Red Hills, Gypsum Hills, Gyp Hills, Medicine Hills—they go by all of these names. But whatever they’re called, there’s nothing quite like this region of rust-colored buttes, mesas, sinkholes, and caves to give a person a strange feeling that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
We are, though! The Red Hills are located along the south-central border of Kansas.
The Red Hills are composed of shale, siltstone, and standstone, all colored red by iron oxide (rust) and capped with layers of gypsum. The properties of gypsum have resulted in some unique geological featured throughout the region. This mineral is resistant to wind erosion, which makes it a solid cap for the buttes and hills. However, gypsum is also water-soluble, resulting in caves, sinkholes, and natural bridges throughout the region. Big Basin and Little Basin in Clark County are characteristic Red Hills sinkholes.
Also of interest is dolomite, not commonly found near the surface in Kansas, but present in outcroppings at Clark State Fishing Lake.
A feature known as the Pratt Anticline causes minor earthquakes from time to time.
The soil is generally sandy and well-drained, though most of it is not tillable. Silt is present along waterways. Sinkholes, some of them still unstable, are common throughout the region.
The Red Hills region is the second largest intact piece of native prairie in the state, second only to the Flint Hills, of course. The Gypsum Hills, however, are mixed prairie, a combination of both tall and short species of grasses fostered by the semi-arid climate.
Cedar trees and wildflowers also make their appearance throughout the region, as well as brushy growth along the streams. Vegetation of all types can be sparse in some areas.
The Red Hills are one of the prime areas in Kansas for viewing prairie chickens. It is also a favorite place for fishing, with lakes in the area providing opportunities for catching everything from bluegill to channel catfish to largemouth bass.
Stewardship and restoration of the spring-fed waterways is a major focus in this area. The Red Hills boast some of the cleanest streams in the state, and the residents would like to keep it that way.
Interestingly enough, one of the alternative names for the region, the Medicine Hills, came from the healing powers the Indians attributed to those pristine waters. There is actually some truth to this health claim. Much of the water in the Red Hills contains calcium and magnesium sulfates—think Epsom salts.
This is a region that annually loses more water through evaporation than it gains through precipitation. The air is dry, and rain falls infrequently enough that the climate can be described as semi-arid. However, there is still enough moisture in the ground to support a diversity of plants.
The Red Hills are cattle country. True, irrigation and dryland farming are practiced on some of the rare tracts of level ground, enabling the production of hay, wheat, sorghum, and soybeans. Most of the Red Hills soil, however, is not tillable, so the region maintains a rich ranching heritage.
Also of Interest
One characteristic of the ranchers carving out their living in this remote part of Kansas seems to be a strong interest in land stewardship. Besides water conservation, a major focus is combating the invasion of red cedar trees that spring up in the absence of controlled burns. The cedars choke out the native grasses and possibly deplete the precious water resources.
Red Hills—Bluff Creek
A picture of the Red Hills from the Kansas Geological Survey.
Red Hills (Gypsum Hills) Around Medicine Lodge
A photo of the Red Hills demonstrating red cedar invasion.
A Pocket Guide to Kansas Red Hills Wildflowers
Free PDF grouping Red Hills wildflowers by color for easy identification.