Geology of Kansas:
While traveling east or west on I-70, most individuals driving through Kansas notice rolling plains with few trees dotting the land and the open blue sky as far as the eye can see. Chances are, however, they won't see much geology along the interstate. There are no towering mountain ranges or ancient volcanoes to visit and explore. Occasionally some sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone, shale, and limestone can be seen exposed along the interstate. Most travelers driving through Kansas are convinced that there is little to no variations in topography and geology to appreciate -- but is there? Off the interstate, on less traveled roads, Kansas reveals its geologic history to those that seek adventure.
Located in an open field of Kiowa County, Kansas is a famous meteor crater called Brenham Crater. It is an oval-shaped crater roughly 50 feet in diameter, thus making it one of the smallest meteor craters in the world. The crater is less than 1,000 years old and has provided more than 15,000 pounds of pallasite meteorites which have been recovered. A total of 3 tons of fragments have been found to date. The earliest fragments of the meteorite were found by Native Americans and later by the settlers in the 1880s. Today, fragments of the meteorite can still be found on a yearly basis. The Kansas Meteorite Museum and gift shop is located within the region where the crater was discovered.
Located just northeast of Topeka, Kansas is Calhoun Bluff which contains rocks and fossils dating back to the Pennsylvanian Period, representing approximately 300 million years ago. Sedimentary rocks consisting of alternating layers of limestone and shale contain invertebrate fossils, such as brachopods, bivalves, bryozoans, and crinoid stems, all of which lived in the warm, shallow seas of Kansas during the Pennsylvanian Period. Shale tends to break into thin, angular pieces, while limestone tends to break into hard blocks. Shale weathers faster than limestone, so the best exposures are found beneath the ledges of harder, more resistant rocks, such as limestone and sandstone.
Castle Rock is a unique rock formation made up of thick chalk beds that form the Niobrara Formation. It and the nearby badlands are located in the Smoky Hills region of Kansas, which is approximately 11 miles south of I-70 near Quinter, Kansas. The chalk was deposited in an ancient inland sea some 65 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period. The castle-like features were formed by the weathering of the chalk by wind and water. This unusual rock formation now stands alone on the prairie, like abandoned remnants of some ancient civilization. Although on private land, visitors are welcome, as long as they are careful not to deface the monuments or to litter the grounds. Note that the roads are dirt and may be muddy in wet weather.
Chase Lake Falls:
Located in Cottonwood Falls (Chase County, KS) are several natural waterfalls, three of which are some of the most beautiful in Kansas. Of the three, Chase Lake Falls has a beauty of its own. Rapids can be seen continuing down stream and there may even be more waterfalls farther down. The falls are most spectacular during the spring during rainy season, while the hot summer months may only provide a trickle of water flowing over the rocks. The falls in this region, which are part of the Flint Hills of Kansas, are capped by limestone rocks that formed during the Permian Period some 240 to 290 million years ago.
Located in Chautauqua County, Kansas are very thick and colorful sandstones that cap the hills and are exposed along creek and river valleys. Sandstone is a common sedimentary rock composed largely of quartz grains cemented together by calcium carbonate (calcite), iron oxide, or silica (quartz). In eastern Kansas, sandstone is often interbedded with shale and limestone. Here, the sandstones that cap the Chautauqua Hills are thick rock formations that were deposited by large, ancient river valleys during the Pennsylvanian Period. Fossil ripple marks and cross-bedding troughs can be found here.
Coal deposits are found in Mississippian and Pennsylvanian ages all throughout the world. The oldest Pennsylvanian age rocks on the surface is in the coal-bearing strata of the Cherokee Group. At the close of the Mississippian time, the region stayed nearly at sea level for a very long time and great swamps covered the low-lying areas. Shales, sandstones, and coal of the group are easily eroded (photo). This area is now being restored to its natural beauty. The former mines have been filled with water and are now used for fishing. Other areas have been leveled and planted with grasses for grazing.
The Cheyenne Bottoms of Kansas is one of the largest marsh interiors of the country. This lowland region is bounded on the north, south, and west by steep limestone, sandstone, and clay bluffs. Some of these rock formations reach 100 feet above the marsh bottoms below. Geologically, this region of Kansas is not fully understood; however, many geologists suspect that the region was created as a sinkhole when incoming fresh-water dissolved underground salt. From the higher elevations, the mudflats and large pools of water can be seen along with the many migrating birds that stop over to rest. About 45% of the North American shorebird population stops here each spring.
Cimarron National Grassland:
Located in southwestern Kansas, Cimarron National Grassland comprises rugged rock cliffs scattered throughout the region exposing sandstone, shale, and limestone. As part of the High Plains region, it includes an important landmark known as "Point of Rocks" which contains Jurassic rocks consisting of hard, dense sandstone cemented with calcium carbonate (calcite). Located near Middle Springs, Kansas, this landmark has offered a reliable source of water for thirsty people and livestock traveling west from Independence, Missouri since the 1840s. Interestingly, numerous wagon ruts are still visible in the vicinity.
Cowley Lake Waterfall:
Virtually unknown, this beautiful waterfall at Cowley County State Fishing Lake near Dexter, KS, in the southern reaches of the Flint Hills, is visited by just a few people each day. Here, the water flows over and drops down roughly 30 feet across gray limestone and colorful layers of red shale. It is difficult to climb down to the bottom, but many who venture down say that it's a welcome place to be on a warm day in the water spray where the stream spills over the fossil-embossed limestone boulders. The falls are best viewed during the spring during rainy season when the waterfall is at its highest. Due to the difficulty in climbing down, visitors may wish to drive down the dirt road just west of the park.
Echo Cliff Park:
Located near Dover, Kansas and overlooking Mission Creek, the sandstone cliff was given its name due to the echo it made from different sounds within the park. The park has a Native American history dating back from 800 to 1000 A.D., so occasional arrow-heads are found along the creek. Geologically, the rocks date back to 300 million years ago when Kansas was relatively flat and low-lying with shallow marine waters nearby. The area was often flooded by the sea and sediments were laid down which eventually became alternating layers of sandstone, shale, and limestone rock. Some marine invertebrate fossils, such as fossil shells and crinoid stems are visible within the limestone strata.
Exploration Place in Wichita:
Since the spring of 2000, Wichita, Kansas has open the doors to the public for their new building and project called Exploration Place. Visitors at the Exploration Place can participate in a simulated fossil dig, try their hand at one of four flight simulators, create computer graphics, discover the plants and animals of Kansas wetlands, and a number of other activities. Presently featured at the center is an exhibit called "Dinosaurs Unearthed" which includes 14 life-size animatronic dinosaurs, 2 articulated full-scale skeletons, 22 fossils, and fascinating stories about these ancient creatures -- all within a prehistoric setting. And, last but not least, visitors discover feathered dinosaurs which have recently been unearthed.
The Flint Hills of Kansas are well-known to travelers as they traverse the state along I-70 and the turnpike. Permian in age, the Flint Hills were formed by the erosional limestones and shales that now cover the region. Approximately 286 to 245 millions years ago, inland, shallow seas covered much of the state as they did during Pennsylvanian times. Unlike the Pennsylvanian age rocks, the Flint Hills contains numerous bands of chert or flint. Chert is much less soluble than lime-stone, therefore, the weathering of the limestone has left behind a clayey soil full of cherty gravel which covers the hilltops.
Lying within the Smoky Hills of Kansas, Kanopolis Lake is drained by the Smoky Hill River and its tributaries as well as the Saline and Arkansas rivers. The mature Dakota Sandstone formation caps the dissected hills of this region. The Kiowa Formation is also exposed in several places around the lake and contains a mixture of shale, siltstone, sandstone, and coquina limestone. These rocks were once deposited during the Cretaceous Period some 100 million years ago during a time when this region of Kansas experienced a high global sea-level. Cone-in-cone structures, marcasite, gypsum, and clay-iron concretions can be found at the lake.
Kansas Underground Salt Museum:
The Kansas Underground Salt Museum (Hutchinson, KS) offers a wide variety of activities and attractions to promote a sense of exploration and adventure. Visitors can take a shaft ride which descends 650 feet below the surface, visit the Stratadome which reveals secrets of the rock layers that formed the salt mines, and witness the world's oldest living organism, estimated at nearly 250 million years old, residing in a salt crystal. But that's not all. they can also ride the Salt Mine Express with a 15-minute guided tour, or take a 30-minute dark ride tour through the salt mine and pick up a souvenir piece of salt before leaving.
Southeastern Kansas is part of the Ozarks of Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. In this region, the Ozark Plateau covers about 55 square miles and includes the mining towns of Baxter Springs and Galena. This region of Kansas contains the oldest rocks which are made of limestone that formed during the Mississippian Period about 345 million years ago. According to geologists, the rocks show that during the Late Mississippian, the land experienced fluctuations in sea level . When the seas advanced, rocks made of limestone were deposited, and occasionally shale.
Located just a few miles southeast of Manhattan, Kansas in Riley County are waters of the "Deep Creek" that flow over ledges of limestone rock. Known as Pillsbury Crossing, the waterfalls are nearly 40 feet wide and have a drop of approximately 5 feet. The actual Pillsbury Crossing is a low-water river crossing where vehicles following Pillsbury Crossing Lane drive a stretch of 100 feet through a few inches of running water. Activities at the site include fishing, hiking, and canoeing. Note that visitors should be very careful when climbing down to the waterfalls. The limestone rocks are quite slippery when wet.
Post Rock Country:
The miles of stone fence-posts found in north central Kansas demonstrate the ingenuity and determination of the early settlers. Due to the limited trees in Kansas, the settlers solved their fencing problems by utilizing the stones native to their area. Quarried from a rock layer near the surface, the chalky limestone used has a relatively uniform thickness of 8 to 9 inches. Fresh exposures of the rock were soft enough to be sawed, notched, drilled, and shaped into fence post with hand tools. After prolonged weathering, the rock hardens and becomes weather resistant.
Located in the Smoky Hills of Kansas are some fossilized chalk beds that formed around 80 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. The chalk formations of Monument Rocks reaches a height of 70 feet and include highly eroded arches, buttes, and spires. This spectacular landmark of Kansas contains ancient chalk beds having different rock strata containing fossils of giant oysters, huge sharks, swimming and flying reptiles, and bony fish. Millions of years ago, the chalk beds of this region were deposited when the central interior of the United States was covered by a warm, shallow seaway.
Mushroom Rock State Park:
Just 20 miles southwest of Silina, Kansas sits some of the most unique rock formations found within the state. Mushroom Rock State Park is located in a rather secluded region of Kansas (Marquette) which is surrounded by farms and dirt roads. Like Rock City, it has many Dakota sandstone concretions, but most are not all nearly exposed. Many of them are still covered with top soil and only a portion of them can be seen. The underlying rock is made of softer sandstone (siltstone) which is eroding away faster than the Dakota Sandstone. The resulting combination of rocks make three of the formations within the park unique with a mushroom shaped appearance.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge:
The salt marshes at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (Stafford, KS) are a resting ground for thousands of migrating birds each year. The refuge spans for 22,135 acres, one-third of which are wetlands. It is home to over 300 species of birds living in the region plus many different mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Sand covers the surface of the Big and Little Salt Marshes, and just beneath that is deposited a layer of watery sand and gravel known as the Great Bend Prairie Aquifer. The natural salt water of the aquifer is forced to the surface, and as the water evaporates, the level of salt concentration increases.
Red Hills (Medicine Hills):
This region of Kansas contains several thousand feet of brick-red shales, siltstones and sandstones which were deposited in the area during the late Permian Period. Along the southern border of Kansas, the Permian red beds have been exposed by erosion. Beds of light gray gypsum and dolomite cap the shale hills to give them a ruggedly beautiful appearance with butte- and mesa-like topography unlike any other in Kansas. Here, the water of the springs and streams contains calcium and magnesium sulfates and other natural salts dissolved from the gypsum and dolomite beds; all of which have healing properties.
Rock City Park:
Ranging from 9 to 27 feet in diameter, roughly 200 "cannonball" concretions exist within the five-acre park named Rock City. These giant concretions formed millions of years ago when Kansas was covered by an inland sea. The sand in the concretions was deposited in a river channel near the edge of the Western Interior Seaway and formed what is called the Late Cretaceous Dakota Formation. Later, groundwater flowing through the rock precipitated calcium carbonate (calcite) and cemented portions of the sandstone together. Preserved riverbed features such as cross-bedding can be seen in the rock as it weathers (erodes) away.
The motto for Sternberg Museum of Natural History is "Excitement in Education through Exploration". Located in Fort Hays, KS, the museum offers a wide variety of activities for all, such as nature trails, live exhibits, rock and fossil displays, and the "Excavations Gift Shop". They also have just for kids the "dig pit" which allows them to work as paleontologists uncovering fossils from the Kansas chalk fields. At the pit, they get to dig and sweep away the sand to some of the creatures, such as Plesiosaur and Xiphactinus, which lived in the Western Interior Seaway that covered Kansas during the "Age of the Dinosaurs".
Syracuse Sand Dune Park:
Sand is found abundantly in Kansas. It can be found almost everywhere along the large stream valleys of Kansas, in regions where old glacial outwash was deposited, and great deposits of windblown sand in dunes along the Arkansas River. Syracuse Sand Dune Park is located just outside of the town Syracuse, Kansas. The park is approximately 15 miles east of the Colorado border and is comprised of an expanse of low-rolling dunes, with some occasional bowls, a few small hills to climb, and a series of bladed trails for exploration. The tallest dune is slightly less than 150 feet.
Tallgrass Prairie Natural Preserve:
Located in Chase County, Kansas, Tallgrass Prairie Natural Preserve offers both beauty and geology for those who visit. The Flint Hills in this region show off colorful flowers and green grasses during the spring time, while the short autumn days provide spectacular colors to many areas with the grasses and few trees turning rusty red and brown. During both seasons, the different colors display with contrast the white-gray colored limestone rocks that dot the land for miles. The Crouse limestone formation in this region contains bands of chert which represent changes in sea water composition during the Permian Period.
Volcanic Ash in Kansas:
There were no volcanoes in Kansas during the Tertiary and Quaternary times, yet volcanic ash can be found throughout the state. From time to time, during the Pleistocene, volcanic eruptions have spread layers of gritty, white ash over all of the central plains of Kansas. Geologists speculate that the airborne ash settled during a few days or weeks following the eruption of volcanoes, such as Mount St. Helens. The volcanic ash is white to light pearly gray, locally with tints of yellow or red. Under a microscope or a hand lens, ash can be seen to contain small shards of glass that once blasted from the volcanoes. The deposits are rather scattered throughout the state and range in thickness from a few inches to more than 30 feet. Thick deposits of white ash can be found near Wilson Lake. There, near the lake, visitors can fill their plastic bags with volcanic ash and take them home as a Kansas souvenir.
Wabaunsee Stone Fences:
In Wabaunsee County, visitors are drawn to the scenic drives through the rolling Flint Hills, where Tallgrass Prairie grasses wave in the breeze and native stone fences echo the history of the region. The county is known for its stone fences and beautiful rolling rock-strewn hills and incredible sweeping panoramic views. The Native Stone Scenic Byway (paved) follows KS Highway 4 and 99, winding from I-70 through Alma, the city of Native Stone. According to a historical marker, in 1867, a law was implemented to abolish the open range by providing a payment to landowners to build and maintain 4 1/2-foot stone fences. Miles of stone fences are found in the region.
Over 9,000 water surface acres and 100 miles of beautiful shore line, Wilson Lake provides both geologic exploration and recreational resources, such as camping, boating, fishing, swimming, and hiking. At Wilson Lake, the Dakota Sandstone Formation is exposed in several areas. The marine fossils within the sandstone rocks of this region perfectly attest to the warm, shallow-marine conditions of Kansas that date back to the Cretaceous Period, approximately 80 million years ago. Some of the most well-preserved fossils at Wilson Lake include fossil plants and large ammonites.