rocky, chalky landscape stretches to the horizon
Chalk formations Chalk formations in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. April, 2018. © Jim Richardson

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Larger Than Life

A new state park preserves Kansas' lunar landscape

Jenny Rogers
Jenny Rogers Associate Editor and Writer, Nature Conservancy magazine

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Kansas has a reputation for being flat, but tucked away near its western border stand columns of rock several hundred feet tall, carved away by a prehistoric ocean. That formation, known as Little Jerusalem, is now part of a Nature Conservancy preserve adjacent to TNC’s Smoky Valley Ranch.

The Conservancy bought the 330-acre property from its longtime landowners in late 2016; this year the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism agreed to manage the area as a state park. Part of the same geologic formation that makes up Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Little Jerusalem seems to emerge unexpectedly as a canyon out of nowhere, says Laura Rose Clawson, director of outreach for TNC in Kansas.

The rock columns formed 85 million years ago when this part of North America was underwater. “These tiny organisms, when they die, they fall to the bottom [of the ocean],” says Rose Clawson. “There was calcium in their shells, and that’s what the rock is made up of.”

While Little Jerusalem isn’t yet open to the public, visitors can explore the neighboring 17,290-acre Smoky Valley Ranch. Purchased by TNC in 1999 to protect mating areas for prairie chickens, the preserve is home to endangered black-footed ferrets, black-tailed prairie dogs and cattle.    

Yellow Evening Primrose flowering in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018.
Yellow Evening Primrose Yellow Evening Primrose flowering in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018. © Jim Richardson
Prairie Chickens during their spring mating rituals on a lek in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. April, 2018.
Prairie Chickens Prairie Chickens during their spring mating rituals on a lek in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. April, 2018. © Jim Richardson
Prairie Primrose flowering in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018.
Prairie Primrose Prairie Primrose flowering in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018. © Jim Richardson
Chalk formations photographed during a foggy morning in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018.
Chalk formations in fog Chalk formations photographed during a foggy morning in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018. © Jim Richardson
Grasses seeding out in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018.
Grasses, Kansas Grasses seeding out in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018. © Jim Richardson
Insect on a flowering Yucca in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018.
Insect on Yucca plant Insect on a flowering Yucca in the Little Jerusalem area of Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. June 2018. © Jim Richardson
Jenny Rogers

Jenny Rogers is a writer and editor for Nature Conservancy magazine, covering books, science and conservation.