It’s July 8, my birthday, and my husband and I had planned to spend the day driving nine hours from Kansas to Colorado. But spending all day in a van, breathing recycled air and nourishing ourselves with nothing but packaged snacks, is not my idea of a celebration. So, because we’re not on anyone’s schedule except our own, we devise a new plan. Just five hours due west of our starting destination in Lawrence, Kansas, is a newly designated recreation area called Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park. We know almost nothing about it, except that it’s on our way.
For those of us who have lived in Kansas, we know it’s not the flat, flyover state that everyone else thinks it is. It may not have the Rocky Mountains, but it still has plenty of natural wonders going for it. Both the Konza Prairie and Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie Reserve feature rolling hills of lush grasses and webs of trails. Then there’s the 148-mile-long Kaw River, whose shores are a perfect place to view Kansas’s magenta and bronze sunsets. And now there’s this 332-acre park. I’m not really sure what to expect.
When we arrive there at midday, we’re the third car in the parking lot. The sun is high and our thermometer ticks past 90 degrees, the humidity making our skin sticky. From our van, we can see only the tops of several chalky-white, crumbly spires. We choose the Life on the Rocks Trail, a three-mile hike, to get acquainted.
Only a few steps into the crushed-rock path, the ground opens up off to the right into deep canyons and towering formations, some of them taller than 100 feet. They look like something you’d expect in Utah or Colorado. Except these Niobrara chalk rock deposits are unique to this region in the Midwest.
Like I said, Kansas isn’t flat: From roughly 140 million years ago to 65 million years ago, the area was covered by the vast body of water known as the Western Interior Seaway. Geologists believe the layers of sediment appeared about 80 million years ago when the seafloor lifted during a shift of tectonic plates. Fossils uncovered here include those of giant clams and oysters. People in the 19th century called these ruins “Castle City” and “Little Jerusalem” because of their similarity to the ancient walled city. After five generations under family ownership, The Nature Conservancy along with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism opened the area to the public in December 2018.
Except for the sound of our footsteps, it’s quiet out here. We see a single rock wren swoop near a bush of wild buckwheat. A large population of this native, white-flowered crop is found in the park, which is also home to creamy white chalk lilies, ferruginous hawks, bats, and cliff hawks. We descend a gentle slope and I find myself wishing I’d brought along water. At the turnaround point, we take it all in. There’s something about the expanse and the way the prairie resumes for miles just beyond this city of crumbling castles that makes us—even my husband, who grew up in Kansas—marvel.
We take our time walking back up the gently-sloped hill, admiring the rugged fragility of it all. We have to get back on the road, but as we drive away I imagine what the white towers will look like at sunset against a gold and purple and pink backdrop. Maybe we’ll catch one for my next birthday.
Do It: Trailhead Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park parking lot. Season Sunup to sundown, all year round; spring and fall offer the most comfortable temperatures Permit Daily Kansas State Parks vehicle permits ($5 per car) are available on site at a cash-only pay station.