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Sand Creek Trail

Sand Creek Trail is a National Recreation Trail that begins on the Bethel College campus.

Area residents, students and visitors are encouraged to enjoy the trail and its variety of plant, animal and bird life. The main trailhead is located at Memorial Grove, an area designed for reflection, fellowship and special events. The trail connects with the paved path through Chisholm Park in North Newton and the biking-walking trail, nicknamed The Trail of Two Cities, that runs alongside Sand Creek through the city of Newton.

Sand Creek Trail is set in a beautiful, mostly wooded area and is open year-round.

From its trailhead at Memorial Grove to the north loop paralleling I-135, and then back to Memorial Grove, the trail is in excess of two miles long. Nine benches are installed along the trail to allow users of the trail to rest and to enjoy the surrounding nature.

The trail hosts a variety of plant, animal and bird life. More than 40 varieties of trees include these indigenous species:
  • cottonwood
  • willow
  • hackberry
  • redbud
  • black walnut
as well as species introduced over the years such as:
  • Osage orange
  • mulberry
  • locust
  • Kentucky coffee tree
Resident bird species include:
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • wild turkey
  • red-bellied woodpecker
  • northern cardinal
  • American goldfinch
Summer residents are:
  • great blue heron
  • wood duck
  • yellow-billed cuckoo
  • American robin
  • brown thrasher
  • common grackle
  • Baltimore oriole
  • Mississippi kite
Winter residents include:
  • white-breasted nuthatch
  • spotted towhee
  • dark-eyed junco
  • Eastern bluebird
As tree and groundcover have expanded, sightings of the following have become increasingly common:
  • white-tailed deer
  • beaver
  • Great Plains skink
  • armadillo

Memorial Grove

Memorial Grove was established at the main trailhead of Sand Creek Trail in 2003 as a place for small groups to meet around a fire for discussions or worship and also as a means to memorialize individuals, couples or groups who have had a significant relationship with Bethel College and/or the North Newton community. An engraved brick signifies that a contribution of $1,000 has been made in someone’s name. All-campus bonfires are held at Memorial Grove, a local church has its Easter sunrise service there and Memorial Grove has been the setting for at least two weddings. A gazebo complements the beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees that make this a special place for quiet reflection. Near Memorial Grove is the 11-foot tall sculpture “The Plainsman,” carved out of the stump of a Siberian elm by North Newton sculptor John Gaeddert.

To purchase a brick, email the Development Office or call 316-284-5250. To reserve Memorial Grove for an event, contact Shirley Dietzel.

Arbor Lane

In spring 2006, 54 trees of 18 different species were planted along the portion of Sand Creek Trail that runs along Kansas Highway 15 between it and the Bethel College cross-country course. Arbor Lane is a double row of trees designed to welcome visitors to the city of North Newton.

National Trails Day®

Along with other National Recreation Trails across North America, Sand Creek Trail marks National Trails Day® on the first Saturday in June each year. Members of the Sand Creek Trail Committee are stationed at the Memorial Grove trailhead on that day from early morning to early evening to give out water to people and dogs who come to walk the trail, and to answer any questions.

Other Access Points

The trail has two other access points in Newton and North Newton. A paved biking and walking path runs alongside Sand Creek through Newton between First Street and Centennial Park, and from Centennial Park to the Sand Creek Trail trailhead at Memorial Grove. A wood-chip path connects Sand Creek Trail and the paved path in Chisholm Park (north of Kauffman Museum) at the MCC-Central States building (requires crossing Kansas Highway 15).


Hours for Sand Creek Trail are sunrise to sunset. Memorial Grove hours are flexible. Memorial Grove may be reserved for small groups by contacting Shirley Dietzel.


Your help is needed in maintaining a facility that can be enjoyed by the entire community.
  • Treat the vegetation, signage and physical infrastructure with respect.
  • “Pack it in, pack it out.” Leave only your footprints. If you see litter, please pick it up. There are trash cans at Memorial Grove and at two other locations along the trail.
  • Pets are welcome, but please keep all pets on leashes and dispose of all pet waste.
  • Use mountain bikes responsibly and non-destructively. Motorized vehicles are prohibited.
  • Firearms of any type are prohibited on or near the trail.
  • Bethel College is a non-smoking campus except for one designated area outside the residence halls. Smoking on Sand Creek Trail is strongly discouraged, especially in dry seasons. Do not discard cigarette butts along the trail.

