Fall Issue 2010
Quiet pleasures replace past at Arkalon Park
by Rachel Coleman
It’s Indian summer in Southwest Kansas, and the heat rises in hazy waves from the yucca-dotted landscape along U.S. Hwy. 54 east of Liberal. For the imaginative traveler, it’s easy to picture the grueling trek pioneers faced when no power lines or fences scored the circular horizon — a long, hot, journey across an often monotonous landscape.
But there’s a welcome and refreshing surprise awaiting the modern-day driver who finds Arkalon Park, marked by a sign about 10 miles east of town. Coming from the other direction, the park can be found a bit more than a mile west of the railroad bridge and the rest stop that nestles on the north side of the highway. Turn north off the highway, pass the railroad tracks, weather the jolts of the ridged road that winds slowly downhill, and the weary traveler pauses at the rim of a hidden valley.
Arkalon is full of everything Southwest Kansans crave. There’s water. Green trees. Wild poppies blooming an emphatic magenta against the soft lavender-grey of sagebrush. Sand hill plum thickets tangle along the roadside and offer gemlike fruits free for the picking in midsummer. Amid all this live the creatures that love a hidden, bountiful place of refuge.
“We’ve got a little bit of everything,” says caretaker Gerald Mann. “Deer, wild turkey, raccoons, beavers, all kinds of birds — even a Bald Eagle.” Mann prefers the nature trails and quiet life to the spokesperson spotlight, but he routinely works with the public to coordinate special events and educational trips that bring large groups to Arkalon.
The park is owned and operated by the city of Liberal. Thus, standard park features have been added to the campground area: a paved shelter with enough picnic tables to accommodate large gatherings such as family reunions or corporate picnics; public restroom and bath house; camper-trailer sites with electrical hook-ups; and barbecue grills.
But while crews keep the shelter area mowed and tidy, the overall feel of Arkalon is more nature reserve than well-manicured city park. Squirrels race and hurdle over the curved trunks of cottonwood trees, many of which bend nearly to the ground. Blue jays fuss and chatter from the leafy arches far above.
In the oval-shaped campground, it’s easy to picture the Cimarron River as it once was, wide and steady and capable of sustaining these ancient trees that flourished on its banks and survive all these dry decades later. Just east of Arkalon is the “Mighty Samson” bridge that replaced the old structure washed out when the river flooded in 1937. Local legend speculates that hoboes riding the Rock Island freight train lost their lives when the engine plunged into the quicksand-riddled riverbed. Today, the Cimarron River is a ditch-sized trickle at the highway rest stop and Arkalon’s water is diverted from various sources in Liberal.
Like the Cimarron River, the 21st-century Arkalon bears little resemblance to its former self. The settlement of Arkalon was once a thriving town in Seward County, serving as a link between Texas cattle drives and Dodge City. That changed when Kansas passed a law prohibiting cattle drives that crossed state lines. When the railroad extended tracks through Liberal to the Oklahoma border in 1888, records local historian Paul Boles, it was “a glorious day.” But not for Arkalon. For the next 14 years, Liberal was the westernmost point on the cattle drive rail line, and the destination of choice for cowboys from the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Meanwhile, Arkalon dwindled away, leaving no trace of its former self.
These days, what visitors will find are signs of the animals that have reclaimed the area. Just past the cottonwood grove, walking paths branch off the camping area road. Visitors quickly step into the hush of undisturbed nature. The main trail follows a chain of ponds punctuated by beaver-built dams and the resulting areas crowded with cattails. It’s rare to actually sight more of a beaver than its silent, V-shaped wake in still water, but the signs of the animals’ work is abundant in the chewed trunks and felled trees.
Other animals also leave evidence of their passage. Tiny lizards skitter across the sandy pathways. Fish, frogs and turtles flop and stir the water. Heart-shaped deer tracks criss-cross the sandy soil on the walking path and wide patches of flattened grass indicate the animals’ napping spots. Silent hikers might catch a glimpse of does and fawns.
In the meadow areas that punctuate the tree-lined paths, wild turkeys are often visible early in the morning and at dusk. And veteran and amateur bird-watchers alike delight in the many species that may be sighted at Arkalon.
Lifelong Liberal resident Janie Kitch is one of Arkalon Park’s most ardent fans, conducting nature hikes and outdoor activities for local children who participate in summer recreation activities.
“I have a whole photo album of wildlife I’ve seen at Arkalon,” she said. “I even got a picture of the bald eagle one day. That was really exciting.” Arkalon, she said, is a place that should be visited often to be properly appreciated.
“You won’t see everything the first time,” she said. “I know I didn’t. But the more you go, the more you get to know it, and the more you enjoy it. It really grows on you. That’s what I tell the kids.”
Arkalon’s other quiet pleasure is found at the end of a pole and a couple left turns. Signage near the highway turn-off offers visitors the option of visiting fishing areas stocked with catfish, large-mouth bass, green sunfish and bluegill. A marsh area named in honor of Arkalon founder O.H. “Pete” Wriston is home to Canada geese and various ducks that regularly hatch and raise their young in the area. Migration also brings herons, sandpipers and a variety of wild birds to the area.
Fishing rules at Arkalon are in keeping with state licensing, along with limits of one pole per person, catch-and-return rules for fish smaller than 14 inches, and a limit of three catfish/bass per day. No hunting is permitted and the cattle sometimes pastured in the park grounds have right of way.
The park is open April 1 through October 15 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week for daytime use. The picnic shelter may be reserved and rented for $25 a day by calling the City of Liberal clerk’s office at 626-2202 or the camp host at 626-0531. Camping permit prices vary with options from annual family passes to three-day stays, and can be obtained in advance from City Hall or at the park, from the camp hosts.