The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Emporia, Kansas, contains most of the 4% of the remaining tallgrass prairie left in the United States. Tallgrass once covered 140 million acres in this country, but it’s almost all gone now.
Perception can be skewed when we don’t have as many landmarks as we’re used to. For example, in the photo above, the trees on the horizon are about 18 miles away. It’s amazing to see wide open spaces with no phone poles or light wires.
I visited on May 11, and the wild flowers were just starting to come up. Apparently May and June are the times for wildflowers. If you want to see tallgrass, the time for that is September and October.
One of the things you often see in Kansas are fields burning off. It’s quite striking to see when you’re driving at night. The burning serves to get rid of the dried thatch and all. You can see the difference on either side of the road in the photo below.
What is green was burned. The brown side was not. However, our guide told us within a few weeks they’ll look much the same as the new growth will overwhelm the dried old growth.
This area of Kansas is called the Flint Hills. I had never heard that designation until I moved here. I hadn’t known the origin of the phrase until the other day. It comes from Zebulon Pike who wrote in 1806 about “hills of flint” and the idea stuck.
Flint is distinctive in that it flakes off in a rounded fashion, a conchoidal fracture, leaving behind something that looks like a thumbprint. You can see that effect beside my thumb in the photo below. It also leaves a sharp edge.
Your tour at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is divided into different segments. First stop is the visitor’s center in the three story, limestone barn built into a hillside. The outside walls are 20 inches thick.
The National Park Service has provided a number of photo tours on their website.
The barn was built in 1880 and much of the original structure is still there.
I loved the rafters and the floors.
The open doors provide great air circulation and you can look out to see the cattle that now graze on the land.
Soon they will have bison there instead of cattle. Bison are what would have naturally been there and are more suited for the ecosystem. Cattle like to graze on flowers, but the wildflowers and putting a tremendous amount of nitrogen into the soil, which later provides nutrients for the tallgrass. The bison prefer to graze on the grass. It’s a prime example of how little things can make a difference.
Right outside the barn, you can board a bus for a ride into the prairie.
The tour takes about 90 minutes and includes a couple of stops along the way. At our first one we had a visitor.
I guess, technically, we were visiting him. Collared lizards are amazingly nimble. This little guy was quite interesting for the whole group, particularly a young lady named Lily, visiting Kansas from Indianapolis with her dad. They had been to a number of places already – Quivira, Cheyenne Bottoms, The Kansas Underground Salt Museum and others – and were having a great time in Kansas.
Throughout your tour, the driver/guide tells you about the prairie and its unique place in the ecosystem. You can find over 500 species of plants and nearly 150 species of birds, including the prairie chicken, which was brought back from near extinction.
You can also tour the home built by the James family in 1881.
They lived in it only five years before moving to Kansas City.
It has some distinctive features, including this newel post.
This skylight with different colored glass, maybe from bottles.
Mr. James was a business man who even had a phone in the house.
They brought cool water from the spring into the spring house where they would cool the milk and other perishables in the trough of cool water.
There are also trails you can walk at the Preserve. The nearly 11,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was established in 1996 and is the only part of the National park system dedicated to the tallgrass prairie. It’s a unique private/public partnership between the National Park Service (the primary land manager), The Nature Conservancy (the primary landowner), and the Kansas Park Trust (cooperating bookstore and promotion).
There are many wonderful vistas to be had on the Prairie. At the moment, this is all free.
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