Mount Mitchell Heritage
Prairie, Kansas

James S. & Susan E.W. Aber


Introduction

The Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie site is located about half a mile east of K-99 highway and a half mile south of the K-99/K-18 highway junction in Wabaunsee County. It's on the Native Stone Scenic Byway. Public visitors are welcome, and a parking area provides good access for walking trails around the site. Mount Mitchell is an isolated hill that reaches 1210 feet elevation, some 230 feet above the Kansas River valley to the north. This site marks the westernmost appearance of glacial erratics south of the Kansas River valley.

During a spring with frequent clouds, rain, and thunderstorms, we had nearly ideal conditions for kite aerial photography on Mother's Day. Sunny sky, high temperature in the low 60s F, and northwest wind of 10-20 mph proved quite suitable with no complications. We flew our large rokkaku with the Sony autoKAP rig. We set up on the east side of Mount Mitchell, so the kite and camera would fly toward the southeast of the hill for good lighting.

The site had been burned about 2 weeks prior to our visit, and new grass was just beginning to green up over the hill. Such early spring burning is traditional in the Flint Hills to maintain the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. The recent burn meant that bedrock geology was well exposed; limestone layers crop out as stone lines around the hill.

Kite aerial photographs

View westward

View to northwest

View northward

Closer views showing geologic features. Left: limestone (Ls) and shale (Sh) layers on the side and top of Mount Mitchell and a small quarry in the Neva Limestone. Right: walking trail zig-zags up from the parking area to right. Glacial boulders are marked (>).

Geology of Mount Mitchell

This location represents a transition from the bedrock terrain of the Flint Hills to the south and west into the glaciated region to the north and east. Bedrock is quite evident and crops out as stone lines on the hill side. The Cottonwood Limestone caps the hill, and the Neva Limestone appears about halfway up the hill. The Neva Limestone was quarried around the sides of the hill and used to construct buildings in Wamego. These abandoned quarries are quite small and presumably date from the late 1800s.

Glacial erratics are scattered around the site and form a pavement with limestone at the top of the hill. These erratics were most likely deposited from icebergs drifting in glacial Lake Manhattan that filled what is now the Kansas River valley directly to the north. The actual limit of the ice sheet lay a short distance to the north and east, thus blocking the local drainage and impounding a lake that filled with meltwater and glacial sediment. Massive influx of icebergs and periodic floods of meltwater carried glacial cobbles and boulders across the lake and deposited them on Mount Mitchell.

Sioux Quartzite is the most abundant type of erratic, transported in the ice sheet from bedrock sources in southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. Sioux Quartzite is quite resistant to weathering and, so, has collected at the surface since glaciation took place more than half a million years ago. Also present in lesser amounts are cobbles of granite and greenstone. These were derived from outcrops in northern Minnesota or even farther north in Canada.

Glacial erratics at Mount Mitchell. Sioux Quartzite boulder (left) and granite cobble (right). The former displays typical pink-purple color. The latter is partly weathered and shows planed and smoothed sides (comb is 5 inches long).
Left: pavement of Cottonwood Limestone (gray) and glacial erratics (pink-purple) at the crest of Mount Mitchell. Right: exposure of the Neva Limestone in an old quarry on the hill side (comb is 5 inches long).


Butterflies feeding on Dakota verbena (Glandularia
bipinnatifida
) at Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie.

Related sites and references

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Last update May 2020.