I try to get outside every day. Even if that just means squeezing in a walk on my lunch break at work. Overall, I've found lots of fun ways to explore my backyard this year, and in many instances it's led to new friendships. Here are my top 10 spots for playing outside in Kansas this year, in no particular order. Most are in or around Lawrence.
NORTH SHORE TRAILS AT CLINTON LAKE
A hiking, trail running, and mountain biking hot spot, with approximately 25 miles of winding trails in Clinton Lake State Park. The Lawrence Trail Hawks and the Kansas City Trail Nerds both host races here throughout the year, and there are some beautiful views of the lake as you follow the shore. I always see hawks, deer, or other wildlife when I’m out here. I like going out on days when I’m not too busy and can get a little lost, as the trails curve and connect and can get a little confusing, to my directionally-challenged brain at least.
RIVER TRAILS IN NORTH LAWRENCE
A super accessible spot in the middle of Lawrence and the site of my first foray into mountain biking! Located along the Kansas River, these trails are maintained by the Lawrence Mountain Bike Club. There are a couple of rad groups in Lawrence for the adventurously-minded, including the mountain bike club and the Lawrence Trail Hawks, a trail running group that also uses the spot for a weekly group run. You’re likely to run into some fellow trail-lovers at this locale. Example: The last time I was running out here, I had to momentarily step off the trail for a group ride of 30 very friendly mountain bikers.
Another local state park featuring a big ol’ lake in the middle. If you get tired of the trails out at Clinton or North Lawrence, Perry has at least 25 more miles of rocky, hilly, technical trails that are fun to run, hike, or bike (Or so I’ve been told. I haven’t biked the Perry trails, as that’s a little challenging for me yet). I ran my first trail half marathon out here in October, hosted by the Trail Nerds, and had a blast! Fun fact: Allegedly, the Trail Nerds end every race on a hill. The first time I heard this I thought it was a joke, but it’s proved true for every race I’ve run with them so far. Whoever told you that Kansas wasn’t hilly has never visited the northeast part of the state.
WYANDOTTE COUNTY LAKE
Okay, I know there are lots of lakes on this list - but they’re all unique in their own way, and all worth visiting! And as I’ve been doing a lot more trail running in 2016, these are the places I’ve gravitated to. The 10 mile bridle loop is used by equestrians and hikers alike, so beware of horse poo! Otherwise, this loop has some really fun hilly sections. I always get turned around and confused at least once when running here, as the bridle loop crosses the road a couple of times and it can be easy to lose the trail. There’s also some additional miles of mountain bike trails that I’m less familiar with. I ran my very first trail race with the Trail Nerds here a couple of years ago. It’s a Kansas City gem!
TALLGRASS PRAIRIE NATIONAL PRESERVE
When you look at the distribution of national parks across the United States, there’s a rather disappointing blank spot in this neck of the woods. Thank goodness for the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve! A couple hours southwest of Lawrence, the preserve features and protects one of the most endangered, and overlooked, ecosystems on the planet - the tallgrass prairie. Less than 4% remains of this vibrant ecosystem that once covered 170 million acres of North America. Another unique draw? The buffalo! These guys roam free through the preserve. There are no fences between you and the animals as you hike through the park, giving you a taste of what much of this part of the country might have been like before rampant settlement. I’m hoping to make my next trip out a night hike - this out of the way spot, far from major cities, could make for some excellent stargazing!
From left to right: sunset at the wetlands, paddling the Wakarusa River, the dam and levee trail on the Kansas River, failing at the board walk with friends at the wetlands.
A beautiful, super accessible Lawrence spot managed by Baker University for a number of scientific and educational purposes. I’ve been here birding more than any other place this year, and it’s always a special experience watching the seasons unfold in a place you know and love. Through the months, I’ve seen and heard countless red-wing blackbirds, any number of species of sparrows and ducks, bald eagles, hawks, pelicans, great blue herons, owls, and more.
LONE STAR LAKE
This was the spot for SUPing (stand-up paddling) and swimming this past summer. It’s much smaller than the nearby Clinton Lake, with fewer boat wakes, making it a little calmer and more manageable for some laid back SUPing. There are a few cabins that line the shore, and these, along with the fishermen and fellow boaters, makes for some top notch people watching.
UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS FIELD STATION
I love living in a college town. The spirit of the university really infuses the life and culture of Lawrence. And we get some fun perks, like the field station! Maintained by KU for biological research, I’ve made it out here a number of times this year for hikes and nature walks. It boasts a really pretty overlook of Lawrence, lots of native grasses and plants, and wild turkeys!
KANSAS RIVER/LEVEE TRAIL
The Kansas River winds through the heart of Lawrence, and the levee trail, or portions of it, work there way into many of my runs around town. The trail follows the north shore of the river and also gives you access to the north shore river trails (mentioned above). But getting on the Kansas River is just as fun. I was stoked to discover Friends of the Kaw this year, a non-profit organization that aims to protect the state’s rivers and get people on the water by organizing really affordable paddle trips. I kayaked sections of the Kansas and Wakarusa rivers this summer with some fun, outdoorsy people thanks to FOK, and I’m stoked to get back on the river next year!
TOPEKA AUDUBON SANCTUARY
Officially my favorite birding spot of the year! The sanctuary is on the shores of Perry Lake, and based on the conversations I’ve had, few people seem to know about it. Why is it one of the best spots for birding? First, you have a number of different habitats - think native grasses, mature oak/hickory woods, and lake shoreline - and this diversity of habitat means diversity of life! We went in September for our Breakfast and Birds outing, during the migration season, and saw everything from a woodpecker family, to pelicans and cormorants, a bald eagle, and lots of different songbirds, all in the course of about an hour. Second, we were the only ones there when we visited. Nature immersion, check!
A big thank you to the Topeka Audubon Society for maintaining this sanctuary. Audubon members can visit anytime, and if you’d like to check it out yourself, see the link to their website, below.
More than anything, I love exploring! That's true whether it's the 'flatlands' of Kansas or the mountains of Colorado. And that's what this blog is all about, finding the adventure no matter where you are. This post focused on the places I go most often in my own backyard, but I've had the opportunity for some adventuring in Missouri and Arkansas as well, so stay tuned for more in upcoming Field Notes posts. I've met some amazing people and found some beautiful places in 2016, and I can't wait to see what 2017 brings!