Volunteer opportunities

To volunteer for work on the trail, or to have your e-mail address (and/or phone number) put on a Friends of the Trail list to be notified of trail work days or other special trail events, contact Keith Harder, trail manager,

Sand Creek Trail Guided Walk

Trail entrance: Welcome to Sand Creek Trail at Bethel College, North Newton. Although footpaths have existed along Sand Creek probably for millennia, this trail was formally adopted in 1997 when a committee formed to guide its development, oversee its maintenance, and promote its use.

Memorial Grove was established at this trailhead in 2003 as a place for groups to meet and as a way to memorialize people with significant relationships to Bethel College and/or the North Newton community. The 11-foot-tall sculpture, “The Plainsman,” was carved from the stump of a Siberian elm by the late John Gaeddert, a North Newton sculptor.

The entire Sand Creek Trail is 2.3 miles (3.7 km) long and passes through old windbreaks, riparian habitat and field edges. On the western side, it encompasses the concrete footpath around Kauffman Museum and Chisholm Trail Park. On the south end, it connects with the 7-mile-long Trail of Two Cities/Sand Creek Bike Path that runs along Sand Creek and ends south of First Street in Newton. 

The forest here is formally designated an ash-elm-hackberry floodplain forest (Fraxinus pennsylvanica-Ulmus rubra-Celtis occidentalis temporarily flooded forest alliance), although several other tree species are common.

Hackberry tree: Celtis occidentalis, the common hackberry, is a North American native hardwood. Hackberry is readily distinguished by its gray cork-like bark with numerous “warts” or ridges. The leaves are asymmetrical and rough to the touch. Hackberry is a medium-sized tree, commonly 30 to 50 feet (9 to 15 m) tall, that can grow to 130 feet (40 m). It prefers rich moist soil, but will grow on a variety of sites. The seedlings can survive under a closed canopy, which is why there are so many hackberry seedlings present here. Under ideal conditions, hackberry trees can live 200 years.

The pea-sized purple drupes ripen in September, and remain on the branches as winter food for birds and mammals. The fruits are relatively high in fat, carbohydrates and protein. Native Americans ate the berries directly, used them to flavor meat, or ground and mixed them with fat and dried meal.

The leaves are inhabited by gall-forming insects (genus Pachypsylla) that do not cause serious damage. The tree also serves as a larval host for the Hackberry Emperor butterfly, Asterocampa celtis.

Open site/bur oaks: Why does this place appear so different from the rest of the forest? For many years, this was an unsightly open space. In 1974, students and faculty from the Bethel College biology department seeded the site to native prairie grasses and wildflowers, but in time it was overtaken by invasive Siberian elm trees. In 1998, the “weedy” elm trees were removed and replaced with native bur oaks. As with all oak species, bur oaks are important to many animal species that nest in the branches and feed on the acorns.

Path to creek: Up until the 1930s, this area was part of a working farm owned by Henry and Susie Martin. This tree-lined pathway is an avenue that takes the traveler to the creek. The trees on the north side of the trail are Kentucky coffee trees; the ones on the south side are hackberries. These rows of trees, as well as the nearby windbreak of Eastern red cedars, are visible remnants of this area’s past land use history. If you look carefully along the trail, you will still see occasional old hedge fence posts from the area’s former days.

Kentucky coffee tree: Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is a native species in the bean or legume family. Note the large leathery pods on the branches or littered on the ground. It gets its name from the reputed use of its roasted seeds to make a hot beverage consumed by both native peoples and European settlers. If you can find a fresh pod on the ground, split it open and note the large hard seeds embedded in a greenish sweet and sticky pulp. Biologists consider the Kentucky coffee tree an evolutionary anachronism in that its original mammalian seed dispersers (e.g., woolly mammoths) are now extinct. Today the tree spreads mainly through intentional planting by people. 

