Hiking the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – Strong City, Kansas

We were alerted to a heat advisory on the day we decided to visit and hike at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  We had only a short time on this stop, so we slathered on the sunscreen and bug protection after getting up for an early start.   We checked out the Visitor Center after our hike, so we could cool down from the heat and humidity.  There were no shade trees on this trek, just pure wide-open space!

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

It was not until recently that the tall grass prairie ecosystem has been represented in the National Park System.  Today, a portion of this rare landscape covering 10,894 acres has been set aside and dedicated to the rich natural and cultural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.  We were happy to be here to enjoy it for ourselves.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

There are some 40 miles of trails to follow here, but we took the modest Scenic Overlook trail which ended at the overlook – about 3.2 miles one way.  The trail was classified as backcountry, but it was actually a gravel road that the park tour buses can travel.  Fortunately, the tours for that day were cancelled so we didn’t have to hike in dust from the buses.  In fact, we saw only 3-4 other folks during our entire hike!  This trail was mostly flat with some very gradual hills.


At first glance the prairie may look empty and lifeless.  As we continued to meander on this lonely road, I realized that the beauty here is subtle and not in your face – especially since the grass isn’t super-tall yet.  Given a good spring and summer growing season, it will grow to an impressive eight feet or higher by fall.  I’d love to come back and see the waving sea of grass at that time!

Four species of grasses dominate here, Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass and Switch Grass.  These grasses account for about 80% of the total plant life, but only around 20% of the area’s total plant species are found in the Flint Hills.

Some of the grasses are already almost as tall as me, but they have a long way to grow
Eastern Gamma Grass
Eastern Gamma Grass

I took time to stop, listen and look closely while Steve was well on his way to getting his exercise.  I could hear and feel the breeze blowing across the open landscape.  The Dickcissels and the Eastern Meadowlarks were competing for my attention as they sang their hearts out from their grassy perches.  And yes, there were lots of them!

The annual prescribed burn happened just two months ago, but we couldn’t even tell as the prairie was already bursting with colors and new grasses covering the chert.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Although we were cautioned about possibly encountering Bison along the way, we only saw a few groups of happy cows grazing and trying to get as fat as possible during their two-month stay.

Hey, get up and eat you lazy cows!

There were millions of insects lurking in and flying around the prairie grasses.  Butterflies fluttered around flowers, dragonflies ate mosquitoes and grasshoppers hopped on wildflower petals.  I couldn’t resist snapping a few pictures of them for posterity, but was careful to keep my distance to avoid any further episodes with chiggers.  I learned that there are about 10 million insects per acre in the prairie, wow!  Here are a few of them:


Not to be outdone, a Texas Horned Lizard stepped out onto the road to strike a pose:


Our stop at the Visitor’s Center revealed that in addition to telling the story of the heartland, they also described the geology of the Flint Hills and the cultural history of the area.  Another display contained an example of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, while an exhibit of the different grass species at their full height during autumn helped me visualize what the prairie would look like then.

Tallgrass display

Next door to the Visitor’s Center is the historic ranch house, barn and outbuildings originally owned by cattleman Stephen F. Jones.  The majority of the land which now comprises Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was originally the property of the Spring Hill Ranch.

Spring Hill Barn
Spring Hill Ranch and barn

The barn was built in the 1880’s of hand-cut locally quarried limestone, costing a whopping $15,000. It remains one of the largest historic limestone barns in Kansas at 60 feet wide by 110 feet long.  It contains approximately 19,000 square feet of floor space over its three levels.

Spring Hill Ranch

A few yards away is Mr. Jones’ impressive ranch house, completed in 1881.  The grand four-level structure forms the centerpiece of the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch.  The eleven room ranch house cost $25,000 to build, and Mr. Jones found an abundant supply of limestone on his ranch for it.  In fact, he had enough stone to add over 30 miles of stone fencing!  This stone fencing, which we saw during our hike, actually ended open-range ranching.

Spring Hill Ranch
The house stands as a beautiful example of French Second Empire architecture, a style popular in the late 19th century

After a year and a half of restoration and preservation work, Spring Hill Ranch has been reopened for self-guided tours.  Inside can be found woodwork with faux walnut paint finishes, and much of the hardware on the doors and windows is original. Even a lot of the crown moulding has survived the harsh weather.  Restoration work continues on the house and ranch, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in February 1997.


Each of the site’s historic structures, exhibits, hiking trails, ranch tours and wide-open vistas of tallgrass prairie helped us to experience the natural and cultural history of the preserve, and the Flint Hills in general.  And it was all free!

Check another one off my bucket list!




  1. There is a beauty to the open grassland prairie that one just needs to search out. I’ll be seeing my fair share of cornfields at the end of the month. 🙂

  2. Glad you were able to walk out into the grassland with the heat. Your photos of the bugs and butterfly are great! How nice of the lizard to pose for you:) Great uncrowded hike and tour!

    • The breeze kept us cool it was only when we got back that we felt the heat. The wildflowers were the highlight as are the insects, too many and scary to get near too, except of course the butterflies.

  3. You are showing me a part of Kansas I didn’t know existed. What a lovely area. The green grassland and blue skies are gorgeous.

  4. So much beauty hidden in those grasses! You captured wonderful photos of the wildflowers and insects. Wow, the prairie has an outrageous number of bugs. No wonder you were wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt — that was wise, even though it was a hot day. No more chiggers for you, my friend! 🙂

    • The bugs were definitely there. Fortunately the breeze kept us cool until the overlook. It was when we got back when we felt the heat. I think you would enjoy it here, there were so many birds, I just hesitated to follow them because of the bugs.

  5. Your pictures are fantastic MonaLiza! With the flowers, the insects, the grasses and the long views, they give a perfect sense of the place. I’m not sure I would have gone out in a heat advisory but you saw every bit as much as we did on our fall visit other than the cute little school house. But you got the toad and he didn’t show up for us. We did not do the road but did do the paths out to the school house and back. The grasses were taller but we may have had fewer flowers. It’s definitely a place I’d return to. It’s amazing how mesmerizing it can be. So quiet and magnificent. Thanks for taking me back.

    • The breeze actually cooled us off and we started at 7AM. I really enjoyed the hike and wildflowers and If we come this way again, it will be in fall so I can really see how tall the grasses will be.

  6. I too would love to see the prarie at its full grass height…and you are so right about slowing down to take it all in. There is definitely a lot going on in the prarie! Wonderful photos as always MonaLisa!

  7. I’m so glad you’re taking the route you are. You’re showing us all things we probably wouldn’t take the time to investigate. Remembering to pay attention to the little things is a good reminder. In your face views are wonderful, but subtle quiet life is just as wonderful…
    I’d love to see the grasses at their full height! Thanks.

  8. What a lovely post! It was refreshing to read about an area of our country that I knew so little about. And your photos told the story so well.

  9. I imagine the prairie is a sight to behold in the fall when the grass is tall. I had to laugh at the locked door sign. I wonder how many people try to turn it anyway?

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