The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve should be part of any Flint Hills experience. To get there you must drive south from Manhattan, KS almost to Strong City. This is a distance of close to 59 miles on Kansas Highway 177. Ruth and I experienced this several years ago in late afternoon early evening, but we didn’t arrive at the TPNP Visitor Center until just after it had closed for the day. This time we arrived in late morning, so we saw it all. I do not recommend late morning to visit this Nature Conservancy/National Park facility because in summer it’s blood hot by then.
What visitors find at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is more than 40 miles of trails, a fine visitor center, and a ranch complex. The trails are opened even when the center is not, so many people hike in the evening when it’s far cooler. Our favorite views were on the Scenic Overlook Trail behind the ranch complex. It was a long walk but gave access to the Windmill Pasture that is always occupied by a bison herd. After you see the place where the buffalo roam, you can continue on to a 1,495 feet scenic overlook that is a high vista for Kansas. Other trails take you to Palmer Creek and Crusher Hill, but we double-backed on the Ranch Legacy Trail to see the ranch complex.
It was very interesting. In 1878 Stephen and Louisa Jones came here to build a cattle feeding station for their Colorado ranch. They quit after 10 years and their property went through a series of owners until the Z Bar Ranch became the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in 1996. The miracle was that the structures built by the Jones’ were still there including a giant limestone barn, the school they built for their daughter Loutie, and the limestone corrals and fences they created. The barn is now opened to the public and contains a viewable film worth watching. The mansion they built for themselves also still remains as does the ice house that provided coldness for them all year, a genuine luxury. We got to see the Second Empire mansion’s insides this time. It was modestly furnished.
We enjoyed the drive to the Preserve a 2nd time. It went through the 2nd most important town in the Flint Hills that some consider its capital, Council Grove, provided vistas of the Flint Hills we had not seen before, and gave us many more views of the tallgrass that remains. Its roots can extend 15 feet down into the prairie. We also got to see again a lot of the limestone that is favored in erecting many buildings in this area. Council Grove has at least a dozen tourist attractions. I really liked the roof on the historic Farmers and Drovers Bank. We entered the toll road to Wichita at Cassoday, the so-called Prairie Chicken Capital of the World.
I have Don Kostecki to thank for my love of Kansas. He lived in Topeka and worked for the state. Unfortunately, he was murdered in Belize in 2005, but his widow still lives in Topeka.