I recently had the pleasure of heading out the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to see the fall scenery. I’ve made this trek before and at varying points of the year—this, however, was my first autumn experience. “Pinch Me” was one expression that came to mind, as well as what secret beauty we harbor here in Kansas.
The Flint Hills are without a doubt one of our most coveted attractions, but nestled inside them is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve—better known by locals as the Z Bar Ranch. Here are five reasons you should add this national preserve to your “must-see” list among seasonal attractions this fall.
1.) An Education in the Tallgrass Prairie
Various exhibits and information are kept at the National Preserve in the brand new Visitor Center (opened in May 2012). This space allows visitors to learn more about the ecosystem that is the Tallgrass Prairie and just how valuable it is; in fact, less than four percent remains, generally in the Flint Hills.
The expansive list of wildlife, both floral and faunal, will lead aspiring horticulturists on a full day of researching and exploring. As for the little ones, many hands-on experiences of artifacts and items found among the prairie allow their minds to expand forming an appreciation for the land. Children can even play a role as a park ranger with the Junior Ranger Booklet, asking them to find items out on the prairie and write about them.
While self-guided and cell phone tours send visitors through multiple points on the Z Bar Ranch—such as the larger than life limestone barn, prairie mansion, and even the old ice house—these historic landmarks are remarkable to see up close. Likewise, the National Preserve offers group tours on the Prairie Bus. “The combination tour includes a one-hour tour of the ranch house, barn and outbuildings and a one-hour prairie bus tour,” according to the National Park Service website.
History, agriculture, and landscapes all converge at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
2.) Shutterbugs Unite
Grab your iPhone, point-and-shoot, or professional SLR—the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve provides a bountiful experience for photographers of all levels. From the magnificent limestone, staged artifacts and sweeping vistas, the area is a wonderland of photographic opportunities.
Consider taking your own wildflower or native plant tour to photograph the unique vegetation that returns at different times in the year. In fall especially, flowers change colors as the temperatures cool. Various goldenrods and buckwheat flowers pepper trails and grassy areas around the property.
3.) Lace up
Two well-known hiking trails traverse the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The Southwind Nature Trail is an easy 1.75-mile trail that jots across the hill, valley and prairie grassland. Not one, but two scenic overlooks allow hikers to stop and appreciate the one-of-a-kind prairie scene.
For the more dedicated hikers, the Fox Creek Trail is a 6.1-mile round-trip trail that starts at the northern end of the Bottomland Nature Trail and extends northward, following Fox Creek. In some cases 6-foot tall grasses line the trail, allowing visitors to have an authentic natural experience on the prairie. For those looking to cast a line, catch and release fishing is allowed along Fox Creek.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is located on Kansas Highway 177, the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, which is also recognized as one of America’s Byways.
This season you can travel this 47.2-mile byway around curves and through the hills seeing vibrant fall colors and fading green grasses; a site that is not only cherished but Kansas’ own version of leaves changing.
5.) Flint Hills Eats
Just 15 minutes north of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is Council Grove, home to the famed Hays House Restaurant. Be sure to stop in for the lunch buffet, which this time of year includes fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits and gravy among other delicious items. Add a frosty Boulevard Beer to your lunch and enjoy reading more about the restaurant’s history as a trading post along the Santa Fe Trail. Save room for pie, though. Just minutes south of the National Preserve is Cottonwood Falls, home to the Emma Chase Café. This petite, “Old-fashioned Country Cookin'” cafe has some of the most delicious pies—especially the gooseberry pie. Before the weather turns frightful, take a day trip out to the prairie—the Tallgrass Prairie!
Katy Ibsen is a writer and editor living in Lawrence. When she’s not blogging, writing or serving her community, she’s embarking on the outdoor life among Kansas’ picturesque landscape.