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Why The Gypsum Hills Are The 'Best Kept Secret' In Kansas

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Lu Anne Stephens
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KMUW

Driving west from Sedgwick County on state Highway 160, the scenery is what you’d probably expect on a Kansas road trip: farmland, a few rolling hills and the horizon stretching out in all directions. But just southwest of Medicine Lodge, there’s a dramatic change.

Driving west from Sedgwick County on state Highway 160, the scenery is what you’d probably expect on a Kansas road trip: farmland, a few rolling hills and the horizon stretching out in all directions.

But just southwest of Medicine Lodge, there’s a dramatic change. Ken Brunson, the Red Hills project coordinator for the Kansas Nature Conservancy, calls it the best-kept secret in the state.

"It's a beautiful, iconic country of buttes and mesas and grasslands and the red dirt and the gypsum outcrops," Brunson said. "It’s the only place in Kansas where you’ll find that combination."

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Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
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KMUW

Brunson has worked in the Gypsum Hills — or Gyp Hills — for nine years.

The Nature Conservancy’s goals are to protect the land and streams, the wildlife, and the gypsum formations that give the area its unusual topography. This is ranch country, wild and windy and mostly too rough to farm.

There are dozens of ranches, ranging from a few thousand acres to Ted Turner’s massive Z-Bar Ranch, which covers nearly 43,000 acres sprawling west into Comanche County.

"They have ranches that have been passed down for generations," Brunson said. "They take great pride in the land and being able to make a living off the cattle industry here."

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Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
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KMUW

Most of this area is private land, but you can drive through it. Highway 160 west of Medicine Lodge is a designated scenic byway.

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Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
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KMUW

Another scenic drive heads south from 160; there are small back county roads barely wide enough for one car.

The smaller roads can be a bit rough in spots and definitely not meant for cars that are low to the ground. But it’s worth it. The craggy hills and canyons mingle with surprising bursts of color; green grasslands, red earth and carpets of wildflowers. 

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Purple poppy mallow covers the landscape.

In places, yellow sweet clover lines the roads, providing an irresistible photo op.

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The Gyp Hills — and the Red Hills just to the west — contain the second largest intact grassland in the state, where cattle, bison and other wildlife come to graze.

Brunson will be retiring at the end of this year, and says he has mixed feelings at the thought of leaving it all.

"I love this beautiful land. I’ll miss it and the wonderful people who live here and work it."

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Credit Lu Anne Stephens
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Ken Brunson calls this his favorite view in the Gyp Hills.

"I do refer to this country as 'the Enchanted Land,' stealing it from New Mexico," he said. "But there are some similarities [to New Mexico] with all the outcrops and hills and canyons. It’s a different view from what a lot of people think of as Kansas."

As summer stretches on and the coronavirus shows no sign of letting up, people are being urged to use caution when traveling. That trip to the beach or mountains may be out this year. But the Gyp Hills have a rugged beauty that's different than what you usually see in south-central Kansas.

It’s an easy day trip from Wichita — but make sure you gas up before leaving Medicine Lodge. And you definitely want to bring a map.

Hidden Kansas explores intriguing spots across our state. Listen for a new segment each month on KMUW's The Range

Lu Anne Stephens is KMUW's Director of Public Broadcasting. She has held many positions over many years at KMUW. Lu Anne also produces KMUW’s New Settler's Radio Hour and the Hidden Kansas segment for KMUW’s weekly news program The Range.