Points of Rock offers view of the past
by Rachel Coleman
It's easy to drive across the western half of Kansas with the vague idea that the region is one vast horizontal expanse of grass, with an equally vast bowl of sky above. Yet in its southwesternmost corner, Kansas offers a triple treat — three ecosystems, a chance to hop through history, and — always a hit in this part of the state — trees and water.
It's all contained in the Cimarron National Grassland, just two miles north of Elkhart.
Though a grassfire burned off nearly 20,000 acres, or about one fifth of the vast national park-managed area, the grasslands are still open, and visitors are welcome.
"It is a public area, and we like people to use it," noted forest service resource clerk Shari Butler. "In our corner of the world, we take care of these public lands so people can camp, hike, horseback ride, and just get out into nature. At this time, though we don't encourage people to go out to the burned areas." The forest service hopes late spring and early summer rains will soften the damage and save the grass that survived.
Maybe it's the dusty aftermath of fire, leaving soil to blow in black gusts, but as you travel the winding dirt road maintained by the Forest Service, it doesn't take long to feel hot and thirsty — perhaps a bit like the pioneers and merchants who passed through the area on the Santa Fe Trail. Wagon ruts more than 100 years old are still visible in several places, gentle indentations that wind through sagebrush and prairie grass.
The Cimarron branch of the Santa Fe Trail was more a highway of commerce than migration, favored by traders and profiteers who wanted a shorter, faster way west. A shortcut did not mean convenience, however. The route was known as La Jornada (or, "the journey," spoken, one imagines, in a menacing tone) because it was nearly dry all the way. After they left Wagon Bed Springs, about 11 miles south of Ulysses, travelers had to cover 40 miles to the next "watering hole" — a distance that required more sweat and time in the 1800s than it does today.
Modern visitors to the Santa Fe Trail know they're close to Middle Springs when the light sparkle of green willow leaves emerges from a low area nestled among the acres of brown, crackling grass. The trees line the waterway known as Middle Springs, a much-anticipated stop on the old Santa Fe Trail.
This summer, with the entire Southwest Kansas area weathering various degrees of drought, you don't see water in the cut that snakes through the landscape — just bleached tree branches and tall grass. Depressions in the foliage hint at deer napping in the shade. A walking path winds around the spring area, a footbridge and picnic tables beckon, and picnickers need not bring water: though the wagon-train days with their thirsty oxen are long past, Middle Springs does not disappoint; a hand-pump delivers water from the artesian spring.
Wildlife inhabitants of the grasslands, of course, don't have access to the manmade device. Still, Butler said, the park is home to a diverse population of pronghorn antelope, elk and deer, drawn to the water in an arid region.
"They're free-ranging; we don't monitor or herd them. They're out there, though," she said. "If you're lucky, you'll see some of them."
Other inhabitants include coyote, badgers, porcupines, jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, foxes, raccoons, bobcats and lynx, turtles, snakes, lizards, skunks, possum, squirrels — and at least one beaver, whose gnawed toothwork is visible in the more forested areas of the grassland.
"We don't know how he got out here, but there he is," Butler said.
Birdwatchers have recorded more than 360 species of birds in the Grasslands, the most notorious of which are the Lesser Prairie Chickens. During spring, the males congregate at "leks," to show off for the hens. A male prairie chicken does this by strutting, dancing and stamping his feet. Next come intermittent exclamations of gobbling laughter-like calls. When huge flocks of bachelor birds gather, "you can hear 'em a mile away, trying to attract a date" said Butler. "People come from all over the world to see this. There aren't a lot of those birds left in other places, but we have them."
The prairie chickens' annual party was disrupted by the big fire, "but they're OK," Butler said. "Wildlife are pretty smart about getting away from where the fire is, and we've sighted them since."
Just a mile and a half away from Middle Spring, Points of Rock beckons refreshed travelers to come higher and savor the view. It's easy to picture Comanche warriors using this limestone outcropping, the third-highest spot in the state, as a lookout point; arrowheads and artifacts like buffalo-hide scrapers, have been unearthed in the area. Some say Coronado, the Spanish explorer, stopped here as he quested through the New World. Looking further back into history, some researchers have dated the stone in the formation as coming from the Jurassic period.
For the casual visitor, Points of Rock is more than a geological puzzle. It's a try-hard-things climb for children and teens, with rudimentary carved steps facilitating a zig-zag trail down the southwest face of the formation. It's a chance to see the whole circular horizon on the paved, flat top where the historical marker explains more about the Santa Fe trail. And that itself is fodder for imagination, because the trail's outline is clearly visible at the bottom of the cliff — if you look west.
Beneath Points of Rock is a grove of cottonwood trees, testament to times when water was more plentiful. Before Cimarron National Grassland became part of the national parks system, it was part of cattlemen's empires, with corrals, ranch houses, barns and outbuildings sprinkled between Points of Rock and the springs. It's hard to imagine that much water in the immediate area — especially when you look across the dry vista visible from the top of Points of Rock — but in 1914, a flash flood from the now-dry Cimarron River swept across the hay meadows, right to the base of the landmark. It washed out buildings and pens, and claimed the lives of two ranch children.
Following the Dust Bowl's erosive effects on the area, much of the acreage became entwined with various government programs aimed at soil conservation and economic stability. This eventually culminated in the establishment of national park status for the Cimarron Grasslands in 1960.
Today, nature lovers can hunt, fish, observe and explore shortgrass prairie, sand-and prairie and wooded riparian areas within the park. Information is available through the Morton County Historical Society Museum, which hosts permanent exhibits about regional and local history. A 50-mile self-guided auto tour is also mapped out by the U.S. Forest Service, and details about the activity are available in brochures at the museum (620-697-2833), or through the U.S. Forest Service office in Elkhart (620-697-4621). The museum also maintains a website at www.mtcoks.com/museum/.