The proposed location for Wilson Reservoir created unique problems right from the start. The United States Bureau of Reclamation originally planned to construct the lake to provide water for irrigation in a relatively dry part of Kansas. However, the dam was to be constructed on the Saline River, named for its high salt content.
Since irrigation was not going to be a feasible option, the focus turned to flood control and project management was shifted to the Army Corps of Engineers. The reservoir was finished in 1964 and a state park was created in 1966.
Today, Wilson State Park has the distinction of being the clearest lake in Kansas. As such, it regularly attracts visitors from miles around—even other states. Drought has taken its toll on this reservoir, unfortunately, with low water levels persisting in recent years.
- Take U.S. Highway 281 southward out of Russell.
- Get onto eastbound Interstate 70 and continue for about 14 1/2 miles.
- Take Exit 199 to head northward on 200th Boulevard for 3 miles (road name will change to Dorrance Lucas Road).
- Turn right onto 15th Street and continue for about 5 1/2 miles.
- Turn left to enter the park.
Located in the Smoky Hills region, Wilson State Park is a good example of mixed-grass prairie. But grasses are not the only plants growing at this park—wildflowers abound, particularly from late spring through summer. The Rocktown Natural Area in Lucas Park on the north side of the lake is especially notable for wildflowers. Some of the species in this area, while not actually rare, are nevertheless uncommon in the Smoky Hills.
Wilson State Park offers almost unequaled opportunities for watching wildlife. Scan the grasslands for coyotes, mule deer, and prairie chickens. The woodlands along the streams offer chances to spot warblers, beavers, and muskrats. The lake attracts eagles, ospreys, grebes, and sandhill cranes. Even the campgrounds serve as homes for ground squirrels and pocket gophers. For something a little more unusual try driving the back roads on a summer night—keep your eyes open for fleeing kangaroo rats!
Rockhounds will probably rate Wilson State Park among their favorite destinations in Kansas. Canyons, rock outcrops, and unusual formations abound. Sandstone pillars up to 30 feet in height dot Rocktown Natural Area. Some of the formations in various parts of the park display marine fossils and Native American petroglyphs. Also of interest is the post rock scattered throughout the vicinity. These limestone fence posts were used by the early settlers in the absence of trees. While soft when first quarried, post rock hardens rapidly when exposed to air, making a durable monument to the homesteaders.
Game animals are quite varied at Wilson Wildlife Area and include waterfowl, quail, prairie chicken, pheasant, turkey, rabbit, and deer. However, this is a busy park, and the hunting pressure can be very heavy. Try hunting later in the season to avoid the crowds.
Wilson Reservoir has been the home of several past state record smallmouth bass and currently holds the state record for walleye, as well. But this lake is most famous for its striped bass. The salty water of the reservoir makes a perfect habitat for this oceangoing fish. The state record striped bass was caught at Wilson Reservoir in 2010 and weighed 44 pounds. Less notable but also highly productive are white bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and flathead catfish.
Not surprisingly, Wilson Reservoir regularly hosts fishing tournaments.
- Bur Oak Nature Trail: This is a 3/4-mile loop near Sylvan Park, ideal for beginning hikers. Walk at a leisurely pace and take time to learn more about the natural scenery through the interpretive stations.
- Cedar Trail: If you just want a slow, easy walk outdoors, try this one, located in the Otoe Area. To add wildlife to the scene, hit the trail near dawn or dusk. This one is handicapped-accessible.
- Dakota Trail: For hikers only, this two-mile loop occupies the space between Lovegrass Campground and Indiangrass Campground in the Hell Creek Area. Although fairly steep, this is often considered to be a particularly rich trail, offering self-guided interpretation and spectacular views.
- Prairie Fire Trail: A relatively new hiking-only trail loops through Minooka Park. This one is 2 1/2 miles long and includes interpretive stops. Prairie is a major feature of the trail, but you will also look at interesting rock formations and learn a little bit of area history.
- Rocktown Hiking Trail: To get a closer look at the Rocktown Natural Area, try this three-mile loop. It’s a moderately difficult walk, but the landscape is fascinating.
- Switchgrass Bike Trail: Both hikers and bikers can take advantage of this 23-mile trail system winding through the Hell Creek Area. Be prepared for a challenge—mountain bike enthusiasts have nicknamed this one the “Rollercoaster.” Easier stretches and alternative routes have been provided for novice bikers. Despite the rough terrain, this trail is still a favorite because of its incredible scenery.
Water recreation is a favorite at Wilson Reservoir thanks to its clear water and its roominess. While you might not be surprised to hear that this lake is a good choice for sail boating, you may be surprised to learn that it is also a favorite for scuba diving. The underwater visibility is excellent and there is plenty of unique geology under the surface to explore.
If you enjoy outdoor recreation, you might be interested in the scheduled events that Wilson State Park has to offer. Special hunts, hunting clinics, mountain bike races, and races on foot are highlights. Also, few Kansas lakes can boast of the number of fishing tournaments that are hosted at Wilson Reservoir.