Whether it’s cycling the Scottish Highlands or the legendary wine country of France, Roz Newmark and John Roberson have pedaled famed trails throughout the world, including those in America.
“Cycle touring is what we do,” says Newmark, of Salt Lake City. “We’ll travel about anywhere to cycle the best trails.”
In October, just off Walnut Street in Council Grove, Newmark and Roberson began a bicycling adventure they think is good enough to bring cyclists from afar.
“It was truly a remarkable ride, all of it,” she says. “It was an experience I know we’ll never forget. It was some of the most fun we’ve gotten from a trail. We’ll be anxious to see it as it gets better and better.”
She’s talking about the Flint Hills Trail State Park, a linear park of 118 miles. After years of modest growth and improvements being hampered by contention and funding challenges, progress is now building speed like a downhill descent, thanks to changes in public opinion and the recent news of a $24.8 million federal grant.
The route of the trail was developed in the late 1800s as the Council Grove, Osage City and Ottawa Railroad. The Missouri Pacific Railroad owned the line when it carried its last train in 1995.
Tracks and ties are gone. Inclines are gradual. The surface of packed, tiny rock chips is almost sidewalk smooth. Newmark labeled the conditions, “perfect.”
Their 90-mile ride crossed the legendary Flint Hills, alive with its best autumn colors. Clusters of neon red sumacs highlighted a landscape where every species of native grass and forb carried their own pastel colors. Newmark, raised in Lawrence, traversed the Flint Hills many times as a child. Seeing it while cycling the trail, she says, was by far the most spectacular experience.
Their two-day journey also took them past lush croplands and weathered farmsteads of stone. They cycled over clear streams, atop venerable steel railroad bridges and beneath miles of “tree tunnels,” with branches interwoven tightly above the trail. Hours passed without seeing another soul. Dealings with automobiles were minimal and safe at well-marked road crossings.
Yet it was a crowd of people near the end of the ride that brought the most excitement to Newmark’s recollections.
“We looked down the trail and there was this swarm of people cycling towards us. They were so warm and welcoming. They had so much pride in the trail and their community. It would be nearly impossible to not be swept up in that kind of excitement.”
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Trails to prosperity
Newmark and Roberson’s welcoming committee was at the outskirts of Osawatomie, but they may have enjoyed a similar welcome had they spent more time in Council Grove, Ottawa or Osage City. Like the passenger and freight trains of old, civic leaders now hope cyclists, hikers and horseback riders bring prosperity to their small towns.
“A good trail is one of the best economic development engines you can have in your small town,” says Mike Scanlon, Osawatomie’s city manager. “Those people seem to stay a little longer in the community because they’re on bikes and not cars. They generally have plenty of disposable dollars. Anybody who buys a (quality) bike can certainly afford a nice dinner and a couple of beers along the way.” Scanlon saw the difference trails could make while holding similar jobs at small towns in the Colorado Rockies.
Community leaders also see the Flint Hills Trail as an important asset for the health of local citizens and a great way to attract new residents. Wynndee Lee, Ottawa’s director of community development from 2002-2021, often sees residents of many ages where the trail bisects Ottawa. She says the city and Ottawa University include trail information when trying to recruit students or new residents.
“Quality of life opportunities have become a really big thing,” says Lee. “We get quite a few alumni coming back. A lot of them have cycled where they’ve lived near one of the coasts. It’s a plus.”
Never in the trail’s 17-year history has the mood been so upbeat.
“More and more people are getting involved,” says Jeff Carroll, owner of Ottawa Bike and Trail and one of the trail’s top promoters. “Towns have formed a coalition (the Kansas Association of Trail Towns), so they can work together. Some great things are in the works. We’re getting people cycling from all over the country. Word’s getting out. It’s exciting.”
Adding to the localized excitement was the recent announcement of that $24.8 million federal grant.
“That’s obviously going to make a big difference in so many ways,” says Trent McCown, manager of Flint Hills Trail and Prairie Spirit Trail state parks. “It should let us accomplish things we’ve wanted to do for years. We should finally be able to finish the trail going west from Council Grove.”
That will add another sizable town to the trail, one that’s more than ready to reap the trail’s many benefits.
“Most of our people know it’s coming, and are ready and excited,” says Branden Dross, Herington’s city manager. “We think it will really foster some economic growth. Herington was kind of getting ignored for so many years as they worked on other parts of the trail. We’re ready to be the official western end of a great rail trail.”
The completed Flint Hills Trail will pass through or near 11 incorporated towns and seven unincorporated hamlets.
The organized cooperation among the communities, and the windfall of funding, is coming when the trail is drawing increased attention from near and very far. McCown recently corresponded with a cyclist from Sweden. He says the Flint Hills Trail is a popular segment for those cycling across the nation.
