Once you get a reputation, it’s tough to shake it. For those unfamiliar with Kansas, the popular image is that it’s nothing but flat farmland. Maybe the studio sets of the Wizard of Oz are to blame? But in reality, Kansas doesn’t even crack the top five when it comes to the flattest U.S. states—Florida wins easily—and close to two-thirds of the state is covered in rolling hills that may cause first-time visitors to wonder if they are indeed in Kansas anymore.
The state is also home to one of the more unique geographical areas in the country, a remnant of a time before the settlers began farming—and creating stereotypes that would last centuries.
The Flint Hills is a region of eastern Kansas and north central Oklahoma that contains the largest intact tallgrass prairie in North America. While tallgrass prairie once consumed more than 170 million acres on the continent, the vast majority of it was eventually plowed under for farming. But because of the rocky soil in the Flint Hills, the area is unsuitable for growing crops. Instead, cattle ranchers were able to dominate the area, which kept the tallgrass prairie intact, for the most part.
Less than 4 percent of that original tallgrass prairie remains—and most of it is in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
History of the Hills
The unique ecosystem is the result of what happened more than 250 million years ago, when much of what is now the Midwest was covered by water. The Flint Hills are composed primarily of limestone, many of which contain bands of chert, also called flint. As the limestone eroded, the more resilient flint remained, leaving the signature gravel at the tops of the rolling hills.
You’ll find very little soil before hitting rock, making it difficult for trees to grow. But it is well suited for grasses—and grazing. More than a million head of beef cattle feed in the Flint Hills each year, and the bison that once dominated the landscape have returned in some preserves.
Exploring the Flint Hills
The Flint Hills area is huge—nearly 10,000 square miles that stretches nearly across the entire state top to bottom. Toward the northern area of the region is Manhattan, Kansas, the largest town in the region and home to Kansas State University. It’s also home to the Flint Hills Discovery Center, a museum dedicated to understanding the tallgrass prairie and the long-term maintenance of the region. In addition to the interactive exhibits inside, you’ll find workshops and field experiences available for those interested in learning more.
But for those who really want to get out and explore the Flint Hills, you’ll want to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Overseen by the National Park Service, the preserve located near Strong City, Kansas, features nearly 11,000 acres of protected land. Here you’ll find the wide-open spaces that define the tallgrass prairie, including amazing vistas, seasonal wildflowers, and bison herds.
One of the unique aspects of the prairie is how it changes so much seasonally. In the spring, prescribed burns turn the earth black, with white limestone ridges visible. But in only two weeks, the landscape is transformed as green grass sprouts and cattle begin grazing. The prairie grasses continue to grow through the summer, and by fall visitors will finally see where the term “tallgrass” comes from, as it reaches heights from waist-high to well over a person’s head. The seed heads bloom and the grasses turn to gorgeous bronze color. In the winter, snow covers the prairie and bison use the blown-over tallgrass as cover.
Start your trip to the preserve at the visitor center, which serves as your base of operations in the park. You’ll find exhibits on the prairie, American Indian culture, and the legacy of ranching in the region.
When it comes to exploring the preserve, you have several options. A series of nature trails close to the visitor center are relatively short (and pet-friendly), allowing you to get a good sense of the prairie. The Southwind Nature Trail is 1.75 miles long and takes visitors to two scenic overlooks, a spring-fed stream lined with cottonwood and hackberry trees, and an historic one-room schoolhouse from 1882. For a longer route, the Fox Creek Trail offers a 6.1-mile roundtrip hike, mostly following the creek and exploring the bottomland prairie ecosystem.
If you want an area a bit more wild, the preserve has more than 40 miles of backcountry hiking trails. The Scenic Overlook Trail is 3.2 miles long and winds through the Windmill Pasture, which is home to the bison herd. It’s a chance to get a good view of the bison, but they are wild, and hikers are encouraged to stay on the trail and remain at least 125 yards away from the animals.
Camping is not available in the preserve, but lodging, restaurants, and other amenities are available in Strong City, just two miles outside the park. Chase County does offer some camping options near the preserve.
However you want to explore, a visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is an amazing window into just what much of the Midwest looked like when settlers first made their way west.
Originally written by RootsRated for Backwoods
Featured image provided by USFWS Mountain-Prairie