A drive along the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway carries visitors back to a different time. Imagine being alone in the middle of a vast ocean. Only this is no ordinary sea. Instead of water, you see only fields of grass stretching to the horizon in all directions. Tall grass. With blades stretching over your head.
That is a snapshot of the tallgrass prairie, which once dominated the heart of North America, covering 140 million acres from Northern Indiana and Illinois to Kansas, and from Canada to Texas. What today we call the corn belt was once an ocean of tall grasses, with fanciful names like turkey foot, switchgrass, and purpletop. Today, most of the prairie is gone, almost all of it in fact.
The heart of the Flint Hills, however, is one of the few places left in North America where you can still get lost on a sea of grass, with wind-tossed waves of green stretching out as far as the eye can see. Most of what is left of this tallgrass prairie is found in the Flint Hills. And one of the best ways to see the Flint Hills is by taking the Flint Hills Byway, a 47-mile stretch of Kansas Highway 177 from Council Grove to Cassoday.
Early explorers and settlers in the tallgrass prairie marveled at the nearly treeless vistas. They were unaccustomed to seeing vast expanses of grasslands and struggled to understand why so few trees grew here. Travelers along the byway today can experience those same emotions. There is a stark and subtle beauty in the prairie. Wildflowers can be seen in the warmer months, and the tall grasses dominate the view in the late fall and winter. Do not be afraid of the controlled prairie fires in the spring, when ranchers maintain the health of the native prairie plants by burning away the old growth. This keeps out weeds and trees, while stimulating new plant growth. Fire is necessary for the life of the prairie.
Following the flames, the hills turn a green so rich and vibrant it burns the eyes in bright sunlight. Cattle arrive from distant ranches to spend the summer munching on the nutritious prairie grasses that made the Flint Hills famous among ranchers across the country. In the winter, the cattle are moved to market, and the grass turns golden, with hints of red and orange in the sun. The durable grass stems remain erect through winter, even in the face of heavy winds and snowfall.
For those following the byway, there are plenty of stops along the way. Council Grove on the north end of the byway is famous for a rich history that can be discovered at the Kaw Mission State Historic Site. Here you can learn about the Kansa Indians, for whom the state of Kansas is named. The Santa Fe Trail ran through downtown Council Grove, where you can eat at the Hays House, in operation since 1857.
Just north of Strong City is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, where visitors can hike nature trails, learn about early cattle ranches in the area, or see a small bison herd. Just to the South in downtown Cottonwood Falls, visitors can see the beautiful Chase County Courthouse, the oldest courthouse in Kansas. Be sure to eat at the Grand Central Hotel or the Emma Chase Café; or better, eat at both. At Pioneer Bluffs Ranch near Matfield Green, visit the art gallery and learn more about the historic ranches of the area.
There are plenty more places to visit, events to experience, and sites to see along this byway. After you have made the trip, please come back here and share with us your favorite spot.
Dennis Toll is a native of Kansas — his Swedish ancestors settled in Wallace County in the 1890's — and graduated from Kansas State University in 1980 with a degree in landscape architecture. Then Dennis and his wife Amy, a Manhattan native, went to Indiana where Dennis got a master's degree in theology and then to France. They returned to Kansas with four daughters in 2000 and settled in The Little Apple. Dennis enjoys writing for various publications about the Sunflower State and wishes he had more time to spend hiking the prairie.