One look at the rugged landscape of Kanopolis State Park and you might imagine that you’ve gone back in time to the Old West. The early history of the area may not come as a surprise. Both cowboys and Indians roamed through the canyons and over the bluffs long before there was a lake anywhere nearby, as old carvings on the rocks attest.
The more recent history of the park has an appeal, as well, since several firsts are part of the story. When the Flood Control Act was passed in 1938, the United States Army Corps of Engineers quickly moved onto the Smoky Hill River to construct a reservoir, beginning work in 1940. World War II intervened, however, and the project was not completed until 1948, when Kanopolis Lake became the first USACE reservoir to be finished in Kansas.
The next first came in 1955, when Kanopolis State Park was founded—the first state park in Kansas. Evidently it was a success, because more followed until there are now 26 state parks. Kanopolis State Park has been surpassed in popularity by some of the later additions to the park system, but it still has a loyal following among all types of outdoor enthusiasts.
- Take Kansas Highway 140 east out of Ellsworth.
- Turn south on Kansas Highway 141 and drive a little over eight miles.
- Turn right on Venango Road (watch for the signs) and continue about a quarter of a mile.
- At the fork in the road, keep to the right.
- Continue on Horsethief Road until you reach the park entrance sign.
If you love the beautiful Smoky Hills, Kanopolis State Park is an excellent way to sample all that this region has to offer in the way of plant life. Literally hundreds of species of plants carpet the hills, ranging from yucca to little bluestem to colorful milkweed flowers.
The variety in the animal kingdom is impressive, too. Big mule deer run across the hills, beavers build dams across the creeks, and prairie dogs peer at visitors along the roads and trails. Not surprisingly, the reptile species are amply represented, including collared lizards, horned toads, and rattlesnakes. But the arena in which Kanopolis State Park has been severely underestimated is birdwatching. Migratory waterfowl stop by the lake in season. Ospreys and bald eagles spend the winter along the Smoky Hill River. Everything from meadowlarks to prairie chickens can be seen in the open grasslands. Songbirds abound in wooded areas.
Rockhounds will probably rate Kanopolis as one of their favorite Kansas state parks. A cursory view reveals an incredible panorama of hills and bluffs, but look closer. If you are traveling on foot, you are allowed to do a little off-road exploring in some places (no horses or bicycles, please). Caves can be spotted in canyon walls, while fossils and barite roses are waiting to be discovered in the rocks along the water’s edge.
Thousands of acres are open to hunters at this park. Try your luck at waterfowl, upland game birds, turkey, rabbit, squirrel, and deer. Furbearers are also present.
Fishing opportunities abound at Kanopolis State Park all year long. In spring, try catching crappie, walleye, saugeye, or white bass. In summer, channel catfish await at the upper end of Kanopolis Lake, particularly at night. In winter, ice fishing for crappie, walleye, and white bass is productive, or you might like to try fishing for trout in the seep stream below the dam.
Children might enjoy the kids’ fishing pond in Langley Point Area on the south end of the dam. Adults who find Kanopolis Lake too crowded can take advantage of Buckeye Fishing Access in the wildlife refuge on the west side of the lake. Please note, however, that the refuge is closed to all activities during some parts of the year—check with park staff for dates.
- Wildlife Viewing Area: A paved nature trail is located behind the park office. Wildlife viewing opportunities abound with a marsh, two ponds, five photo blinds, and an observation deck. A short walk of just over half a mile.
- Buffalo Track Canyon Nature Trail: Another hiking-only trail, this one is a mile long one way. Be sure to pick up a brochure. You will be amazed at the natural and historical wonders waiting for you in this little box canyon in the northeastern part of Horsethief Area.
- Split Boulder Trail: If you like rocks, you may enjoy the boulders along this two-mile trail east of Eagle Point in Horsethief Area. The lake and meadow views are scenic, as well. The trail was designed for beginning mountain bikers, but you are welcome to do some hiking.
- Loder Point Nature Trail: This two-mile path circles through Venango Park, north of the dam. Nothing too challenging, but a good choice for those interested in plants. An interpretive brochure is provided.
- Kanopolis Multi-Use Trails: Over 27 miles of trails await hikers, bikers, and horseback riders alike. Pick the combination of trails that will fit your experience and the time you have available. Some of the trails are too far to hike in a day, and camping is not allowed. The first loop is the Rockin’ K Trails, a relatively easy route from the campgrounds in Horsethief Area to the rest of the trail system. Then comes the Horsethief Canyon Trails, with spectacular geology, but difficult terrain. The next loop is the Prairie Trails, which are fairly easy and decidedly scenic. The final loop is the Alum Creek Trails, a nice mix of prairie, trees, and canyons. Please note that Prairie Trails and Alum Creek Trails pass through the wildlife area and will be closed during hunting season.
Touring Kanopolis State Park is a favorite pastime with some. Be sure to ask about stagecoach rides and guided trail rides for a new perspective on this destination.
For a little self-guided touring, pick up a Kanopolis Lake Legacy Tour brochure at one of the park’s information centers. This 80-mile tour is mostly on sand roads (save this trip for dry weather), but the views and points of interest are worthwhile. You will learn about area history and see interesting landmarks, such as Mushroom Rock State Park and the historic hand-carved Faris Caves.