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buffalo herd from the bus window
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Closest available address
Located 10 minutes north of Strong City, off of Highway 177
May-Oct. buildings open 8:30am-4:30pm & Nov.-April 9am- 4:30pm. Trails are open 24 hours.
Best time to visit
Summer, Fall, Spring
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a 10,894 acre park that contains a nationally significant remnant of the prairie ecosystem that once was 140 million acres and predominated in the American Midwest. The preserve is primarily owned by a land conservation organization called the Nature Conservancy, but is managed by the National Park Service. In addition to the prairie and a number of hiking trails, the park has a modern visitor center with a small museum. There also is a historic home, a barn and related outbuildings which date back to 1881 when the preserve was a private ranch.
The preserve is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, which several hundred million years ago was an inland sea. Deposits of various rock types such as limestone and flint gradually became exposed over the years as soil and softer rocks eroded. It was these limestone and flint deposits which made the land unsuitable for plowing and kept the prairie intact. Instead of planting crops, the land was used for cattle grazing from 1878 to 1994 (and again today). Various proposals were made over the years to develop a national park in the Midwest focused on the prairies but they all came to naught. Finally in the mid 1990s action was taken to establish a reserve when the ranch was purchased by the National Park Trust in 1994. In 1996 a new type of public/private preserve was established here. The Nature Conservancy acquired most of the property in 2005. The park service owns approximately 180 acres.
Although the temperature was in the upper 90s, coming here in the summer worked well because the park service operates a free bus tour from late spring to early fall. Unless you are inclined to walk a lot, the bus is the only practical way to see the park because private cars are not permitted on the main trail/road called the Scenic Overlook Trail. The bus tour takes about an hour and departs from the visitor center to an overlook point and then back to the visitor center. The tour was narrated and reasonably informative, but was more memorable for the views and encounters with buffalo. The buffalo have been reintroduced here and range on a small portion of the preserve. They are interesting to see up close but doing so from the safety of the bus is a better option than approaching them on foot. If you miss the bus tour and want to walk/hike some of the park, the Scenic Overlook Trail is still a good choice as it’s wide, uncluttered, and provides a great perspective of the prairie environment. The Southwind Nature Trail, which is a 2 mile loop trail that departs from and returns to the historic house was the second best option. It also had decent views, but one could hear traffic from the main road which diminished the natural experience. A third trail, The Bottomland Nature Trail, was also explored but was less interesting. It's located in a wetter more sheltered environment in which certain types of prairie grasses and various trees are more prevalent. Traffic also could be heard on this trail.
As for the buildings, the visitor center is worth a quick look to learn more about the prairie ecosystem. Displays were limited but described various native plants and animals from a seasonal perspective. However, if you have limited time, the visitor center displays and a short film can be skipped without meaningfully diminishing your experience. More interesting was the large barn, which was built of limestone and has three levels. Historic farm equipment is exhibited inside, and there was a horse and cat hanging around as well. The former home was recently re-opened after a renovation. There is some period furniture inside, but most of the rooms are bare. If you are into older homes you will probably want to check it out, but don’t expect too much. A better option from a historic sense is a one room schoolhouse which was constructed in 1882. It’s generally open in the summertime. The school is right out of the TV show Little House on the Prairie, very modest but authentic and well presented. You can either walk or drive to the schoolhouse but should see it if you have time.
Overall, this was a reasonably interesting place to visit. Viewing the prairie environment from the Scenic Overlook Trail was rewarding and the vistas and scenery were impressive. That experience is the primary draw of coming here. The preserve is also a decent choice for a hike but not worth a long drive to do so. If you are in or near Kansas City, and don’t mind driving a couple hours, the preserve can provide a sense of what the great prairies from the 1800s may once have looked like.
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