Stride for stride, Buffalo Tracks Nature Trail, is one of best hikes in America. For one thing, it goes through the prettiest part of one of the prettiest state parks in the nation.
For scenic beauty, Kanopolis State Park has justifiably been rated as high as 14th of the nation’s 7,500 state parks!
The park sits amid vast tallgrass prairie creased with clear streams that lead to a sprawling reservoir. Rugged canyons of strawberry-colored stone, with sheer bluffs and caves, gouge the landscape.
The diversity within basically a 15-block hike is amazing.
The well-maintained trail first crosses prairie with assorted grasses, wildflowers and cactus, then drops to the base of tall bluffs. A few passages through huge boulders take a bit of fun meandering. Several seep springs grow lush ferns along the way.
Take the left fork of the trail if possible and cross Bison Creek. Ideally, you’ll get to cross on stepping stones or maybe a beaver dam. Sometimes you just have to get your feet wet. Don’t try it if there’s much depth or current. Safety first.
After some winding the trail takes you to the top of a ridge and the mouth of Oven Cave. Legend has it native people dried buffalo meat in the cave after stampeding the animals over a tall cliff across the stream.
When you leave Oven Cave the trail takes you to those cliffs. Early settlers told of piles of bison bones found at the bottom of the steep rocks. At a slight fold in the bluff you’ll find the namesake buffalo tracks cut into the stone, where through the centuries millions of hoof strikes carved steps the unmistakable size and shape of buffalo feet.
You’ll find other kinds of carvings, too. In the days of Carson, Cody and Custer, who all frequented the area, passer-bys often carved their name and/or date in the soft stone. Unfortunately, many have been covered by more recent carvings. Off the main trail some originals remain. I’ve found “1865.” A friend showed me a detailed carving of the crucifixion at least a century old.
Just past the cliffs the trail leads to another cave that takes a bit of easy rock climbing to access.
The trail is spectacular enough to turn around enjoy the walk back out. Or, hikers can freelance it to the top of the canyon and catch another trail to the parking lot. It adds another worthwhile half-mile to the trek, most of it with commanding views of the lake and many miles of surrounding prairie.
If you have time and energy to spare, take a climb up a huge, lakeside rock formation a quarter-mile south of the trailhead.
It’s just the right height and angle to be fun for kids and adults. The peak is one of the most iconic places in Kansas to watch the sun set over the lake and the prairie.