Kansas is flat, right?
To quote my late father-in-law, “It’s common knowledge”. There are some things you just know … like, that Kansas is flatter than a pancake. It is, but it is not, in fact, the flattest state in the USA. There are six states that rank more geographically level than the Sunflower State. Florida tops the list, followed by Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Delaware. Then Kansas. Well, how about that.
Neither Lisa nor I had been to Kansas prior to crossing the state line from Colorado on Independence Day, 2020. The two-dimensionality of western Kansas impressed us – it was everything we had expected. Nothing but horizon in every direction, open plains, endless sky, amber waves of grain … the list of prairie superlatives is long, and we marveled at the amazing flatness of the landscape. It didn’t last. As we approached our campground in Lake Scott State Park we found ourselves among rolling hills. We pitched our tent, then headed toward Little Jerusalem Badlands by way of Monument Rocks.
We saw Monument Rocks long before we arrived. The Chalk Pyramids, as they’re sometimes called, rose up from the Kansas plains in sharp relief against a nearly cloudless midwestern sky. We pulled off of County Road 16 and right up to the southern formation.
These fifty-foot formations of Niobrara Chalk are designated as a National Natural Landmark and were created during the earth’s cretaceous period as the sea bed beneath the Western Interior Seaway eroded away. The seaway covered much of what is now North America. The Monument Rocks are on private land, so please be respectful and pack out any trash or waste.
The Chalk Pyramids are a stunning collection of sculpture on Kansas’ wide-open gallery floor. Ghostly pale, they stand like castle ruins on the plains, their shape ever changing as we circumnavigated the formation. We parked in front of perhaps the most photographed of the strange pillars, framing an open archway reaching three-quarters of the total height of the ivory monument. After thoroughly gawking at the southern monoliths, we crossed the road and hiked to the northern cluster of formations to gawk again. Eventually we circled back to my Crosstrek, which looked for all the world like a Subaru ad in a trade magazine. Once we had our fill of this alien landscape, we pointed the car’s tires west toward the Little Jerusalem Badlands.
Kansas’ Badlands are only twenty-five minutes away from Monument Rocks, so it’s a no-brainer to combine these two when visiting. We had tramped around a half mile at the Chalk Pyramids and intended to extend that into a respectable hike while at the Badlands. We pulled into the parking lot at Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and piled out of the car, slinging on our daypacks. A ramada stood near the lot; from it, two trails departed through swing gates, the Overlook and the Life on the Rocks. The Overlook Trail was exactly as advertised – a short trail to a viewing platform over the formations. We chose the Life on the Rocks Trail and started off.
The Little Jerusalem Badlands are part of the same chalk formation as the Monument Rocks. Both are on the banks of the now dry Smoky Hill River. Whereas the Chalk Pyramids rise above the surrounding plains, the Badlands are cut into it. The name, “Little Jerusalem” comes from its resemblance (at a distance) to the eponymous ancient walled city.. This is Kansas’ newest state park, having opened on October 12, 2019. The entrance fee is $5.00.
The Life on the Rocks Trail wound through the grassy hills south of the chalk canyon. The trail was paved in white gravel and drew a well-defined line through the tawny Kansas grasslands. Interpretive signs clued us in to the particulars of the local flora and fauna, which were all around us. Wildflowers popped up faster than trolls on Facebook, and an assortment of bees buzzed from bloom to bloom filling the air with a magical hum. Butterflies flitted, grasshoppers jumped and clicked, and strange beetles clambered over nearby plants. The Great Plains were teeming with life.
It had been our intention to find our way down into the canyons to walk among the pillars and arches of this midwestern anomaly. We had seen a sign at the trailhead showing a hiking couple happily traipsing a white-sand trail among the majestic formations of Little Jerusalem. But where was that trail? We knew it wasn’t the Overlook Trail, and we were on the only other trail in the park. We pressed on.
We had hiked nearly a mile; the Life on the Rocks Trail seemed to be taking us past the canyons among which we longed to hike and was heading out into the open prairie. A conference ensued. We decided that our current route was not what we came for. Somewhat reluctantly, we turned back, puzzled that we could not find our way into the chalky abyss. Park rules restricted us from going off trail to enter the canyons, and there were numerous signs reinforcing that regulation. As we retraced our steps, a group came striding across the area betwixt canyon and trail. Leading them was an enthusiastic ranger gesticulating wildly as she imparted knowledge to the troop at her heels. When the group reached the trail, Lisa asked the burning question we desperately wanted answered.
“How do you get down into the canyon?”
“You have to schedule a tour!”
Lisa broached the topic of the happy hikers on the sign and was told that it was not, in fact, a couple, but a tour-scheduling solo-trekker accompanied by a ranger. This was met with dubious disbelief by Lisa, who, in any given dispute over facts, usually has them on her side. The ranger offered to take us on a tour at 9:00 the next morning, but we were headed out bright and early so …. We continued back toward the trailhead with Lisa grumbling about false advertising.
Upon reaching the trailhead we scrutinized the sign. The “ranger” was a tall man wearing dark pants and a lightweight khaki jacket. Both he and his guidee were wearing ball caps. No shield was showing. No Boss of the Plains hat. Ranger? Pffft. Here’s the sign – you be the judge.
Turning our attention to the Overlook Trail, we stepped through another swing-gate onto another neat-and-tidy gravel trail. More wildflowers greeted us as we walked, and the sun began to cast long shadows over the spires of Little Jerusalem. Golden light bathed the Kansas landscape, setting the chalk-white canyon ablaze. The observation platform sat perched on the eastern rim of the canyon, where we had a 270 degree view of the area. The sun was setting beyond the clustered columns and pinnacles before us; to our left, the amber rays fell across the pale terrain. The scene erased our disappointment at not being able to descend into the canyon. Pictures tell the story best.
There are not a lot of trails to bring a serious hiker to western Kansas but, even if you’re just passing through, Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and Monument Rocks are only about thirty miles off of Interstate 70, and well worth the detour. This is fascinating topography regardless of the common knowledge about Kansas’ relative horizontal uniformity. If you’re like us and have heard all your life that The Sunflower State is flatter than a pancake, know that, while technically true – that’s not really all that flat. ♦
If you would like to read the research that verified Kansas’ status as “flatter than a pancake” it can be found here:
Date: July 4, 2020
Location: Elkader, KS
Trailhead: 38.802855, -100.929608
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 7 feet