Kansas’ oldest recreation area, Kanopolis State Park includes more than 11,000 acres of rolling hills, bluffs, and woods, as well as the 3,400-acre Kanopolis Reservoir. Managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lake not only provides the benefits of flood control and numerous recreation opportunities, the area is also rich in Kansas history.
Long before the lake was developed, the Smoky Hill River Valley served as a lifeline for its inhabitants for many centuries. Many millions of years ago Kansas was covered with a warm shallow sea, which left behind limestone and Dakota sandstone deposits from aquatic life, as well as many sea creature fossils and sharks teeth as evidence. Prehistoric wildlife such as wooly mammoths and mastodons migrated the upper reaches of the river valley along with varieties of vegetarian dinosaurs. More notable travelers of pronghorn antelope, elk, and bison moved with the changing seasons and often frequented the river valley.
Early Native American tribes of Pawnee, Cheyenne, Apache, and Kiowa followed the game trails for centuries and camped within the deep sandstone canyons and along the Smoky Hill River, leaving rock art, known as petroglyphs as pictorial evidence of their tribal lifestyles.
The first introduction of European explorers to the river valley was documented in 1541 as the Spanish Conquistadors led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in their search for gold in the Seven Cities of Cibola. Native American rock art depicted trade with the Spanish by the introduction of decorated horses and muled into tribal lifestyle. The French followed suit with explorers of the Trans-Mississippi West from the 1700s to the early 1800s, introducing fur trapping to the tribes, and blocking Spanish influence.
The California Gold Rush and the Homestead Act increased westward expansion of Europeans through the river valley during the mid-1800s. The Smoky Hill Trail and Fort Zarah Road were European transportation routes of the time that met retaliation from the Native American tribes. Frontier forts were erected to house hundreds of soldiers to fend off the Indians from attacks on settlers and supply routes. Fort Ellsworth, later Fort Harker was established on the riverbank in 1864 near present Kanopolis. Famous military men and scouts for Fort Harker included George Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wild Bill Hickok.
Mass transportation began as stage lines through the river valley such as the Butterfield Overland Despatch. The Kansas Pacific Railroad later followed it. Settlers homesteaded civilizations along the river valley as the masses drove the Indian tribes to near extinction and later to reservations. The massive buffalo herds of the prairie, which served as the main tribal and early settler diet, was driven to extermination on the prairie from market and waste hunting. From 1870-1880 Ellsworth rivaled Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City as a prosperous cow town location where cattle driven from Texas met the railheads along the Smoky Hill River for shipment east.
The prairie of the Smoky Hill River Valley was introduced to the barbed wire fence between 1880-1890. The valley developed some of the largest cattle ranches in Kansas, some with up to 40,000 acres and more than 100 employees. In 1886 Kanopolis was founded and touted as future capital of Kansas, but, that was not to be. In the 1900s the valley was turned with the introduction of the plow and cropland agriculture expanded and flourished until the economic depression of the 1930s. The discovery of oil along the valley and its royalties saved many farms and ranches.
The flood of 1938 on the Smoky Hill River ravaged the homesteads in the area and Kansas congressional leaders successfully passed legislation in Washington D.C. which authorized the Kanopolis dam construction in 1940. However, construction was suspended during World War II and the first man-made lake in Kansas wasn’t completed until 1948.
Today, Kanopolis Lake is but one unit in a system of lakes in the Smoky Hill and Kansas River Basins, operating in tandem with upstream Cedar Bluff Reservoir to regulate flows in the Smoky Hill River Basin. Lands around the lake are managed by the Corps of Engineers to preserve their natural value. A portion of the lake storage is used to provide water to Post Rock Rural Water District, which in turn, supplies many Kansas farms and communities.
The park features a full-service marina, beaches, picnic areas, and cabins, as well as trails for horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking. More than 200 primitive campsites and 119 utility sites are located through the 14 campgrounds in the Langley Point and Horsethief areas.
When visiting Kanopolis Lake be sure to stop at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Information/Visitor center located at the southeast end of the dam. The center includes an interactive touch screen video that chronicles the many scenic and historic features of the Kanopolis Lake area. Memorable characters such as Zebulon Pike, General George Armstrong Custer, Captain John C. Fremont, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill Cody lived and traveled over the Smoky Hills during their adventures on the western frontier. Other displays depict some of the local history, natural resources, and recreation activities available.
Kanopolis State Park also manages nearby Mushroom Rock State Park.
The park is located approximately 31 miles southwest of Salina, Kansas in Ellsworth County.
Kanopolis State Park
200 Horsethief Rd.
Marquette, KS 67464
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated August 2020.