A chalky rock face juts 50 feet up from the plains like a rebel sprout. What formed as ocean floor millions of years ago evolved into a prairie anomaly for drive-by Instagrams and road-trip picnics. Just respect the roaming cattle sharing the private property with Monument Rocks (and photobombing your shots).
When it comes to public land, Kansas claims less than any other state. “There’s barbed wire at every turn, and the land is 98 percent privately owned,” says George Frazier, author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas. But, he adds, rugged pockets are scattered across the state like Easter eggs. Wonder infuses these rare rocky marvels as they contrast with open flatland. Many land trusts and ranchers recognize the value of the formations and welcome the public to sites such as Monument Rocks. See for yourself by venturing slightly off Interstate-70 on your next drive across Kansas.
Monument Rocks. Photo courtesy of Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Monument Rocks and Castle Rock
From I-70: 29 miles south (Monument Rocks) and 19 miles south (Castle Rock)
The Castle Rock Badlands are the eastern gateway to the High Plains region. Though the land is privately owned, gravel roads send the public to the base of the 50-foot Castle Rock pillars. Monument Rocks, also known as the Chalk Pyramids, lies 30 miles west but is not connected by a direct route. Hundreds of shark teeth and marine fossils have been found at these sites (leave them there if you spot any). Bring lunch for tailgating or time a visit for sunset, when light bathes the crags in pink.
Kanopolis State Park
From I-70: 22 miles south
The first state park in Kansas sits 20 miles west of Lindsborg. Thirty miles of hiking and mountain biking trails are etched into Kanopolis Lake’s soft sandstone shoreline. Small caves and ancient history mix recreation with lore. Near some of the most scenic campsites in the state, you can spot petroglyphs created by indigenous tribes. Local legends say that hunting parties used to run bison off the cliffs along Buffalo Tracks Trail.
Rock City Park. Photo courtesy of Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
From I-70: 18 miles north
Like planets in a prairie solar system, boulders litter a plot the size of two football fields. The shapes of some orbs, up to 29 feet in diameter, have earned names such as Jupiter Rock and Donut Hole Rock. Once off I-70, look for signs pointing to the bouldering area, meaning many of these rocks are big enough to climb if you bring along climbing shoes.
Mushroom Rock State Park.
From I-70: 17 miles south
Kansas’ smallest state park (just 5 acres) packs some of its most fantastical wonders. Seven formations appear to have burst straight from the world of Super Mario Bros. Pose for photos beneath the rocks, which are made of the same Dakota sandstone you’ll find in Kanopolis State Park, 10 minutes down the road. They once served as meeting places for Native Americans and explorers, such as John C. Fremont.
Land and Sky Scenic Byway to Arikaree Breaks
From I-70: 30 miles north (to reach the scenic Breaks)
Gravel road warriors who make the full loop (plan three hours) can visit Three Corners, where Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas meet. But the real sight is 36 miles long and 3 miles wide—a channel of loess-soil gullies and ravines named Arikaree Breaks. The byway starts when you leave I-70, but it takes 30 minutes to reach the scenic loop in St. Francis. Get a boost at small-batch coffee roaster Fresh Seven. Then drive to Lookout Point, the pinnacle vista 45 minutes north of I-70.
On the horizon: Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
Spires reach 100 feet tall in a mile-long badlands frontier known as Little Jerusalem. The Nature Conservancy bought the private land just west of Monument Rocks in 2016 and has plans to grant public access to Kansas’ largest Niobrara chalk formation as a state park. Watch our short film about Little Jerusalem at midwestliving.com/ourland.
Outfitter on the prairie
One of Kansas’ newest outdoor retail stores, Rendezvous Adventure Outfitters, opened in the small town of Lindsborg near Kanopolis State Park. Call to ask about guided excursions.