Friday, May 6, 2011

The Red Hills

The Red Hills of Barber and Comanche counties* fascinate me. The terrain is unlike much of Kansas, particularly the flat wheat belt where I was born and raised. It has long been my intention to return to that area  to try my hand at photographing those landscapes. The first week of May of this year, I was able to accomplish that. I had hoped that the hills and grasslands would have greened up by this time and that the wildflowers might be in bloom. Apparently I was about a week to ten days to early for that, although some wildflowers were beginning to pop up.

The Red Hills get their color from the oxidation of the sedimentary iron deposits left during the Permian Period, 250 to 300 million years ago. The hills are also known as the Gypsum (or Gyp) Hills due to the large natural deposits of gypsum, which are mined in the vicinity.

US Highway 160 from Medicine Lodge to Coldwater (42 miles) cuts through the area and is known as the Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway. There is another scenic drive on county roads which begins just west of Medicine Lodge. These scenic drives are collectively one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Geography Better views, however, are obtained by getting off the highway.

You must "dare to do dirt" to really see this country.

The Landscape

Branding Time at the Marsh Ranch
While driving along the Gyp Hills Scenic Byway, I noticed a lot of activity going on at one of the corrals, and pulled off onto the right of way. I tried to take some long-distance photos with my long zoom lens without much to show for it. A distinguished-looking man in western working attire came over to me and introduced himself as Mr. Marsh, the owner of the Marsh Ranch headquartered in nearby Sun City, and asked me if I would like to come in for a closer look. Absolutely! He was preparing to leave and offered me the use of his mount, but as I have not been on horseback in a "few years," and have had several shoulder, knee, and other surgeries in the intervening period, I decided this would nor be a good time to make a fool of myself in front of these professional horsemen and women.

The cowboys and women were branding calves, attaching fly tags to the ears, and administering spring vaccinations, a process requiring skill, teamwork, and horsemanship. I had seen these and similar skills on display at the State Ranch Rodeo Championships at Medicine Lodge, but this was my first opportunity to watch it "up close and personal," and "for real." A big thanks to the Marshes and their crew for allowing me to photograph them at work.  

Sun City
Population 53. That's down from 81 in 2000. What is Sun City known for? Perhaps the whiskey-fueled gunfight in 1880 that left one Mr. Adams mortally wounded as a result of  a billiards wager. Maybe the 1883 cyclone that killed three townspeople. Folks in the know, however, would tell you unequivocally that Buster's Smokehouse Bar and Grill is what keeps Sun City on the map. Buster and his wife Alma have been dead quite some time now, but this iconic Sun City landmark just keeps going.

You can even find Buster's on Facebook:

* Red Hills ~ Much of the area known as the Red Hills is located in Clark County as well, including the three highest points in the area: Mount Nebo, Mount Jesus, and Mount Lookout. I hope to visit Clark County on another photo journey. 

Some Links of Interest:
Medicine Lodge, Kansas - At the eastern end of the Gyp Hills Scenic Byway, a colorful and historic frontier town. Long-time camping ground for plains Indians, site of a landmark peace treaty between natives and the US government, and later home to that hatchet-yielding prohibitionist Carrie Nation.

Medicine Lodge Indian Peace Treaty Pageant My first visit to Medicine Lodge and this pageant at age twelve made a huge impression on me. Not much was different when Nancy and I took in the festivities a couple of years ago. The event is held every three years, and this (2011) is the year. Parades, a large-scale pageant on a 40 acre "stage," a Plains Indians pow wow, and a rodeo are just part of what happens.

Coldwater, Kansas - At the western end of the Gyp Hills Scenic Byway. Served as my home base while exploring the area.

© text and photos Frank Thompson


  1. A wonderful tribute to our beautiful Red Hills. A wonderful area in which to grow up, and it's gotten even better coming back home again.

    Beautiful photographs!

  2. Yessir, those are fine pictures. From one who grew up in Coldwater,

    Theron White

  3. That red, red soil is such a shock after the sandy loam around Wichita. Thoroughly enjoyed our trip last year into the Gypsum Hills the opening weekend of pheasant season. Picked up fossils on road cuts, wound up in Oklahoma without realizing it and had a great time talking with hunters at a convenience store in Coldwater.