Point of Rocks was a landmark on the Sante Fe Trail
- Photo by Mike Blair
|Cimarron National Grassland is well known to wildlife enthusiasts who
travel to Morton County to explore the rolling sandsage prairie.
Sand sagebrush is a
conspicuous 3-foot-tall shrub with gray-green foliage. Local wildflowers include silky
prairie clover, wooly verbena,
green milkweed, scarlet gaura, field
goosefoot, scarlet globemallow and wild begonia.
Pronghorns are found in the area.
Elk are also present but only rarely encountered.
In woody riparian areas, it's possible to see a porcupine.
Bird species normally associated with the arid southwest or the mountains are sometimes
found here. Throughout the year Kansas listers search for rarities such as mountain chickadees,
scrub jays, Steller's jays, roadrunners, bushtits, curve-billed thrashers, and
western tanagers. Mountain plovers are sometimes found
in early August. Nesting birds include Cassin's sparrows, lark buntings, scaled quail, and lesser prairie chickens.
Prairie chicken booming grounds, or leks, have observation blinds for public use.
Blinds may be reserved by tour groups.
Limit one group per day. Call the
district office to make reservations.
Several species of amphibians are commonly found on the grasslands. After rains in
spring and summer, drive the roads at night and listen for the calls of plains spadefoot
toads, Great Plains toads, Woodhouse's toads, and plains leopard frogs. Common reptiles
include ornate box turtles, northern earless lizards, Texas horned lizards, and
A self-guided auto tour (see
below) is a scenic 50-mile drive that highlights many of the
interesting wildlife features, including a prairie dog town. Portions of the historic
Santa Fe Trail, marked by limestone posts, are visible in many locations. One stop is
Point of Rocks, an important landmark on the trail and a great place to find rock wrens.
Middle Spring provided trail travelers with a dependable, year-round source of water.
The water and trees are an attractive oasis to
wildlife of all kinds.
Most of the High Plains in Kansas is west of the 100th
Meridian. Here the average rainfall west to the Colorado border ranges from 20 to 15
inches. This semiarid condition contributes to the maintenance of the shortgrass prairie
biocommunity. Water is the major natural resource for human commerce, as it is the major
limiting factor for all life.
Over the past four million years, porous sands and gravels, known as the
Ogallala aquifer, have descended like a fan from the Rocky Mountains, housing water
reservoirs that today sustain the agriculture and industry of western Kansas. An important
Southern High Plains stream, the Cimarron River arises in northeast New Mexico and cuts a
winding path through the Ogallala of the Oklahoma panhandle, sweeps through southwest
Kansas, returns to Oklahoma and enters the Arkansas River at Keystone Lake. The sand dunes
along this river are the result of cold air tumbling from retreating Pleistocene glaciers,
which produced tremendous winds that swept dry silt (loess) throughout the Great Plains
and blew river sands into hills. The pools of the Cimarron River, as well as the springs
seeping from its Ogallala banks - have drawn wildlife for thousands of years. And for
thousands of years Native Americans, attracted by the bounty, have followed the wildlife
trails along its 600 mile course.
The earliest hunters of the Cimarron most probably were Folsom, or
perhaps even Clovis and Sandia peoples, who lived more than 10,000 years ago. The Cimarron
hunting grounds were used continuously by Native Americans into the 1880's, ending with
the Kiowa and the Comanches. Point of Rocks and Middle Springs, north of what is today
Elkhart in Morton County Kansas, were popular spots on the Cimarron for travelers to scan
the plains and replenish water supplies. Coronado stopped here in 1541 on his search for
the City of Quivira. In 1821 William Becknell established the Santa Fe Trail, which cut to
Middle Springs from the Arkansas River across the hostile, waterless
"Cimarron Desert". Many
died here, including the mountain man Jedediah Smith, who was killed by Indians in 1831
while searching for water.
Homesteaders were slow in coming to this desolate land. The Point of
Rocks Ranch, established by the Beaty brothers of Colorado in 1879, was the
first permanent enterprise. The ranch ran up to 30,000 cattle and operated
until the 1930s. A flood washed away
most of the ranch buildings
Farmers soon found the land suitable not only for pastures, but also for
wheat. Wet years and the introduction of the tractor during the 1920's turned the
"prairie sea" into golden waves of grain. The plowing, along with the wind and
the drought of the 1930's - let loose the loess and turned the cornucopia into a bowl of
dust. Morton was the most devastated county of the entire dust bowl era. Congress
established acts to buy out the bankrupt farmers, and in 1938 the U.S. Soil Conservation
Service started restoration of the prairie. In 1954 management was turned over to the U.S.
Forest Service, and in 1960, 108,175 acres of shortgrass prairie and sandsage prairie,
north and south of the Cimarron river became the Cimarron National Grasslands; dedicated
to water conservation, wildlife management, recreation, cattle grazing, and mineral
Today, as ranchers and tourists peer from the top of Point of Rocks they
are inspired by the awesome beauty of the plains and canyons, and haunted by the ghosts of
the past. Middle Springs is now an Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site (OWLS) with nature
trails and interpretive signs used by area school children and tourists.
|Water available, Restrooms, Fishing Pond.|
- no hookups. Primitive camping allowed in most of the area.
Off-road driving is prohibited.
Discover what to see, eat and do in Kansas.
Plan your trip today, at TravelKS.com!
Turkey Trail (10.5 miles one way);
Santa Fe companion Trail (19 miles one way)
Click the icon to find a birding list for Morton County.
Cimarron National Grasslands is in the SW corner of
Click here for a Google Map of the site.
Click the icon to locate nearby Geocaches
District Office, identified as the Cimarron National Grasslands Range Station, is on U.S.
56 in Elkhart. Stop here (hours: M-F, 8-5) to pick up a map, wildlife checklist, and the
self-guided auto tour booklet; or write for the material: (see contact info below)
The self-guided auto tour begins 2 miles north of Elkhart on K-27. There is a picnic area
south of the river 7.5 miles north of Elkhart on K-27. South of the picnic area is a road
east to a campground. Middle Spring and Point of Rocks are reached from K-27 by turning
west, 0.5 miles north of the Cimarron River bridge.
The responsible entity for management of Cimarron National
Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Their
mailing address is:
242 Highway 56 East
PO Box 300
Elkhart KS 67950
Contact them at (620) 697-4621
if you have specific questions about use or management of the site.
Visit their web site by clicking here.
Funded by the
Chickadee Checkoff Program
Click here for a brochure!
Kansas web site
the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks
Re-publication of site content in any form other than for personal use
requires written permission. If you are a Kansas resident, please
assist with this and other wildlife viewing and conservation programs
by contributing to the Chickadee Checkoff on your state tax form.
Questions or comments about Natural Kansas may be directed to
Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism