For the Interstate-70 traveler, it is a 600-mile jaunt westward from Kansas City to Denver, from the edge of deciduous forest across grasslands to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Unexpectedly at about the 200-mile mark and just off the highway is a true backcountry mountain bike trail featuring diverse natural beauty and challenging trail features, complemented by lake views, sandstone formations and a trailhead with all the desirable amenities.
Since 1995, Kansas Trails Council (KTC) leaders have utilized their hard-working volunteers, generous private donations, a Subaru/IMBA Trail Care Crew educational visit and a Department of Transportation-Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant, to grow this gem beyond 20 miles of well-planned, sustainable singletrack that is regularly raced on and groomed by the KTC.
Estimated Ride Time:
Wilson State Park, Kansas
Scenery is spectacular, but the many 10-40-foot drop-offs alongside the trail will require attention to business. There are turns of all sorts: fast, slow, banked, flat, off-camber, tight, loose and flowy. Technically speaking, there are armored sections, narrow passages, climbing turns, rock drops and rock gardens. There are few repetitive features; you'll never feel as though you keep riding the same section over and over. Most of the mileage, however, is blue and green. Technical features (black) are short and can be walked through in a minute or two. Many of the most challenging of features have an easier go-around.
Novice riders have not been overlooked. There is a 2.5-mile, entry-level loop, which also starts and ends at the trailhead. It is non-technical without climbs, no sand, very few rocks and gentle terrain. It is about a 20-30 minute ride suitable for first-timers. The EZ loop is a genuine mountain bike trail that will give the novice a fear-free chance to enjoy riding over dirt and a rock or two. Experienced riders enjoy it as an easy, fast and flowy warmup.
The trail is a clockwise stacked-loop system with three main loops. Each is well marked with color coded symbols. Riding begins at the Switchgrass Trailhead with the Golden Belt Loop (yellow), then merges with the Marina Loop (purple), and finally merges into the Hell Creek Loop (red). Do ride the whole thing, do it in this order: Yellow - Purple - Red - Purple - Yellow. No repetition. No criss-cross intersections. No double-track. No two-way traffic.
Suffer a catastrophic mechanical? Park roads are always nearby and make for easy bail-out access back to the trailhead. Up-to-date maps are posted at the kiosk and free handout maps are available for riders to take with them. Current maps are also accessible via smart phone.
To aid in navigation, landmark signs are posted. Sculpted milestones mark each 1-mile interval on the entire trail. It can be ridden as one big continuous loop, or you can take one of six, designated trail cutoffs that allow for several shorter ride options. All cutoffs are clearly marked and navigated with a consistent pattern: turn right to cutoff back to trail head, or turn left to continue on more trail.
This is a great ride in a very unexpected location. Unique within this region, the trail is evocative of the American Southwest with its red sandstone features. The landscape is also covered by a sea of native grasses, dotted with exposed sandstone rock escarpments, brush, and eastern red cedars (juniper).
The Dakota Sandstone is the geological formation in the park. Red cliffs abut the trail and intersect with the lake shore. Some sections follow near and above the shoreline – with several opportunities to stop and refresh in the summer. Much of the tread surface is a robust sandstone gravel, whereas some sections are sandy loam, with only a few that are just plain sandy. There are several memorable sections of slick rock, but it is not extensive. The trail substrate drains rapidly and in the summer is ready to ride within a few minutes to few hours after rain. Traction varies with dryness, but overall is quite good.
Most consider the landscape open – vistas are expansive and sunsets and sunrises are always special to witness. Lizards and snakes are common critters seen on the trail. Coyotes and white-tailed deer are abundant, as are songbirds, Rio Grande Turkey, bobwhite and pheasant. In the winter, the Osprey and Bald Eagle hunt for fish in the lake. Fossils are also abundant in the area.
Lake Wilson, an impoundment built in the 1950s, is in view for much of the ride and is an attractive force for recreation in the region. Often promoted as the most beautiful lake setting in Kansas, it contributes considerably to the desire that people have to ride the Switchgrass Trail. Kayaking has become the most common other activity for those who show up to mountain bike.
In central Kansas, on I-70, take Exit 206 N (Wilson), then drive north 5 mi on K-232, then west on Shoreline Dr ~1.5 mi to the park entrance on the right (N). Trail segments are visible crossing under the western end of the Hell Creek bridge.
OR, from I-70, take Exit 199 N (Dorrance). Drive north 3 mi on 200th Road, then east 5 mi on Shoreline Drive to the park entrance on the left (N).
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