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A guide to visiting Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas

One of the preserve’s network of trails leads to a one-room schoolhouse that was in use from 1882 to 1930. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

It was sublimely quiet. The only sounds at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve on a recent weekday morning were occasional bird calls, wind blowing across open landscape, and the low rumble of trucks traveling along an adjacent highway.

As gravel crackled underfoot, a single horse strolled outside of a barn next to a trail that rose gently into the sanctuary and dissolved into the horizon. The trail, part of a 40-mile network, leads into the grass-covered, undulating hills of this preserve in the heart of the Kansas Flint Hills—the country’s largest remaining expanse of tallgrass prairie. The nearly 11,000-acre natural wonder near Strong City, Kansas, showcases a rare ecosystem that extends from Nebraska into Oklahoma through central Kansas.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the preserve operates as a cooperative venture between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. In addition to wide-open spaces punctuated by trails, visitors will find an 1880s mansion built by original landowner Stephen F. Jones and a handful of additional ranch buildings.

Visitors will relish discovering the singular beauty of the tallgrass prairie, which once covered 170 million acres of North America. Within a generation, however, most of it had been utilized for towns, cities, and farms. Today less than 4 percent remains intact, mostly in the Flint Hills.

The sweeping vistas of the hills come alive each spring in a brilliant green expanse of rolling terrain. Several types of grasses, wildflowers, and other plants—some with roots that can extend 15 feet into the ground—grow atop hills layered with limestone, flint, and shale. During warmer weather, controlled burns race across fields as ranchers seek to regenerate plant growth. It’s a practice that began among Kaw, Osage, Pawnee, and Wichita tribes who lived there long before settlers arrived.

equine encounter preserve

Visitors enjoy an equine encounter at the preserve. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

The history of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve 

The ranch property at the heart of the preserve took root in 1878, 17 years after Kansas became a state. Stephen and Louisa Jones acquired massive acreage near what is now Strong City. A perfect place for livestock grazing, the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch served as a feeding station on the way from the couple’s Colorado cattle ranch.

By the time the Jones family sold their property nearly a decade later, they had purchased and combined more than 7,000 acres. Thirty miles of stone fences and numerous buildings remained, including the limestone family mansion with its red, multi-gabled roof and intricate interior woodwork.

The family’s neighbor and banking partner, Barney Lantry, purchased the ranch in 1888. He then merged it with his existing ranch, resulting in a combined 13,000 acres. The property subdivided several times after Lantry’s death, and at least 11 owners have had a hand in maintaining the land through the years. Among them was George Davis, who combined the previous Jones and Lantry ranches in the mid-1930s. The acreage was later officially named the Z Bar Cattle Company but was referred to locally as the Z Bar Ranch.

The National Park Trust purchased the property in 1994, and it was designated the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in 1996. Since then, the National Park Trust has donated some of the land to the National Park Service (NPS) and sold the rest to The Nature Conservancy, which partners with the NPS to protect the prairie ecosystem. Here, the tallgrass makes its last stand.

hiking tall grass prairie

Hikers walk one of the trails at the nearly 11,000-acre site. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Hiking around the preserve

There’s no charge to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, where the trails are always open and the sky is a beautiful, ever-changing canvas. The preserve features three primary and several smaller trails. Closed-toe shoes with good tread are recommended on the trails, which are composed of gravel roads and grassy pathways. Dogs are restricted to the site’s nature trails and the Fox Creek Trail.

The Southwind Nature Trail leads to the one-room Lower Fox Creek School, which served students from 1882 to 1930, while the Scenic Overlook Trail provides panoramic views and access to the Windmill Pasture, where a bison herd roams. For safety, hikers should stay at least 125 yards away from these wild, massive creatures.

Ranger-guided interpretive bus tours, which include the bison pasture, were suspended because of the pandemic but will resume when conditions allow.

The preserve also encompasses multiple historic buildings. A tin roof tops a shed near the massive limestone barn, where sunlight seeps around the edges of weathered doors.

As you hike, you may see the chicken house and the scratch shed, where these birds once lived and exercised. Visit the carriage house, which stored ranch vehicles and equipment, and the curing house, where previous property owners cured ham and other meats. At the icehouse, the Jones family stored ice cut from the nearby Cottonwood River and other water sources.

The Jones mansion should reopen this summer following foundation repairs and construction to improve accessibility. Inside, visitors will again learn about the tallgrass prairie, the Flint Hills, and the people who took care of this area since the Jones family arrived.

In the visitors center, brightly colored exhibits examine seasonal indigenous vegetation and area wildlife. Guests can also follow self-guided cell-phone tours, and children can participate in a Junior Ranger program. Other activities include catch-and-release fishing in three ponds and observing ranch chores like gardening during living history events.

After exploring the preserve, you’ll undoubtedly feel a sense of closeness with the unique land summed up in a quote by Methodist Bishop and author William A. Quayle printed near the visitors center’s ceiling: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”

Flint Hills Discovery Center

Exhibits at the Flint Hills Discovery Center introduce visitors to the prairie’s ecology and culture. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Where to eat, sleep, and visit around Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve 

Flint Hills Discovery Center, Manhattan: About an hour’s drive north from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, this culture and science museum features exhibits that immerse visitors in the diversity and beauty of the tallgrass prairie. Experiences include an immersive theater and a Prairie Garden Trail that wraps around the back of the center. Adults, $10. (785) 587-2726; flinthillsdiscovery.org.

Grand Central Hotel and Grill, Cottonwood Falls: The 10 luxurious rooms in this hotel with Western flair honor historical ranches throughout this area in name and decor. Rates start at $160. The Grand Central Hotel and Grill's lunchtime customer favorite, the Beef and Bleu Salad, features fresh greens tossed with cranberry vinaigrette and topped with Creekstone Farms beef and blue cheese crumbles. A variety of other salads on the lunch menu are joined by soups, sandwiches, and steaks. Beef stars at dinner, but there’s something for everyone. (620) 273-6763; grandcentralhotel.com.

Tired of the City, Cottonwood Falls: This century-old guesthouse, which accommodates up to six, sits beside the Cottonwood River on 2 wooded acres. You can fish from a dock or rent the property’s electric boat to tour the river. Rates start at $140. (620) 273-6171; tiredofthecity.com.

Clover Cliff Ranch Bed and Breakfast, ElmdaleAt this ranch dating to the 1860s, guests can choose from three luxurious rooms, the Lincoln Honeymoon Suite, two houses, and a cabin. The owners also provide breakfast served on the enclosed veranda. Rates start at $160. (620) 343-0621; clovercliffranch.com.

Ad Astra Food and Drink, Strong City: Minutes from Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, this eatery serves steaks, burgers, seafood, and entrée salads, plus vegan and gluten-free options. The restaurant also sources local ingredients and follows sustainable business practices. (620) 273-8440; adastrafoodanddrink.com.

Keller Feed and Wine Company, Cottonwood Falls: Using its own produce across the menu, the restaurant is known for brick-oven pizzas, inventive sandwiches, pasta dishes, and even stuffed French toast. Handmade milkshakes and desserts round out the menu. (620) 273-5016; fb.com/kellerfeedandwine.

If you go

For more details, call the preserve at (620) 273-8494 or visit nps.gov/tapr.

Lisa Waterman Gray is a contributor from Overland Park, Kansas.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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