The Republican River has had a long history of floods, dating back to the time of the Pawnee Indians. As white men settled and developed the area, however, the floods became more and more devastating, as property was damaged and lives lost.
The last straw was the Great Flood of 1951, which swept through Topeka, but also caused extensive damage around Fort Riley and Junction City. This led to a push for the creation of federal dams for preventing such catastrophes, and the Flood Control Act was passed in 1954.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a dam northwest of Junction City in July 1962. The project was not without a cost to the smaller communities in the vicinity, however. Homes were torn down and roads rerouted. Whole towns were even moved or destroyed. With so much preparation to be made, it was January 1967 before the new reservoir began to fill with water.
Milford Lake was soon to become the largest manmade reservoir in Kansas. As the waters rose, one of the locals came up with an ambitious idea to match the scale of the lake. In his basement, he began the construction of what has been called “the big, big boat.” This enormous paddleboat became so large that the man had to deconstruct parts of his house to move it out of the basement and into the empty lot next door.
The lake was dedicated in May 1968 and named after a small town that it had displaced, but no big, big boat ever paddled across its surface. After the boat was completed, the man had it moved to the marina and evidently lost interest in it for a time. It caught on fire and was destroyed before he could try it out.
The first real test of the reservoir’s ability to control floods came in 1993, when torrential rainfalls across the entire Midwest brought many rivers to flood stage. The dam held the water back for several weeks, but before long the Army Corps of Engineers realized that it could not bear the strain. The dam gates were opened wide, keeping the lake full, but allowing new water to rush out without spilling over the top. This created new dangers, however. The escaping water washed roads away with it, and crews had to breach a culvert on State Highway 57 to save U.S. Highway 77. Repairs were needed, but most agreed that things could have been much worse.
In 2001, Milford Lake earned a new distinction as construction began on a wetland area. Wetlands were once common along the Republican River, and many conservationists were eager to see this type of habitat preserved in Kansas. After some fundraising, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the third largest wetland area in Kansas.
- Take West 8th Street westward out of Junction City.
- Turn left to get onto northbound U.S. Highway 77 and continue for almost 6 miles (follow the Milford Lake signs).
- Turn left onto Kansas Highway 57 and continue for a little over a mile.
- Turn right on State Park Road to enter the park.
Located in the northern Flint Hills, Milford State Park showcases some scenic prairie views. Near the water, however, you can still find red cedars and other trees.
Since grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands intersect here, the wildlife is particularly abundant and diverse. Watch for a wide array of reptiles. Besides the usual mammals, ranging from beavers to deer, also keep your eyes out for elk in the direction of Fort Riley. Birdwatchers will want to see the great blue heron nests on Rush Creek, as well as the interesting birds in the wetlands. Species include the elusive green heron.
Milford Wildlife Area has earned a nationwide reputation for some excellent hunting. Waterfowl is abundant, turkeys large, and the deer trophy-quality. Those interested in furbearers, rabbit, squirrel, or upland birds will also be satisfied with Milford State Park.
Milford Lake has justly been named the Fishing Capital of Kansas. This large reservoir has provided a great variety of habitats suitable for fish, ranging from brush to rocky coves to mud flats. Try your luck at crappie, walleye, catfish, wiper, white bass, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass.
Interested in some serious fishing? The lake hosts many fishing tournaments. At the other end of the spectrum, children might enjoy some more relaxed fishing at the ponds on the road to Prairie View Campground and along the Tallgrass Nature Trail (see below).
- Wildlife Viewing Tower and Trail: Located in the state park, this is really more of an opportunity to view your surroundings than a trail. However, you will need to hike or bike almost a quarter of a mile one way. Scan the food plots for wildlife, or come in the evening and do a little stargazing.
- Wild Acres Trail: This quarter-mile walking path at the Kansas Landscape Arboretum on the northwest side of the lake is known for its beautiful display of wildflowers.
- Meadow Willow Trail: A half-mile walk showcasing seven bridges. Located at the Kansas Landscape Arboretum.
- Pipeline Trail: Nothing remarkable, just a half-mile path connecting the campgrounds in the northern part of the state park. Hike, bike, or ride a horse.
- Waterfall Pond Trail: Hike or bike on a quiet loop, just over half a mile. The trail starts near the first pay station in the state park and features a man-made waterfall.
- Woodland Trail: The longest path at the Kansas Landscape Arboretum, this mile-long walking trail loops through the woods before circling a pond. A bird sanctuary is featured.
- Old River Bluff Trail: Just short of 1 1/2 miles, this linear path connects the Eagle Ridge Trails to the Riverwalk Trail. Hiking, biking, and horseback riding allowed.
- Tallgrass Nature Trail: This trail is a loop of 1 1/2 miles, although a shortcut offers a quick half-mile walk. It starts at Milford Nature Center, winds through woods and over prairie, and passes by a pond. Bring your fishing poles, and watch for wildlife.
- Crystal Trail: This interesting loop is a little over 2 miles long and starts in Walnut Grove Campground. Hike, bike, or ride a horse through fields and woods to see wildlife. Another feature is the old quarry. Rockhounds should be prepared to hunt for geodes.
- Riverwalk Trail: Junction City has provided visitors with a trail just over 4 3/4 miles long following the Republican River between Outlet Park and Fort Riley. Hiking, biking, and horseback riding allowed. You are also welcome to use a snowmobile when conditions allow.
- Eagle Ridge Trail: Most visitors agree that this meandering 8-mile trail system is one of the most scenic in the park. Prairie, woods, and lake views—it’s all here. Enjoy it from horseback, or hike or bike. The trailheads are in Eagle Ridge Campground.
- School Creek ORV Trails: On the west side of the lake, a 287-acre portion of School Creek Park has been set aside for off-road vehicles (mountain bikes also welcome). The many trails offer something for all skill levels, from the complete novice to the truly expert.
If you love watching nature, you have come to the right park. One of the many opportunities to learn more about the local flora and fauna is Milford Nature Center in Outlet Park. The exhibits are considered particularly well done and include impressive artwork, taxidermy displays, and a seasonal butterfly area. The live animal exhibits include reptiles, birds of prey, and even a bobcat. You will also find a good place to see bald eagles outside.
Near the nature center is Milford Fish Hatchery, the largest state hatchery in Kansas. Some of the fish-raising practices are unique, so consider arranging a tour to learn more. However, you are also welcome to walk around the outdoor facilities at any time.
The Kansas Landscape Arboretum on the northwest shore of the lake is a peaceful spot devoted to plants, some native, others not. For a leisurely stroll and some opportunities to see gardens, trees, and birds, be sure to stop by.
Another good nature-observing opportunity is the Steve Lloyd Wetlands, north of the lake and west of the Republican River. A viewing area is provided, offering some scenic vistas and a prime location to spot water-loving birds.
Milford Nature Center
More information on the nature center, its work in wildlife rehabilitation, and the many educational programs offered.
Milford Fish Hatchery
A bit of history, along with some details on the unique intensive system used at this hatchery.