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In 2018, this 117-mile rail-trail across northeast Kansas officially became a state park. Formally known as the Flint Hills Nature Trail, the trail's new name is Flint Hills Trail State Park. It links five counties and more than a dozen towns between Osawatomie and Herington. It's the longest rail-trail in Kansas and one of the longest rail-trails in the United States.
The trail is built upon an old railroad corridor, which was developed beginning in 1886—the Council Grove, Osage City & Ottawa Railway (which serviced coal mining) and the Missouri Pacific. The route fell out of service in the 1980s. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy later acquired and railbanked the corridor in 1995 and then transferred it to a predecessor of the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy to develop. In 2001, the all-volunteer nonprofit began trail construction.
Currently, the trail is traversable with a crushed-limestone surface for 96 miles, from Osawatomie to Council Grove. Trail users can enjoy walking, riding with a mountain or hybrid bike, and horseback riding on the trail. Its western tip, extending westward 21 miles from Council Grove to Herington, remains rough railroad ballast but will be developed in the future. Note that some sections of the trail have gates, which you can either go through or, in one case, climb over. Whenever you encounter a gate, please close it again behind you.
The trail traces a course through the Flint Hills, one of the last remaining tall-grass prairie ecosystems in the world. Along the trail you will encounter prairie flora and fauna, historic areas and unmatched views of the surrounding prairie and countryside. Wildlife includes bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and bobcats.
From Herington, at the western end, through Allen and Admire, you encounter the tall-grass prairie; from the eastern end in Osawatomie, about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City, the Flint Hills Trail is more wooded. For much of this stretch through Ottawa and on to Osage City, the trail follows the Marais des Cygnes River with the waterway just north of the pathway and river bluffs to the south.
Note that there are no public restrooms or drinking fountains provided along the trail. However, towns are spaced roughly 10–15 miles apart along the route for pit stops and refreshments. In Ottawa, the Flint Hills Trail connects to the Prairie Spirit Trail State Park, a 51-mile pathway which heads south to Iola and graces the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. East of Pomona Lake, the Flint Hills Trail will also join the developing 38-mile Landon Nature Trail, a pleasantly wooded corridor heading north to Topeka.
The rail-trail partially follows the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, a travel route in use between 1821 and 1880 that was key to the development of the American West. You can catch glimpses of this past in the old wagon ruts left behind and in the relics of trading posts and other historical buildings that still stand today.
The Osawatomie Trailhead is located directly south of the Kansas City metropolitan area. To get there, follow John Brown Highway west through town. The trail begins at the western city limit along the south side of the road.
The Vassar Trailhead is located beside an old grain elevator (which is visible for several miles) near downtown Vassar. From US 75 in Osage County, go east on State Route 268, then go north a short distance on Vassar Street to reach the trailhead in the small community.
Parking areas are also found in Rantoul in Franklin County and in Admire in Lyon County. Parking is allowed at road crossings as long as cars don't block the public road or trail.
Additional parking and access points are described on the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy website.
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