The early morning sun glinted off diamond-like frost crystals covering the prickly pear cactus and yucca plants at my feet. The neighborly call of an unseen mockingbird offset the low murmur of cattle beginning their day on the Kansas prairie. Under a perfect cerulean blue sky, the crispness of the fresh air filled my lungs as Mother Nature filled my spirit.
In a few minutes, this gentle world would be lost, temporarily drowned out by the grind of tractors and the chaos of dozens of workers. But for just a few more minutes on an October morning last year, my husband and I rejoiced in the sun’s awakening of Little Jerusalem.
A long-hidden treasure in the prairie of western Kansas, Little Jerusalem is the much anticipated new state park located off Hwy. 83 between Oakley and Scott City. The park finally opened to the public this Oct. 12 with a grand opening celebration.
At just 220 acres, Little Jerusalem is one of those places that remind us that the prairie is not all flat, not all covered by grass and certainly not boring. It’s tempting to call Little Jerusalem a canyon because a definitive rim surrounds part of it, but no, that’s just how the landscape rolls when approaching from the southwest.
But imagine being in a covered wagon in the 1850s, traveling the Smoky Hill Trail through central Kansas toward Denver and the Colorado Gold Rush. Moving at a speed of about 3 miles a day, your vision is teased by unusual white formations in the distance.
You’ve put your faith in a higher power to see you through this journey, and although you’ve never been there, these white formations on the horizon surely resemble the seven hills of Jerusalem. That’s how these white outcroppings became known as Little Jerusalem.
Really looking nothing at all like the city in Israel, the Kansas version of Jerusalem is a mile-long valley of 100-foot-tall spires and cliffs encompassed by Niobrara Chalk formations. Giant clam fossils and other images embedded in the fragile rock are reminders of the Western Interior Seaway that covered these Central Plains more than 80,000 years ago.
Ever since European immigrants claimed ownership of this land, Little Jerusalem has been private property. Five generations of the McGuire family ranched here, fencing in cattle while fencing out people.
But enough people had seen glimpses of or heard about Little Jerusalem that curiosity and public policy finally won out. In 2016, the McGuire family sold the land to the Nature Conservancy, with the stipulation that the public would somehow have access. The nonprofit Conservancy also owns the adjacent 17,000-acre Smoky Valley Ranch.
In what has been termed a rare partnership between a state agency and the Nature Conservancy, Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park was established by the Kansas Legislature in 2018. The term “Badlands” was added, to assist public understanding of what is contained within the 300-acre park. Although not as extensive as the terrain found at Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the similarities of the rock formations at Little Jerusalem are notable.
While the park existed on paper, the reality included no public resources: no parking lot, no trails, no signs, no restrooms. Little Jerusalem was not ready for the public.
Planning began in earnest, and that’s what brought my husband and me to western Kansas last October. It was a weekend of volunteer service by employees of the Westar Energy utility, whose Green Team initiative has contributed to public parks and other projects across the state.
To be clear, my husband and I were not volunteers. It was our job to document the work underway to make this new state park ready for the public. But we had heard about Little Jerusalem for years and were delighted to have the opportunity for an exclusive preview.
By the end of the weekend, the parking lot was clearly defined and ready for paving. Two trails were cut — a 1,200-foot path to an overlook, and a 1½-mile rim trail that includes a bridge over a chasm between rocks.
These trails will allow visitors to experience a variety of perspectives on the ancient rocks, as well as the plants and wildlife that flourish in an area that usually gets less than 12 inches of precipitation a year.
These craggy spires are nesting grounds for ferruginous hawks. You’ll also see cliff swallows, sandhill cranes and numerous other birds. We stepped across the shed skin of a big snake. It was probably a garter or ribbon snake, but it was big. This area is also home to rattlesnakes and copperheads.
We also gently stepped over steaming cow pies. Yes, the cattle that have grazed here for more than a century will continue to munch on the bluestem prairie grass, so you’ll certainly want to watch where you walk.
The signs will tell you to keep on the trails. That is extra important here because of the fragility of the outcroppings. Just a few kicks with our boots in some areas broke loose several inches of the crumbling soil. Stay on the trail.
However, for those determined to get a little closer, the Kansas Department of Parks and Wildlife is working with the Nature Conservancy to develop ranger-led backcountry interpretive hikes. These will be limited to 40 people a day and include a $50 fee. Admission to the park is $5 per vehicle.
Little Jerusalem Badlands shares management with Historic Lake Scott State Park, 8 miles to the south. A park since the 1920s, it features a fishing lake, modern campsites and cabins. Among the historic aspects of this park is El Cuartelejo, the remains of a seven-room structure believed to have been built by Taos and Picuris Pueblo Indians escaping Spanish rule in New Mexico in the mid-1640s. It is the most northern Pueblo site in the U.S.
Little Jerusalem Badlands: nature.org/littlejerusalem.
Historic Lake Scott: kansastravel.org/scottstatepark.htm.
Kansas tourism: travelks.com.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a Kansas City-based travel writer.