My wife, Amy, and I recently took a weekend to get away from it all. And we got as far away from home as we could get and still be in Kansas.Sprawled across Kansas' southwest corner is the Cimarron National Grassland. Amy and I spent a day here discovering the high plains of Kansas, with its scenic overlooks, dusty trails, and hidden springs. We stood in three states at once, marveled at the Cimarron River Valley from atop the third highest point in the state, and traced wagon ruts left by travelers of the Santa Fe Trail in the late 1800's.Our day began in Elkhart, Kansas, where we picked up maps from the park's headquarters. We followed the southernmost road in the state out of town until we found a brass plate in the road, marking the point where the Sunflower State touches Oklahoma and Colorado. As far as we could see in every direction, we soaked up the sights and sounds of the prairie, which looks pretty much the same today as it did when the first travelers traversed the region and early settlers created new homesteads.Then we drove to the top of Point of Rocks, a welcome and well-known landmark to those who first came through the region. From here, we looked out over the valley where the Cimarron River runs unseen beneath the sand, its location marked by stands of the only trees in an otherwise pure prairie landscape. An air-conditioned minivan makes for easy travel, especially compared to the ox-drawn wagons the first visitors needed when passing through over a century ago. Well, they weren't really the first visitors. Coronado is said to have visited the overlook in his famed 1541 expedition and native American Indians scouted bison herds from atop the point long before him.Tracing the Santa Fe Trail backwards for awhile, we came across Middle Springs, a welcome watering hole for the merchant wagon trains that traversed the prairie. Visiting the site today gives a greater appreciation for the unique challenges that early travelers faced. Today's visitors can hike, camp, and explore in relative ease. Birdwatchers are attracted to the unique species that can be found her. Prairie lovers can discover an amazing ecosystem, as complex and varied as any in the state. The first travelers, however, did not have the advantages and comforts of the modern world, but they came anyway. The Cimarron National Grassland helps preserve their story in its natural setting and offers today's visitors a chance to step back in time for awhile and see Kansas in its original splendor.For more information, visit the preserve's web site or contact the office by phone at (620) 697-4621.Fast facts:
  • The Cimarron National Grassland is composed of 108.175 acres.
  • It is managed by the USDA Forest Service and was created after the dust bowl years of the 1930's.
  • The Grassland contains 23 miles of the Santa Fe Trail, the most of any public land.
  • Running parallel to the Santa Fe Trail are the Conestoga Trailhead and Murphy trailhead, which stretch for 19 miles and were created for hiking, horseback riding, and even wagons.
  • The Cimarron Recreational Area has 14 campsites.
  • Over 360 species of birds have been identified in the area.
  • Over 5,000 head of cattle are grazed on the Grassland every year.
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. You can learn more about his appreciation for the Flint Hills at his blog, flinthillstallgrass.org.