Kansas' newest state park opens in Logan County

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Jim McGuire grew up playing in the Logan County Niobrara Chalk formation known as Little Jerusalem, crawling across the rolling rock towers and carving his name into the rock alongside scrawled names and dates from supposed Civil War soldiers.

For four generations, the stretch of land off Interstate 70 belonged to McGuire's family, popular to him, his family and locals but unknown to most. But last week, after three years of preparation and development by The Nature Conservancy, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and McGuire's family, the land officially opened to the public as the new Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park.

"This place has been largely unknown. It's been a secret in Kansas except for a few local, lucky folks who have been able to come here. And today we celebrate the opening of it for the enjoyment for anyone that wants to come," said Rob Manes, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Kansas.

The 330-acre park, comprising the rock formations and surrounding land, opened with hikes and fanfare, including a visit from Gov. Laura Kelly and guided ranger tours through the property. Moving forward, the park will be open to visitors from sunrise to sunset every day for a $5 per vehicle entrance fee. Guests can also request a guided tour from Scott City's Historic Lake Scott State Park rangers, with notice.

The Nature Conservancy has been interested in the property for years, Manes said, but the possibility of a new state park began when Jim McGuire and his wife, Carol, inherited the land at the end of 2015. The couple had offers from parties wanting to turn the space into a hunting ground or extract fossils embedded in the land, McGuire said. But if the couple was going to sell their long-held family land, they wanted to preserve it and open it to the public, he said. They couldn't do it on their own, though.

After meeting with The Nature Conservancy, the McGuires sold the land to the organization in 2016 and Rep. Don Hineman advocated for it to be protected as a state park.

Before a crowd of onlookers last weekend, Kelly, who has a background with the Kansas Recreation & Park Association, reflected on the groups that made the park's opening possible.

"Many of our state parks are situated to highlight some of our state's outstanding natural features ... This morning, we stand before one of the most magnificent jewels in the state's geologic treasure chest," Kelly said.

The space today is a fully functioning park, with gates, signage, space for parking and, most notably, two hiking trails: the quarter-mile Overlook Trail that takes guests down closer to the front of the formation and the longer Life on the Rocks trail that winds around over a mile of the formation's rim.

Bundled-up park goers, some with small children or dogs in tow, walked both trails throughout the afternoon, moving past rocks, grass, sand and brush. The park is home to birds, snakes, lizards, badgers and pronghorn antelope, as well as several species of prairie grasses and other vegetation. Ferruginous hawks almost exclusively nest in western Kansas' chalk formations, including Little Jerusalem, and the park is the only place in the world guests will find Great Plains wild buckwheat, said Phil Gould, a park ranger at Little Jerusalem and Historic Lake Scott.

The rocks themselves are twins of other western Kansas Niobrara chalk formations like Monument Rocks, Smoky Valley Ranch and Castle Rock but on a much larger scale, Gould said. Every time hikers rounded a corner on the rim trail, another stretch of the formation would reveal itself, pulling back toward power lines on the horizon and deep down below guests' initial line of sight.

Beyond that, the park itself changes — visually, at least — with the seasons, weather and time of day, said KDWPT Secretary Brad Loveless.

"This is a 330-acre surprise. It's not our biggest state park by any means, but it's maybe the most unique ... It looks different each time you're here," Loveless told The Topeka Capital-Journal.

The new park is Kansas' 28th state park and the sixth in the state's western regions. Located just 10 miles north of Historic Lake Scott State Park, the two sites will share KDWPT staff and, ideally, Gould said, guests. There are no campsites at Little Jerusalem, but guests can camp at Lake Scott and experience both parks, he said.

"It's a really unique place to draw more attention to Kansas and show people that we actually do have really cool stuff to offer ... Our hope is that (Little Jerusalem) will increase our out-of-state visitors, as well as people from Kansas that maybe didn't even know about it and get them to come check this out, enjoy the trails and come camp at Lake Scott with us for the evening," Gould said.

McGuire agrees. He and his wife are travelers — they've visited 49 out of 50 U.S. states, with plans to see Hawaii on their 50th anniversary this year, he said. Everywhere they go, they visit state and national parks.

State parks foster community and quality time and a connection with nature, McGuire said, but they can also raise up the communities around them with tourism dollars. Little Jerusalem Badlands would not only give locals and passers-through access to the chalk formations, but also give travelers another reason to visit neighboring cities Scott City and Oakley.

Parks, as preservation of nature and history, are an asset, and Little Jerusalem is no different, McGure said. Buried deep in the formations at the Logan County park, there are fossils from prehistoric sea creatures, shells and uniform buttons from soldiers in the Civil War, and, unless taken victim by wind erosion, a centuries-old living document of visitors' names carved into the rock.

The place is unique, he said. And it's worth sharing.

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Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Topeka Capital-Journal.