U.S. Route 24 to K-16 put me back on track to U.S. Route 36, which represents the region’s northern boundary. A sign along the highway invited me to “Experience the Flint Hills.” A group of inquisitive cattle were the welcoming committee. I wonder if their collective memory associates riders on motorcycles with cowboys on horses, as they often dutifully line up as if awaiting orders. In addition to status as a former Pony Express stop, Marysville is known as the Black Squirrel City, which explains the statues honoring the little rodents. I was told that hitting one could result in a $500 fine. Not worth dropping the bike over, in my opinion. While in town, I recommend the Wagon Wheel Cafe. Good food and reasonable prices, my kind of place.

Kansas motorcycle ride
A friend who knows cattle opined that their interest in me and my bike likely stemmed from the hope I was delivering something to eat.

U.S. Route 77 is the main north/south route through the western Flint Hills. Miles of the road travel through the 100,000-plus-acre Fort Riley installation. Riding down that lonesome highway it’s easy to see why the sparsely populated region is ideal for military maneuvers. Like most Kansas byways, U.S. 77’s gently rolling pavement is of consistently of good quality–no bike-swallowing potholes like back home in Indiana. But for me, the biggest draw is that the road seems to melt into the horizon, as if you could roll on forever.

Kansas motorcycle ride
I inspect equipment at a steel mill for my day job. This rig along U.S. 77 had a loose drive belt–the squealing immediately caught my attention.

Along with cattle, fire is the main shaper of the Flint Hills ecosystem. Controlled burns each spring pare down weeds and invasive species such as juniper trees transplanted by the settlers. The saplings choke out the native grasses. A ranger at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve told me that signs of a fire I saw were doubtless accidental, as no landowner would burn in August, particularly one this dry.

Kansas motorcycle ride
An apparently abandoned antique shop in Cottonwood Falls. The mini-bike looks a lot like one I used to have. I’d love to see what other treasures are inside.

Nightfall found me at another Corps of Engineers project, the 8,000-acre El Dorado Lake. The earthen dam was typical of their practice and contains many acre-feet of water. I marveled at the elegant efficiency of these unassuming structures. That’s probably an oversimplification, but in any case, the Corps knows what they’re doing and run nice campgrounds.

Kansas motorcycle ride
The Flint Hills Scenic Byway, just north of Cassoday. One of the hidden gems of the Sunflower State and a great motorcycle road.

Like Topeka, Augusta lies near the edge of the Flint Hills. Since my route included a jog onto U.S. Route 400, I couldn’t pass up the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum. While riding into town, pay attention to the north side of the road as Sculpture Hill comes into view, an assemblage of more than 50 steel figures depicting rural Kansas life. Unfortunately, metal artist Frank Jensen’s creation is not open to the public.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Frank Jensen’s larger-than-life rendition of the nemesis of the plains: the grasshopper. Hundreds of its smaller siblings bounced off my Aerostich Combat Touring boots.
Kansas motorcycle ride
Jensen’s attention to detail is apparent in this piece. I can only imagine the hours he toiled with torch and stinger creating this beauty.

Back on U.S.77, I stopped for a break at the Solid Rock Cafe in Rock, population 191. As I finished my strawberry pie and coffee, a rider wearing a Ducati jacket and carrying an Arai helmet stepped inside. I knew I had to talk to this guy. I learned he was from Wichita, out for a birthday cruise on his recently-acquired 2008 Ducati 1098R, one of 600 produced and, coincidently, about to turn 600 miles on the odometer.

Kansas motorcycle ride
A chopped coupe with small-block Chevy and three deuces, backed up by a ’55 Chevy sedan. “New old” cars at the Strong City Standard station.

Arkansas City, known locally as Ark City, is the last Flint Hills town in Kansas. There I swung east on U.S. Route 166, bypassed Sedan and picked up K-99 once again. Black clouds inspired me to find a hotel in Eureka, where I also had a fine catfish dinner at Copper Kettle. Aside from keeping dry, the main benefit of hoteling it is hitting the road earlier. Heading west on U.S. Route 54 before dawn, I was treated to a blazing sun breaking open the wide horizon in the Strom’s rearview mirrors. Quite a sight.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Wind power is nothing new in Kansas and has been employed for more than a century. This well-maintained example is on K-177.

My loop’s last leg was K-177, 47 miles of which is designated the Flint Hills Scenic Byway. Though not as curve-filled as Native Stone, it still has enough sweepers and rolling hills to be entertaining. But more importantly, I appreciate the empty feeling it inspires. One stretch could well be the Great American Desert the pioneers spoke of. Aside from the pavement and some fence lines, there’s nothing but grass.

Kansas motorcycle ride
An overlook on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway. I was a bit disappointed as the grass was overgrown compared to the last time I stopped here.

Continuing north, I visited Cottonwood Falls, the Chase County seat which boasts of the oldest courthouse in Kansas. West of town, I explored Chase State Fishing Lake. The gravel access road was well maintained, but as with other side trips I was glad I was running 80/20 dual-sport tires on the Strom. The Shinko 705s noticeably improve the bike’s gravel road manners. On paved corners, the peg feelers grind before they run out of grip. It’s good all-around rubber.

Kansas motorcycle ride
The Chase County Courthouse served as William Least Heat-Moon’s research headquarters while writing “PrairyErth,” a history of the Flint Hills. It is a striking structure.

On my last visit to Strong City I arrived just as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was closing, so this time I made a point to get there in time to tour some of the former Spring Hill Ranch, including the limestone mansion and barn that are incorporated in the park’s nearly 11,000 acres. A now-thriving bison herd with 99-percent purity was reintroduced in 2009 and numbers 110, with 23 calves born this spring.

Kansas motorcycle ride
I’d hoped to solve the mystery of the Strong City Standard station cars from my last Kansas article, but no such luck. Next time, I’ll inquire around town about them.

During the westward migration, Council Grove was the last place to buy supplies before embarking on wilder portions of the Santa Fe Trail. An ironic place to conclude my Flint Hills experience, but all rides must come to an end. After lunch at the Hays House, I gassed up and headed the opposite direction of those hardy pioneers, east on U.S. Route 56. I’ll doubtless be back.

Kansas motorcycle ride
My last visit to the Hays House was also during steamy summer weather. But this time the heat hadn’t waylaid me. I was able to enjoy the excellent food.
Kansas motorcycle ride
The Cassoday Country Store offers breakfast and lunch. The lot might be full of bikes, or pickups pulling horse trailers. Or only a lone rider like myself. All are welcome.

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