Rocky outcroppings at Wilson Lake

We went to Wilson Lake over the weekend.  This lake is called “The Clearest Lake in Kansas” because most of the area that drains into the lake is covered with rocks and prairie rather than tilled farmground. While my husband biked the awesome trails there, I hiked and looked for wildflowers.  The first 10 minutes of my hike, I thought “Wow, there’s just not a lot blooming yet.” But then I slowed down a bit and started to really look, and discovered blooms were there.

My hike started at the Hell Creek Bridge and went south and west, following the contour of the lake up on the ridges above.  Let me tell you, if you still think Kansas is flat, you need to go to Wilson Lake, and you will change your mind quickly!  Wilson Lake sits smack dab in the middle of the Smoky Hills of north central Kansas.  The Smoky Hills are comprised of three types of rock:  Niobrara chalk, Dakota sandstone and greenhorn limestone.  The hills are covered with a thin layer of dirt with a mixed grass prairie growing on top.  Some fascinating rock formations exist in the Smoky Hills area.  Rock City is near Minneapolis and is an odd collection of sandstone concretions.  Mushroom Rock State Park contains sandstone pedestals (mushrooms).  The neighboring Kanopolis Lake contains great sandstone bluffs and caves.  Wilson Lake also has an area called the Rocktown Natural Area which contains some 15-20 foot tall sandstone spires, but I didn’t have time to visit this time out.

Lonely Post Rock

Post rock & wildflowers

The area is nicknamed “Post Rock Country” because when the pioneers arrived, there wasn’t much timber in the area and they used what was readily at hand – greenhorn limestone rock.  These old post rocks now make great photographic subjects, and there’s quite a few of them at the lake, the trails strategically placed so as to enjoy them.

I ran into another mountain biker (the self-designated “trail natzi”) who apparently is also a wildflower enthusiast.  He does a lot of volunteer work on the trails, and he seemed excited I was taking photos of the local wildflowers and was more than happy to identify them for me.  When I got home, I looked them up in my “Wildflowers & Grasses of Kansas” book by Michael John Haddock and found out he was 100% correct in his identifications. 

My favorite was the Cobaea penstemon.  They remind me of a foxglove.  I remember seeing bunches of the penstemon blooming last year when we visited the lake, but during the first part of my hike, I didn’t see any.  Later on, however, I was rewarded!  There were scads of them blooming on top of the ridges, perched among the sandstone rocks on the hillsides.  I had fun scrambling up the hillsides to find good clumps of blooms. 

Cobaea penstemon growing in rocky ledges with Wilson Lake in the background

Cobaea penstemon

Close-up of bell shaped Cobaea penstemon blooms













Other wildflowers blooming were wild onion, spiderwort, Dakota verbena, prairie ragwort, western wallflower and purple poppy mallow (which I’ve always called “cowboy rose”).  Also in a few spots I found some scarlet globe mallow, which is similar in appearance to a globe mallow that blooms in the Southwest, but much shorter.

Wild onion (and friend)


Dakota verbena

Prairie ragwort (I really liked the nice sidelighting on these)

Prairie ragwort

Western wallflower

Purple poppy mallow a/k/a cowboy rose

Scarlet globe mallow

When my husband finished his ride, we hiked a little over a mile west from the parking area at the bridge and came to a big juncture in the trail, called the Trail Cut Off.  I thought the trail sign was very appropriate!  I also have to wonder what wisenheimer came up with this idea 😉

The Cut Off

You can read more about the interesting history of the Smoky Hills and Wilson Lake area by clicking here.

Feel free to leave a comment! I always enjoy feedback from my readers 🙂

The Central Kansas Photography Club is hosting a one-day Canon “Explorer of Light” seminar featuring George Lepp on Saturday, June 26, 2010 at the Crest Theatre in Great Bend, Kansas.  George is one of North America’s best-known nature photographers, and is a huge advocate of digital imaging.  His photos have appeared in various national magazines, and he is a monthly contributor to Outdoor Photographer.  The seminar begins at 9:15 a.m. and runs through 4:30 p.m., and the cost is $15 per person and the student rate is $7 per person.  Lunch is on your own, but coffee, rolls and juice will be provided in the morning.  Registration will be available at the door, but it would be appreciated if reservations could be made by June 7 to assist in the planning.  For more information, contact Jay Miller, 3626 22nd Street, Great Bend, KS 67530.

During the seminar, the Club will also be holding a photography contest open to anyone.  Photographers may submit a total of up to three entries in categories of Wildlife, Travel Nature and Great Plains Nature.  Mpix is providing prizes!

I’ve had the pleasure of attending two of George’s seminars and I can say with all honesty he’s a phenomenal speaker, an enormous talent but yet very laid back and approachable, and you will almost surely come away with some nugget of information.  It was after attending a seminar he presented in the Kansas City area about 8 years ago that I became more serious about photography and began to read a lot of how-to books and practice, practice, practice shooting.  He discusses many unique and unusual techniques that will inspire your creativity.  Wait until you see his huge panoramic prints – they will blow you away! 

Registration Form

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.

