If you're driving through Ellsworth County in Kansas searching for somewhere to park up for a few days, you'll find Kanopolis Lake has two superb Corps campgrounds for RV camping. One is right on the shore of the lake and the other on the banks of the Smoky Hill River. Kanopolis Lake is a reservoir built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1940s. The dam stems the flow of the Smoky Hill River and acts as a flood prevention measure for the surrounding area.
Kanopolis Lake isn't just a reservoir; it's a fantastic outdoor recreation area too. Imagine a long stretch of calm water in wide, but very wide, open countryside with the dark mounds of the Smoky Hills in the distance and you'll be picturing it right. The lake is bordered by immense expanses of prairie lands which stretch as far as the eye can see. It's the sort of place that, when you take a deep breath, you know the air is going to be fresh and clean.
At first glance, it might seem there's not much to do at Kanopolis Lake, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The Kanopolis State Park borders part of the lake, and the Mushroom Rock State Park is only fifteen minutes drive away. There are historic trails to hike and a three-mile ATV trail for motorized sport, not to mention plenty of fishing and boating opportunities. There are also man-made caves to explore, art galleries and museums to visit and even a drive-in theatre all within a relatively short distance of the lake. You won't have time to be bored when you camp in your RV at Kanopolis Lake.
No matter which geographical direction you're heading to Kanopolis Lake from, you'll be motoring through the flatland of the Great Plains. The nearest town to the east of the lake is Salina, and from there it's thirty miles across the prairies along the KS 140 and KS 14. From the west, you'll be rolling along the US 70, and it'll probably seem as if you're driving into the wild blue yonder. The sensation won't disappear as you head towards Ellsworth, veer off on the KS 140 before you reach the county seat's suburbs and pass through the ghost town of Carneiro. Watch out for tumbleweeds.
If you've been RV camping in the Glen Elder State Park, it'll take you just under two hours to get to Kanopolis Lake. There's a couple of routes you can take, but as far as journey time and scenery are concerned, they don't differ much. It'll take you around the same amount of time if you're bringing your rig up from somewhere down south like El Dorado State Park. If you've been up in Nebraska at the Platte River State Park the trip down to Kanopolis Lake will have you behind the wheel of your RV for about four hours.
Any RVer looking to camp at Kanopolis Lake will be delighted with the excellent facilities at the Venango Park COE campground. Many of the campsites really do have just about everything: water and electric hook-ups, fire pits, grills, and picnic tables. On-site there are volleyball courts, a horseshoe pit, a boat ramp, and an ORV course. Comfort amenities include flush toilets, showers, and a public-use water spigot.
The campsites are all easily accessed with an RV, and many are right on the waterfront overlooking the reservoir, so have great views. There are one-hundred and twenty-six campsites at the Venango Park campground. But choose carefully when you're making a reservation as there are several which are primitive or have only electricity hook-ups.
While the park's official open season is from May through to September, the gates are left open during the off-season, and anyone can drive in and park. The site facilities are not available during that period, and camping is free unless you use a campsite with an electric hook-up and then there's a daily charge of $8 for the utility.
The Riverside Corps campground at Kanopolis Lake is a small and peaceful camping spot by the Smoky Hill River. There are only twenty-five campsites on the campground. Sixteen have been fitted with utilities and nine are primitive. The campground has basketball courts, a playground, and public-use picnic areas. The showers and flush toilets are only operational during the open season.
As with the Vengano Park campground, you can use the campsites free of charge during the off-season from October to April and just pay the daily fee for electricity if you're pitched at a campsite with a hook-up.
Avid hikers who are RV camping at the Corps campgrounds at Kanopolis Lake can head over to the Kanopolis State Park and hit the trails there. The state park has thirty miles of moderate to difficult trails leading through prairie lands and canyons. The one and a half-mile long Buffalo Tracks Nature Trail is a popular trek for its diversity as it runs through tallgrass prairies, over bluffs and passes by a series of caves as it follows the meandering course of Bison Creek. For a longer hike try the Horse Thief Trail which is five miles long.
Fans of off-road sport will be in their element when they go camping at Kanopolis Lake. One of the Corps campgrounds at the lake has a specially designated area for off-road vehicles. The Venango Park ATV Trail is a five-acre site with a groomed sand and dirt track running around its perimeter and crisscrossing at random through the trees. Narrow and overgrown in places, it has enough bumps and curves to challenge any ORV driver.
The COE campgrounds at Kanopolis Lake are an ideal site for fisher-folk to park their rigs. The aptly named Riverside campground is situated alongside the Smoky River, so campers there don't have far to go before they're dropping a line in the water. The Venango Park campground directly borders the lake and has a boat ramp. Anglers can expect to hook a large variety of fish including crappie, catfish, bass, walleye, saugeye, and trout.
The Fort Harker Museum consists of the remaining four buildings of a nineteenth-century military fort. The museum is located in the small town of Kanopolis which, as you might have guessed, also lends its name to the lake. One of the buildings, which include a guardhouse and quarters, now houses a fascinating collection of artifacts ranging from wagons to clothing and even photographs of Wild Bill Hickok.
The Faris Caves are half an hour's drive from Kanopolis Lake on the banks of the Smoky River. The caves were carved from the sandstone by the hand of a miner who, once he'd removed enough rock, used the caves as his home. The cramped abodes - he finally excavated three altogether - are only twelve-foot square with ten-foot-high ceilings. It's an interesting place to explore while imagining what it would be like to live there.
If you like to be enthralled by the oddities of nature, you'll love visiting the Mushroom Rock State Park. The park is less than a twenty-minute drive from the Corps campgrounds at Kanopolis Lake and truthfully is a must-see. Time and the elements have left the park's hoodoos looking like giant, shriveled-up mushrooms. The park is only five acres in size but the unique rock formations it contains make it well worth a visit just for the unique photo opportunity.