In the middle of America, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve offers an intimate, grounding experience.
By Morgan Heim
I’m hoofing it back to my car after an evening spent stargazing in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, when the ground starts to tremble under my feet. I’ve stirred the bison from their slumber and done it in just about the most dangerous way possible—by unwittingly getting too close. My attempts to spot the herd a safe distance from its bedding area had clearly failed. If I survive this, I think, I’ll need to buy a better flashlight.
Snorts and thundering hooves echo through the darkness, and all I can do is wait for the hulking figure of a frightened, sleep-deprived bison to careen into my circle of light. But as I listen, I realize the bison are running away from me. My heart beats again. I choose a wide path around the trail, making sure to leave the bison plenty of room.
These bison are lucky—inside the preserve, they can stretch their legs—but most of their predecessors were either killed off or squeezed out by development. Of the 170 million acres of land that once constituted their grassland habitat, only 4 percent remains. In 2009, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy introduced 13 plains bison to the preserve; two years and three babies later, the herd is thriving on one of the largest and best protected landscapes of its kind. Here, there’s still plenty of grass tall enough to tickle the bellies of bison.
The morning after my close encounter with the herd, I’m walking up the Big Pasture Trail, a 13-mile loop of old ranch roads now used primarily by fire crews and researchers. Not many visitors walk the trails here. Of the roughly 22,000 people that come every year, most opt for a short bus tour to an overlook, or maybe a trip to the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch. But with more than 40 miles of trails, most of which were opened to the public in the last two years, this preserve was made for walking. Here, visitors don’t need to worry about dodging cyclists or horseback riders or getting stuck in a traffic jam.
Exploring this place is all about putting one foot in front of the other—a method that park guide Jeff Rundell understands well. “I just love to run out on the prairie,” he says. “I love the freedom, the idea of getting out there and seeing nothing but grass and open space.”
Beyond the old farmhouse, bluestem grass, wild coneflowers, and 500 other plant species stretch for as far as the eye can see. I imagine stepping into a time when pioneers traversed this oceanic landmass on their way to the promise of the West. Suddenly, the faint rumbling of engines and beeping trucks in the distance whisk me back. Their presence seems to signal an awakening for the preserve: Construction is under way on a new visitor center and restrooms.
I’ve come to the prairie at the tail end of summer, and the land is alive with the monarch butterfly migration. As I move farther into the preserve, cicadas quickly drown out any sounds of construction. I find myself incredulous that an animal so small can bombard my ears with a sound so large (male cicadas produce a buzz upwards of 100 decibels—the insect version of a packed concert hall). Birds sing, although I can’t always see them, and somewhere in the grasses to my right, a frog calls for a mate. This is a place where the rarity of visitors leaves nature to shout out loud.
After stargazing, bison stampedes, and early mornings spent watching the sun rise over the Flint Hills, I’ve arrived at my last day at the preserve. By now I’ve more than earned my prairie legs, but there’s one last trail I have to hike. I need to time it just right: that part of the day when the sun bathes the land in soft golden light. For my last visit, I want to see the prairie in full glory.
So early in the afternoon, I sit idling at a Starbucks drive-thru in nearby Emporia to fuel up and kill time. As I wait, the girl at the window strikes up a conversation. “What are you up to today?” she asks. I tell her that I’m going to the preserve.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to go there,” she says. “But no one will go with me.”
I suggest she go by herself, hoping she’ll be encouraged by the fact that I, too, am a young woman traveling solo.
“Nah,” she says. “There are chiggers out there. My biology professor showed us pictures of what the bites look like.”
It seems the very nature of nature keeps even the locals at bay.
I return to the preserve and pull into an empty parking lot. My 6-mile hike takes me along Fox Creek, another new trail in a very different type of tallgrass prairie known as the “bottomlands.” Here, dry hills give way to wetter lowlands and the grasses grow their tallest. I reach my hands high in the setting sun, and the tops of the plants evade my fingertips. Cottonwoods line a ridge, and a creek winds through woods farther below. In one field, hidden by a wall of sunflowers, I watch wildlife forage in dimming light: a flock of wild turkeys and every member of a white-tailed deer family—a buck, a doe, and three fawns. Hawks sweep through the branches and up to a butte on the other side of the ravine.
I’ve spent a lot of time in national parks since I was a child, but this moment marked the first time in a while that I felt a park was mine. What has in many places become an overcrowded nature experience goes back to its roots at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I am literally the only person for miles—and I didn’t even have to go very far to get there.
The best time to visit Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is late May through early June, when the prairie is a sea of green grass and wildflowers. The second best time is mid-October, when the summer grasses turn red for the prairie’s version of fall colors. Hikes in the morning and evening will afford you beautiful light and a little escape from summer heat. Be sure to check the website for trail conditions and to reserve space on the tour bus, which takes you past the bison herd and to an overlook with prime prairie viewing. Bus tours are offered daily at 11 a.m. from the last Saturday in April through the last Sunday in October, with more available as staffing allows. The preserve is also testing a newly minted cell-phone tour. Numbered markers along trails and in the ranch headquarters area correspond to a dial-in code with recordings of factoids and prairie history. Fliers for the tour are available in the visitor center.
Getting there is easy. From Kansas City International Airport, it’s a 72-mile trip west to Topeka, Kansas, and another 80 miles southwest to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. From Wichita International Airport, an 85-mile drive northeast will take you to the preserve.
Within spitting distance of the preserve is the budget-friendly Prairie Fire Inn and Spa, where wood paneling and Norman Rockwell posters take visitors back in time. Rooms are clean and sparse; bathrooms are stocked with organic soaps in biodegradable packaging. The inn has free wi-fi and decent cell-phone service, which can otherwise be spotty in the area.
The Millstream Resort, located along the picturesque Cottonwood River in Cottonwood Falls, is another option for clean, down-home motel accommodations. This quaint town, about six miles south of the preserve, is also home to the historic Grand Central Hotel, which is a fine place to grab a meal. Dinner here is a bit of a splurge, but lunch includes reasonably priced sandwiches, salads, and quesadillas. Reservations are recommended. Another local favorite is the Emma Chase Café, known for its homemade pies, hearty cooking, and Friday night music festivals.
Driving east to Emporia, you can choose from an array of standard chain motels and restaurants; Topeka provides similar lodging options. The Ramada Convention Center downtown has reasonable rates that include a full breakfast, and it is located close to Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.
Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site
In Topeka, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, our country reached a critical turning point at what is now Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. Here, black children were finally allowed to attend school with white children in 1954. The brick-faced Monroe Elementary School is the site’s lone building. Polished halls invite visitors into an immersive experience of Civil Rights history, including a tour de force of multimedia displays that would put much larger museums to shame.
Hanging from the school’s gymnasium ceiling, a three-screened synchronized movie called “Race and the American Creed” introduces the story of equal rights in America. Down the hall in an old classroom, touchscreens allow visitors to test their Brown v. Board of Education knowledge. Little did I know that the case consisted of five lawsuits argued simultaneously before the U.S. Supreme Court.
For me, the most goosebump-inducing, time-travel-worthy exhibit here was the “Hall of Courage,” a tunnel of four giant video screens separating one half of a classroom from another. Here visitors walk in a student’s shoes through a hallway of cacophonous news footage depicting angry mobs. I literally held my breath as I pushed through to the other side.
Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site is good to visit anytime, though late summer may provide a quieter experience.