It used to stretch in an enormous swath from Manitoba to Texas north to south, Indiana to Kansas east to west.
140 million acres of tallgrass prairie; a never-ending sea of grasses and plants with names like Big Bluestem and Butterfly milkweed. Prairie chickens fluffed and boomed looking for mates, ornate box turtles crept along, bison herds stretched for miles and beneath the top soil layer, another entire world of 10-foot-plus root systems, nematodes, burrowing small animals and limestone aquifers.
Very little of this ecosystem remains today – less than 4% of the original. Most of it is in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas (yes, there are hills in Kansas) because the rock-strewn, thin dirt was not suitable for the plowing and cultivating that turned much of the rest of America’s tallgrass into America’s Breadbasket.
A drive down the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway will immerse you in what is left of the sea of grass and the small towns that were created by pioneers heading west and the ranchers whose herds still roam the prairies.
Here is what I recommend for a visit:
Part of a revitalized downtown area, the Center does an excellent job of showing visitors how the prairie ecosystem works, and explaining the history of all of the different people who have inhabited the Flint Hills starting thousands of years ago. Don’t miss the dramatic multimedia “Tallgrass Prairie: Tides of Time” large-screen immersive presentation, let the kids loose in the extensive children’s area, and check for special exhibits and programs.
If you have time, there are roaming bison and trails to walk at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, part of Kansas State University. Those of you who love bugs should investigate the Kansas State Insect Zoo (including an observation beehive) housed in a former dairy barn on campus.
** Continue south down Kansas Highway 177 (note the cheery sunflower highway signage logo) to where the Byway officially starts, the town of Council Grove.
This was a key stop for those on the Santa Fe Trail – you can still see wagon ruts called swales outside town – and one of the 24 Council Grove historic sites highlighted by the Chamber of Commerce is the “Last Chance Store” where people stocked up because it was the last opportunity to do so for hundreds of miles.
There are still shopping opportunities today, though much less critical; I bought a Robert Frost-inspired metal creation at Alexander ArtWorks.
When hunger strikes you can get real milkshakes and sodas at the Aldrich Apothecary drugstore fountain, or eat at the famous Hays House Restaurant, which claims to be the oldest continuously-operating restaurant west of the Mississippi (since 1857.)
Hays House is also one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Cuisine, one of several fascinating lists of Kansas highlights created by the dynamite folks at the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which celebrates rural and small town surprises around the state.
** Further south on the Flint Hills Byway near Strong City is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the heart of efforts to save and preserve this last large part of the prairie that used to stretch across thousands of miles.
The low-slung Preserve Visitor Center and an 1800s native stone home, barn, outbuildings, and schoolhouse are next to the Byway road, but take some time to explore the trails that run back into the rolling prairie hills where the Kaw, Osage, Wichita and Pawnee once lived.
It’s so quiet out there – and always windy – but after a few minutes of tuning your ears, the sounds are easier to pick up. Whirring grasshoppers, grass rustling against itself, suddenly startled small critters diving underground, and meadowlarks tweeting in a way that does not require a phone or computer.
During the spring, don’t be surprised to see lines of fire snaking all across the hills, sending clouds of smoke into the air and sometimes requiring you to pull off the road a bit for safety reasons.
The Indians who lived here burnt the prairie each year to clear out weed-like cedar trees and other less-desirable plants, so that native grasses could remain strong for feeding the bison herds. Ranchers today still do springtime burns to improve the grass for their cattle.
It’s an even more extraordinary sight to see at night.
** The next stop down the Byway is Cottonwood Falls. It seems rather less lively than Council Grove, but is worth exploring if only to admire the 1873 native limestone Chase County Courthouse, built in French Renaissance style and lording its elegant self over the town.
Can you imagine using horse-drawn wagons to bring the hand-cut, 5-7 ton limestone blocks for the building over from Mr. Isaac Alexander’s nearby quarry on Spring Creek? It’s the oldest operating courthouse in Kansas and probably the Midwest; a walk through the distinguished chambers makes one actually yearn for jury duty.
Don’t miss the cells-within-a-box-within-a-room jail on the 2nd floor; it was used until the mid-1970s and one look at it certainly deterred me from thoughts of crime and mayhem.
Surprisingly for such a seemingly sleepy town, there’s an elegant hotel and fine dining restaurant in town – the Grand Central.
** Toward the southern terminus of the Byway (which ends in Cassoday) you’ll see Pioneer Bluffs in Matfield Green. It’s a farmhouse, barn, limestone fence, granary and grounds that are now an events venue, heritage education center and a gallery for contemporary art. Do stop in if they’re open; the original owner was an Austrian immigrant who walked all the way from Iowa to build a prosperous life in Kansas, which was continued by his son and grandson.
Note: if you want to stay in this area and experience today’s ranching life including trail rides and cattle drives, there are agritourism lodging options like the Flying W Ranch, run by fifth generation Flint Hills rancher Josh Hoy and his family. Josh is also a trained chef; he’s appeared on TV’s “Master Chef” program and I can vouch for his delicious brisket, corn pudding, fresh cole slaw and chocolate cake.
If you have never been to this part of Kansas or even the Midwest in general, I guarantee that you will be surprised and delighted by the special beauty of the region and the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (go here to see all the scenic byways in Kansas.) I’ve only visited twice but each time I wished that I could have stayed longer.
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