Kansas’ Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is park unlike any other

This piece originally appeared in the Jan. 11, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette.

When it comes to national parks, there aren’t many like the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas’ scenic Flint Hills.

My family has been there multiple times – most recently in December – and I’m still not fully sure what I think about its particular approach to being a national park. For one thing, there’s no camping, even though there would probably be nothing more awe-inspiring than to sleep in the open under those vast prairie skies.

It’s a complicated place with a complicated history, and if you’re headed through that part of the country, it’s well worth a day trip – or even two or more, if you stay in one of the historic communities nearby.

Flatter than a pancake, and just as tasty

Our Christmas trip to Texas was to have included more outdoor time, but my stepfather Walt’s passing and memorial service precluded that. As an alternative, we turned a short side trip into a two-hour hike and time to remember not only Walt, but Yami’s father Omar, who had passed just weeks before.

The Tallgrass Prairie was a place we’d been with both of them during visits to us while we lived in Kansas. We couldn’t have picked a more beautiful December day, as the skies were a rich winter blue, and nearly completely so.

Just a very few clouds provided scenic balance and scale that is easy to appreciate in a state reputedly flat as a pancake.

If you’re driving down the Kansas Turnpike – or pretty much any other road in the state – that can seem true, especially if you’re focused on the horizon. Such a focus is a natural state of affairs when considering the hundreds of miles remaining before your arrival in Whereversville.

But thinking that way, you’d miss an awful lot of beauty and a surprising amount of contrast. There is, in fact, a study available online in the Annals of Improbable Research called, unsurprisingly, “Kansas is Flatter than a Pancake.”

If you’re feeling snowbound right now, look this up; the site is a hoot and quite educational.

While its basic premise is that, considered in relative scale, Kansas indeed deserves its reputation, the article also points out that a pancake’s surface, were it the size of a Midwestern state, would be substantially more topographically varied to the naked eye (meaning an eye free, I suppose, of butter and maple syrup).

Try getting out of your car on the Kansas Turnpike not too far from Bazaar. Once you finish your viewing at the scenic overlook of a cattle pen – I’m not lying about this – turn around in a circle while watching the horizon and the world might indeed seem like a pancake under a perfect glass hemisphere.

But examine your breakfast a little more closely and you’d see the folds of the earth where distant hillsides drop into unseen creek beds or a part of a lone cottonwood pops up out of the grasses. A string of cattle might be climbing a slope and disappearing on the other side.

Everywhere there are rolling hills and bluffs and draws that bring to mind the life of former Wisconsinite Laura Ingalls Wilder after she left the Big Woods for her Little House on the Prairie.

That’s the Flint Hills, and there’s no place more beautiful. It’s like pancakes and pizza –no matter how good the last one was, the next one will be at least as wonderful.

There’s not much tallgrass prairie left – only about 4 percent of the 170 million acres that used to cover North America, with most of it being there in the Flint Hills, according to the National Park Service. Whether the grasses are green and full of prairie flowers, blowing around in waves of gold, or covered in a blanket of snow, this expansive and peaceful region needs to be seen at least once in a lifetime.

No place more appropriate for history

Walt, a veteran of the modern 1st Cavalry Division, was a western history buff, and Omar, a dairyman, loved anything related to cattle and ranching. The preserve was a great place to remember them.

At its heart, the preserve is a ranch – the historic home of the Stephen Jones family, a working operation whose grazing rights ultimately were leased to wealthy Texan Edward Bass as part of an agreement for what is often termed “a new kind of national park.”

The park is, in fact, owned primarily by The Nature Conservancy and jointly managed by the conservancy and the National Park Service, with a substantial donation by Bass aiding its development and with his 35-year lease payments taking care of the park’s mortgage.

Because of that and a history of local reluctance to have a tourist attraction, among other reasons, it’s been slower to develop – so no camping as yet. “But we’re working on it,” said Ranger Heather Brown, who I recognized from our first trip to the preserve nearly 15 years ago.

The park has a newish (for us) visitor center in addition to its barn, large limestone home, and one-room schoolhouse, among other facilities. Open since 2002 (although since 1998 as a preserve), it has expanded its trail system since our first visit.

That system now includes more than 40 miles of hiking and nature trails, extending to both sides of the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway.

That runs on Kansas 177 between Council Grove and Cassoday, a turnpike exit at the byway’s southern end. The park is about an hour from Topeka and less than two hours from Kansas City.

The tour of the house is well worth it and the park has ample activities and  demonstrations during the year, including bus tours, but this trip was to stretch our legs and enjoy fresh air. Visitors can reach the park website through the National Park Service site for more information.

Late in the afternoon, we headed up the Scenic Overlook Trail, which is 3.2 miles one way to the overlook and offers several options for getting back. This depends on whether hikers want to move on to other trails or spurs that loop back to park headquarters, or just double back through the Windmill Pasture, which is fenced off and has held, since 2009, a small herd of bison.

You don’t want to fool with bison, as they can be aggressive and are naturally curious. The park service recommends staying at least 125 yards away and turning back if they block the trail.

We saw a group of five off a spur of the Overlook Trail, lounging at a gate on the southern edge of the pasture. After observing them from a distance, we headed on up the trail to reach the overlook.

Having already hiked mostly uphill for almost two miles, the kids were already grunting their displeasure about my plan to take us down the Prairie Fire Loop and then on the Davis Trail past the old schoolhouse, a total jaunt of just under eight miles.

It’s hard to blame them, in retrospect, but at the time, I tried to convince them of the rarity of such a beautiful day (only slightly windy and temperatures in the 50s) with such great views, stretching from Strong City and Cottonwood Falls a few miles south to the miles of prairie in all other directions.

No matter. Just as we rounded a bend, coming up a rise northwest of the ranch house, we saw, about 75 yards away, a herd of two dozen bison crowding both sides of the trail. We eyed them, they eyed us, we took pictures, and then we turned back around – me reluctantly, and everyone else with a measure of relief.

Having missed the official overlook, Sam and I climbed the hill to our left and took a shot of the herd from above, observing with awe the tromped-down spots in waist-high grass and wallows left everywhere by the huge beasts.

We remarked upon how much both Walt and Omar would have been thrilled to see the bison. And then we dawdled our way back, fooling around and taking more pictures as the setting sun provided sharp golden-red lighting to all our views and as shadows began creeping down the hillsides, over the stock ponds and toward the highway home.

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