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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.