OTTAWA — Where the tendrils of Kansas City begin to thin along I-35’s southbound corridor, a new breed of car-free highway is growing in popularity. Tree-lined and weaving quietly through prairie vistas, farming towns and songbird music, the Prairie Spirit and Flint Hills Nature trails are poised to soon be among the top eastern Kansas recreation destinations.
“You've got something really unique out here,” said Nick Kromnacker.
Intersecting in Ottawa and with trailheads at every community along their route, the 51-mile Prairie Spirit Trail runs from Ottawa to Iola, and the 117-mile Flint Hills Nature Trail runs from Osawatomie to Herrington. Both trails are converted railroad beds surfaced with limestone chat, ensuring a smooth, moderately graded experience for the pedestrians, equestrians and cyclists who frequent them.
The trails are administered as Kansas State Parks, free to use, and feature, “... rural, middle America at its finest — rolling pastures, lazy streams, wooded ravines, friendly townspeople, colorful wildflowers, big farms and an endless sky,” according to traillink.com.
For Kromnacker, family bicycle day trips with his wife and 3-year-old son into the Flint Hills are a chance to escape the city’s hubbub.
“Trying to ride around our house, there's traffic and suburbs,” he said. “It's nice to go out here and not worry about someone running us over. And it's so scenic.There are wildflowers out here in the summer, beautiful grassland vistas, and all this is thirty minutes from my door in Overland Park.”
For others, the trails have opened up new, unexpected possibilities for recreation.
“I started riding the trails for exercise, and then I noticed the mushrooms growing up and down the trail,” said Rick Mallicoat, a now seasonal mushroom hunter from Ottawa. “I see a lot of deer and turkey, and I just enjoy being out here.”
Outside of each individual’s unique experience, the trails offer the chance to participate in a larger Midwestern recreational movement. Both trails now feature annual rides and run festivals — in the case of the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza, a chance to run up to 100 miles along the Prairie Spirit — and entrepreneurs are beginning to capitalize on trail recreation’s niche market potential.
“The reason we are here is because of the trails,” said Jeff Carroll, owner and founder of Ottawa Bike and Trail. Carroll’s Ottawa business is a fully-outfitted bicycle retail, rental and repair shop geared toward making the eastern Kansas trail scene accessible to newcomers.
“Cycling went through a period where people saw it as more of a sport where you have to get dressed in Lycra, get an expensive road bike, and all these things,” Carroll said. “But people are realizing that the trails are for everyone -- families, kids, inexperienced and experienced cyclists — pretty much everyone can get out and ride.
“That's the beauty of it. The trails get more people out that don't see themselves as big into some athletic pursuit — it's just people who want to get outside.”
And from Carroll’s vantage, the interests of business owners, city government leaders, and recreationalists are aligning to form a movement.
“The interest in riding on trails is growing significantly,” he said. “People are wanting to get off the roads and avoid the traffic, and these trails are perfect for that. I've been in contact with city leaders along the trail, and they are all doing what they can to make the trails more inviting for people who come visit.”
In light of all this, Carroll’s rallying cry is simple: get out there.
“Go out and enjoy it,” he said. “Check out the small towns along the way, spend some time seeing with the rest of the state has to offer, and come back often.”
For trail maps, descriptions, access points and more, check out bikeprairiespirit.com and kanzatrails.org.