The Ottawa Bike and Trail website and Facebook page are regularly accessed by thousands. Carroll says most cyclists are also heavily into social media, where they go to share as much to learn.
“Somebody comes, has a nice ride and by that night hundreds or thousands know about it,” Carroll says. “More and more people are hearing about things like the great Flint Hills ride from Bushong to Council Grove or the tree tunnels from Ottawa to Osawatomie. Think about it, people all over are hearing good things about even the smallest of towns, like Bushong as well as the others. How else does that happen?”
The Flint Hills Trail is one of over 25,000 rail trails in the U.S., says Brandi Horton, of the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Horton’s group helps manage the combined 40,000 miles of rail trails. At 118 miles, the Flint Hills Trail is the eighth-longest in the nation.
Kansas’ other lengthy rail trails include Prairie Spirit Trail State Park, which opened in 1996 and runs 51 miles from Ottawa to Iola (an extension called the Southwind Trail takes cyclists 6.5 miles farther south to Humboldt) and the Landon Nature Trail, a work in progress from Topeka to Overbrook.
Horton says rail trails are popular because they allow cyclists to avoid the dangers of riding amid motorists for long periods of time. Many rail trails bisect spectacular wild country and have a dot-to-dot connection with small rural towns.
The national rail trail program began after the U.S. Congress passed the Rail Banking Act in 1983. The goal of the act was to create more recreational trails for Americans and to ensure that unused railroad rights of way weren’t developed in case trackage would again be needed to transport people and freight. Though rare, Horton says there have been cases where that has happened.
In most cases, the railroad simply transfers a corridor to a rail trail group rather than abandoning the property. If needed, lands are sometimes purchased at fair market rate. Horton’s records show the Missouri Pacific Railroad gave the land to her group in 1995. She says in 1997, the Kansas Horseman Foundation accepted control of the old railroad bed and agreed to develop a recreational trail. When progress stalled, a group of residents formed the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy and was given control of the trail.
After years of neglect, volunteers found themselves clearing fallen trees, repairing or replacing bridges, hauling in thousands of tons of fine gravel chips and constantly looking for funding via grants or private donations. But those challenges were mild compared to the battle fought over public opinion and in courtrooms all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court.
That case began in 2006, when the Miami County Commission took legal action to force the conservancy to post a bond of over $76,000 to be used if the county sustained any trail-related costs. More than $60,000 of that was to be used to buy new fences for landowners along the trail. The commission also insisted all work stop on the trail until all legal proceedings were complete. Trail volunteers kept working.
In 2011, the Supreme Court lowered the bond to about $9,000. Miami County never accessed the bond money. Eventually, the conservancy used it to purchase the land needed to connect Osawatomie to the trail.
Battling Public Opinion
Doug Walker of Osawatomie was in the Kansas Senate from 1988 to 1996. He witnessed the struggles to get the Prairie Spirit Trail completed and much more heated opposition as the Flint Hills Trail project began. Agricultural groups and many landowners, says Walker, thought the land should revert to bordering landowners. Bills were proposed, and some passed, to hamper progress as fears circulated locally that the trail would spur an increase in crimes such as burglary, vandalism, cattle rustling and poaching. Walker says his pro-trail position cost him at the polls, and he lost his try for reelection in 1996.
County commissions joined the fray, suing the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy, trying to halt development. Walker says there were instances in which grants were awarded to cities for trail development, then returned unspent when trail opponents subsequently got control of their city councils.
Things were rough at the other end of the trail too, says Scott Allen, a Council Grove business owner, avid cyclist and Kansas Rail-Trails Conservancy board member.
“I just mentioned the trail at a Morris County economic development meeting and a county commissioner just jumped all over me about how it was stealing private property and would encourage crime,” says Allen. “I had more than a few people tell me I was crazy to get involved in such a project. I didn’t see how I could not get involved in making the trail because of its potential.”
As debate wore on, some volunteers kept plugging away, logging hundreds of hours moving from town to hamlet, doing development work. Eventually, Walker says, “Times changed; it became easier.”
Government support and the public mood began to change when an unlikely trail champion got involved.
“I’m a strong Democrat, and I don’t have much good to say about Sam Brownback,” says Walker, “but he was very vocal about supporting the trail and did a lot of good things.”
It was Brownback, Kansas’ governor from 2011 through 2018, who started the movement to eventually make the trail a state park. Unlike lake-based parks, no fees or permits are required to use the Flint Hills or Prairie Spirit trails.
Moods mellowed, Walker says, when the public learned the land hadn’t been “stolen” from anyone. Problems were few, usually minor and quickly solved.
“It took awhile, but people finally realized nobody is going to ride a bicycle up to their house and steal a television,” says Walker. “You can talk to the sheriffs’ departments. … There are very, very few problems related to the trail and serious crime. The (state park staff members) do a great job of staying on top of things.”
