Photography by Jonathan Adams
Lehigh Portland Trails
Running alongside water and prairie vistas, wildlife, native grass, and wildflowers, the Lehigh Portland Trails provide a free and travel-worthy place to hike, mountain bike, or walk with dogs. The more than 13-mile network of interconnecting trails provides routes for all ability levels. The abundance of wildlife, biologic and geologic ecosystems provide a natural classroom for curious students.
Opened to the public since 2016, the trails follow routes of various difficulty levels around and between Lake Lehigh and Elm Creek, near Iola in Allen County. Formerly property of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, the trail features prominent limestone formations and natural caves accessible to visitors.\
Maintained by a group of volunteers, along with Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit organization that won the 2017 Culture of Health Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the trails have been developed in various sections over the years.
Original developer and Thrive member Randy Rasa works with a core of volunteers to maintain the pathways. “Right now, we are restoring grasslands that have been overtaken by cedars and elms,” Rasa explains. That means a lot of burning, clearing, and native grass and wildflower seeding, all part of Thrive’s mission to create a native landscape while taking advantage of some of the vistas made possible by the former quarry. For example, the quarry cliff vantage point overlooks Lehigh Quarry Lake and provides an epic view of over 300 acres of trees, brushwood, and water features.
Jonathan Adams, a photographer and Iola resident, has served as one of the trail’s unofficial tour guides. “I love the diversity,” he says. “So many different ecosystems inside one set of trails.”
As an example of this diversity, Adams points to the trails running along the lake’s south side and through a more arid landscape with succulents and yucca plants. “I even saw a scorpion once,” he adds. In contrast, on the opposite side of the lake in the north, the Creekside trails run sometimes tight and twisted over various terrain, past cedar trees, tall cottonwoods, and along rocky ravine passages. Then, there are the eastside cave trails area, where John Brown’s Cave has a walkable entrance, and an experienced caver can traverse the entire length of nearly 300 feet. This route also includes two short sections of the Katy Trail from the abandoned Missouri-Kansas-Texas and Mo-Pac railroad lines. This portion of the trail rises to 121 feet elevation and is labeled moderate for hiking and biking.
Trailhead parking is on the east side of the lake and can be approached from Iola, either south along 1700 Street from east Iola, or west along Montana Road, and then into 1650 Street from central/west Iola. Before visiting, be sure to check out the trail site’s official website at lehightrails.com to choose your trailhead based on which route you want to concentrate on.
Location: Iola region of Allen County
Trail Distance: Over 13 miles of trails
Rating: Easy to difficult
Terrain: gravel trails, single track and wide singletrack
Surrounding Attractions: Bowlus Fine Arts Center in Iola | Fort Scott cultural attractions | Neosha Falls
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