Kansas prairie park preserves vanishing tallgrass
STRONG CITY ? Stand here in a field of tall, windblown grass and wildflowers and twirl around like a child. It’s like being inside a prairie snow globe: You’re surrounded by a sea of green, brown and yellow grass, with a blue-sky dome above.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas is one of just a few places in the country where you can immerse yourself in this serene but vanishing landscape. Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America, including much of the Midwest. But only 4 percent of that ecosystem remains, wiped out by more than 150 years of human settlement and farming.
The Tallgrass Preserve here in the Flint Hills is one of the last tracts left, consisting of 11,000 acres mostly owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed with the National Park Service. There are miles of trails here to explore, but the Southwind Nature Trail is an easy-to-walk loop trail — just under 2 miles — that offers a sublime sense of what the landscape felt and looked like when it was covered with tallgrass and wildflowers across the region.
The preserve is also home to a historic site — a late 19th-century ranch with outbuildings, along with a one-room schoolhouse used from 1882 to 1930. A prosperous cattleman, Stephen F. Jones, lived here on the Spring Hill/Z Bar Ranch with his wife and daughter in the 1880s.
But once you’re on the Southwind Nature Trail, away from the ranch, you can almost suspend your disbelief and pretend you’re experiencing this extraordinary landscape before settlers arrived, when the only destruction faced by the tallgrass was from a natural cycle of lightning-sparked fire, rainfall and grazing bison.
And as you walk back toward the ranch house to the parking lot, you travel a path parallel to a road where the occasional car zips by. It’s a good reminder of the human factor that led to the prairie’s demise.