Longtime worker at Kansas governor’s mansion honored for developing iconic trail system

Gov. Sam Brownback and his wife, Mary, dedicate the trail system adjacent to Cedar Crest in honor of Ken Smith, at right, the chief maintenance officer at the governor's mansion and the person primarily responsible for developing the trails.

? The large parking lot next to Cedar Crest, the governor’s mansion in Topeka, is much larger than one would normally expect to see at a governor’s residence.

That’s because most of the people who come there aren’t there to see the governor or do anything related to state government.

They come because the forested parkland just west of the mansion is one of the most popular outdoor attractions in the capital city, home to an estimated 20 miles of hiking and biking trails that stretch between Cedar Crest and the former campus of the Menninger Clinic to the west.

On Tuesday, shortly after receiving the official Cedar Crest Christmas tree, Gov. Sam Brownback held another ceremony, formally dedicating the trail system to its principal designer, Ken Smith, who has been in charge of maintenance at Cedar Crest for just over 30 years.

“This is a set of trails that Ken — and many others, but a lot of it is Ken Smith — built. And for that reason we’re dedicating this as the Ken Smith Trail Complex,” Brownback said.

Standing with his wife and children, Smith said little during the ceremony, other than to recognize other people who have been instrumental in developing and promoting the trail system, including the Kansas Army National Guard, which provided much of the labor clearing trees and brush to make the trails.

“There’s a lot of other people that helped with this,” he said.

Smith began developing the trail system in 1988 during the administration of former Republican Gov. Mike Hayden, an outdoor enthusiast who later served as secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Parks under two of his successors, Republican Gov. Bill Graves and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

The trail system actually stretches through two adjacent state parks, MacLennan Park, adjacent to Cedar Crest, and Kaw River State Park, which gives hikers and boaters direct access to the Kansas River.

Some of the trails are semi-paved with gravel, which makes biking on them a little easier, but most are simply dirt. Colored dots painted on trees help hikers navigate.

The trails also boast a unique modern convenience especially for cyclists, AAA access. At the head end of one trail in the Cedar Crest parking lot and at another point on the approach to the Kansas River, cyclists who are AAA members can call for roadside assistance to fix a flat tire, repair a broken chain or have other minor repairs made.

Brownback, an outdoor enthusiast, says he hikes the trails regularly.

Speaking with reporters, Brownback boasted that during his administration, the state greatly expanded its hiking and biking trail system, although many of the trails actually have been developed by independent, nonprofit organizations.

The longest of those is the 117-mile long Flint Hills Nature Trail, a project of the Kanza Rails-Trails Conservancy, which extends from Council Grove to Osawatomie.

But Brownback said the newly named Ken Smith Trail System is unique because of its urban setting.

“I think it’s the best urban trail set in America,” he said.

“Urban trails are hard to find,” he said. “I love to hike. But to find a trail in a city — or for me, I walk outside the door — and then you can go up and down, and see hardwoods and different things. You can go down to the Kansas River, you can see wildlife. You have bald eagles flying in the area. It’s an amazing thing.”