Word also spread of success stories like the 240-mile Katy Trail in Missouri, which generated an estimated $29.2 million in added revenue for communities along the route in 2022. Closer to home, Emporia’s Unbound Gravel road race has been bringing upward of 4,000 riders from dozens of countries to its annual event with little conflict and lots of economic benefits.
Walker and others say personal exposure to the trail, and those who use it, has also soothed many who once saw it as a negative.
“Locals see people parking downtown, and then the groups going out on the trail, and they think it’s good because people are having so much fun,” says Lee. “They see people coming from (Carroll’s) bike shop and start to think maybe they should give it a try. We have a lot of people who hadn’t ridden a bike through most of their lives buying one and now use the trail all the time.”
Special events, Lee says, also paint the trail in a positive light. In August, Carroll’s Moonrise Ride, a back-packing, camping, concert and prime rib feast, drew more than 225 riders who cycled from Ottawa to Pomona State Park and back the next day.
The COVID lockdowns gave the Flint Hills Trail a huge boost as people turned to the outdoors for recreation and social distancing.
“The Flint Hills Trail saved my sanity during the pandemic,” says Jeff Dorsett, of Osawatomie. “There wasn’t anything else to do, I had to get out, so I went there as much as two to three times a day.”
McCown says trail usage increased dramatically as the pandemic wore on and remains stronger than pre-pandemic.
Carroll’s business increased exponentially in 2020. Incoming bikes were spoken for well before arrival. He thinks that the current lack of used bikes for sale indicates many who started riding during the pandemic plan to continue cycling.
Towns buying in, cooperating
Now all key towns have bought into promoting and improving the trail.
Lee says the city leaders of Ottawa were always on board, based largely on experiences with the Prairie Spirit Trail. They were quick to help Carroll, from Lenexa, find a place to start his shop just a few yards from the intersection of the two trails. Private donations came quickly to build the $4-plus million Legacy Square, a 20,000-square-foot green space, where the trails intersect downtown. The square has a large, covered parking area, public restrooms and a pavilion. Several special events that incorporate music and cycling have been held. The city has installed signage to the trail and amenities such as bicycle repair stations equipped with basic tools and an air pump.
After years of opposition from within the Osage City government, the community has done an about-face. In 2011 a newly elected city council stopped accepting any state funding and involvement with the Flint Hills Trail. Five years later, residents elected a pro-trail council that remains so.
Rod Willis, the town’s city manager, says in 2020 the city received a $1 million Kansas Department of Transportation grant to improve the trail so users don’t have to utilize a confusing detour on public roads in Osage City.
For years, Osawatomie was probably the trail’s most obstinate town. That was a frustration for trail proponents because the trail’s eastern trailhead was within a mile of the town. Osawatomie is also a short drive from the 2 million-plus potential trail users in the Kansas City metro area.
Today, Osawatomie may be the trail’s biggest cheerleader. The city has built a connector trail three-quarters of a mile long linking the Flint Hills Trail to the western side of town. The Mile Zero arch marks the trail’s beginning. A large kiosk offers trail and town information in addition to a restroom and a large parking area. Osawatomie also has an active and official trails committee.
Dorsett and his wife, Sarah, recently retired physicians, are two of several people who’ve stepped up to promote Osawatomie’s involvement with the trail. They’ve opened a bicycle repair shop, Freedom’s FrontTire. In addition to keeping trail riders rolling, the Dorsetts accept donated bikes in disrepair, fix them, then sell them to residents at cheap prices.
“We have a lot of $25 bikes pedaling around town. It’s a great way to get people on the trail,” says Dorsett.
Bikes that can’t be repaired are turned into yard art as a way to promote cycling. Over two dozen such pieces are displayed around Osawatomie to remind people of the trail. Most carry a bright color theme. The town also has a mural partially dedicated to the trail, banners and signage. During warm weather months, the Dorsetts lead group bike rides for locals or visitors. Rides often end with a meal.
Several entrepreneurs are investing in the trail’s future.
Carroll’s full-line bicycle shop was the first, when it came to Ottawa in 2018. Sales of new bikes, related gear, rentals and repairs keep him and a small staff busy. A dedicated promoter, Carroll holds many events designed to help his business and bring more people to Ottawa and the trail.
Examples include Saturday morning waffle and coffee breakfasts at the shop before an organized ride. He also leads weekly treks that involve cycling, and recovery time at a downtown brewery.
At Osage City, about halfway between Council Grove and Ottawa, a native Kansan with rental properties near his home in Washington, D. C., noticed an absence of overnight options when he visited his parents.
