‘Cow’-tow to the JoCo trail

As you travel along the newest hiking/biking trail in Johnson County, it’s easy to forget just where you are. One stretch of the Mill Creek Streamway Park winds through forest so dense it’s difficult to see the creek that gives the trail its name, winding through the countryside some 60 feet below.

From there, the forest clears up, showing a captivating glimpse of southwest Johnson County before dropping off and crossing College Boulevard. “This is the final piece of a pilot project that was voter-approved in 1986 and began in 1988,” says Johnson County Parks and Recreation Land Acquisition Specialist Bill Maasen. “We wanted to acquire flood plain, preserve green space, and encourage development to incorporate it.”

This final two-and-a-half-mile stretch, which runs from 95th Street south to an existing trail at 114th and Millview, cost $450,000 to build plus $150,000 in land acquisition.

“We’re real excited to get this completed,” says Maasen. “We have a dedication set for June 3 (at the connection site at 114th and Millview), which is also National Trails Day and coincides with the KC 150 Celebration (celebrating Kansas City’s sesquicentennial).”

As the parks and rec department puts the finishing touches on the Mill Creek Streamway trail, it’s up against a unique dilemma. As you enter the final half-mile of the newest piece of trail, you see a warning, scrawled in magic marker: “Beware: mean bull.”

“We’ve got some cows we’re trying to secure,” says Maasen. And the cows seem none too interested as bikers zip over a wooden bridge and on down the trail. “We’ve got to build a fence all through here to keep out the cows, but once this (land) goes commercial, the fence won’t be necessary.”

Nearly three-quarters of a million people hit the 125 miles of trails running through Johnson County last year, but there seems to be something unique about the Mill Creek Streamway trail. “I come out here once a week at least. It’s a great trail,” says cyclist John Balachowski. “I live up north of the river, and we don’t have anything near this. It’s terrific.”

And, Maasen says, the fact that this trail system has been in the works for nearly 15 years is one of the things that sets it apart. “Since we’ve bought farmland, it’s significantly cheaper. If this was developed … it would get very expensive. Plus, if the trails are there in advance of development, people love ’em. To go in and retrofit an existing neighborhood with a trail, that’s where you run into trouble.”

At the other end of the 17-mile path is Nelson Island, a lush peninsula that extends into the Kansas River and provides a great view of the mighty Kaw — and a great place for families to explore.

“We just moved into town (from Ontario, Canada), so we’re checking things out,” says Gregory Jaques as he strolls under an old railroad bridge near the island with his daughter, Annika. “We live close by, and there’s lots of good access points. The playgrounds are great, and it keeps my daughter busy instead of watching TV. It’s also a nice touch for bikers, runners, whoever.”

If you momentarily forget where you are, there’s always something right over the next hill or just around the corner to remind you that this is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and that the trail will soon be far less remote. There’s the din of cars zooming by on K-10, there’s the occasional subdivision butted right up against the trail, and there’s the railroad that runs alongside the entire path.

“We get about 60 trains a day through here, one about every 15 minutes.” says Maasen. “The railroad also played a part in determining the layout of the trail. In the 1940s, they came through here and straightened this creek out. You still have some parts that extend off, and that’s why this is still wetlands…. Most of the trail is asphalt, but in the parts that are more flash-flood prone, we put in concrete.”

Maasen says much of the land on both sides of the trail is now contractor-owned, and he expects most of the area to be fairly well developed within five to 10 years. But to some extent, development has already aided the construction of the recreational path.

“The sewer system is already in down here, so we didn’t have to clear a lot of trees — a lot of places we just followed the (existing infrastructure).” And Maasen says the parks and rec department also got lucky when it needed to build through the scenic segment of dense forest just south of K-10 on the ridge of a steep valley.

“We didn’t have to tear out one tree for this. When they built K-10, the farmer who owned the land told them he needed an access road to his field, and so we just converted that road into the trail.”

The new trail won’t be dedicated until June 3, but it is open to the public. So when you head out there, enjoy the scenery — and beware of the mean bull.

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