HIKING LITTLE JERUSALEM BADLANDS STATE PARK: What to know before you go
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
Since its official opening to the public in 2019, Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park - Kansas' latest state park - has become a popular destination for travelers and outdoor adventures. Here's a guide to help you experience the park while protecting the fragile landscape.
PLANNING & PREPARATION
It wasn't my first time out west. As a life-long Kansan, I knew what to expect. When planning an impromptu trip in August to hike at Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park (I typically just call it Little J), I knew to prepare for three things - dry heat, wind, and bugs. Top of my packing list were jugs of water (check), a wide-brim hat (check), bug spray (check), sunglasses (check), and plenty of sunscreen (check, check).
What I did not plan for (but should have) was a wet, humid cool sixty-degree temp morning due to an unexpected thunderstorm that rolled in at sunrise. There's a joke in Kansas, and most of the Midwest, if you don't like the weather just wait five minutes. So, while I was disappointed at first driving in only to see a heavy haze making visibility poor, I knew to hang around.
I was not disappointed.
Here is my recommended packing checklist: (varies depending on the time of year & weather)
Sun protection (hat, glasses, sunscreen)
Clothes: Long pants, light-weight long-sleeve shirt & sturdy hiking boots (no, that's not how I dressed for this trip. I knew I was staying on the rim. This is what I would recommend if you take a ranger-guided hike into the formations.)
Simple drawstring bag to carry the water bottle, spray, etc. (You don't want to have to lug a bunch of stuff around.)
GETTING TO THE PARK
Located a short drive west of Kansas Highway 83 (south of Oakley and north of Scott City), your GPS may identify the area as Elkader, Kansas. Another indicator you're near the turn is a brown highway sign for the state park. From Highway 83, you'll turn west on to Gold Rd. drive the gravel road for about 3.5 miles until you reach 400 rd. Turn north.
Don't be surprised when you pull into the parking lot and only see high plains prairie surrounding you. Unlike Monument Rocks, where you see the formations in the distances, at Little Jerusalem you are above the formations and have to hike (walk) out to see them. So, don't expect to just drive through and grab some images from the car.
NOW THAT YOU'VE ARRIVED
Once you've parked, head over to the self-pay kiosk station. Unless you already have an annual Kansas State Park Passport. Fill out the form, slip the $5.00 into the envelope and follow the instructions. Leave the park pass in a place that can be easily viewed by park rangers - like your dashboard.
Walking to the pavilion, you can read more about the site and area. From here there are two trail options. First, the shorter Overlook Trail, perfect for visitors wanting to get a "quick" peek of the formations, heads off to the right. To the left through a metal gate is the trailhead for Life on the Rocks Trail.
LET'S HIKE... A QUICK OVERVIEW OF YOUR OPTIONS
OVERLOOK TRAIL .25 Mile (.5 loop) Difficulty: Easy
After a .25 mile, this well-maintained, wide gravel path ends with a breathtaking view of one of the park's most expansive outcroppings of the formations. Along the gently sloped terrain, you're surrounded by native grasses, western prairie foliage, and wildflowers.
More images from Overlook Trail
LIFE ON THE ROCKS 1.5 Miles (3-mile loop)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Similar to the path leading to the overlook, this trail starts out much the same. Beginning as a crushed rock pathway, as you head further west it gets more rugged. Transitioning from gravel to the site's natural chalky, rock surface. This trail includes interpretive signage, crossing over a ravine by bridge, and two panoramic overlooks.
More images from Life on the Rocks Trail
Ranger-Guided Backcountry Hike (call in advance of your visit)
Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging
It's hard to understand the full magnitude of Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park without seeing the formations at their level. Hiking within the formations is only allowed by being guided by a ranger. Respect this rule. It's meant to protect you. The chalk formations are brittle and break easily. It's also easy to fall, twist an ankle, or worst if you're not paying attention. A ranger can guide you through safely.
Backcountry hikes typically run for 1.5 hours. It's more challenging than the rim, be prepared for rough, uneven terrain and trekking through grass and brush. Visit KDWP's Little Jerusalem calendar for details on their hikes and to see upcoming events. Call or email in advance to reserve your spot on the tour.
