I’ve driven across Kansas several times, always intent on getting from Point A to Point B, usually with bored children wiggling in the back seat, moaning and groaning, “When are we going to get there?!” There meaning Colorado or back to St. Louis — anywhere but Kansas.
This past spring I took “the road less traveled” and had a very different experience, gaining a much finer appreciation of the beauty of the Sunflower State.
Stretching from Eastern Kansas into Oklahoma rests a unique eco-region, consisting of the densest coverage of intact tallgrass (primarily Big Bluestem and Switchgrass) in North America. Only 4 percent of tallgrass prairie land remains protected in the United States. Most of it is in the Flint Hills region of Kansas.
Shallow seas covered this area about 250 million years ago, leaving behind limestone, shale and plenty of fossils, making farming impractical if not foolhardy. Renewed over time by fire and cattle grazing, this 10,894-acre tract of land was established as a national park in 1996 with the old Spring Hill/Z Bar Ranch serving as headquarters for the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (located two miles north of the U.S. 50 and Kansas 177 intersection, just west of Strong City, Kan.).
Here you can hike trails ranging from 13 miles to less than 1 mile and trod over a prairie root system reaching 15 to 25 feet down into the soil. Explore land once sacred to the Osage, Pawnee and Wichita American Indian tribes, grazing land essential to millions of bison and a haven to bears, antelopes and panthers. Still present are more than 400 species of plants, 150 kinds of birds, 39 types of reptiles and amphibians and 31 different mammals.
A cooperative effort of the Nature Conservancy, the Kansas Park Trust and the National Park Service oversees this historic land, mimicking Mother Nature’s eons-old care of the hills by starting extensive controlled fires in early spring, bringing in a gazillion cattle a month or two later, and then leaving the hills to themselves.
The first time I stopped to get out of the car for a photo op, I was overwhelmed by the “nothingness” — the total quiet surrounding me. No distant hum of cars on the highway, no horns honking, no overhead sound of electric wires, no sign of human beings for as far as the eye could see. Utter peacefulness.
If you become so entranced with the solitude of this part of the world and decide to stay overnight, nearby Cottonwood Falls has an Old West-style historic inn, the Grand Central Hotel built in 1884, guaranteed to prolong your step back in time. Small and elegant inside, it is Kansas’ only AAA Four Diamond historic country inn. Expansive rooms, many with a fireplace, have names like Turkey Track and Clover Clip Ranch from which to choose. Located appropriately on Broadway, it’s a stone’s throw from the Chase County Courthouse, the oldest operating courthouse in Kansas.
For optimum viewing of wildflowers, I’d check with the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve at 620.273.8494 for maximum blooming times. Due to one of the earliest springs on record nationwide, we missed the peak season for wildflowers, but this quiet, subtle, lovely land is worth seeing at any time of the year. As deep as the prairie grass roots, so deep is our frequent longing for the purity and simplicity of times gone by.
Looking out over the sea of grasses, I recalled Robert Frost’s words:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I_
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference.