Geography of Kansas

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Pancakes are a humorous standard used for judging flatness. “Flat as a pancake”. One particular state is often described as living up to that level of flatness: the Sunflower State, Kansas.

While Kansas certainly has plenty of flat, wide open spaces, is Kansas really that flat?

To answer the question of the Sunflower State’s true flatness, there is one place to start: Kansas’ geography.

Western Kansas

The western regions of Kansas are defined mainly by flat topography. This is reflective of the High Plains.

Interestingly, the highest elevation in Kansas, owing to the state’s nickname, is Mount Sunflower. Located in western Kansas near the Colorado border, Mount Sunflower isn’t a mountain at all.

At  4,039 feet (1,231 meters) in elevation, Mount Sunflower is the highest natural elevation in Kansas. Because Kansas’ elevation rises gradually from east to west, the high point of Kansas appears flat compared to the surrounding terrain.

A picture of Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas. Weathered sticks placed upright in a square with an American flag are in the picture.  A man looking at the monument can be seen on the right.
Mount Sunflower is the highest elevation in the state of Kansas. Photo: © Carol Yoho, 2004, used with permission.

The state of Colorado (the state with the highest average elevation) is less than one mile away.

Even within the flat expanses of western Kansas, there is ruggedness to be found.

Why is Kansas Called the Sunflower State?

The official state flower of Kansas is the sunflower. This native wildflower species, Helianthus annuus, is common to this state. Sunflowers can be found in every Kansas county.

A field in Kansas with blooming sunflowers.
Sunflowers are a ubiquitous sight in Kansas and were named the official state flower in 1903. Photo: Native sunflowers in a Kansas Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field, Mark Vandever, USGS, public domain.

Badlands of Kansas

South Dakota is well-known for having “badlands”. This refers to dry, rugged regions created by erosion. Kansas has its own badlands. And these badlands are made of chalk.

Kansas (and other portions of the Great Plains) was once part of the Western Interior Seaway. Towards the conclusion of the Cretaceous period, the Laramide orogeny was taking place.

This was how the Rocky Mountains started forming. This uplift also completely enclosed the sea and it eventually disappeared.

As the Western Interior Seaway disappeared, calcium carbonate deposits were left behind. They were formed by the skeletons of cocolithophores, a type of algae. Those carbonate deposits would form the badlands of Kansas.

A close up view of rocks in the badlands of Kansas.
Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park. Photo: © Melisa Skinner / stock.adobe.com.

There is a state park dedicated to such features. Little Jerusalem State Park is located in Logan County, Kansas. The badlands of Little Jerusalem State park are part of the Niobrara Chalk Formation, in particular, the Smoky Hill Chalk Member portion.

The badlands within Little Jerusalem State Park aren’t the only chalk formations of western Kansas. Monument Rocks, located in Gove County, is another set of chalk formations in Kansas’ High Plains region.

Smoky Hills

The elevation in Kansas drops gradually from west to east. There are more hills and more changes in topography further east. The central regions of Kansas are home to the Smoky Hills, the Arkansas River Valley, and the Red Hills.

A mosaic of satellite imagery showing the state of Kansas.
Landsat 8 satellite imagery of the state of Kansas. Imagery: USGS, public domain.

Parts of the Smoky Hills are in western Kansas. The largest portion of this physiographic area is towards the northern/central part of the state. The Smoky Hills also comprise of limestone and sandstone. Greenhorn Limestone forms the central portion of the Smoky Hills.

Part of the Smoky Hills region is comprised of chalk, Niobrara chalk in particular. The western portion of the Smoky Hills shares the carbonate composition in common with the badlands of western Kansas.

Sandstone is the primary rock that makes up the Smoky Hills. The Dakota Formation is a geological unit consisting of sandstone. Portions of northern/central Kansas consist of this unit [1] [2].The sandstone from this region was used for building forts in the region, in particular, Fort Larned and Fort Harker. [3][4].

Fort Harker is located near Kanopolis, Kansas. Also located around Kanopolis is Kanopolis State Park. In addition to the rolling hills characteristic of the Smoky Hills, there are sandstone bluffs and canyons in this protected area. The sandstone canyons could remind some people of landscapes in the southwestern USA. [5]

The variation in geological units can be traced to the Western Interior Seaway, dating back to the Cretaceous Period. The deeper portions of this sea are where chalk deposits formed. The more shallow parts of the sea are where limestone deposits formed.

Arkansas River And its Lowlands

Throughout the Smoky Hills region, there are rivers that cut through the hills. Valleys are formed as a result of these rivers. The Arkansas River is the longest river in Kansas.

The Arkansas River’s headwaters start in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and cut through the central/ southern Kansas before emptying into the Mississippi River further east. Along the western portions of the river are cities such as Garden City and Dodge City. These cities are part of the Arkansas River Lowlands. [6]

Towards the southern/central regions of the state are the Wellington-McPherson Lowlands. This region is al alluvial plain. Farming is prevalent in this region due to the fertile soil. However, in the region’s largest city, it would be the airplanes that made it famous. [7]

The largest city in this region is Wichita. It is also the the largest city in Kansas. Wichita is known by many under the sobriquet “Air Capital Of The World”. Wichita has a large proportion of aviation companies. Being located in an alluvial plain with large, flat prairies made it an ideal place for test flights and landing. Wichita was once a major center for the cattle drives. Today, aerospace is a major portion of its economy.

Red Hills

The Red Hills also go by the name “Gypsum Hills”. True to this name, there are gypsum deposits in the region. They are located in the southern/central portions of the state, and into a portion of southwestern Kansas. The Red Hills are named for the hue of the sediments that were deposited under the Permian Period. Within these deposits are iron. When Iron oxidizes, it turns a ruddy hue.

The red hue of the hills are not the only thing this region is known for. There are sinkholes in this region. Sinkholes often form in karst regions. However, the sinkholes of the Red Hills are the result of gypsum underneath the soil dissolving. Big Basin Prairie Preserve is home to a few sinkholes, Big Basin and Little Basin.

Flint Hills

What makes the Flint Hills of Kansas special isn’t just that they are hills. It is the ecosystem that they are home to. The Flint Hills are located east of the Smoky Hills region of Kansas. They are home to tall grass prairies. Most of the world’s tall grass prairies have disappeared. However, a large proportion of the world’s tallgrass prairies are found in Kansas, particularly among the Flint Hills.

Tallgrass Prairies

Tallgrass prairie regions often have rich soils, which are good for growing crops such as wheat and corn. Which such areas being used for agriculture, this has reduced the amount of tall grass prairies.

A landscape view of tallgrass prairie in Kansas with a strip of blue sky and some light clouds.
Tall grass prairie at Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas. Photo: NPS, public domain.

However, the rocky soils of the Flint Hills made turning the region into cropland difficult. Instead, it would become a region of cattle ranching. This left the tallgrass prairies intact.

Tallgrass prairies can support a variety of migratory birds, bison, reptiles, several species of trees, amphibians, insects, and of course, different types of grasses.

Bison standing in dry grass and light snow with snow on their backs.
Snow covered bison in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas. Photo: NPS, public domain.

The biodiversity of tallgrass prairies is something that is not often paid much attention. However, the Flint Hills provides of a portion of what tallgrass prairies have.

The Flint Hills get their name from the chert, a type of flint, located in the region. The largest city in the region is Manhattan (not to be confused with the New York City borough of Manhattan). Kansas State University is located in Manhattan.

Eastern Kansas

Rainfall patterns change going further east within Kansas. Eastern Kansas is wetter than western Kansas. Southeast Kansas is the wettest region in the state. As much as 47 inches of rain falls in this region.

A map showing precipitation between 1971 and 2000 in Kansas. Light colors show each of the zones.
Map of annual normal precipitation in Kansas between 1971 and 2000. Map: Kansas Department of Agriculture, public domain.

The southeast of the state sits in a tallgrass prairie region, sharing it with the Flint Hills further west. This area is known as the Cherokee Lowlands. In the far southeast corner of the state lies part of the Ozark Plateau, most of which is in Missouri and Arkansas. This region was once a major coal-mining region, with Pittsburg (the largest city in the region, named after Pittsburgh, PA) being a major hub.

About four percent of the land is Kansas consists of forests. Most of it is located in the eastern regions of the state. This goes along with the changes of climate in Kansas. The wetter regions of Kansas in the east have more forested areas. Western Kansas is home to shortgrass prairies and is markedly drier. [8]

World’s Largest Hailstone

Coffeyville, on the border with Oklahoma, is famous for a meteorological feat. On September 3, 1970, severe weather hit this city.

One result was hail. A hailstone of 5.7 inches in diameter, and 1.67 pounds was found in Coffeyville, making it the world’s largest hailstone to date. In 2010, this record would be broken in Vivian, South Dakota. That hailstone was 8 inches in diameter and 1.94 pounds. [9]

Map of annual hail days per year during 2007–10 in the United States. Source: Cintineo et al., 2012.
Map of annual hail days per year during 2007–10 in the United States. Source: Cintineo et al., 2012.

Cuestas in Kansas

Cuesta is a term used for landforms varied in gradience. A cuesta has a gentle slope on one side. On the other side is a shape, escarpment-like slope.

The Osage Hills of eastern Kansas consist of cuestas. Like the Flint Hills to the west, this region has a large amount of remaining tallgrass prairies. [10]

Glaciated Region of Kansas

A large portion of the Midwestern USA is part of the Dissected Till Plains.

Northeast Kansas is at the southern reaches of this physiographic area. This part of Kansas was once covered by an ice sheet during the Pleistocene Epoch.

As the glaciers melted, this left behind boulders, rocks, and silt. Very little evidence of glaciation has remained. Immense erosion has worn away landforms associated with glaciation.

One piece of evidence that does remain is glacial drift. Lawrence, a university city, is part of this region. Topeka, the capital of Kansas, is also part of this region. Both cities are at the southern reaches of this region. [11]

Kansas suburbs of Kansas City

Wichita is the Sunflower State’s largest city. However, the most populated region of Kansas is the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, MO, is the second largest city in Kansas, followed by Kansas City, Kansas (next door to Kansas City, Missouri).

Five of the top 10 largest cities in Kansas are part of the Kansas City metropolitan area. When taking into account both Kansas and Missouri, the Kansas City metropolitan area has 2.2 million people.

As of 2021, 2,934,582 people call Kansas home. At least 900,000 Kansans live in the Kansas suburbs of the KC metro area. Over 613,000 live in Johnson County, the most populated county in Kansas. [12]

Military Geography Shaping Kansas

Today, there are three active military installations in Kansas: Fort Riley (near Junction City), Fort Leavenworth (in Leavenworth), and McConnell Air Force Base (in Wichita). Military geography has played a role in the establishment of Kansas.

Several trails going westward went through the state of Kansas. Kansas was a major thoroughfare for people going west. Military forts were established to protect those going westward.

A brown sign that says Santa Fe Trail with a white arrow point to the left in a grassy field with two cows.
Santa Fe Trail swale in the vicinity of Canton, Kansas. Photo: Lee Kreutzer, NPS, public domain.

One of them was Fort Leavenworth. It is currently the oldest active U.S. Army depot west of the Mississippi River. It played a major role in the city of Leavenworth, the oldest in Kansas, being founded.

Fort Leavenworth was established along the Santa Fe Trail. Leavenworth itself was founded in 1854. Leavenworth would become a nexus for people traveling westward. It would become a refuge for African-Americans who were running away from slavery at the time.

Fort Riley, established in 1853, was also founded along the Santa Fe Trail. It remains an active U.S. Army Base today. [13]

McConnell Air Force Base was initially established as a municipal airport. However, it grew into a major air force base. It is only fitting that it’s located in Wichita, the Air Capital of America. [39]

Battlegrounds in Kansas

Kansas’ location also made it a battleground of sorts.

The Missouri Compromise was signed in 1820. No state north of 36°30 N could be admitted to the Union as a slave state. Missouri was the last state north of that parallel to be admitted as a slave state.

In 1854, the Kansas- Nebraska Act was signed, created the territories of Nebraska and Kansas. Kansas is located north of 36°30 N. It also bordered the state of Missouri, which was a slave state at the time. Instead of the Missouri Compromise, popular sovereignty would decide whether or not new states would be free states or have slavery.

Pro-slavery and abolitionist forces went to the state of Kansas to sway the decision of whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state. This would result in armed violent conflicts during the mid-late 1850s. These conflicts are known as Bleeding Kansas. [14]

A snippet of an anti-slavery poem from 1856 printed in a newspaper.
Charles S. Weyman was the first to use the phrase “Bleeding Kansas”. On September 13, 1856 the New-York Daily Tribune printed his anti-slavery song “The Prize Song, Fremont and Victory” which contains the line, “where bleeding Kansas is waging warfare with Slavery!”. Image: via LOC.gov

Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, played a major role in Bleeding Kansas. Lawrence was established by the New England Aid Society in 1854. The idea was to keep Kansas from becoming a slave state. Pro-slavery forces attacked Lawrence in 1865, in what is known as the Sacking of Lawrence.

On January 29, 1861, Kansas would enter the Union as a free state. In addition to the Sunflower State, Kansas would be known as the Free State. The city of Lawrence is home to a brewery called Free State Brewing Company.

Cattle Drives Of Kansas

19th century westward expansion meant wagon trails traversing the state. This would also mean cattle drives and railroads.

