Two weeks ago I headed west on I-70 and spent a weekend discovering for the first time a portion of the Western Vistas Historic Byway, one of Kansas’s 11 designated byways. My destination was Scott City in west-central Kansas to participate in one of Kansas Ornithological Society’s spring field trips on Saturday. My only plan for Sunday was to devote time for off-the-highway exploration.
Led by two expert birders who know this area well, our group kicked off our day-long adventure Saturday at Lake Scott State Park with good views of American Avocets, Spotted Sandpipers, and seven Black-crowned Night-herons circling the lake together before landing in a shoreline tree. A Yellow-breasted Chat, a species expected to nest in the park this summer, appeared suddenly and lingered magnificently in the morning sunlight as someone exclaimed what we were all thinking, “just look at that yellow!” Orange-crowned, Black and white, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped warblers foraged in trees not far from where we watched Spotted Towhees. We learned the calls of the Bell’s Vireo and the sweet Rock Wren, and sorted out the distinguishing characteristics of the male Baltimore Oriole and Black-headed Grosbeak. Just before our trek through the park ended a tiny Ringneck snake crossed our path, paused, and watched us while we looked at him in awe. What a day.
Spending a weekend on the High Plains sparked renewed curiosities about Kansas’s geologic history. Roadside Kansas: A traveler’s guide to its geology and landmarks, explains this area in detail. At Lake Scott State Park, features of the Ogallala formation are exposed resulting in a spectacular landscape dominated by weathered bluffs and canyons. Cactus, dead and thriving yuccas, and the drought-tolerant now blossoming chokecherries–indicative of the semi-arid climate here, are some of the common plants we encountered in the wildlife area and along the nature trails inside the park. Tree species include the more familiar cottonwood, hackberry, elm and willow.
Lake Scott, fed by Ladder Creek and natural springs, is the park’s prominent attraction and a popular place to fish and swim during the drier summer months. For an extended weekend getaway, campsites and two reservable cabins with amenities are options for families choosing to overnight near the water. Historical sites nearby not to miss are the pueblo ruins of El Cuartelejo, and the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork site just off a dirt/gravel road about a mile from the park in scenic Battle Canyon. Drive up to this peaceful overlook at sunset and listen for coyotes calling in the distance.
The vast shortgrass prairie landscape in this portion of the Western Vistas Historic Byway is beautiful in late spring. A good place to stop and scan the prairie for wildlife and bison is at the new information kiosk just off of Highway 83 a few miles north of Scott City. Friday evening three bison rested on a hill here while a small crowd gathered to admire them and snap photos.
On the drive back to northeast Kansas Sunday, I detoured off of Highway 83 onto a dirt road for seven miles toward Monument Rocks in Gove County. Lark Buntings, Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Lark Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows sang from their sun-drenched barbed wire perches along this otherwise quiet and dusty road.
Viewed from afar and especially for the first time, the Monument Rocks look unreal, like a sci-fi movie stage set. These are slowly eroding remains of a Cretaceous Period sea, a designated National Natural Landmark free of constructed barriers, exposed to everything and welcome to anyone who cares to meet them. Up close, it seems natural to touch the chalk rocks, examine the fallen chunks for fossils, and to sense the life and death encompassing them today. This is a place of solitude, tangible evidence of what was, and a representation of the diversity of the vast Kansas landscape. A bucket list destination for sure.
Additional recommended reading:
8 Wonders of Kansas Guidebook
Roadside Kansas: A traveler’s guide to its geology and landmarks
Driving Across Kansas: a guide to I-70
A Kansas Bestiary
Birds of Kansas
Kansas Travel Bag
Kansas Travel Guide, Byways of Kansas, and Kansas State Parks Guide – free copies inside the Library.
photos courtesy of K. Sain