Western Kansas Odyssey, Part IV: Storming the Castle

Hays Travel Blog

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Dang good coffee in Hays!
Eager to finally conquer Castle Rock, Jeff and I headed west after he cooked us breakfast and we stopped at Semolino for coffee. He was flexible with my whims for stopping at small towns, so we hit Ogallah and Collyer before pulling into Quinter to pick up some snacks and water for the road. In Quinter, a Kansas-shaped mural with sunflowers and the town's name decorated one of the storefronts on main street. I posed for a photo and we headed on our way south. Despite its reputation for being hard to find, it wasn't too confusing getting there, although we did have directions that indicated on which roads to turn.
The largest town in Kansas beginning with the letter "Q"
A black framed sign spelling out C-A-S-T-L-E R-O-C-K with metal bars marked the final turn, but no one had prepared us for the torture my car would have to endure to get us the final couple miles to the site. After passing a rough cattle guard, the road turned from a dirt road to a bumpy, weed-lined path with fissures and cracks wide enough to swallow a tire or two. Somehow I navigated the lane around the hilly backside of the badlands to the circular drive around Castle Rock itself.

Erosion and unrestrained tourists had caused one of the spires of the formation to collapse, but it was still majestic in posture. To the north, vast rolling prairie stretched into the horizon. To the south, rills of beige studded the skyline and formed what are sometimes known as the "Badlands of Kansas." From the sentinel of Castle Rock, we walked along the relatively well-maintained gravel road to the badlands.
Some of the chalk "hoodoos" at Castle Rock
Brightly colored flora lined the ditches adjacent to the road, and sprung up out of the dry, dusty earth to give us a spring greeting. Nothing of the magnitude or awe of Grand Canyon, but august enough to elicit comparisons, these chalk buttes formed as a result of resistance to erosion during the Cretaceous period when the entire area was submerged by a shallow inland sea. We later learned that from the top of the cliffs, one can see further than anywhere else due to the vantage point. Apparently, the topography rests on a bowl-shaped crust of land that allows for an outward view as far as Oklahoma, more than 150 miles to the south. While we couldn't prove this theory, it was a testament to the vastness of the surrounding flatlands that certainly gives it some credence.
May flowers on the plains


The chalk formations bore dramatic evidence of water erosion, falsely appearing wet with dripping limestone, they were as dry as bone. We hiked to the top, avoiding as much as possible the brittle layers of chalk that have withstood thousands of years of nature. From the plateau, blue sky stretched above like a canopy and the pastures below, a green ocean ironically mimicking geologic history. The persistent wind, a mother bird feeding her young, and distant cattle lowing served as the soundtrack. The thin, chalky scent of limestone barely registered in our nostrils. For a few moments, the rest of the world could not have existed, such was the power of these silent giants.

Time, however, did continue, and as our hunger pangs informed us, it was time for us to head back. The return path around the other side of the formations led to a confusing fork in the road, with a washed-out gully of a road in one direction and a straight lane with a thick mane of tall grass in the middle in the other. I chose the latter, but after about 100 feet, the sound of the brush violently thwak-thwaking the axles of my car made me abort and turn around to go back the way we came.
Limestone doorway
I surmised that the least risk lay with the path we came in on, so we backtracked around the badlands and back to the original road. Luckily my car suffered no permanent damage, and soon we were crossing the unmarked Trego county line.

Jeff noted that the wavy green fields with the backdrop of blue sky perfectly pockmarked with cottonball clouds looked like the Microsoft Windows XP default desktop. Had Bill Gates visited Kansas? It turns out that the image came from the Sonoma Valley, but it was a strikingly beautiful scene that conjured up the noteworthy photo in our minds. We came upon a relatively nice bridge near what my map showed as being a former outpost called Banner.
Standing on top of the world
A few miles east we discovered a limestone marker with the initials "B.O.D." carved into a post rock. I later learned that this marked a station stop on the Smoky Hill Trail of the Butterfield Overland Despatch, which was a freight service from the Missouri River in Northeastern Kansas to Denver. Eventually we came to the junction of Trego Center, nothing more than a church, house and abandoned store. Ten miles north and we were ready to explore very late lunch options in WaKeeney.

Three times around the town square yielded limited options for eating: the town grocery store, a ramshackle bar and a drugstore.
Microsoft Windows, Kansas version
We had read about how Cleland Drug was one of two pharmacies in town that offer functional soda fountains. Brown paper covering the windows indicated it was no longer the case, but we did learn that it was just rebuilt on the road coming into town. Sadly, though, the soda fountain and any other sustenance had died with the old building. The proprietor was a colorful character named Jim who told us several tales about Castle Rock, Kansas and the founding of WaKeeney. According to legend, WaKeeney was poised to be the midway point between Kansas City and Denver on the railroad line, so founders Albert Warren and James Keeney promoted the town to residents of Chicago as a metropolis in the making.
Butterfield Overland Despatch marker on the old Smoky Hill Trail near Banner
The plan worked for awhile and WaKeeney's population soared from just a few souls to nearly 2,000. However, a couple years of crop failures and a harsh winter too severe even for Chicagoans, proved to be too much to sustain the town as a thriving center of commerce, and its boom period ended. The population, interestingly enough, has stayed pretty much the same though, and is still just under a couple thousand.

Jim recommended that we eat at Western Kansas Saloon & Grill, back downtown. It fit the bill of local and good, but when we arrived they had just closed for lunch (it was after 3) and wouldn't open up again until 5. Therefore, our only other choice was a generic-looking diner at the interstate exchange, which proved to do the job of filling us up. It was a long but exciting day, and we spent a low-key evening with a few beers downtown and light dinner back at Gella's.
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Dang good coffee in Hays!
Dang good coffee in Hays!
The largest town in Kansas beginni…
The largest town in Kansas beginn…
Some of the chalk hoodoos at Cas…
Some of the chalk "hoodoos" at Ca…
May flowers on the plains
May flowers on the plains
Limestone doorway
Limestone doorway
Standing on top of the world
Standing on top of the world
Microsoft Windows, Kansas version
Microsoft Windows, Kansas version
Butterfield Overland Despatch mark…
Butterfield Overland Despatch mar…
Hays
photo by: sayohat