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You don't have to leave Kansas to visit the Ozarks

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Lu Anne Stephens
/
KMUW

Explore a hidden surprise in the southeast corner of the state.

The Kansas topography is full of surprises.

Woodlands in the east, badlands in the west, rolling prairies; even buttes and mesas. And in the southeast corner of the state, there's a little slice of the Ozarks.

If you drive south of Galena on K-26, the scenery starts to change. It gets a bit hillier and rockier, and the road dips and curves. Just before you reach Shoal Creek, there is a small park, tucked between the river and the woods.

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Lu Anne Stephens
/
KMUW

"So in this little corner of Cherokee County is where we have our little chunk of the Ozarks," said Jennifer Rader, director of the Southeast Kansas Nature Center.

She's perched on top of a steep mound in the middle of Schermerhorn Park. You might not have realized the Ozarks extend into Kansas, but they do — about 55 square miles of them.

This is the wettest part of the state and more rainfall means more trees. The small park — about 180 miles southeast of Wichita — has thick groves of oaks and hickories and an abundance of wildflowers.

There are steep limestone bluffs, hills and the oldest rocks in the state, Rader said.

"The surface rocks in this corner of the state, in this region … are roughly 350 million years old," she said.

The area is a great place to look for fossils, and the best place to find them is at Schermerhorn Cave on the north end of the park.

In spite of the hilly surroundings, the trek to the cave is an easy one. It's relatively flat and less than a half-mile long.

The path winds through the woods, following a small creek that flows out of the cave. The hills rise up on either side, and when you turn the last corner, the mouth of the cave is ahead, cut into the rock.

The first 2,500 feet of the Schermerhorn Cave's interior have been mapped out. You can explore the opening cavern but beyond that, it's closed off to protect the public and the species that live there, some of which are endangered.

You won't see the bats but — if you're lucky and patient — Rader said you might see some long-tailed salamanders.

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Lu Anne Stephens
/
KMUW

"This is one of the only places in the whole state you can find it because we just don't have that kind of Ozarkian habitat anywhere else," she said.

There are a lot of myths about the Kansas landscape: It's flat; uninspiring.

Not true, of course, especially if you get off of the interstate.

In Schermerhorn Park, you can experience limestone cliffs, hills, woods, fossils — and a cave.

"This is such a special park and again, we have such a small chunk of the Ozarks in the state of Kansas," Rader said. "And so folks don't have to travel too terribly far to see some really neat things."

Lu Anne Stephens is KMUW's Director of Content Strategy. 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.