Coccolith| ˈkäkəˌliTH | (noun) A minute rounded calcareous platelet, numbers of which form the spherical shells of coccolithophores.
After visiting Castle Rock, the next stop on our “Geologic Wonders of Kansas” tour was the famed Chalk Pyramids and Monument Rocks, just a little further west. Since our goal was to get off I-70 as much as possible, we opted for the backroads between the two destinations, winding our way along Highway 4 through small towns like Healy (where we found a surprisingly good cup of 50¢ coffee). Similar to the meandering trail to Castle Rock, the roads to the Chalk Pyramids got progressively wilder, transitioning from paved to gravel to dirt, and we encountered only two other vehicles as we bumped along the desolate stretches of road. The landscape became rockier, more arid, and the flora more spiky and desertlike.
It certainly didn’t feel like we were in Kansas anymore.
Like its sister formation, the Chalk Pyramids resulted from the effects of wind and rain on sediment deposited in the Western Interior Seaway, the ancient inland sea that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic ocean, dividing North America in half. Layers of the abundant calcareous planktonic algae helped form the chalk and limestone structures that we see today.
Although the sea is long gone, this part of Kansas is replete with fossils it left behind. Tiny fossilized shellfish are embedded in stone almost everywhere you look. You can see some fine examples of larger species at the nearby Keystone Gallery, including a 20-foot Mosasaur and a 14-foot Xiphactinus. The gallery also features a gift shop and works from local artists.
In more recent history, Native Americans hunted buffalo here and viewed the towering structure as a spiritual site. Later, explorers like John C. Fremont noted the formations in his writing while hopeful pioneers traipsed past them on their way to the Colorado goldfields in the 1860s. Fort Monument was established to protect settlers in 1865, about a mile southwest of the site, but nothing remains of the fort today.
The arches and buttes of Monument Rocks are separated to the east and west by the dirt road, so you can park along it and explore both sides. Like Castle Rock, this is on private land, but the owners graciously allow guests as long as you are respectful and don’t climb the rocks.
Since we were arriving at the Chalk Pyramids a little before sunset, there were a couple of other visitors, waiting for the show. A photographer was setting up his tripod east of the iconic “keyhole” while preteens took selfies. I don’t blame them. There is something irresistible about the quality of light in the hours before sunset. The “golden light” breathes life into inanimate objects, transforming the stone with undulating waves of color and lengthening shadows into the stuff of nightmares. I couldn’t peel my eyes away. Every pebble and blade of grass became a photo op. We wandered around the rocky terrain, taking photos and watching the shadows grow longer.
Now, I wouldn’t say the Chalk Pyramids are touristy per se, but it was certainly a more obvious destination than Castle Rock. Or maybe we had just gotten used to social isolation. Either way, we decided to forego the crowds (three cars had arrived by then) and see if we could make it to Little Jerusalem Badlands in time for sunset. From what I had read, it was a pretty spectacular sight, and the photographer’s tripod was obstructing our view of the sunset through the keyhole, so we headed out to see if we could beat the sinking sun to Little Jerusalem Badlands.
Chalk Pyramids/Monument Rocks are located about 28 miles southeast of Oakley, KS. From US Route 83 south of Oakley, turn east onto Jayhawk Road at the Monument Rocks sign, go 4 miles east, then 2 miles south on Gove County Roads 14 and 16. These roads are gravel, so take care in wet weather unless you are in a 4X4 vehicle.