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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!