at Smoky Valley Ranch
Chalk bluffs and yucca plants at Smoky Valley Ranch © Lance Hedges/TNC

Places We Protect

Smoky Valley Ranch

Kansas

Vast shortgrass prairie marked by chalk badlands that contain fossil records 85 million years old.

On this land, you'll find a sight that almost vanished from America—bison roaming a prairie as they did hundreds of years ago. Dramatic chalk bluffs overlook large expanses of grassland, rocky ravines and Smoky Hill River. Breaks along the upper reaches of the river represent a transition zone between mixed grass and shortgrass prairie environments. When TNC purchased Smoky Valley Ranch in 1999, it was the largest land acquisition for conservation in state history.

This prairie supports tremendous plant and wildlife diversity while continuing its long history as a working cattle ranch. In western Kansas, 80% of the native prairie has been converted to some other use. Demonstrating that healthy wildlife populations and successful ranching operations go hand-in-hand is critical to retaining the 20% of the prairie that's left. 

Saving the Prairie One Cow at a Time

At Smoky Valley Ranch, TNC's fundamental grassland conservation strategy is a moderately-stocked, rest/rotation grazing system. On about 90% of the ranch, TNC is gradually improving plant community conditions, increasing habitat for wildlife and forage for cattle. Areas of improved forage also serve as ideal habitat for upland nesting birds, such as prairie-chickens, that require tall, residual grass. Black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets (one of North America's most endangered mammals) can be found in a small, interior portion of the ranch.

In December 2017, a small herd of bison with unique genetics was established at the ranch.

Prehistoric Remains Abound

The chalk badlands along the Smoky Hill River contain a rich fossil record of animals that lived in a vast inland sea that covered Kansas during the Cretaceous Period,  80 million years ago. The Cretaceous Period was part of the Age of Reptiles, an era famous for its dinosaurs. Although dinosaurs were restricted to landmasses far from western Kansas, their marine representatives—mosasaurs and plesiosaurs—roamed the seas. Besides these large marine reptiles, huge turtles, sharks, flying reptiles, giant clams, and toothed-birds inhabited the area. Because fossil remains are so well-preserved and scientifically significant, the chalk badlands are among the world's most famous locations for fossils from this era.

A Paleo-Indian site, the first physical evidence that humans inhabited North America at the end of the last Ice Age, was unearthed on Smoky Valley Ranch in 1895. This discovery contradicted contemporary theory and was not confirmed until 13 years later when a similar discovery was made in Folsom, New Mexico.

Modern History

Since man first visited this area, the banks of the Smoky Hill River have served as an east-west highway. Mounted Arapahos and Cheyenne, Charles Fremont, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, the 7th Cavalry of George Custer and the 10th Cavalry (buffalo soldiers) rode the Smoky Hill Trail many times through Smoky Valley Ranch in the late 1860s. The Butterfield Overland Dispatch stage line passed through and stopped at a way station located on the ranch to change horses and drivers. Beginning in the late 1800s, a number of African-American settlers—nearly a hundred families—settled on and around the ranch. Two brothers from a nearby black settlement quarried the stone and built the current ranch headquarters in the early 1900s.

Hiking and horesback trails on the western edge of Smoky Valley Ranch are open year round. Prairie vistas and chalk bluffs greet hikers as they wind their way around the two trail loops. The first loop is one-mile hike, the second loop is five mile hike. Please see below for directions to ranch and trail map and instructions. Because of the rough terrain, boots are recommended. Any items brought in like water bottles or food wrappers must be taken out.

DOWNLOAD the hiking and horse trail map

What to See: Animals

Prairie chickens, pronghorn, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, golden eagles, swift fox and bison.

Trail User Guidelines

Smoky Valley Ranch is a large working ranch, privately-owned by The Nature Conservancy, most of which is leased for cattle grazing to local ranchers. The Nature Conservancy is not in any way responsible for your safety while you are on the trail.

Thank you for abiding by the following trail user guidelines:

  • Trail hours: daylight only. Plan your hike to be off trail by sunset.
  • Stay on the trail. Please do not leave the trail corridor or take shortcuts.
  • No bicycles or motorized vehicles.
  • No firearms.
  • No camping or campfires.
  • No smoking or alcoholic beverages.
  • Keep dogs leashed.
  • Leave nothing but footprints. Please do not litter.
  • Take nothing but pictures. Collecting of anything from the ground is not allowed. If you discover artifacts or fossils, please leave them and notify us at kansas@tnc.org or 785-233-4400. 

There is no restroom or water provided. There are rattlesnakes in this area, so wear boots and watch where you walk, especially in the early morning and late evening. Note the two trees to the west of the trailhead—a good trailhead landmark that can be seen from any high point along the trail. Your cell phone coverage on the trails might be weak and spotty.

While You're In The Area

Western Kansas is full of culturally and visually fascinating things to see and do.  We suggest you start with the Western Vistas Historic Byway route.

And no visit to Smoky Valley Ranch is complete without a stop at the nearby Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, opening October 2019.