Elk River Hiking Trail – a part of Kansas you need to know

Seriously, if you have never visited the Elk River Hiking Trail, near Independence, you are cheating yourself and your life isn’t quite all it could be. Take a weekend and go. You don’t have to hike the entire 15 miles like Mitch and I did – but if you can, you certainly won’t regret it. You’ll be tired and sore, but you will be glad you did it.


This trail is unlike anything I’ve seen in Kansas. My son Mitch went with me and he kept saying that it looked like something out of Lord of the Rings or the Legend of Zelda. Honestly, it has an other worldly feel to it.


I first learned about the trail when I was working on The Complete Guide to Kansas Fishing – a guidebook on fishing in Kansas co-authored with Amy Bickel. I saw a small portion of the trail then, and knew it was something I wanted to revisit someday. It worked out that Mitch and I could steal away a weekend to hike, and thanks to the mild fall the weather made for good camping and hiking.

We camped in the Timber Road area of the Elk City State Park. The eastern trail head is just a few miles from the park. If you’re not up to hiking the whole thing, I’d suggest finding the western trail head, near the Elk River bridge off off Highway 160. From there you can hike two miles to a nice waterfall, and then back to your car for a decent 4-mile hike.

One of the things that struck me about this trail was the change in terrain. The first three miles or so are rugged – something akin to a mountain trail in Colorado. It’s rocky, with a lot of ups and downs. But the trail takes you through granite canyons and other amazing rock formations. The trail winds at times back toward the lake, creating a really incredible view.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. See what others have to say about the Elk River trail.



Elk River and Table Mound trails – Elk City Lake, Kansas



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Mostly, I’m writing this to share some photos and encourage people to visit. It really is an amazing place, one that every Kansan should take the time to visit. It’s one of those places that eviscerates the tired old complaint that Kansas is flat and boring. It’s not, but if you don’t ever get off the highway, you won’t know that. And, frankly, if that’s how you are, I’d rather you just kept driving anyway.

Mitch and me had some good conversation on the trail. We talked about a number of things, including the election, the future, relationships and the importance and permanence of nature. We sat on the edge of a cliff overlooking the lake for a lunch break, and sat under a waterfall to take a rest by the constant trickle of water, which was both cooling and refreshingly cool. We took a lot of pictures, joked a bunch, and soaked in as much of this unique area that we could. I’ll do this again someday, for certain.

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Some tips, if you go:

  1. Wear good shoes. This terrain is rugged. The rocks on the trail will wreak havoc on your feet without good shoes.
  2. Bring plenty of water. We brought roughly 4 liters between the two of us and it was barely enough. And it was a mild fall day.
  3. Bring food. You’ll burn a lot of calories, and you want to have something to replenish your energy along the way.
  4. The map at the trail head says the trip takes 11 hours. We took 8, but we went through fairly quickly, knowing that the sun would set early.
  5. If you have the gear, consider backpacking in to camp and then hiking out the next day. This is one of the few places in Kansas that back country camping can happen.
  6. Bring a fully charged camera with a big memory card. There’s a ton of natural features to photograph. Believe me.
  7. I haven’t been on the trail in the spring or summer. But by the looks of the terrain, fall is the time to go. There appears to be a lot of water run off areas and creeks beds that would be full in the spring. Plus, I suspect there’s a good deal of poison ivy in the summer.
  8. Layered clothing. It was cold in the morning, and hot in the afternoon. When we stopped for a break, we cooled down quickly, then warmed up just as quickly once we started hiking again.
  9. Have some full water bottles in your vehicle for when you are done with the hike. There’s a good chance you will have drank all your water and will be glad to have some water on hand when you’re done.
  10. Every now and then while you’re hiking, just stop and look around and be amazed. And remember that this, right here, right now, is life in its realest form.

See my full photo album from the Elk River Hiking trail.




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