My mom gave me a book titled “America the Beautiful”, and one of the intriguing places marked on the map that I really wanted to visit was the Flint Hills of Kansas. Our earlier route planning did not include this stop, as we had thought our drive through Kansas would be quick. But I was glad that we were able to include this interesting area, which runs north to south in the heart of of the state and spills into Oklahoma.
The tall grass prairie used to cover 170 million acres of North America, but most of it was developed and plowed under during the past couple of centuries. Today, less than 4% of the original tall grass remains, and much of it is here in the Flint Hills. The region’s sweeping native prairie grassland remains as the last great preserved area of tall grass in the country. To find out more, we first drove the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, then visited the Tallgrass National Preserve and hiked the Overlook Scenic Trail.
We learned some notable facts about the tall grass prairie –
- The underlying rock strata of the Flint Hills are from the Permian Age (299-251 million years ago). The layers of limestone have numerous nodules of chert (flint) within them, giving the area its name. It was Zebulon Pike, the explorer and surveyor, who coined the term “Flint Hills” in reference to these rugged, rocky stair-stepped hills.
- Because of the presence of flint under the topsoil throughout the hills, the ground is impossible to plow. As a result, the Flint Hills region remains as the largest unplowed remnant of tall grass prairie in the world, suitable for ranching rather than farming.
- We might think it’s just grass and weeds, but the tall grass prairie is actually an endangered ecosystem. On November 12, 1996, legislation created the 10,894 acre Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve to protect a small part of a once vast tall grass prairie ecosystem.
- Each spring the Flint Hills go up in smoke when ranchers burn the prairie, a practice dating back to the earliest human occupation of the Great Plains. Fire controls invasive plants because their shallow roots are damaged by its intense heat. Native grasses, on the other hand, are protected because of their deep root systems (up to 12 feet long in some cases). In short, fire is vital to a healthy prairie ecosystem.
- After the burn, the hills quickly recover and turn a wonderful vibrant green with splashes of purple, yellow, pink and white or orange wildflowers.
- From May to July the Flint Hills are visited by thousands of four-legged tourists. Herds of cattle are brought here from as far away as Texas to graze on the new green shoots. This grazing activity serves to stimulate tall grass prairie to grow stronger, which in turn helps to preserve it. The cattle are rarely moved during their 100-120 day stay, which maximizes their weight gain – up to 2 pounds per day! You’ve heard that happy cows are from California? Not all of them!
- Fall is the best time to see the tall grass when it’s really tall – up to 8-12 feet tall! In this region are mostlybigandlittlebluestem grass, switch grass, and Indian grass. Trees are rare, usually seen along streams and river bottoms.
We drove the north-south Flint Hills National Scenic Byway along highway 177. It stretches 47.2 miles across the Flint Hills between Council Grove and Cassoday. We made several stops at historical places and buildings along the way.
One stop was at the Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls. It was built in 1873 from native Flint Hills limestone that was quarried and hand-cut right here.
The moment we stepped inside, our attention was grabbed by the original three-story black walnut staircase.
￼This is the oldest operating county courthouse in Kansas, and the courtroom had a beautiful embossed tin ceiling. But the most interesting feature, and the one that really brought a smile to Steve’s face, was the jail. He was totally excited to see how everything worked in this old place. What a find!
Continuing down the Scenic Byway, we traveled over the hills for more panoramic views of the ranches in the area. According to the locals these endless vistas have remained unchanged for thousands of years, and a variety of people, plants and wildlife call the Flint Hills home.
Next we stopped at the north end of the byway, in the town of Council Grove. It received its name on August 10, 1825, when several U.S. Commissioners met with chiefs of the Great and Little Osage Indian tribes beneath a tree later named the “Council Oak”. They signed the first treaty establishing the right-of-way for the famed Santa Fe Trail.
Council Grove was once a bustling point of rendezvous on the Santa Fe Trail.
The open sky, open land and unobstructed vistas can give one the perception of the Flint Hills as nothing but lots of cattle fodder with copious views. For me, having seen and experienced everything here as it’s been for eons, I think maybe Dorothy had a pretty good thing going before she was swept away!
Next up: Hiking at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve