The authors of the original hiking guide to Kansas City share their 5 favorite trails
Five favorite Kansas City hiking trails from Richard Ballentine and William Eddy, who published the first-ever hiking guide to Kansas City
Back in 1989, it was nearly impossible to buy a pair of hiking boots in Kansas City. Richard Ballentine and William Eddy know; they tried when they were researching for their book, Hiking Kansas City.
Hiking wasn’t unknown to locals when Ballentine, 82, and Eddy, 85, published the first hiking guide to the area 30 years ago. It was something people did… elsewhere.
“We’d both hiked in places like Colorado or Wisconsin or the Ozarks, and we got to talking, wondering whether we could find someplace to hike around here,” says Eddy, who is a retired dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Bloch School of Management.
Unlike today, when a long list of trails can be found with a few keystrokes, the men worked by looking through whatever brochures they could find at local parks and saving all relevant newspaper clippings.
“We spent more time walking around lost, looking for trails, than we actually did hiking the trails,” says Ballentine.
It took some digging, but they eventually put together a decent little list. A secretary at Ballentine’s law office helped type up their findings so it could be quick-printed, spiral bound and sold on consignment in any shop that would take it.
The concept of hiking in Kansas City was novel enough that the introduction to the book includes some reassurance.
“Are we putting you on?” the forward asks rhetorically. “No, not at all.”
That first edition only has 45 trails, including a few that are no longer in service. There have now been five updated editions, the most recent published in 2007.
In honor of the anniversary of Kansas City’s first hiking guide, we sat down with Ballentine and Eddy to talk about five of their absolute favorite natural surface trails in the Kansas City area.
Shawnee Mission Park’s Lake Trail
At 1,600 acres, Shawnee Mission Park is the largest in Johnson County and the most visited in the entire state of Kansas. The jewel at the center of the park is a 120-acre lake, which is surrounded by a 6-mile loop trail — one of the most scenic in the area, though it does suffer some muddy spots as a result of its popularity with equestrians. The trail is not signed, but is heavily used and follows the shoreline of the lake, meaning it’s hard to get lost.
Directions: From Interstate 435, take exit 5 and go west on Midland Drive to Ogg Drive. Go south on Ogg Drive to enter the park, and then go west on 79th Street for about 1,000 feet. Look for the main trailhead near the bicycle pump track to the north of the marina.
Blue River Parkway North Trail
Many of the Kansas City area’s best recreational activities are found on abandoned railways (see the best bike trails, page 75). The Blue River Parkway North Trail, which follows the bed laid for a railway on the banks of its namesake river, is no exception. This 5.4-mile loop trail is tucked just off Troost Avenue in the southeastern corner of the urban grid, but feels far removed from the bustle of the city as it climbs towering limestone bluffs and prowls through a thick forest.
Directions: From the southern end of Holmes Road, south of Interstate 435, go east on 117th Street, head south on Troost for one block, and then head east on 118th Street until you find the trailhead, where the road dead-ends.
Burr Oak Woods Trails
The 1,000-acre Burr Oak Woods in Blue Springs is a state-run nature center with displays on flora and fauna. There is also a nice network of trails through the center’s open prairie and dense woods of oak trees and woody, wrist-thick climbing grape vines. The trails are all on the short side and vary from wheelchair-friendly decking to narrow dirt paths that can be muddy or icy. From the nature center parking lot, look for the 1.5-mile Wildlife Habitat Trail, the longest in the park. Its loose limestone path connects to the more rustic 1.3-mile Bethany Falls trail at the edge of an open glade. You can follow the Bethany Falls trail as a loop and reconnect to the Wildlife Habitat Trail for a pleasant hour-long walk that passes a lake and impressive limestone outcropping.
Directions: Take Interstate 70 east to exit 20 for Highway 7. Go north on Highway 7 for about a mile to NW Park Road. Follow signs to the nature center, and look for the trailhead on the far side of the parking lot.
Just outside downtown Olathe, you’ll find this 300-acre preserve, where a section of the tallgrass prairie that once covered most of the Kansas City area has been reestablished. Among the highlights of the web of trails that traverses the preserve are the ruins of a settler’s cabin and a buffalo wallow where the one-ton beasts drank and bathed.
Directions: From Interstate 35, take exit 217 for Old 56 Highway. Follow Old 56 Highway west for 1.7 miles, go north on Parker Street for one block, then head west on Dennis Avenue. Dennis Avenue becomes 143rd Street near Lake Olathe. Continue west to Cedar Niles Road, then go north on Cedar Niles Road for 1 mile until you see the entrance to the Prairie Center. The trails begin at the parking lot.
Watkins Mill Loop
This state park is situated around a historic woolen mill that opened just before the start of the Civil War. The park includes a 100-acre lake surrounded by a 4.5-mile loop that traverses meadows and woodlands. The trail takes about two hours to hike. On busy weekends, you can expect to find costumed reenactors giving demonstrations of frontier life in the mid-1800s.
Directions: Take Interstate 35 for 34 miles to Kearney, then take exit 26 for State Route 92. Go east on State Route 92 for 7 miles to County Road RA. Go 1 mile to the entrance to Watkins Mill State Park at 26600 Park Road North in Lawson, Mo.
Keep an eye out for these spring wildflowers while hiking in the Kansas City area.
❖ Black-eyed Susans: With bright yellow petals and a dark brown center, they look a lot like sunflowers. These biannuals bloom every other year starting in May in eastern Kansas.
❖ Bloodroot: The fragile white petals of the bloodroot open with the sunlight each morning before closing again every night. Bloodroot are early bloomers and will be gone for the year soon.
❖ Phlox: These gorgeous little pink and purple blooms need some shade to grow, meaning you’ll find them in thickets and at the edge of open woodlands.
❖ Mallows: These sun-loving flowers bloom from May to August and grow wild like weeds. Most have a pink hue, and all are edible, so you’ll find them popping up in fancy salads.
❖ American Bellflower: The bellflower has rows of purple blooms along its tall, thick stalks, which grow up to 6 feet tall. Look for them in moist areas with lots of sun.