The Elk River Trail is a National Recreation Trail that runs for 15 miles along the north side of Elk City Lake and the Elk River near Independence in the SE corner of Kansas. The river has been carving the limestone for many years and weathering and gravity have played a role too in shaping this wonderful landscape. The lake is a man-made reservoir.
Several sources call this trail the best hike in Kansas and it’s only 3 hours from KC so I had been wanting to see it for a while and that time came this weekend. I was accompanied by a friend from the KC Adventure Club (Becky).
It is feasible to do the whole length as one (long!) day hike or 2 shorter day hikes with car-camping but we both wanted the full backpacking experience so we did things the hard way. The plan was to backpack the 15 mile length with an overnight stop at one of the 3 or 4 places where camping is allowed.
I got down there late Friday afternoon and Becky arrived that evening. We camped near the trail in the former Oak Ridge Public Use Area. This place had been flooded a few times over the years and the Corp Of Engineers quit rebuilding it. The paved road is still in good condition, at least as far in as the trail head, and provides convenient access to the middle of the trail at about 9.5 miles from the east trail head. There are two other old roads to the east that go south from Road 5050 and intersect the trail but you will need high ground clearance and maybe 4WD to use them.
It started sprinkling while Becky set up her tent and proceeded to rain off and on until Saturday afternoon. There was a break Saturday morning that lasted just long enough to get everything packed-up. We ate breakfast in one of the vehicles, wondered if the rain would ever stop, and discussed contingency plans. It eventually did stop again so we drove one vehicle to the east trail head, got geared-up, and headed out on the trail just as it started raining again. This time, it didn’t stop for about 4 hours.
The trail is very well marked and maintained and alternates between the base of the bluff and the glade on top and occasionally drops lower to cross creeks. No big elevation changes, just lots of small ones. The area at the base of the bluff is a typical rocky oak/hickory forest and the trail often winds among large boulders that have broken from the bluff. The glades are grassier than I usually see but still have prickly pear in abundance, cedar trees seeming to grow right out of the rock, and usually great views over the lake. The combination of low light, long exposure time, shaky hands, and a cheap camera meant that most of my pictures that morning were crap. The skies cleared a bit in the afternoon so those came out better:
It was the first time I had hiked in that kind of rain and the first time either of us had carried our full packs that kind of distance. We made it all the way back to the Oak Ridge area, completing the 9.5 mile eastern segment in 7 hours (including rest and lunch breaks), and decided that was a pretty good pace considering the terrain, slick conditions, and our load. We were wet, muddy, and fatigued at the end of the day but also felt much more confidence in tackling more challenging things in the future.
Lessons learned: 1) I have some short gaiters that would have helped immensely in keeping my boots dry if only I had packed them. 2) If rain is likely I will pack my older (heavier & bulkier) rain coat that has pit zips and reserve the lightweight less-breathable one for trips where it is probably not going to be used.
We set up camp again in almost exactly the same spots as the previous night, had dinner, retrieved the vehicle from the east trail head, and walked a bit along the road while listening to the approaching thunder. It started raining again at sunset and went all night, finally letting-up around 7:30 AM Sunday.
We originally planned on hiking the remainder of ERT on Sunday but decided to skip it and proceed to the Table Mound Trail instead. We left one car at the south trail head and started hiking from the north.
The trail runs north from the overlook area near the dam, across the top of a bluff (about 3 times the height of the bluff along ERT) with some great views and then descends steeply through a narrow slot in the bluff, wraps around the north end, then heads south down the front of the bluff. It is often described as a condensed version of the ERT and I would agree. The hike started in a bit of a mist and then the fog moved in. This is looking west from the top of the bluff:It kinda looks like the Smoky Mountains. Here I’m on top of the bluff, looking down at the trail where we’ll soon be:Once below the bluff you find “Kodak moments” everywhere. Interesting rocks and even trees are abundant, and the trail takes some pleasantly-surprising twists and turns. The trail head sign rates the whole trail as “moderate” but this section is definitely “rugged”.
Once you pass south of the dam road the character of the trail becomes less dramatic – a little more like a typical oak/hickory forest, though with occasional views of the lake.
There are other trails around the lake – especially Timber Ridge and Green Thumb – but we didn’t visit them. During the trip we saw one dead (and partially eaten) armadillo, a smashed tarantula, a few live deer, and a couple other large mammals that disappeared too quickly for identification. I would love to see this place on a sunny day with autumn colors but probably won’t be able to get back there that soon. I might have to settle for the spring green-up and wild flowers instead. Then again, the dead of winter with its naked trees can be interesting too…
Hey Michael, great blog! I just joined the KC Adventure Club and look forward to meeting you. A friend and I are thinking about camping at Elk City the weekend of December 2nd, camping at Timber Road campground and day hiking some of the trails (especially Table Mound). Do you have any advice for a couple of guys who’ve never been there? Thanks, Jason
Hi Jason, my advice is to stay warm and dry! Verify water availability – some hydrants might be shut off. I didn’t get down to the Timber Ridge area so I can’t say anything about that. For the Table Mound trail, the part north of the dam road is by far the best so don’t feel bad about turning around there and heading back to the north end. If you have time, try to see a bit of the east end of the Elk River trail too.
Are we allowed to camp at table mound trail at elk city reservior?
Not along the trail, but there is a primitive camping area at the south end in the State Park. Look for the “Timber Road” area.
Love the trail tour. My mother is from the LeHunt area just east of Table mound. She talked about going to party’s up on the mound at the north/east end. Used to be a building up there. As I grew up I heard of many stories that my grandfather told of the wild life up on the mound. The pictures were great.
I’m thinking about doing the trail this summer if I can get more gear. My only question is about the water sources. I see its close to the river, but is it easy to get to? I mean, I could do it one day without worrying about water, but I’d like to have a relaxing backpacking trip by camping too.
The trail crosses a little creek a bit west of the Rd 2175 trail head but it could be dry in the summer. You could always cache water near there to be sure. It seems like you’re never very close to the river until near the west end. I had reservations about drinking it anyway as I figured it would have a lot of agricultural runoff.
Thanks for the nice trail description. I’m in Kansas on a business trip of several months. I’m thinking of backpacking The Elk River Trail this weekend. Your blog helped greatly in my planning.
Do you need to purchase some kind of day pass to hike these trails?
No permit needed.
Can you camp along the trail or do you have to camp on a camp site?
I saw information at one point that said you must camp where an old road crosses the trail but can’t find that now. There is evidence that people have camped elsewhere.
Thanks for posting this. If we have to do out and back in a single day (max. total 12 miles or so), which starting point would you recommend? We love rock scrambling.
I’d start at the east end. That’s by far the most interesting part.