I could claim that I went hiking on the best trail in Kansas today because it was Earth Day. But I’ll admit that didn’t cross my mind when I decided to hike the eastern section of the Elk River Trail on this cool, sunny spring Sunday. I’d spent almost six hours on Saturday at the school, helping with the Chemistry Olympiad and meeting teaching position candidates at the district’s job fair. So I was anxious to take a long hike the following day while the great weather lasted. I opted to revisit the eastern five or six miles of the Elk River Trail an hour north up at Elk City Lake.
In 2010 I hiked the entire 15 miles of that trail, separating it into a series of day hikes. And I’ve hiked the other trails at the lake multiple times. The Table Mound trail has a National Recreation Trail designation and is quite nice, but I must agree with a camper along the Elk River Trail who commented back in 2010 that it is the best trail in Kansas I’ve taken thus far. Our neighboring state doesn’t have the geographic diversity of Oklahoma and is, well, rather flat for the most part. I’ve spent 15 days hiking eight different trail areas in southeastern Kansas since 2009 and will say that the rugged limestone bluffs of the Elk River are a welcome change of pace…literally.
This was the last hurrah for my Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 compact superzoom camera since a replacement Canon Powershot SX 260 HS will arrive in two days. Perhaps I should say it is the last hiss for the Panasonic, not hurrah, since today it amply demonstrated why I’m replacing it. Many of the shots I took today were a blurry overexposed mess, so my narration sometimes uses clearer shots from the return trip later in the day just so you have something to look at. The camera’s focus and exposure misbehavior is intermittent.
But even if only a fraction of my photos could convey it, today was a glorious day for a hike. I parked alongside three other cars at the eastern trailhead near the dam at 9 a.m. and headed through the beautiful glade and across the creek to climb the hillside to the limestone bluffs. The trail leads into a huge corridor-like crack in the rock, leading eastward until you exit the huge crevice to walk under rock overhangs around the edge of the mound at the west end of the dam. I took a self-portrait along the lush trail, wearing my hunter orange cap in the chilly breeze while my iPhone played dark Lana del Rey tunes.
A flock of birds flew by overhead as I admired how green and lush the trail was, quite a contrast to when I hiked here in February of 2010. I reached a road and followed it to the dam, then returned to the trail. Eventually the trail led down through a very narrow cleft in the rock to a lower area of the bluff. The trail is splendid through here, but sadly my camera had blurry vision.
At a high ledge a number of buzzards were wheeling about in the hard breeze. A man and his dog, complete with its own backpack, passed by. The trail led along high bluff edges and then down through the bluffs and along their walls. I passed the two-mile marker and soon the Dolores Baker bench, honoring a long-time member of the Kansas Trails Council, marked the end of the major bluff segment. It was a welcome spot for an early lunch.
On down the trail, where a tongue of rock projected upward, a group of six or more hikers passed by, returning to the trailhead. They had full packs with bedrolls, so I figure they camped along the trail. The trail crossed an old road and I took the washed out path down to the shore. I followed the shore westward around a point and returned by some low brick ruins, but all of my shots along here were useless except for one close-up of a brick made in Coffeyville.
I passed an unoccupied campsite, crossed a pretty waterway (rendered blurry by the camera, sadly) and trekked onward past the all-too-frequent blue blazes. After the 5-mile marker the trail was riding the top of the bluffs and I plopped down on one narrow ledge for a self-portrait. Below I could see where the Elk River was feeding into the lake.
Out on the topland I took a macro shot of a tiny cluster of flowers, complete with golden green fly. At least the macro mode still worked! I tried in vain to snap a shot of the turkey vultures fluttering in the strong breeze above me, but it was not to be.
I made my back along the bluffs, passing pockmarked stone and trees in the trail, rounding bulging bluffs and passing eroded areas resembling stacked rock walls, plus a few real rock walls marking old pioneer claims. Cobwebbed crevices and beautiful bluffs passed by, along with one of my students and his parents, whose happy greeting reminded me it was Earth Day.
Soon I was re-entering the rock corridor and descending the hill to the trailhead. It was a splendid hike I shall repeat some day, armed with a better camera. I’m lucky to have the trails of Elk City Lake and Osage Hills close by, although when time allows I’ve still some more distant and novel trails to explore.