The American Midwest isn’t usually the first place anyone thinks of when they think of incredible reptiles since most of the most headline-inducing reptiles, like massive constrictors and bone-crushing crocodiles, tend to favor warmer climes. However, the same harsh winters that make the Midwest unfriendly to these large carnivores also make it home to some of the most interesting, ingenious, unusual, and resilient reptiles you can find anywhere.
Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in Kansas, currently home to over 200 species of rare animals. These include the spiny softshell turtle, which is one of the largest freshwater turtles on the continent, and its cousin, the smooth softshell turtle, both of which can be found in fast-moving rivers and shallow, unpolluted lakes across the state.
You can also find six different venomous snake species in the state:
- The cottonmouth, one of two semi-aquatic pit vipers in North America
- The copperhead, a slender pit viper that relies heavily on woodland camouflage
- The prairie rattlesnake, the most northerly venomous snake in North America
- The timber rattlesnake, the only venomous snake found in the American Northeast
- The massasauga, three subspecies of an unusual rattlesnake still being categorized and fully understood by scientists
- The western diamondback rattlesnake, which occasionally moves north of its regular habitat and is found in Kansas
The state is also home to 32 species of non-venomous snakes, and one, the night snake, that is believed to produce a mild toxin in its saliva but poses no danger to humans. Other interesting reptiles in Kansas include the slender glass lizard, which may look like a snake but is actually a legless lizard, and the western green lizard, an unsurprisingly bright green lizard introduced from Europe.
Many of these interesting reptiles can be seen in backyards and gardens throughout Kansas, but of course, your best luck in seeing wild animals will be in the wild, usually in a park or nature preserve. In this article, we’ll introduce you to the five best places in Kansas to catch a glimpse of some of the incredible reptiles that call the state’s prairies, lakes, and forests home.
Credit: Larry Miller
1. Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
This national preserve is likely what you picture when you think of Kansas, especially if you’re imagining it in the storied days of the Oregon Trail. Unfortunately, 96% of this unique and beautiful landscape was plowed under for farmland as American settlers rolled across the country, which led to tragic consequences for both the decimated ecosystem and the farmers trying to live on it. However, the remaining 4% of the iconic tallgrass prairie is maintained mostly in the Flint Hills of Kansas. This preserve is home to a large chunk of it.
Visitors should be sure to check out the historic buildings on site and bring binoculars to get a safe look at the roving herd of bison, but for reptile enthusiasts, the edges of the hiking trails are the place to be. Many of the reptiles that once called the tallgrass prairie home have, of course, adapted to the environments that have replaced it, but many still linger in what remains of their natural habitat. Watch out for the thin body and large eyes of the coachwhip snake or the dusty patterns of a prairie kingsnake hiding under a log. You might even see a collared lizard running on two legs through the grass. The full tallgrass experience is at its peak in the fall, but reptile fans may want to go earlier in the season when the grasses are shorter, and the ground is easier to see.
2. Mushroom Rock State Park
Mushroom Rock State Park is relatively small, with the highlights being its namesake rocks. However, these one-of-a-kind rocks, in addition to being spectacular in their own right, are also a perfect refuge for many rock-loving reptiles, like the western green lizard or the western rat snake, which can even be active during the day, though you may be more likely to find one swimming in a river or hanging from an oak tree.
3. Kanopolis State Park - Smoky Hill Wildlife Area
The Smoky Hill Wildlife Area, part of which is a designated wildlife refuge, and Kanopolis State Park, which includes Kanopolis Lake and the Kanopolis dam, are technically different areas with different designations and management. However, they abut one another, and most of the trails overlap between the two areas. The state wildlife area has one natural landmark of particular interest to reptile enthusiasts, the Faris Caves, in addition to all it has to offer in terms of hiking, biking, and horseback trails; deer, bird, and game hunting; boating; and fishing.
The Faris Caves are manmade, carved out of sandstone cliffs by a miner in the 1880s. However, because they are relatively protected from the elements and a freshwater spring keeps them cool and moist, they are an ideal haven for many species of small lizard, like the non-native Italian wall lizard. The state park, meanwhile, boasts Kanopolis Lake, a manmade lake whose shallow shore is the perfect place to look for painted and slider turtles. Look out for snapping turtles in the deeper parts!
4. Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge
The first national wildlife refuge in Kansas was founded mainly as a stopping point for migratory birds, but it encompasses a variety of habitats that make it rich for reptile spotting as well. The riparian (read: wet) woodlands are ideal habitat for Graham’s crayfish snake, which favors muddy stream bottoms, and the actually olive-colored yellow mud turtle.
5. Schermerhorn Park and Southeast Kansas Nature Center
Schermerhorn Park in Galena is most notable as the home of Schermerhorn Cave, a natural formation of the Mississippian limestone that makes up the Ozark Plateau. The plateau itself covers 55 square miles in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and the ancient limestone is full of caves, pits, and streams that make excellent habitat for some of the rarest reptiles in the area. Schermerhorn Cave itself is so valuable as reptile habitat that people aren’t allowed inside, but visitors can see the cave’s “twilight zone” from a nearby viewing platform, potentially spotting a blind, grey grotto salamander or lungless, orange dark-sided, or long-tailed salamander. A visit to the Southeast Kansas Nature Center on-site will give visitors all the information they need to identify these hard-to-spot cave dwellers or the even rarer mussels that make their home in nearby Shoal Creek.
Kansas’ wide variety of natural habitats naturally make it home to a wide variety of reptiles, and these are only a few of the many places you can go exploring in Kansas to try to spot one – but they are a good place to start!
Visit this wonderful Nature Center with picnic area, playground equipment, and shelter house. Back your car up to the edge of the creek and…
Located about one mile south of Galena on the east side of K-26. The entrance is just north of the bridge over Shoal Creek. Open…