“They’re really stunning,” said Mike Goodwin on Tuesday of the towering chalk formations that stretch as far as the eye can see at Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park.

As part of the Kansas Trails Council, Goodwin was walking the badlands, scouting trail locations and setting pink flags to mark the route for two new trails at Kansas’ newest state park.

“There are lots of canyons and rock towers,” Goodwin said. “Every time you turn a corner it’s an interesting view.”

Few people have seen the new state park. Not yet open to the public, Little Jerusalem has no public access infrastructure at all.

But that will most likely change by next summer, said Matt Bain, who works for the badlands’ owner, The Nature Conservancy of Kansas. And top of mind while designing the two new trails and parking lot is that the 85-million-year-old chalk is very fragile and highly erodible.

“If you concentrate foot traffic, it’s going to erode,” Bain said. “We’re trying to limit the public access infrastructure as much as we can and still accommodate users. So it’s a balance. We want people to enjoy it and learn from it, while keeping the area as pristine as it is today.”

Bain is hopeful the parking lot and trails will be open by the summer of 2019, but that’s not a promise.

“That’s kind of what we’re hoping for. It’s a real team effort,” he said. “We have to take our time to make sure it’s done right, so we get it right. We’re not going to cut any corners.”

The Nature Conservancy goal is to preserve a large slice of native, intact western Kansas prairie so that people can view and appreciate it.

“It’s important people have a place to do that,” Bain said. “In Kansas our wild places that are left are prairie. But 80 percent of Kansas prairie has been converted to other uses.”

Construction on the trails and parking lot starts in October.

Situated south of Oakley, the 332-acres of badlands are part of the 17,200-acre Smoky Valley Ranch, which is also owned by The Nature Conservancy. Located in the Smoky Hill River drainage basin, the Smoky Hill River runs through the ranch. Public access will be at the southeast corner of the property.

A planned three-quarter mile trail, now referred to as “the rim trail,” will be at the south side of the property.

“It will meander along the south rim of the formation, out to a scenic overlook,” Bain said.

From the planned parking lot, as visitors drive into the park, they will be even with the tops of the rock formations, said Goodwin. “The rim trail skirts the rim at the highest elevations, so you can see the rock formations,” he said. Millions of years of erosion carved the valleys and canyons to create the towers, which vary from 80 feet to 100 feet in height.

Also planned is a 1,200-foot interpretive hiking trail that will run from the parking lot to an overlook. Outfitted with educational information, the trail will include interpretive signage, Bain said.

The trails are being designed to keep the grades within the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so at a minimal 2 to 3 percent. The trails are a single path, about 16 inches wide, neatly mowed on each side for a total corridor width of about six to eight feet so the prairie grass doesn’t retake the path, Goodwin said.

An all-volunteer nonprofit group, the Kansas Trails Council manages about 300 miles of trails around the state and has worked extensively with the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism and the Nature Conservancy. They build long-lasting, low-maintenance, natural surface trails, such as the new Switchgrass Bike Trail at Wilson Lake State Park. They’ve also mapped every trail in the state of Kansas — some 5,000 miles — and have the maps available on their website. They will do the same for Little Jerusalem.

“We say we get paid in smiles,” said Goodwin.

Keeping people on the trails at the badlands will be tricky, as it is with any park, said Ryan Sharp, an assistant professor at Kansas State University with expertise in park management and conservation.

In partnership with the Nature Conservancy and the state parks department, Sharp and a graduate student are gathering baseline information with photos and GPS data about the condition of the park to monitor the impact of visitor use in the future.

“For the most part, this area hasn’t seen a whole lot of people,” Sharp said, noting it’s only been grazed by cattle. “When people go to parks, they want to explore. That’s natural.”

Visitors will undoubtedly wander off the paths. Park management will have to decide whether to keep those visitor created trails, or discourage them, he said.

A native of the East Coast, Sharp said he hopes Kansans take the opportunity to see the park.

“When I went out there for the first time, I was blown away,” he said. “It’s a very, very beautiful place.”

Employees and retirees of Wester Energy are volunteering to help build the trails and parking lot, just as they’ve done for many years on other projects with The Nature Conservancy and Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism, said Ben Postlethwait, manager of biology, conservation and sustainability programs for Westar.

The largest power provider in Kansas, Westar makes its heavy equipment available to the Westar volunteers for community projects.

“We’re going to be helping them install some new fencing in the parking lot, and taking out some old fence,” said Postlethwait, as well as build a hiking bridge to span a canyon. They’ll use the company’s line trucks, skid steers, large trailers, augers and other heavy equipment normally used for building power plants, transmission lines, substations and distribution lines.

The parking lot will measure 700 feet by 200 feet, and includes setting limestone posts that weigh 350 pounds each — not a problem for the Westar volunteers. “They set power poles every day, so they’re pretty good at it,” Postlethwait said.

Postlethwait, like Bain, is a graduate of the Fort Hays State University Biology Department. He’s glad to be part of Little Jerusalem, even though it’s far beyond Westar’s service area in eastern Kansas, where they normally volunteer.

“We love being in on the ground floor of a new state park,” Postlethwait said. “It’s pretty special.”