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Road Trip: Discover a New Kind of National Park

Fall is a beautiful time of year to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas

By Sophia Dembling | October 8, 2012
Contributor Photo

Sophia Dembling is a freelance writer who specializes in travel stories.

I am in love with the great American prairie.

I love its grand vistas and the exquisite detail of its wildflowers and butterflies. I love the way the sea of grasses changes in shifting light and passing seasons. I love its green, earthy fragrance and birdsong that wafts over the whispering prarie.

The prairie reminds me of the desert. It might appear bland and monochromatic, still and lifeless at first glance. But when you slow down and really look, you see it’s full of color and variety and life.

Only the slightest sliver of virgin native prairie in North America remains and few people give it much thought. Lawns and ranchland seem reasonable facsimiles. Prairie plants might strike us as weeds. Even for those of us who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the modern conservation movement began, the prairie is sort of a deep cut — not as flashy as the ocean nor as darkly seductive as the forest primeval. Like the rain forest, the prairie cleans our air, but it is the most endangered ecosystem on the continent.

But we’re coming around, just in time to save fragments of natural prairie scattered between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. In 1996, the National Parks Service joined the effort, establishing the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of west central Kansas. One of the nation’s newest national preserves, it protects almost 11,000 acres of tallgrass prairie. At one time, 400,000 square miles of it covered the North America.

(More: The State Fair of Texas: Bigger Than Ever)

Fall Is the Coolest Time to Visit

My first trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was this past spring, and it was all discovery. I didn’t know Kansas could be so lovely. Now I’m returning for an autumn visit, to see the grasses when they are at their tallest and going golden, and when temperatures have dropped enough to encourage hiking the preserve trails (this spring’s heat was a little discouraging, though I gave it a sweaty shot).

Once again I have booked a wee cabin — a little house on the prairie, as it were — at the Millstream Resort Motel in Cottonwood Falls, one of a string of towns nestled in these hills. The charming restored motel, which backs up to the Cottonwood River, has two suites and five rooms in the main building and a private cabin, all built in the 1950s out of native limestone. It also has space for RVs and campsites along the river. The playfully landscaped grounds include benches and chairs for sitting and dreaming.

A few steps from the motel, the town’s main street is a couple of short blocks that terminate at the 1873 Chase County courthouse, a wedding cake of a building and the oldest continuously operating courthouse in the state. It’s gloriously lighted in the evening and every Friday, all year-round, locals and visitors settle in at Emma’s Café for jam sessions that go on late into the night — bluegrass, gospel, acoustic and folk, on a rotating schedule.

Best of all, the prairie preserve is a scant five miles away on winding two-lane roads through all-American pastoral scenery.

A Work in Progress

A good-looking, low-slung new visitor’s center for the preserve opened last May. It’s a LEED-designated building of native stone, built partially below ground, its roof planted with native grasses: buffalo grass, little bluestem, sideoats grama and hairy grama.

Inside you can see a short orientation film and some interpretive displays, although the center is still a work in progress. The preserve also has an 1881 ranch house and ranch headquarters open for self-tours. (And occasional guided tours, when staffing permits.)

To kill time while waiting to board the bus for the free 90-minute tour, I took a little stroll on a rough and not terribly well-marked trail through the grasses, pausing to peer at wildflowers and trying to locate the origins of melodious birdsong. I made a quick turnaround, however, when I happened upon a cow resting in the grass, invisible until I was upon her. Local ranchers still graze cattle here. Although plowing destroys the natural ecosystem, grazing helps maintain it, as do annual controlled burns in March and April.

The bus tours are offered every day at 11 a.m. through the end of October. Ours was led by dry-witted park guide Jeff Rundell, who explained the prairie as we bounced along dirt roads in a bus painted with images of prairie scenery.
 
The grasses are knee-high, at best, in June. In autumn, in a good year with lots of rain (which Kansas has not had in far too long), grasses on the rich bottomland can grow to eight feet high. Most of the preserve is upland prairie, where the soil is thin, and grasses grow merely to chest height. This thin, unhelpful soil, with limestone just inches below its surface, helped preserve the prairie by chasing off farmers who tried to settle here — though many pioneers during the westward expansion didn’t bother.

“Kansas was considered a wasteland, just something you had to get through to get to the good stuff,” Rundell said.

Over time, farmers gave up and ranchers moved in, and the bison that originally grazed the prairie gave way to cattle. About 5,000 head of cattle still graze here. In 2009, 13 plains bison were settled here, the first time bison roamed these lands in 100 years. The herd is now about 20 strong; five new calves were born last spring. The National Park Service hopes eventually to have a herd of 80 or 90, Jeff said.

The prairie is also home to about 140 species of birds. Listen for the piping warble of the meadowlark — eastern and western meet here. Barn swallows fly hieroglphics around the old stone ranch headquarters on the property. If you’re in the area in early spring, look for the long-necked upland sandpiper, often perched on fenceposts; it winters in South America but summers here.

Flora is even more varied; about 500 species of plants grow here. Purple was abundant during my visit, in the clusters of ironweed blossoms and spiky pom-poms of wavyleaf thistle.  Bergamot (or bee balm) blooms coral-red. Grasses — too numerous to name — provide a green and gold undulating backdrop. The lone trees scattered among the grasses mark natural springs; there are hundreds on the preserve, thousands in the Flint Hills.

I asked Rundell what he loves about the prairie, how people should view it to understand its beauty.

“If you go past it at 70 miles an hour it’s just another pasture,” he said. “But get out and take a look. I have actually stopped the bus for a dung beetle.”

After my spring tour, I went for dinner then returned to the prairie in time to watch the shifting light and color as the sun set over the grasses.

I'm going back this month, when the grasses are tall. And I hope to visit again in April, to witness the spectacle of the prairie burns.

The prairie is ever-changing. I don’t tire of it because the more you look, the more you see.
 
Other Prairie Preserves to Visit

My romance with the prairie started with a visit to the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Okla., a few years ago (click here to see a video). This 39,000-acre preserve is the largest protected tallgrass prairie on earth. The Nature Conservancy bought the privately owned ranchland in 1989. It’s a 50-mile, drive-through experience, though you might need to brake for buffalo; a herd of about 2,500 roam here. It also has a ranch house and a visitors center/gift shop. It irecently added a two-mile hiking trail so you can do some exploring by foot.

A couple of months later, at the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, Okla., I huddled in a tent in the chill predawn, in the middle of a cow pasture, witnessing the marvelous spectacle of the lesser prairie chicken doing its mating dance, with lots of stomping and bowing and puffing and preening. Because of shrinking prairie land the bird is an endangered species. (For more on this festival by Dembling, and a video of the Lesser Prairie bird dancing, click here.)

I also have hiked through the mixed grass prairie in Custer State Park in South Dakota, pausing to photograph bison, butterflies, bees, and prairie dogs.

In Montana, the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve has the lofty goal of assembling, connecting, and restoring three million acres of publicly and privately owned high plains prairie as a preserve. The American Prairie Reserve leases or owns 274,000 acres, which are open to the public. I guess this will be another road trip!

For information about travel in Kansas, click here
 
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