On this particular visit, I only hiked the outer rim trails. I have taken the guided off-trail hike during a special sunset tour (which you can read more about).
A FRAGILE ECOSYSTEM
As you are hiking the rim, think about the fact that where you are standing was once a prehistoric inland sea, the Western Inland Seaway. The Niobrara chalk formations surrounding you were once the seafloor millions upon millions of years ago. Now, you're asking yourself what is Niobrara chalk? From my research, it involves many big words to fully explain it. What I've deciphered is it's a mixture of limestone and chalk, formed by calcium deposits from shelled organisms that lived in the onetime sea.
While the sea is long gone, evidence of it is still all around. Fossils of giant clams, oysters, and other marine life can be seen. (No digging for fossils! Want to take a fossil home? Visit Keystone Gallery or Fick's Fossil Museum)
SIDEBAR: DO YOU SMELL THAT?
Okay, this is going to sound weird, but when you're at Little Jerusalem - take in a deep breath. No, this isn't for relaxing, it's an experiment. I'm curious to know if you smell what I smell when I'm there. I, cross-my-heart-swear, smell water. Like if you were at the lake, ocean, river... kind of water.
I know it sounds crazy. The first time it happened I was at Monument Rocks and I kept thinking... well, to be honest, my first thought was why does it smell like dirty water? Again, think of a lake or ocean. There are no water sources close. Then it happened at Castle Rock and again at Little Jerusalem. What do all these all have in common? Niobrara chalk. Maybe the smell of the ancient water imprinted itself into the chalk and the fossils within it creating the scent? I don't know. I could also be imagining it.
Now in present day, Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park is a flourishing habitat. Be on the lookout for ferruginous hawks, rock wrens, and cliff swallows. Look before you step for lizards and snakes. The park is also home to the largest expanse of Great Plains wild buckwheat.
PROTECTING A PARK AND A LEGACY
For five generations Little Jerusalem was part of the McGuire Ranch, then the family sold it to The Nature Conservancy. Through the new ownership and partnership between the Conservancy and Kansas State Parks, Little Jerusalem is open to the public. It's imperative we all do our part to ensure the park is around for many more generations to enjoy.
Through simple acts of stewardship, such as "leave no trace" and "do no harm," and following the guidelines set by The Nature Conservancy we can protect the park and respect the legacy the McGuires started.
Did you know? Less than 5% of Kansas is public land. Many popular destinations like Monument Rocks and Castle Rock are on private land and it's thanks to the landowners that they allow visitors to the sites.
STATE PARK DETAILS
Who manages Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park? The Nature Conservancy owns the site; they partner with the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks to develop and manage visitor access to the park.
Location: Logan Co, it's roughly a little more than 20 miles away from both Oakley, KS (north) and Scott City, KS (south) off highway 83.
Phone Number: 620-872-2061, call in advance for ranger-guided hikes
Days & Hours: The park is open year-round, from dawn to dusk daily.
Park Fee: A day vehicle permit ($5) or annual park pass ($25) per vehicle is required. Day permits can be found at the kiosk inside the park. Follow the directions and make sure your permit can be easily seen by park rangers, like on your dashboard, to prevent getting a ticket.
Restrooms & Water: There are two restrooms on-site, but they are closed during the freezing months. There is no potable water.
Pets & Animals: Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park is pet-friendly. It should go without saying, but please keep your dog on a leash and pick up any waste they leave. Horses are not allowed, no trail riding.
Camping: No camping of any kind (including RV) is allowed at the state park. For camping, I highly recommend visiting Historic Lake Scott State Park. Lake Scott is a short drive south of Little Jerusalem. If you'd rather stay in a hotel or motel, the communities of Oakley (north) and Scott City (south) offer multiple options.
How far is Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park?
Wichita: 4 hr 12 min (295.0 mi) I-135 N to I-70 W to Hwy 83
Denver: 4 hr 20 min (283.7 mi) I-70 E to Hwy 83
Kansas City: 5 hr 25 min (378.9 mi) I-70 W to Hwy 83
Omaha: 5 hr 54 min (386.7 mi) I-80 W to Hwy 83
Oklahoma City: 6 hr 9 min (372.1 mi) US-283 N