About this Itinerary
The Prairie Spirit Rail Trail State Park (PST) in Kansas is a treasure. The trail is well-suited for walkers, cyclists, runners and birdwatchers, and navigates through nine towns. The trail and the towns along the way offer a myriad of activities to keep everyone happy. The route is 51 miles long and was built in three segments over a 16-year period. The trail runs a north-south route, spanning three counties (Allen, Anderson and Franklin) and has eight pocket parks. As you travel along the PST, you are treated to a variety of ecosystems and geography that includes wooded areas, farmland, prairie, urban areas and small towns.Animals you may see on the trail include deer, rabbits, box turtles, raccoons, lizards and an array of blue birds. Cows are a common fixture in the fields along the trial.
Ottawa is the largest community on the trail with a population of approximately 12,650. Located along the Marais des Cygnes River, it is the northernmost part of the trail. The southern trail end point is in Iola. If using Ottawa as your home base, we recommend staying at the Comfort Inn of Ottawa. A stay at the inn includes a complimentary hot breakfast and the inn is centrally located just a few blocks from the trail. Within the town of Ottawa, there are numerous restaurants and shops. These are all conveniently located one or two blocks east of the trail on Main Street.
There is a per-person trail pass fee if you’re 16 years or older, except in the city limits of Ottawa, Garnett and Iola, where the trail is free. The $3.50 self-issue day permits are available at trailheads; annual permits are available for $12.50 where KDWPT licenses and permits are sold. The PST is only open during daylight hours outside of the city limits of Ottawa, Garnett and Iola.
Bathrooms are available at every trailhead; however, all but two—Ottawa and Garnett—close during the fall for the winter. The closings usually occur sometime between late October and early November, so you need to plan accordingly. The majority of the trail surface is crushed limestone. The exceptions are in the city limits of Ottawa, Garnett and Iola, where the trail is paved asphalt. The PST is, on average, 8-feet wide and follows the original rail bed of the old Leavenworth, Lawrence and Fort Gibson Railroad, which was built in the 1860s. This was the first north-south rail line in Kansas.
If starting from the Ottawa end, stopping for breakfast at the family-run Keim’s Bakery is a must. If you’re looking for something cold and refreshing before hitting the trail, we recommend a stop at Peachwave. This self-serve frozen yogurt joint is located on Main Street and offers creamy, tart, sugar-free and non-dairy yogurt in a variety of flavors.
You can access the trail from three different points in Ottawa: the Old Depot Museum, Kanza Park and the Ottawa trailhead. The Old Depot Museum served as the passenger depot for the railroad and now houses the Franklin County Historical Society and doubles as a trailhead. There is plenty of parking at the museum. Kanza Park is an Ottawa City park with a one-mile hard-surfaced walking trail with exercise stations and an 18-hole disc golf course. The Ottawa trailhead is at the southern end of the city and has a self-pay permit station, drinking water, picnic tables and parking. If you start at the Old Depot Museum, you will cross the Marais des Cygnes River on an old railroad bridge. The trail then intersects the east-west route of the Flint Hills Nature Trail and then continues south on city streets before picking back up again at 5th Street. From here, you will pass the Kanza Park trailhead and soon be out of Ottawa.
The trail from Ottawa to Princeton is mostly in shade thanks to a canopy of trees. This canopy will be a much welcomed cover on a hot day. As you approach John Brown Road, you will see the Princeton trailhead in front of you.
As you head towards the next trailhead, you will be surrounded by a wooded area for a bit before seeing the open prairie. As you get closer to the Richmond trailhead, the prairie is replaced by another wooden area. The grade on the trail rises slightly and begins to drop rapidly after you head towards Scipio Road. After passing two bridges the trail has another incline on your way to Garnett.
Garnett is approximately the middle of the trail. If stopping in Garnett for the night, you can choose from camping to a B&B. If you want the full experience of being in the wilderness, we recommend a tent campsite on Lake Garnett, which is adjacent to the trail on the northeast side of Garnett. Availability is on a first-come, first-serve basis. If comfort suits you more, the Kirk House is located 0.2 miles off the PST, one block west of the downtown square. Rich with history and incredible architecture, you will enjoy an overnight stay in this fabulous B&B that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you are in Garnett during lunchtime, we recommend Tradewinds Bar and Grille for a cold beer and burger. The restaurant is located just one-tenth of a mile off PST. We also recommend Maloan’s Bar & Grille for dinner; their specialty is prime rib. Maloan’s is only open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner so plan accordingly.
The next section of the trail is another gradual climb as you head to Welda. This section is also more isolated and serene and you will continue to enjoy the peacefulness of the trail. Welda is home to the Anderson County Prairie Preserve, which is used to monitor the populations of a myriad of species that use the vanishing prairie land as their home. The preserve is less than one mile from the trail.
As you continue on PST you will come to Colony, where there is a bit of an incline as it is the highest point in elevation on the trail. Next, you’ll pass by Carlyle on the way to Iola and soon come to the end of the PST. From here, you can connect to the Southwind Rail Trail, which does not require a permit.
While in Iola, you must treat yourself to the finest cuts of meat and fresh salads when you stop into Bollings Meat Market & Deli. Located just off the trail, Bollings offers a wide variety of deli meats, cheese, sandwiches, sides and desserts. If you want your sandwich to pop, ask for the sweet peppers.
The area offers a wealth of historical sites to enjoy during your stay. In Ottawa, a must-visit is the Old Depot Museum. It has a large room dedicated to model trains, an old school room and a soda fountain room. There are scavenger hunts for children and an old-fashioned school bell, which you can ring.
The Dietrich Cabin is a tribute to the Dietrich family and other early pioneers who came to Franklin County. Living history events are hosted monthly to showcase life in the 19th century and include crafts, artisans, musicians and re-enactors. You’ll see and learn how the Dietrich’s eight-foot porch became a place where travelers stopped and slept on their journey. The cabin was originally built in 1859 and is only open on the third Saturday of every month from April through October.
The Old Jail Museum in Iola operated as the Allen County Jail until 1958. The jail was constructed in 1869 and visitors will see the solitary confinement cell, walk through the 1891 steel cage cell block and read the graffiti left by its many inmates. The second floor has artifacts from the late 1800s. The jail is only open May through September and the rest of the year by appointment. The Allen County Historical Society manages four museums in Iola and would be happy to help you learn about history of the area.