“It’s the largest town in Kansas without a motel. There’s basically no place to stay, and we have that trail going through town,” says Nathan Willis, the city manager’s son. “It seemed such an obvious investment. We talked about creating some Airbnbs, then we found this building downtown was going up for tax auction. It’s 8,000 square feet and the trail literally runs right behind the building.”
Willis is trying to maintain the character of the structure, built in 1883, by preserving its pressed tin ceilings and octagonal skylights. Once remodeled, he’s hoping for a building with several apartments for overnight guests and two retail spaces. One would be a coffee shop that could serve meals, with a back patio that borders the trail.
“I think we’ll be able to get people along the trail to stop,” says Willis, an avid cyclist. “Osage City needed some investment. We’re hopeful it will get others to build downtown too.”
Darius Riley and Amy Noller’s investment along the Flint Hills Trail is far simpler than Willis’. It’s basically a patch of prairie at the edge of the tiny town of Allen. Riley, of Shawnee, says he and Noller had just returned from biking Missouri’s Katy Trail when they decided they needed some property where they could stay in their teardrop camper and cycle on weekends.
The unimproved property in Allen, known now as Basecamp Flint Hills, put them within a few yards of the trail, and close to some of the many miles of gravel roads used in the Emporia cycle races. The campground is dotted with small shade trees, and is perfect for tent camping.
In 2022 they had more than 200 reservations for the campground. They have two RV pads with electricity and water. The remaining sites are just places with shade, water and a portable toilet nearby. Riley says their campground helps promote the Flint Hills Trail as much as the Flint Hills Trail promotes their campground.
“A lot of our people are coming to use the trail and find us,” he says. “There are also people traveling through Kansas who prefer primitive camping. They find out about us, come and end up using the trail. We think there’s a lot of room for growth.”
Connecting to other trails
Everyone interviewed for this article expects more trail-based businesses to be established and existing businesses to do more to cater to cyclists, hikers and horseback riders.
Work to put the grant money to use improving and finishing the trail should begin this year, according to McCown. But the trail’s completion will also be a beginning in many ways.
“One of our main goals is to have (the Flint Hills Trail) be a main artery to connect all of these communities,” says McCown. “Once we connect them, they can create small trails throughout their communities.”
City managers Scanlon and Dross tell of plans to create and promote trails that lead visitors from the Flint Hills Trail to local attractions such as museums, historic sites and business areas. Scanlon thinks it’s a great way to get people to explore Osawatomie’s sites dedicated to remembering the Bleeding Kansas era that preceded the Civil War.
Dross has placed a priority on creating trail access to two city-owned lakes a mile west of Herington that offer good fishing and camping. He can envision the lakes eventually becoming key stops for those accessing or leaving the trail. Many, he says, would probably cycle into town for supplies, to do laundry or eat meals.
“We’re not just thinking of this process being done when the trail is finished,” says Dross. “We’re looking 10, 15 and 20 years down the line of what we can do utilizing the trail.”
And eventually, those promoting the Flint Hills Trail want it to connect to other rail trails. Carroll says many who use the Flint Hills Trail also head south from Ottawa on the Prairie Spirit Trail, which takes cyclists to Princeton, Garnett and Iola, among other towns.
The Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy is now focusing on completing the 40-mile Landon Trail. It will eventually give Flint Hills Trail users easy access into Topeka and its Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site, museums and the many nearby lakes, reservoirs and small towns.
The ultimate goal is to connect the Flint Hills Trail to Missouri’s 240-mile-long Katy Trail and its 500,000 annual visitors. Osawatomie’s Scanlon talks of several small towns along that trail, with vibrant, trail-based economies, as prime examples of what could happen in Kansas.
Dorsett thinks such a connection would easily draw cyclists from around the world. The two trails, with the ones needed to connect them, would total over 400 miles of quality riding.
“That will be an amazing opportunity when it happens,” says Dorsett, who’s seen many such successes in his three decades of riding rail trails. “The trails are so much alike, yet so different as per landscapes. People can cycle across the Ozarks and across the Flint Hills on one long ride. I’m really looking forward to when people will be able to do that.”
Melanie Robinson-Smith, Missouri State Parks deputy regional director, says she’s heard from many Katy Trail regulars who are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to combine the two great trails.
The expected increase in cycling traffic should give Kansans increased reasons to be proud of their communities and what they’ve created. Many already are.
Dorsett sees locals picking up rare bits of trash they see along the trail. Some landowners work continually to improve the look of their frontage lands along the trail. Some, he says, go to the trail just to watch happy people pass by. Walker says he is one of such locals near Osawatomie.
“It’s been a heck of a lot of work, especially early on, but things are better. But every time I see somebody on the trail and enjoying it as much as we’d hoped, it just validates all that we did. We all have good reason to be proud of our trail.”
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.