Finding Beauty at Home: A Flint Hills Adventure
Over the course of the past few years, I have been blessed with the chance to travel to many beautiful places. In 2009, I took a trip to the Swiss and French Alps. I saw the majestic Matterhorn, many massive glaciers and a valley of waterfalls that inspired Tolkien to create Rivendell in Lord of the Rings. On a trip in early 2012 I took a 5 day, near 3000 mile whirlwind tour of the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Big Sur, San Francisco, the Redwoods, the Oregon Coast and finally the Columbia River Gorge near Portland. Later in 2012, I took a solo trip into the Canadian Rockies and saw some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever witnessed. I camped out at the top of the famous Columbia Icefields near the Athabasca Glacier. And almost twice a year, like clockwork, I go hiking at my second home in the Colorado Rockies.
These are all adventures that I cherish. However, I live in Kansas. We don’t have towering peaks, 10 mile long glaciers or the crashing Pacific Ocean. This leads many to think that there is no beauty or adventure to be found here. And so many people never bother to look and see what a place like Kansas has to offer. But if you’re willing to look, you can find beauty in Creation anywhere. A year ago, I went to find Teter Rock. Teter Rock is a 20-something foot tall rock at the top of a tall hill in the Flint Hills that was originally used as a way-point for settlers crossing the plains many years ago. Torn down to use as constructions materials, the current Teter Rock was erected in the 1950s as a monument to the original. The view from this area is really beautiful. You can see for miles. My first time visiting Teter Rock last July was meant to be a shooting session for a sunset. I definitely captured a beautiful Flint Hills sunset. (which can be viewed in my Flint Hills gallery) But what came with the sunset was an amazing experience. Being from Kansas, I’m used to thunderstorms. We get everything from a rain shower to a tornado warning. But experiencing a Kansas storm roll across the open prairie like that is much different than experiencing it from the window of your home. Watching lightning crash down and hearing the rumble of thunder across the Flint Hills was an awe-inspiring experience I won’t soon forget. This experience reminded me of some lyrics in the Rich Mullins song, Calling Out Your Name:
“Where the sacred rivers meet / Beneath the shadow of the Keeper of the Plains / I feel thunder in the sky / I see the sky about to rain / And I hear the prairies calling out Your name”
These lyrics sum up what it’s like to be standing on the prairie during a thunderstorm with not a soul around for miles. If you’re from here in Kansas and have never experienced the open prairie during a thunderstorm, take a drive out in the Flint Hills and just sit and watch for a bit. It’s a pretty amazing experience. I have been back to Teter Rock 4-5 times to shoot everything from the night time sky to the aftermath of a blizzard. It’s still beautiful no matter the season. I have also since expanded my Kansas travels past Teter Rock. A few weeks ago, I shot a sunset at the Konza Prairie which is another beautiful part of the Flint Hills that’s just south of Manhattan. This made me want to take my girlfriend there to show her the beauty here in Kansas. So last Sunday I took her on a bit of an adventure through the Flint Hills. She shares my desire to see lots of beautiful places around the world and I figured it would be fitting to start by having a little adventure right here in Kansas.
The plan was to visit a few waterfalls I had researched a few months ago and to stop at a few scenic viewpoints. You can view a map of our Flint Hills adventure to see where all our travels took us that day. The first main stop was probably the best: Geary State Fishing Lake. The lake itself is pretty enough. Hilly, lots of trees and even some small cliffs in places. However, it wasn’t the lake that we stopped for.
I had read that the spill-off for this lake has a pretty impressive waterfall during spring and after storms when water is flowing. So we parked in the little make-shift dirt parking lot and started walking across the dam. At the end of the damn, we started down a faint trail that led in the direction of the sound of running water. Not more than a minute or two later and we came out at the top of a 30-40 foot drop-off with a very impressive waterfall for the state of Kansas. As far as I know, this is the largest waterfall in the state. And it’s certainly impressive. After shooting some photos from the top of the waterfall, we hiked down an even fainter trail through the trees to the bottom of the waterfall to get another perspective. I kept thinking to myself that the area would look stunning in the fall right after a rain storm when the water is flowing and the leaves are golden. I made a mental note to come back to get some more shots in the fall. An overnight stay at the lake might be nice too; as I’m sure the stars would shine bright that far away from any major cities.
After spending some time wandering around the waterfall, we made our way back to the car and headed off for Manhattan for water and gas. After filling up, we stopped at the scenic overlook south of Manhattan. Lighting wasn’t good for photos, but I had stopped here two weeks previous and captured a really good sunset image.
This area is near to the Konza Prairie. We didn’t have time to stop and hike around, but one of these days I’d like to go back and do some exploring there. However, the scenic viewpoint is a great place to view a sunset. The Konza Prairie is a native tall grass preserve in the heart of the Flint Hills. Because of its steep-slopes overlain by shallow limestone soil, it is unsuitable for farming, which has left this area virtually untouched over the years. While it would have been nice to enjoy a quality sunset together at this scenic overlook, it was still hours before the sun was to go down.
We decided to head back towards home with a few more stops along the way. Heading south on KS-177, we stopped briefly at the scenic Council Grove Lake. As time was running out before sunset, we skipped the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, and made our way to Cottonwood Falls. We headed west for a few miles to the Chase County State Fishing Lake to find the waterfalls in the spill off of the lake. After parking and walking across the dam, we followed the spill off towards the area of the waterfalls. The lake spill off is known to have at least 3 separate falls. Unfortunately this area had not received as much rainfall as Geary State Fishing Lake, as the waterfalls were mere trickles. They were still beautiful, but not nearly as impressive as the waterfall we had viewed earlier in the day. We spent a little time exploring and I made a mental note to come back after a rainstorm and in the fall when the leaves are turning colors. Both this area and the other falls should provide some beautiful autumn colors to work with. The pools that form below the waterfalls twirled the water around enough that I’m sure a few golden leaves would create a beautiful swirl of gold and orange colors come autumn. As it was starting to get towards evening, we hiked back up to the car, and headed south for the turnpike. The sunset hit while we were heading back to Wichita with no place to really stop and shoot it, so we just enjoyed the view and had some wonderful conversation on the way back home.
This little day trip reminded me of the biggest reason I shoot photography when traveling. I have a great desire to share my experiences and adventures with my friends, family and all who are interested. But to take someone with me and show them beautiful places in person is even better. I was glad to share the experience of the Flint Hills with my girlfriend. It makes me anxious to hopefully one day show her my favorite places in the Colorado Rockies or the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Nothing brings me greater joy and inspiration than to see the look of wonder and amazement on someone’s face when they see something so beautiful as a glacier or the waves crashing against the rocks at the ocean. Many people remark about how they wish they could travel to the places I visit. The truth is that I travel on a smaller budget than many realize. I save money where I can and use my vacation time wisely. But traveling doesn’t have to be to faraway exotic places. When I posted these waterfall photos on my personal Facebook page, I got comments and messages asking how in the world we found the Geary Lake waterfall. It’s easy. We explored. The point is that there is beauty to be found at home no matter where in the world you live. Many call Kansas “flat as a pancake” and “boring”. I find it beautiful. Not the same beautiful as the Swiss Alps or rainforests forests of the Pacific Northwest, but a beauty all of it’s own. You just have to be willing to experience it. So whatever place you call home, go explore it. There’s beauty to be had in Creation from the tallest mountain to the flat praire. You just be willing to go find it.