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The History and Wonder of Lake Scott State Park

Lake Scott State Park, near Scott City, Kansas (Photo by Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism)

Looking for some peace and solitude this holiday season?  You might consider booking a cabin at Lake Scott State Park in western Kansas.  As Commentator Rex Buchanan discovered, the lake and surrounding area are beautiful and worth exploring.  

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, traveler and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey.  He lives in Lawrence.

Learn about nearby Scott City.


A few weeks ago I spent a cold, windy night in a cabin at Lake Scott State Park out in Scott County.  Sometimes people ask me about places to see in western Kansas, and Lake Scott, is one I almost always recommend.

It’s a few miles north of Scott City where the notoriously flat landscape suddenly gives way to a canyon, with a small, man-made lake nestled in the bottom.  The lake is fed by springs that drain into Ladder Creek.  The largest of those springs, Big Spring, produces about 400 gallons of water per minute, making it by far the most prolific spring in western Kansas.  It drains into a sandy spring run covered with watercress, home to a riffle beetle found no place else in the world.

The canyons here are rimmed with rock from the Ogallala Formation, the same formation that provides the water for Big Spring and for irrigation across much of the western third of Kansas.  In the subsurface, the Ogallala is mostly sands and gravels, but here at Lake Scott, where the Ogallala crops out at the surface, those sands and gravels are naturally cemented together, forming a type of rock known locally as mortarbeds.

Water has brought people here for centuries.  The only known Native American pueblo in Kansas, called El Quartelejo, was built here, in the bottom of the canyon, in the 1600s and occupied at least twice by southwestern tribes.  The first of those people built an irrigation system using the springs in the valley, a precursor to the irrigation that today dominates this arid part of the world.

In 1878, one of the canyons just south of the park was the site of a battle between Northern Cheyenne, who were trying to escape their reservation in Oklahoma and return to their home to the north, and cavalry troops that were sent to take them back.  Fighting ensued and some of the Northern Cheyenne sheltered in a cave formed in the Ogallala before they escaped and headed on north to Nebraska.   Battle Canyon, where all this took place, is an historic site and accessible to the public.

More recently, in the 1930s, Ladder Creek was dammed to form the lake.  Cabins, like the one I’m staying in, were built.  Today, the lake is an improbable oasis here in western Kansas.  People come to fish, swim, and camp, they come to hike and ride horses and bike on the rugged canyon trails.

And I might have done some of things too, had it not been quite so cold and windy.  Instead, I sat on the back porch of my cabin and watched the stars come out, then wheel overhead, saw a sliver of moon rise slowly above a canyon wall to the east.  Later, inside the cabin, the only sounds were the pounding of the wind and on-and-off hum of the refrigerator.  Then, in the dark, a flock of sandhill cranes honked their arrival.  Just like the rest of us, they were looking for water.



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