A black and white picture from 1938 of a farmer with his back to the camera pouring feed into a trough. Two calves are eating at the trough.
A farmer in 1938 feeding calves at a trough, Republic County, Kansas. Photo: John Vachon, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, public domain.

The Chisolm Trail and Great Western Cattle Trail went northward from Texas to Kansas. Cattle drives would move cattle from Texas to cattle markets in cities such as Wichita, Dodge City, and Abilene.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad went through Dodge City and Wichita. The Kansas Pacific Railroad went through Abilene. Cattle drives would stop at the aforementioned cities, with cattle embarking for other markets via rail.

Wind Power in Kansas

While oil and coal have been extracted in Kansas, wind power has developed rapidly, especially in the western regions of Kansas. [15]

Kansas is home to some of the windiest places in the USA.

A rainbow schemed colored gradient of wind turbines in Kansas made from Lidar data.
Lidar point cloud of wind turbines in Kansas. Image: Jason Stoker, USGS, public domain.

In 2020, wind power was responsible for 2/5 of the electricity produced in Kansas. Dodge City, located in Ford County, is touted as the windiest city in America. It has an average wind speed close to 14 miles per hour.

It is fitting that there are more wind turbines in Ford County (there are over 400) than anywhere else in Kansas.

How Geography Shaped Kansas

Some of the five themes of geography are region and location. Kansas is a Midwestern state. It is also part of the Great Plains.

The Midwest is a region defined by its cultural aspects, as part of America’s Heartland. Kansas fits this definition. The Great Plains is a large physiological region in the central portion of the United States of America.

Grasslands and fertile soil define the region. Kansas is defined by being a centrally located state. Flat expanses, badlands, rolling hills, cuestas, and canyons shape Kansas’ geography.

Kansas is a state of wheat farms, ranching, and wind turbines. From military installations to airplane manufacturing, geography has shaped and continues to shape Kansas.

References

[1] Geology of the Western Interior Seaway. (n.d.). Cretaceous Atlas of Ancient Life. https://www.cretaceousatlas.org/geology/

[2] Smoky hills. (n.d.). GeoKansas. https://geokansas.ku.edu/smoky-hills and Ross, Jorgina A., 1991, Geologic Map of Kansas: Kansas Geological Survey, Univ. of Kansas, Map M-23, scale 1:500,000.

[3] Santa Fe Trail Research Site by Larry and Carolyn Mix. (n.d.). Fort Harker Ellsworth County Kansas. Santa Fe Trail Research Site. https://www.santafetrailresearch.com/research/fort-harker.html

[4] The sandstone buildings – Fort larned national historic site. (n.d.). NPS.gov. https://www.nps.gov/fols/learn/historyculture/the-sandstone-buildings.htm

[5] Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks. (2022, April 21). Kanopolis State Park. KDWP. https://ksoutdoors.com/State-Parks/Locations/Kanopolis

[6] Arkansas river lowlands. (n.d.). GeoKansas. https://geokansas.ku.edu/arkansas-river-lowlands

[7] Wellington-McPherson lowlands. (n.d.). GeoKansas. https://geokansas.ku.edu/wellington-mcpherson-lowlands

[8] Physiographic regions. (n.d.). GeoKansas. https://geokansas.ku.edu/physiographic-regions

[9] Jones, J. (2018, November 25). 5 largest hailstones in the world. Largest.org. https://largest.org/nature/hailstones/

[10] Southeastern Great Plains tallgrass prairie — Texas parks & wildlife department. (n.d.). Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. https://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/programs/landscape-ecology/ems/emst/herbaceous-vegetation/southeastern-great-plains-tallgrass-prairie

and

Osage Cuesta. (2012). Kansas Historical Society. https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/osage-cuesta/17167

[11] Glaciated region. (n.d.). GeoKansas. https://geokansas.ku.edu/glaciated-region

[12] Johnson County, Kansas. (2021, July 1). U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/johnsoncountykansas,KS/PST045221

and

Kansas cities by population. (2020). Kansas Demographics. https://www.kansas-demographics.com/cities_by_population

[13] Fort Leavenworth army base guide. (n.d.). Military.com. https://www.military.com/base-guide/fort-leavenworth

and

Historic Leavenworth. (n.d.). Visitors Bureau. https://www.visitleavenworthks.com/visitors/page/historic-leavenworth

[14] Bleeding Kansas. (2021, March 25). American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/bleeding-kansas

[15] Grimmett, B. (2021, October 6). 20 things to know about 20 years of Kansas wind farming. KMUW. https://www.kmuw.org/2021-10-06/20-things-to-know-about-20-years-of-kansas-wind-farming

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