Cottonwood tree: This massive tree before you is an eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides, the state tree of Kansas. It is named for the cotton-like fluff produced around the airborne seeds. Cottonwoods are among the largest broad-leafed trees in North America, reaching 80-100 feet (25-30 m) tall, and distinguished by thick, deeply fissured bark. The triangular-shaped leaves have a flattened petiole that causes the leaves to “flicker” in the wind. Native Americans called cottonwoods “talking trees” because of the constant leaf movement.

Cottonwoods are often the first trees to colonize open space due to their rapid growth and high sunlight requirements. They are exceptionally tolerant of flooding and commonly grow along stream banks. Because cottonwood seedlings are sun-loving, they are eventually replaced by shade-tolerant species during forest succession. The wood is fairly soft, and is used primarily for pallets and shipping crates. The bark, a favored artists’ medium, is soft and easy to carve.

The largest cottonwood in Kansas has a circumference of 38 feet (12 m). Cottonwoods serve as food for the caterpillars of many butterfly and moth species. 

Sand Creek: This stream is Sand Creek, a tributary of the Little Arkansas River. Sand Creek is 15 miles (24 km) long and drains a watershed of 64,134 acres (26,000 ha). The creek bed is a sedimentary rock called shale that formed during the Permian Period, about 275 million years ago. As with most creeks in Kansas, Sand Creek floods periodically but also experiences periods in which the bed dries up completely. A wide variety of fish and invertebrate species inhabits this waterway. 

High water mark: Sand Creek has a history of flooding its banks. In fact, the spot where you are standing lies within a special flood hazard area, which means that at times this field can be under water. A particularly high water level occurred in 2013, when water extended all the way to the yellow buildings at the west end of this field. Over thousands of years, periodic flooding has deposited the rich layers of topsoil that make floodplains such fertile areas for crop production.  

Honey locust tree: The honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is another tree in the bean family. It is native to central North America, where it is found in moist river valleys from South Dakota to Louisiana and central Texas, and as far east as Massachusetts. The name derives from the sweet taste of the fruit pulp, which was used for food by Native Americans.

Honey locusts can reach a height of 100 feet (30 m), with fast growth and short life spans. They typically live about 120 years, though some reach 150 years. They are prone to losing large branches in windstorms. 

The fruit of the honey locust is a flat pod (legume) that matures in early autumn.  The seeds are dispersed by grazing cattle, horses and deer, which eat the pulp and deposit the seeds in droppings.

Probably the most prominent features of honey locusts are the long sharp thorns borne on the trunk and branches. Thorns may be single or branched, and commonly form dense clusters. These thorns are thought to have evolved to protect the trees from browsing Pleistocene megafauna (e.g., giant sloths), which may also have been involved in seed dispersal. 

Honey locust produces a high-quality, durable wood that polishes well, supporting a niche market for its furniture. It is also used for posts and rails due its dense, rot-resistant wood. In the past, the hard thorns of younger trees were used as nails while the wood itself was used to fashion treenails for shipbuilding.

Its thornless cultivars are popular ornamental plants, especially in the northern plains of North America where few other tree species can thrive.

The species has become a significant invasive weed in the U.S. as well as in other regions of the world, especially Australia. The plant forms thickets that can replace pasture required for livestock. The spines can injure people and animals, and puncture tires. Many ranchers and farmers consider honey locust a nuisance.

Siberian elm: This large tree is a Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila), a fast-growing shade tree native to central and eastern Asia. It has been planted throughout the world, becoming naturalized in many places, especially across much of the United States. It can be distinguished from the native  American and slippery elms that grow in this woodland by its much smaller and darker green leaves. It was introduced to the U.S. in 1905 and planted extensively following the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as a shelterbelt species due to its general tolerance of both cold and drought. Siberian elm has become an invasive species in much of the eastern and central United States. Locally, this elm is a significant weed in pastures and restored prairies.

New tree plantings: In 2014, the Sand Creek Trail Committee, with the initiative of retired math professor Richard Rempel, began a project to widen the forested area of the trail here. Since that time, more than 200 trees and shrubs have been planted, including bur, Shumard and chinkapin oaks, black walnut and choke cherry. 

