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AAA World Article

A New View of Kansas

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park brings the first public access to a rare vista in the western part of the state.

By MeLinda Schnyder

AAA World Article

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
Photo courtesy of KDWPT/Doug Stremel

This is in Kansas? That’s the reaction many people have when they see Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park in western Kansas for the first time, either in person or in photographs or video.

“At the Denver Sports Show, we had our state magazine that shows Little Jerusalem on the cover, and I had people ask me why we have the Badlands of South Dakota on a Kansas publication,” says Greg Mills, manager of Historic Lake Scott State Park and the soon-to-open Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, Kansas’ 28th state park.

The new 330-acre park showcases a milelong stretch of bluffs and towering free-standing spires with sediment layered in hues from gray to orange. They are formed from Niobrara Chalk, the same soft limestone deposited in Nebraska, the Dakotas and other states that were once covered by the massive Western Interior Seaway.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
Photo courtesy of KDWPT/Andrea LaRayne Etzel

“I remind people that this was the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago,” adds Mills. “It gives you a whole different perspective when you think about it that way. Then you see a giant clamshell on the ground that’s four foot across. It still blows my mind.”

How have residents and out-of-staters alike missed this dramatic formation until now? It’s been on private property since before Kansas became a state, and it’s tucked in a valley out of sight to passersby—even to road-trippers driving the Western Vistas Historic Byway. In 2016, The Nature Conservancy of Kansas purchased the land from the ranching family who had owned it for five generations. It was sold with the stipulation that the formation be shared with the public. The formation, about a 30-minute drive south of Interstate 70 between Oakley and Scott City, had informally been called Little Jerusalem because locals who had the chance to see the bluffs at sunrise or sunset said it looked like the walled city of Jerusalem.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
e Jerusalem Badlands State Park
© Bruce Hogle

There are plenty of places in Kansas to see impressive rock outcroppings, but you’ll be surprised that a formation of this magnitude exists here, observes Matt Bain, a biologist who serves as Western Kansas conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy. “There are many thousands of Niobrara Chalk exposures in Kansas, and there are some that cover more acres of exposed rock than what we have at Little Jerusalem,” he says. “What makes this unique in Kansas is the combination of the acres, the number of columns and the height of the columns: Little Jerusalem is over 200 acres of really tall columns, with cliffs rising up over 100 feet above the nearby Smoky Hill River.”

Park Place
The long-awaited opening of the park is expected in 2019, though no opening date had been announced at press time.

Finding a balance between conserving the formation and giving people the opportunity to experience it has taken time, Bain says. The erosion that shapes the soft sandstone makes it fragile and susceptible to damage from increased traffic. Overwhelming response to a video posted online during early fundraising for the project made officials at the conservancy realize that visitor traffic could be substantial. The agency partnered with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) to designate the land a unit of the state park system. The conservancy owns the land and will cooperatively manage the land with KDWPT.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
Jerusalem Badlands State Park
© Bruce Hogle

When Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park opens, access will require a daily vehicle fee, which is required at all Kansas state parks. The 2019 fee is $5 per vehicle. Vehicle access will be limited to a parking area that is being developed within 750 feet of the entrance gate, which will be open dawn to dusk. There will be restrooms, and a roofed structure off the parking lot will provide shade and interpretive panels describing the history and geology of the area. The formation is visible at a distance from the interpretive structure.

Visitors can venture on two trails available from the parking lot. The short trail on a six-foot-wide improved surface brings visitors to an overlook point for a closer view of the north side of the formation. It’s about a half-mile round-trip walk on an easy grade. The other trail offers a 2.4-mile round-trip hike along the top of the south rim. Signage along this unimproved trail will focus on life on the rocks, giving details on both the ecosystem that’s fossilized and the one currently inhabiting the area. The rocks provide habitat for birds such as ferruginous hawks and cliff swallows as well as many native amphibians and reptiles. Among the plant life is the grassland shrub winterfat, the blooming chalk lily, and the largest single population of Great Plains wild buckwheat, found only in the chalk bluffs prairie of western Kansas.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
Chalk lily at Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
© Laura Rose Clawson/TNC

“At the end of the rim trail is an overlook that is one of the more impressive spots out in the formation,” says Bain. “You’re looking north over a series of canyons, and it gives you a feel for the height and the number of columns.”

The folks at The Nature Conservancy and KDWPT envision additional amenities will be added once the park opens and the impact of visitor traffic is measured. One experience they believe visitors will want in the future is access to the belly of the formation, standing among the base of some of the formations.

Officials hope that the focus on interpretation at the park will compensate for and inform visitors why limited access is necessary. They also want to encourage visitors to combine a trip to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park with historic and recreational sites in the area. They might, for example, visit the El Quartelejo Museum and adjoining Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection in Scott City; explore the rifle pits at Battle Canyon, the site of the last engagement between Native Americans and U.S. troops in Kansas; hike or ride horses on the public access trails at Smoky Valley Ranch; and fish, camp, canoe, venture on multi-use trails and stop at historic sites such as the El Quartelejo pueblo ruins at Historic Lake Scott State Park.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
Historic Lake Scott State Park
shelter and monument
Photo courtesy of KDWPT/Doug Stremel

“Little Jerusalem is one of the most fragile landscapes we oversee, and for that reason, it’s going to be a different experience from we have in the rest of the state park system,” says Kansas State Parks Director Linda Lanterman. “This is a site where you’ll spend a few hours seeing the formation and learning about the history of the area. It’s so unique that it really is a must-see, and you’re going to get caught up in ‘this is Kansas?’”



This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of AAA World.

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