Prairie Spirit Trail State Park has the distinction of being the first rail trail in Kansas, following the line of the Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad. This track was originally intended to give the city of Lawrence a competitive advantage over Kansas City, but the railroad never made it to the Gulf of Mexico as planned. Construction began in 1867, and by 1871 the line had reached Coffeyville, its final destination.
The Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad was in financial hot water almost from the start. In the early 1880s the line was sold and became part of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. For many years it was operated as part of the Santa Fe, but the close of the 20th century brought changes to the railroad industry. Without enough traffic to support its use, the former Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad was sold and then officially abandoned in 1990.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks acted promptly to give the railroad new life in a different form. By that time, several other states had started putting their abandoned lines to good use as recreational trails. Following suit in Kansas was somewhat controversial, as residents who lived near the proposed trail feared that the constant influx of hikers and bikers would expose them to trespassing, littering, and vandalism. But construction began anyway, starting in 1996 and continuing until 2008.
The success of this rail trail eased the fears of some property owners and paved the way for the creation of other rail trails in Kansas. A network of paths is now growing and linking with trails in other states. Meanwhile, the rail trail that started it all entered the state park system on May 28, 2010, as Prairie Spirit Trail State Park.
The trail can be accessed at the following trailheads:
- Old Depot Museum: 135 West Tecumseh Street, Ottawa.
- Kanza Park: 216 West 13th Street, Ottawa.
- Ottawa Trailhead: 1775 S. Princeton Circle Drive, Ottawa.
- Princeton Trailhead: 200 block of Galveston Street, Princeton.
- Richmond Trailhead: 200 South Street, Richmond.
- Lake Garnett: 200 East Park Street, Garnett.
- Santa Fe Depot: 900 South Main Street, Garnett.
- Crystal Lake: West South Lake Drive, Garnett.
- Welda Trailhead: Ranson Avenue and 1000 Road, Welda.
- Colony Trailhead: East 1st Street, just east of Old U.S. 169, Colony.
- Carlyle Trailhead: Texas Road, east side of Carlyle.
- Iola Trailhead: 1310 North State Street, Iola.
The Prairie Spirit Trail runs through the Osage Cuestas. If you follow the path for any considerable distance, you will see a sampling of the diverse ecosystems that characterize the region. Farmland and tallgrass prairie are highlights, but along streams you will see wooded areas. The seasonal display of wildflowers is excellent.
If you are traveling the trail near dawn or dusk, you might spot some wildlife. Likely candidates include quail, owls, songbirds, rabbits, and deer.
Hunting is prohibited along the trail.
While you can’t fish along most of the trail, you are welcome to bring your fishing rod to Lake Garnett or Crystal Lake, both in the town of Garnett.
The trail is the main attraction at Prairie Spirit Trail State Park. The route is long, but easy. Much of the trail is rock, but portions have been paved in some of the towns. Both hiking and biking are allowed.
Planning your trip? Here are the mileages between trailheads:
- Old Depot Museum to Princeton Trailhead: 9.4 miles.
- Princeton Trailhead to Richmond Trailhead: 6.4 miles.
- Richmond Trailhead to Lake Garnett: 8.1 miles.
- Lake Garnett to Welda Trailhead: 9.2 miles.
- Welda Trailhead to Colony Trailhead: 7.8 miles.
- Colony Trailhead to Carlyle Trailhead: 5.6 miles.
- Carlyle Trailhead to Iola Trailhead: 4.3 miles.
Heading down the Prairie Spirit Trail? Pack a lunch—there are picnic areas available at every trailhead except the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa.
Take some time to discover the small towns along the way. Historic architecture, unique attractions, and more recreational opportunities await at each stop.
Organized hiking and biking events are sometimes held along the trail.