Recently the 11th Dirty Kanza 200 happened and it was another successful event. I was there, but I didn’t go to race. I’ve done the event several times before, dating back to the first one. I have seen this popular gravel road race become something I don’t think any of the organizers or the 33 other participants that rode with me that year could have predicted it has become. The race is a fantastic event; however, I have noticed that this area is a very unique area, and the Flint Hills are not only a great venue for a gravel road race, but I felt maybe that they could be a great place just to explore. That was my goal this year, just to explore via bicycle, and the following is what I found out.
The views are expansive at times in the Flint Hills region, but there are a variety of sights to explore beyond this.
The Flint Hills region represents the last large stand of tall grass prairie in the nation. When you drive south on Interstate 35 from Emporia, Kansas, you get a small taste of the region, however, at 75 mph, it is hard to really get a feel for the area. Traveling by bicycle, one not only slows down, but it becomes possible, and it is recommended, to travel the back roads of the Flint Hills to unlock the beauty, grandeur, and secrets that are hidden in the grassy hills and wooded stream valleys.
Trees, low water crossings, and wildlife, (note the turkeys on the road), dot the Flint Hills landscape.
The Dirty Kanza 200, an event that challenges the rider to overcome heat, wind, and sometimes mud and water, winds through these hills every year around the first weekend of June or so. It is a great introduction for any cyclist to the Flint Hills. But if you’ve been there, done that, or if you are not the racing type, the DK Promotions arm of the event has some routes you can enjoy, all mapped out for you. Dubbed the “Iconic Route Challenge“, you can do all ten listed routes, or just do your own, casual tour. Maps are available to download from the site, or you can visit the DK Promotions office in Emporia and pick up a map. I decided to craft my own adventure and I visited the Kansas Department Of Transportation site before I headed down and I printed off my own maps. Either way, there are some things you should know before you go.
Bring The Essentials: The Flint Hills are a remote, unforgiving area which requires the explorer to be self-sufficient and ready for any eventuality. I would highly suggest riding with another rider, or a group, if possible. That said, if you are an experienced, back country cyclist, you should be capable of solo ventures. Water, food, repair items, and a first aid kit are highly recommended, and a way to communicate with the outside world is essential. You won’t see many folks around, and you may ride several miles and never see any sign of civilization. Maps, GPS, and a compass aren’t just suggestions either. They are necessary for your enjoyment and safety. Respect the Flint Hills and you’ll have a good ride.
While the landscape might appear void and empty, the Flint Hills has a varied and rich wildlife population.
Bring Your Camera: The Flint Hills first and foremost is a unique landscape. Nowhere else can you go and become surrounded by vast expanses of tall grass prairie and hills. While the landscape dominates your senses, be sure to keep an eye out for the wildlife that calls the area home. Hawks and vultures will be found in the skies, while reptiles like snakes and tortoises can be found sunning themselves on the flinty roads that cut through these green hills. Along the waterways you may see white tail deer, wild turkeys, or bobwhite quail. I saw all of those on my ride down there. Jim Cummings, the co-founder of the Dirty Kanza 200, told me he may have seen a cougar one time, but he’s not 100% sure on that. At any rate, you should see several species of wild life on any given ride, and of course, cattle. You will see lots of cattle!
The Flint Hills grass is prized for its nutrients which, when fed to cattle, creates some of the best tasting beef on the planet. Because of this, cattle can be found grazing in herds all across the region. The occasional rancher may be seen and if so, be sure to give them a friendly wave. The residents of the Flint Hills are a kindly folk, for the most part. Along the road sides you will see various beautiful wild flowers, in their seasons, and the towering trees along the water sheds will offer a nice contrast to the miles of grassy hills. Rocky outcroppings can be seen oftentimes, and the chunks of flint sticking out of the grass can sometimes resemble cracked and broken teeth of some subterranean giant.
The Flint Hills are known to be a bit tough on tires. Make sure you go with a set of tires that are in good condition!
Bring The Right Equipment: The Flint Hills are known for their tire destroying tendencies, and the roads can sometimes resemble a wide mountain bike track more than they do a roadway. Because of this, a sturdy bicycle with tough, voluminous tires is recommended. While it is certainly possible to traverse this area on a cyclo cross bike, using a rig similar to a Salsa Cycles Fargo, or an outright mountain bike is a safer bet for trouble free riding and stability when the going gets rough out there.
Obviously, tubeless tires are a big advantage, but whether or not you run sans tubes, you should pack at least two tubes, a tire boot, and a repair kit. Better to be safe than sorry! A chain breaker, chain links, and quick links aren’t a bad idea, and a derailleur hangar for you bike’s frame isn’t a bad thought either. The Flint Hills are remote, and getting a ride out of there may be tough, so being self sufficient is a wise bet. That goes for water and food as well. Don’t think you can “get by”! Remember, there are not many people out there and towns with services are few and far between.
Bring Your Sense Of Adventure: When you prepare well, the last thing you’ll need to bring is your sense of adventure. The area is beautiful, tough, and tumble, but with the right mental attitude, discovering what makes the Flint Hills tick can be a really good time. I found small, remote villages, rural cemeteries rich in history, scenery that takes your breath away, and a sense of what our forefathers had to endure- both Native American and foreign- in this raw land of wonder. The ability to allow yourself to stop and soak it all in is highly recommended.
There are rides that are easier and shorter all the way up to century rides that will test your mind and body. Plus, the Flint Hills Nature Trail runs through the area which provides yet another way to explore this unique part of Kansas. Summer time can get pretty brutal out there, so anytime in Spring or Fall may be the best bet to avoid the most extreme heat. Winters are fairly mild in Kansas this far south, but unexpected snow storms and wild winds are not out of the question. Keep an eye on the skies as well, since extreme thunderstorms and even a twister could be bearing down on you if you don’t keep an eye to the weather.
Visiting the Flint Hills during the Dirty Kanza event can be a good time.
Bring Your Suitcase: Probably the best place to base your exploration of the Flint Hills is the bicycle friendly city of Emporia, which is home to the Dirty Kanza 200 race. Downtown features a brewery, several great restaurants, and pubs. The city also features a few other cool attractions like the annual disc golf tournament, and even a festival that celebrates Twinkies. Really!
Going north or south out of Emporia will get you into the rural areas quickly and roads are generally flatter nearest to the city. However; the big, wide open areas of the Flint Hills are probably best felt and seen by going south. If you have the legs for it, northwest and up into Wabaunsee County has a unique feel and look to it along with the cities of Council Grove and Cottonwood Falls. Visiting the area during the time of the Dirty Kanza 200 may be a bit of a crapshoot, when it come to finding lodging, but if you are willing to stay in a nearby town, the atmosphere during the week of the Dirty Kanza is electric and brings together cyclists from all over the USA and some foreign countries as well.
My “Kanza Ride” was spectacular, and I will go back again to explore the countryside more. The story of my adventure can be seen in more detail on my blog- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. There you will find more about the rich history, flora and fauna, and terrain of the area I traveled through.