Elk City State Park boasts a rather varied early history. Like much of southeastern Kansas, it was once inhabited by Osage Indians, but this changed after the Civil War. Many Union veterans had visited Kansas during the war. Those who were looking for a fresh start in what promised to be a thriving post-war state took advantage of the inexpensive prices that the government offered for Osage land.
The park came almost a century later in 1967 when Kansas signed an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lease land for recreational purposes. This land was on the shores of Elk City Lake, built by the USACE and completed in 1966.
Since then, Elk City State Park has not set any records for visitor numbers. It is better known for its varied outdoor recreation opportunities.
- From Independence, take U.S. Highway 160 west.
- Turn north on Peter Pan Road and continue for two miles.
- Turn left onto County Road 4800 and continue for about a mile and a half.
- Continue straight ahead onto Squaw Creek Road to enter the park.
Elk City State Park is in the Osage Cuestas region, bordering the Chautauqua Hills. The vegetation is quite diverse in this park. Cropland, rolling bluestem meadows, and forests of oak, hickory, ash, birch, elm, walnut, dogwood, sycamore, and other trees are all here. Be sure to visit this park in the fall—the colors are spectacular.
If wildlife watching is your favorite pastime, you will definitely enjoy this park. A wide range of mammals roam the woods, as do many birds, including the unusual pileated woodpecker. Also keep your eyes open for a mix of reptiles along the paths.
Rockhounds will find much to love at this park, too. Boulders and limestone cliffs are one of the favorite attractions, and some of the hiking trails will give you an up-close look (see Trails below). Be sure to stop by Table Mound, the big bluff in the northern part of the park.
Elk City State Park offers particularly good opportunities to hunters. This park is considered one of the prime spots for quail hunting, and turkey hunting is becoming increasingly productive, as well. But turkey and upland game birds are not the only options. Many hunters recommend looking for waterfowl along the reservoir, squirrels in the woods, and deer in the treelines along fields. Furbearers are also present.
Archery enthusiasts will find Elk City State Park to be a particularly inviting destination. A recreational archery range allows a test of skill, and special archery-oriented events are scheduled from time to time.
Elk City Lake and the surrounding streams have a reputation for rewarding patient anglers. The crappie and bass fishing alone are enough to attract visitors, but here catfish are king. Both channel and flathead varieties can be caught in the shady parts of the reservoir all year long, and the sizes can be impressive. The biggest flathead catfish in the world was pulled out of Elk City Lake in 1998, weighing in at 123 pounds!
An accessible fishing dock is provided for the handicapped at Comfort Cove. Also, at the Prairie Meadow camping area, children aged 15 and under can try their luck at a specially stocked fishing pond.
- Exercise Trail: Just want to stretch your muscles a bit? This half-mile trail in the day-use area was designed for walking and working out.
- Post Oak Nature Trail: This easy 2/3-mile loop is near Memorial Overlook on the east side of the dam. Old-growth forest is the highlight. The trees along this trail are considered more typical of the Chautauqua Hills region than of the Osage Cuestas. Hiking only.
- Green Thumb Nature Trail: A one-mile loop in the Timber Road campground. Most of the trail is fairly easy, with interpretive signs identifying plants and animals that you might see along the way. One hill is considered strenuous, but an excellent view of the lake awaits at the top. Hiking only.
- Timber Ridge Hiking Trail: Located in the Card Creek Area just west of the lake, this loop is around 2.3 miles long and winds through the woods along the creek. Hiking only.
- Table Mound Hiking Trail: This linear route will give you a bit of a challenge. The trail is 2 3/4 miles one way and starts at the Timber Road campground, roughly following the eastern shore of the lake toward Memorial Overlook. Most of the trail is wooded, but some incredible geology is showcased at the overlook end. After winding around some boulders and underneath overhanging rocks, you will scramble up through a crack in Table Mound and find yourself on top of the bluff. Hiking only.
- South Squaw Trail: Paved for both hiking and biking, this trail is about 3.3 miles long one way. Starts in the day-use area. Offers views of the lake and wildlife area.
- Eagle Rock Mountain Bike Trail: This trail can be a little more tricky to find. The trailhead is near Elk River, just north of the outlet for the lake. Four miles of trail were carefully developed for all levels of biking expertise. Trees, hills, and boulders create obstacles (easy alternative routes are provided where necessary), while stretches of prairie allow for a breather.
- Elk River Hiking Trail: Not for the faint of heart! This national recreation trail is 15 miles long one way, starting near the west end of the dam and ending near Highway 160 (campsites are placed along the trail). Along the way, you will pick your way over some tough terrain, including rocks, ravines, and streams. Can be crowded near the start of the trail, but the scenery is rewarding. Mainly for hiking, but horseback riding is an option in spring and fall with a special permit.
Most of the other opportunities at Elk City State Park come in the form of events such as golf and horseshoe tournaments and children’s outdoor activities.