“Me mind on fire — Me soul on fire — Feeling hot hot hot”
~ Hot Hot Hot, Buster Poindexter and his Banshees of Blue
It was hot.
The mercury was on its way to ninety. We stepped out of the air-conditioned Subaru into a perfectly still Kansas afternoon. The sun blazed down from partly cloudy skies and reflected off the white gravel parking lot, causing us to squint as we slung on our day packs. We chatted (I would have said “shot the breeze” but there was none) with a young nurse who had just accepted an assignment in Alaska and wanted advice on hiking in mountain country. She was excited, but nervous. We dished on some of our experiences before she set off. We followed several moments later.
The trail skirted the edge of a field before passing through a copse of trees and crossing Kings Creek via a narrow suspension bridge. The hiking routes in the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area consist of one large loop trail trisected by connector trails. Using the connectors, one may choose any of three hikes: the 2.8-mile Self-Guided-Nature-Trail Loop, the 4.8-mile King’s Creek Loop, or the 6.3-mile Godwin Hill Loop. We opted for the whole shebang. I had imagined that shebang to be mostly level … because Kansas. However, just as we had learned the day before at Little Jerusalem Badlands (read here), Kansas is just not flat. We started up our first hill. Don’t get me wrong, with barely more than 300 feet of elevation over six miles, this hike is not going to tax your quads. But if you go in July, on a sunny day, in the middle of the afternoon, expect it to be hot, hot, hot. There’s little to no shade.
The well-manicured, white-gravel trail threaded through green grass to the top of a knoll. When we reached the top, we had a 360° view of the surrounding landscape. To the north, the Kansas River meandered slowly through the prairie on its way to a date with The Missouri. On the other three compass points, a cloud-dappled sky met rolling Kansian hills. Both receded to the horizon in a midsummer haze. In the foreground: wildflowers. No surprise there, right? The Sunflower State offered up an impressive display of dog-day delights, including hoary vervain, diamond-flowers, goldeneye phlox, compass plant, and winecup mallow. Silky milkweed offered up its wispy seeds to the non-existent wind, and giant puffballs hid among the grass like lost softballs near a playground.
The air was alive as well. Things flitted, flew, and buzzed in every direction. Butterflies flounced from bloom to bloom, alternating with bees, while birds swooped overhead, coming to rest occasionally on a post or bush. On the ground, the occasional lizard skittered across the gravel path, stopping briefly to eye us suspiciously as we approached.
The next two miles were a sublime romp through a midwestern wonderland. For us, it was countryside with which we were singularly unfamiliar. Horizon is not something with which I grew up. The mid-Atlantic is hilly, sometimes mountainous, and dense with trees and vegetation. Northeast Kansas was every bit as lush and verdant, while maintaining an unparalleled openness. Trees, bushes, ponds, streams – all were present, in moderation, and scattered about the spacious, uncluttered prairie, a mottle of textures – all in shades of green.
The one blemish on this unspoiled landscape was the radio tower on Radio Hill though the charms of the Konza Prairie rendered this edifice impotent to detract from the grandeur of the scene. As I think back to this trek, I can not even remember what the tower looked like. Moreover, an internet search turned up several photos from the tower, but nary an image of the tower. It was irrelevant. Now I’m sorry I wasted a paragraph telling you about it.
We passed two connectors that cut across the loop before coming to the final junction. A farm road – really just two tire tracks in the grass – tracked north and south from this point. The Godwin Hill Loop went south.
We were on the farm road for a little over a quarter-mile before the loop turned west back toward the trailhead. As the path meandered through the grasslands, the heat started to catch up with us. We had three-plus miles behind us and around three to do. The trail wasn’t demanding but the temperature was. Virtually every step we had taken so far had been in full sun. It was now mid-afternoon and easily ninety degrees; that and a heaping helping of humidity were taking their toll. Fortunately, we were descending into the Kings Creek valley.
By the time we reached four miles, we had lost over 150 feet. We were now among the trees and not just covetous spectators pining for some shade. There are actually no pines here, but American elm, hackberry, and two species of oak (bur and chinquapin), provided welcome shade as we sidled up to the creek. Cool air pooled in the creek valley and we stopped several time in shaded areas. For a while, we stalked a summer tanager, its red visage easy to track among the green trees. Sadly, we were unable to remain in shade, and the long stretches in the relentless sun were smoldering. It was along this section that a northern bobwhite became our friend … or agitator, depending on how you look at it. As we hiked, the little bird called, “bobwhite, bobwhite, bobwhite” – alway just few hundred yards away. Eventually, we started whistling the distinctive call back. I’d whistle – the bird would call back. Lisa whistled – the bird called back. This went on for nearly an hour and provided us with much enjoyment – and a distraction from the heat.
Five and a half miles along, the trail intersected a road. That road spanned Kings Creek and disappeared into the rolling countryside. The trail turned sharply to the right and passed a cluster of old farm buildings. A great bur oak stood at the side of the path with an inviting bench in its shade. We sat.
When we wrenched ourselves from that spot to finish our hike, it was to climb a small hill. The kind of hill that should barely slow a hiker down. It didn’t slow us down – but only because we were too hot to strike a brisk pace anyway. Once we had trudged to the top of this little knoll, we had a level half-mile of trail remaining. That put a little spring back in our mid-summer step. Along this last stretch, while photographing a flower, Lisa noticed a rather unusual looking creature clinging to the underside of a leaf. It turned out to be a wheel bug, a large member of the assassin family that can inflict a painful bite if provoked. We gave it a wide berth. Soon, we passed back through the wooded area, crossed the bridge, and returned to the parking area. I started the car and cranked on the AC.
The Godwin Hill Loop is an absolute must-do if you are in Kansas, or passing through Kansas, or anywhere near Kansas. Only five short miles off of I-70, it’s so convenient that you really have no excuse. I know I’ve gone on about the heat, but we would recommend toughing it out and doing it when the wildflowers are in bloom. We weren’t even there at the height of the bloom, which seems to be early June, and we were still treated to a tons of flowers and some of the most beautiful countryside we’ve ever seen. Fourteen examples of the burgeoning bloomage can be seen in the slideshow on this post. At a little over six miles and negligible elevation, even the full loop is doable for the average adult or child. Bring a hat and plenty of water, and enjoy this little hike on the prairie, but don’t expect to see Laura Ingalls Wilder. ♦
For more information on the Nature Trail and the flora and fauna of the Konza Prairie click this link:
Not only does this handy PDF contain a wealth of information, but there are also numerous QR codes to follow for even more!
Date: July 5, 2020
Location: Manhatten, KS
Trailhead: 39.106722, -96.609046
Distance: 6.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 317 feet
Difficulty: Moderate (due to heat)