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Bicycling – Does the Kansas Prairie Spirit Rail To Trail Hold Up to Its Name

Trail Description.

Stretching southward from the north-end of Ottawa to downtown Humboldt, KS (which includes a recent county-controlled eight-mile addition), this now 60-mile hard-packed limestone trail is fun and easy to ride. It offers attention-getting scenic views, both close-in and far-out. Its corridor is packed with hedge rows of trees, wild plants and flowers, tall grass, and numerous sumac and cedar evergreens. In 2008, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) opened its last section. In August 2010, it became an official state park with its own ranger.

Several sections of the Prairie Spirit Trail (PST) are heavily treed with partial and full canopies, while others open up to prairie and farm views, i.e., cattle grazing next to fields of hay, corn, sorghum, milo, soybeans, sunflowers, and tall grasses (big bluestem, Indian, switch, and buffalo). It is spotted with creeks, streams, bridges, ponds, marshes, small lakes, and rest benches. Its surface is well-crowned with a few steep embankments to be mindful of while riding it.

In places where its corridor borders wooded or undeveloped grazing land, much wildlife can be seen early or late in the day, e.g., bobcat, turkey, coyote, opossum, woodchuck, racoon, and white-tail deer in addition to the plentiful rabbits, squirrels, green snakes, racers, turtles, and tiny lizards. Blue jays, doves, flickers, woodpeckers, hawks, herons, quail, ducks, geese, birds, and butterflies can also be seen. In the summer and fall, berries, persimmons, hedge apples, and walnuts are plentiful.

Towns and basic rules.

In the larger towns of Ottawa, Garnett, and Iola, where most lodging and cafes are found, the trail is paved, and lit at night. Many local bicyclists and walkers use these town sections during the day and night, free. Yet the rest of the trail is open only during daylight hours. The newer eight-mile section from Iola to Humbold, called the Southwind Trail (SWT), is free to all users.

Camping, horses, and motorized vehicles except for wheelchairs and patrol vehicles are not allowed on the corridor itself. But camping or lodging can be found in the three larger towns. Firearms, fireworks, hunting, and alcohol are not allowed in the corridor. At the road crossings, the timber gates are posted with the road names and trail information.

Trailheads.

Its eight real trailheads, 10 counting the depot museum in Ottawa and the town-square of Humboldt, have roof-covered picnic tables on concrete slabs, some of them in small public parks. Seven have outside water fountains. Eight have $3.50/day pay stations for riding the PST beyond the three paved city limits (Ottawa, Garnett, Iola). Six have well-constructed restrooms which are open from mid-April to mid-October.

The one at Garnett is a refurbished Santa Fe Depot museum with both indoor/outdoor picnic tables, plus an information center. It is open all year, but it is often locked at night. This trailhead is a popular SAG or lunch stop for organized charity and distance rides. The average distance between all of the trailheads or town services is about 7.5-miles.

Trailhead details (from north to south).

Ottawa. Old Depot Museum with inside restroom when open and outside water fountain; located at the north end of the business district, one block north of 1st-Street. Ottawa’s second trailhead is 2.25-miles further south w/water fountain, pay station, and picnic area just south of 17th Street near the fairgrounds. No restroom. Eating places located on the business Main Street one-block east of trail.
Princeton. Full trailhead w/restroom, outside water fountain, and picnic area. Gasoline station w/convenience store and bar-grill on Hwy-59 three-blocks east of trail.
Richmond. Full trailhead.
Garnett. Full trailhead at restored depot. Eating places on the south-side of the town-square adjacent to the trail and 4-blocks further west on Route-59.
Welda. Full trailhead, partly hidden by tree row on west side.
Colony. Full trailhead. Midtown country cafe and convenience store one-block east of trail.
Carlyle. Limited trailhead w/restroom and picnic table; no water fountain.
Iola. Public park on the westside of State Street w/water fountain near the pay station; no restroom. Two cafes across the street east from the park; other outlets nearby. In 2012, this part of the trail was extended 1-1/2-miles further south to Riverside Park, which is close to the cafes on Madison Avenue (aka Route 54).
Humboldt. The entire combined trail now ends here at Hawaii Road at the north end of Humboldt (this section opened in June 2013, and is free to the public). No full trailhead yet, only signage and parking. Services located at or near the town-square one-mile further southwest.

Because the distances between several well-spaced towns and their trailheads are fairly short, the combined Prairie Spirit and Southwind trails are ideal for day hikes, nature walks, or bike rides of any length up to 120-miles round trip. Frequent full-trail users can get annual passes from retailers where the fishing/hunting licenses are sold, $12.50 each, or online at the KS Department of Wildlife and Parks.

The residents of eastern Kansas and western Missouri are lucky to have a safe well-kept trail where the nature and prairie views are seasonally pleasant and refreshing. This trail corridor has the largest variety of seasonal natural wildflowers in the region. Yes, it does hold up to its name. For more information on rail-to-trail and Kansas trails, see these websites.