Bur oak: Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), is widely considered the true prairie oak. It grows throughout the eastern and central United States and Canada, ranging as far west as eastern Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico. It is a massive tree, growing to 100 ft (30 m), sometimes to 160 ft (50 m), with a trunk diameter of up to 10 ft (3 m). Bur oaks commonly achieve ages of 200 to 300 years, and may live up to 400 years.

The acorns are the largest of any North American oak (2 in long and 1.5 in wide) and are an important food for deer, squirrels, turkeys, and jays. Bur oak is the sole host plant of leaf-mining Bucculatrix recognita caterpillars.

Bur oak grows best in the open, away from forest canopy. Thus, it is often associated with prairies and waterways outside forested areas. In the eastern tallgrass region, it forms savannahs with prairie grasses in the understory. It is drought resistant due to its deep taproot, and fire tolerant due to its thick bark. 

Bur oak is the state tree of Iowa. 

Young forest: The woodland around you displays Nature in a state of transition, changing from an area populated largely by non-native Siberian elms and giving way to younger, emergent hackberries. This process is called ecological succession. As the tree community changes, so too will the animals, insects, and soil properties here.

Arbor Lane: In 2006, 54 trees representing 18 different species were planted along the portion of Sand Creek Trail that runs along Kansas Highway 15. Arbor Lane is a double row of showy trees designed to welcome visitors to the city of North Newton.

Landscaping with native plants: In 2009, Mennonite Central Committee replaced its front lawn with the array of native wildflowers and grasses you see before you. Conventional lawns of fescue grass require frequent mowing, irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides to continue to look nice. In contrast, native prairie grasses and wildflowers are naturally drought-hardy and thrive without chemical inputs. Moreover, native landscaping supports biodiversity by providing food and habitat for a variety of pollinating insects, birds and small mammals. 

Choke cherry: Choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) is a native shrub or small tree that grows throughout most of the United States, Canada and northern Mexico. It is in the same genus as cherries, plums, peaches, apricots and almonds. The seeds are dispersed by birds, and choke cherries can form dense stands. Clusters of white flowers appear in spring following leaf emergence. Fruits are a centimeter in diameter, dark purple to black, and somewhat sour and bitter, although horticulturalists have developed some cultivars that are palatable. Chokecherries were an important food in the diets of many Native American tribes, either eaten alone or mixed with elk or deer meat or fatback to make pemmican. The fruits were also used medicinally as an antidiuretic and the bark was used to treat colds, fevers and stomach ailments. The leaves are toxic to horses and ruminants such as deer and cattle, but are eaten by the caterpillars of several species of butterflies and moths. It is the official state fruit of North Dakota.

Osage orange windbreak: Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) is a deciduous tree that typically grows to 30-60 feet (8-20m). Osage orange is commonly used in windbreaks in prairie states, which gives it one of its common names, “hedge-apple.” It is also called hedge tree, horse apple, bois d’arc and mock orange. It is thought to have been used by Native Americans to fashion powerful bows for hunting bison. It was one of the main trees used in President Roosevelt’s 1934 shelterbelt project to prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains. The sharp-thorned trees were also planted as cattle-deterring hedges before the introduction of barbed wire, and afterward became an important source of highly rot-resistant fence posts. 

The species is dioecious, meaning it produces separate male and female trees. The distinctive bright yellow-green fruit is spherical, bumpy and aromatic, and secretes a sticky white latex when cut. Despite its name, Osage orange is a member of the mulberry or fig family (Moraceae). Due to its latex secretions and woody pulp, the fruit is not eaten by people and only rarely by foraging animals, giving it distinction as an anachronistic
“ghost of evolution.” Biologists have hypothesized that the fruits were eaten and dispersed by such extinct Pleistocene mammals as giant ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons and gomphotheres. Modern large animals ignore the fruits, although the seeds are extracted and eaten by squirrels.

Osage orange’s pre-Columbian range was a small area within present-day Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. However, it has been widely planted for hedges and has become naturalized across much of the continental United States and in southeastern Canada. The tree has significant potential to invade unmanaged habitats.

European settlers noted that the bright orange-yellow wood was prized for war clubs and bow-making by Osage and Comanche tribes. The wood is dense, hard, strong and flexible, capable of receiving a fine polish and extremely rot-resistant. Untreated hedge posts have been known to persist in the ground for decades.

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