Castle Rock


Nothing irks me more than to hear people say “Kansas is flat and doesn’t have any interesting scenery.”  This assumption is totally wrong!  Yes, there are areas of Kansas that are flat.  The area around Hutchison is flat, and some areas of southwest Kansas near Liberal are very flat, hence the truckdriver’s nickname for Liberal: Pancake City (well, that’s also because of the famed Pancake Race each year between Liberal and Olney, England).  Eastern Kansas has the famed Flint Hills.  Southeastern Kansas has “mounds” and other steep hills.  North Central Kansas is home to the Smoky Hills.  There are also rugged, hilly areas in western and southwestern Kansas as well:  near the Lake Scott area, the Gyp Hills which stretch out to near Ashland, the Arikaree Breaks in Cheyenne Co., and the Castle Rock/Badlands area in Gove Co. to name a few. Are these areas right off the interstate for everyone to see as they whiz by at 80 mph? No! You have to actually get on some backroads and slow down to enjoy. If people would just do this, their eyes would be opened to the varied, beautiful scenery Kansas has to offer!

Gove Co. in northwestern Kansas is chock full of chalk formations and rugged canyons.  Many are on private land and not accessible to the public, but they are there.  Fortunately, the most impressive of these formations are free and open to the public:  Monument Rocks and Castle Rock.  This post will discuss the Castle Rock area, which was named jointly with Monument Rocks as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.

To reach the Castle Rock/Badlands area, exit from I-70 at the Quinter exit (exit 107), go south 15 miles to the intersection of GO 80 & GOK, then 4 miles east to the Castle Rock sign, then turn north and cross a cattle guard.  Several rutty roads allow you access to the bluff overlooking the badlands, and circle downward, allowing you up-close exploration of the funky rock formations. If driving a car, be very careful as some of the ruts are fairly deep.  Regular and 4WD pickups will have no trouble negotiating the roads. The Castle Rock formation is down in the Hackberry Creek Valley, all by its lonesome. 

Castle Rock in the Hackberry Creek Valley

It remains a mystery why all the rock between it and the bluffs to the west and south eroded away. I had more fun exploring and photographing the Badlands area than Castle Rock itself. Be warned – if there have been recent rains or it looks like the skies might open up while you are exploring, DO NOT take this trip!!  The roads get very, very muddy and sticky and impassible in wet conditions. Due to the remote location and scarce population, if you get stuck, you might be there for a while. Also, keep in mind this is private property and be respectful to the landowner so they will continue to let future explorers enjoy the area. Do not climb on the rocks! The chalk is very fragile and crumbles easily. Besides damaging the formations, you could damage yourself!

This area is comprised of chalk deposited during the Cretaceous Period (about 80 million years ago) when it was the bottom of a vast inland sea.  (Hey, who would have guessed Kansas was once seaside property?!)  The sea contained multitudes of single-celled animals that fell to the sea floor, creating an ooze. This sticky material trapped and preserved remains of other animals that lived in the sea such as fish, turtles, birds, clams and various reptiles.  This area has yielded numerous fossil finds, including the “fish within a fish” which is on display at the Sternberg Museum in nearby Hays.  Over time, erosion has created the fantastic bluffs and formations we see today.

Castle Rock stands approximately 70 feet high, although a large portion of the formation collapsed in 2001 after a summer thunderstorm. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit before the collapse so my photos obviously don’t show the formation at its original height.  My parents provide some scale in this shot.

Castle Rock

Even now, it remains impressive.  The pioneers used it as a landmark on the Butterfield Trail. In fact, stagecoach ruts can be seen to this day just north of the formation.  The Badlands area is a fascinating maze of hoodoos, canyons and bluffs. You could literally spend hours just wandering around in this area and getting shots of the rocks.

Badlands from the overlook


There is numerous wildlife in the area: pronghorn antelope, deer, jackrabbits, coyotes, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and various birds of prey and other birds.   Western rattlesnakes are native to the area.  It’s a perfect snake heaven with all that rock and places to hide, so be very careful where you step and put your hands.

Probably the best time to photograph the formations is early morning, as the bluffs to the west tend to block the evening sun and create harsh shadows. When I visited in 2008, I was there in late afternoon and although the light was nice on Castle Rock, getting shots of the bluffs and hoodoos looking west was difficult to impossible because of the angle of the sun.  Bring your full aresenal of equipment:  regular lens; wide angle lens to capture the stark contrast of the vast prairie against the rugged terrain; a telephoto to zoom in on the rock formations; macro to capture wildflowers (if you happen to be there at the right time); GND and polarizing filters to help control the sky; etc.

More Badlands

Part of a Stonehenge-like formation

After returning to the road, you can travel east 2.8 miles to Banner Road, then turn north and follow it 12.4 miles back to I-70 at Collyer.

Looking up to the bluffs to the west

I would love to visit this area again and spend more time exploring. It was way cool! If you are driving through western Kansas on I-70 and can spare a few hours to explore, I highly recommend this side trip.