Wayne Rhodus and Scott Bean, two friends I met through NPN, are conducting a digital photography workshop in Alma, Kansas on Saturday, April 24, 2010.  The workshop is geared toward those who want to learn how to use their digital camera and improve their photography skills. Classroom lecture with handouts is included, and students will also receive hands on instruction on how to set various camera functions to achieve creative control of their images. Lunch is even included at a local restaurant. At the end of the day, participants will have the opportunity to shoot photos in the beautiful Flint Hills surrounding Alma. Since spring is the most beautiful time in the Flint Hills, everyone should come away with some amazing images of the area.

Please visit Scott’s web site for more details about this workshop.

Fellow photographer and friend Bret Edge landed a photo in the official 2010 Utah Dept. of Tourism calendar which promotes travel and tourism in Utah. His photo from Arches National Park of the Three Gossips at sunrise is featured on the month of August. Tom Till, James Kay, Adam Barker and others also have shots in this beautiful, photo-laden calendar.  If you love Utah scenery (and who doesn’t?), you should order one here.

It’s obviously not as great as being there yourself, camera in hand, photographing these awesome views, but seeing these photos on your wall every day is a rather nice substitute and very inspirational. I’m trying to figure out where in Utah we want to explore next!

I absolutely love Arches NP in Moab, Utah.  The scenery is truly jaw-dropping:  cavernous canyons, fabulous fins and awesome arches abound everywhere.  The first time my husband and I visited the park, I was literally speechless and didn’t know where to begin photographing the endless array of inspiring landscapes. Thus, the first time I was there, I ran amok and had no plan and guess what? I got rather crappy photos.  There were so many questions: Does Delicate Arch work out better as a sunrise or sunset shot?  Can I get a great shot of  the Three Gossips in mid-morning?  When the heck is sunrise anyway? When do the wildflowers bloom?  How do I get to Double O Arch and is it really worth the hike? Before we visited Moab the next year, I spent hours on the internet searching for photography tips in the park, and honestly didn’t find a treasure trove of information. If only I would have had iFotoGuide: Arches NP back then!

iFotoGuide: Arches NP has it all – detailed park maps, park info, a photo gallery showing all the photographic icons as well as detailed advice on when and where to photograph them and what equipment is needed, best times to shoot wildflowers and fall colors, sunrise/sunset charts, current weather conditions, specific safety concerns, important local phone numbers such as police and fire departments, local motel/restaurant/shopping info – it goes on and on. All this for $4.99 in the Apple iTunes App Store, and accessible in the palm of your hand on the iPhone or iPod Touch.  One caveat – if you’re using this on the iPod Touch and if you are not in an area with free WiFi access, the internet features are not accessible.  If you’re using it on the iPhone, I guess it would depend on your provider’s coverage.

The developers (Bret Edge and Dan Baumbach) plan to release iFotoGuides for other national parks:  Canyonlands, Grand Tetons, Glacier, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon are to be released within the next year.  I plan to purchase the Canyonlands app when it is released, and if we are lucky enough to visit the Grand Canyon or the Tetons – yep, there’s an app for that and I’m buying it!  Printed guide books become outdated in a hurry – no need to worry with iFotoGuide.  Future updates are included and are FREE.  You can’t get better than that. This little app is worth every penny in my opinion.

Bret Edge and another photographer from NPN, Dan Baumbach, have launched what will be a series of photo apps for the iPhone and the iPod Touch.  The app is a comprehensive digital guide to photographing the national parks and includes maps, park information, best times to photograph, sunrise/sunset charts, local restaurant/motel info, etc.  Designed by photographers for photographers, it appears to be a well-thought out and all inclusive guide to help traveling photographers create memorable photos while on the road without having to do tons of research ahead of time. Plus, all the info is available in the palm of your hand.

The first in the series is:  iFoto Guide: Arches National Park, and focuses on the awesome scenery of Arches National Park near Moab, Utah.  The next app will feature Yosemite NP, and future releases include Grand Canyon NP, Grand Tetons NP, Canyonlands NP, Glacier NP and more.  iFotoGuide: Arches is available for purchase for $4.99 at the Apple iTunes Store here.  Future updates to the app will be provided for free.

I don’t have an iPhone but have upgraded my “old” iPod Nano to a Touch version just today. I will download the app tonight and will post a full review once I’ve had time to check it out.  I already know I will love the included photo gallery.  Bret is tremendously talented and his photos of the Arches area are incredible.

I’m excited to announce that another one of my photographs has been published!  My photo of a wintery leaf was published in the Winter 2009 edition of “Kansas!” magazine and is located on page 31. I shot this photo last winter at one of my favorite local haunts, MacLennan Park, on the grounds of Cedar Crest (the Governor’s residence).  We didn’t get much snow last winter, but I did get out to shoot the few times we did. This was taken just a couple days after Christmas. The day after Christmas we had almost record-high temps and thunderstorms (yes, thunderstorms in December) followed by an immediate blast of cold air which froze everything quickly, followed by a light dusting of snow. It turned the wooded area at the park into a winder wonderland.

Two other of my photography friends also have photos in this issue.  Wayne Rhodus snagged the front cover with a beautiful pink wintry sunset shot, and Scott Bean has a great image from Tuttle Creek on the back cover as well as a half-page photo inside.  Yet another NPN member, Brad Mangas, has a full-page photo inside showcasing the Flint Hills in a wintery setting.

The “Kansas!” web site is found at:

Frozen Leaf