Child at discovery center

I remember the first time I saw the Flint Hills on fire. I was driving up the turnpike on a mid-spring night. Suddenly as I crested a hill, I was met with snakes of red covering the endless valley. It was a breathtaking moment, as amazing as seeing the mountains or ocean for the first time. This product of the dance between man and nature produces a sight that never leaves your memory.

That was my first “experience” with one of the truly great wonders of our state, and the type of encounter the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan tries to replicate for its visitors.

The new discovery center in downtown Manhattan offers the opportunity to learn about the rich history, ecology and traditions of the Flint Hills. It has several elements that do a good job of placing the visitor in the middle of the Flint Hills experience.

Designers have used that compelling fire as a centerpiece for the story of the Flint Hills, examining the traditions of the people, the animals and plant life and the cycles of death and rebirth that make the Flint Hills so special.

This is a great stop for families. There are a lot of interactive elements. Since it is not actually a museum, most of the center is a hands-on-please-touch place.

Videos with interactive screens, spinning wheels with information on animal life and an immersion theater experience all are aimed at taking you into the story of the often overlooked treasures of the area. A walk-through tunnel lets you experience the underground life of the Flint Hills. A branding table teaches more about the cattle industry. There is also a crawl-through play area for little kids and an educational space which points to the real mission of the center, to light a fire of curiosity about the natural world around us.

My kids enjoyed the whole place. There is a variety in the exhibits that allows you to take it at your own pace and pick and choose the elements you want to learn more about. It could take you a couple of hours if you are a real reader, but can be enjoyed in about an hour if you just want to get an overview of the exhibits.

Also, save time to enjoy the outside space. Dancing fountains and a fireplace capture the spirit of the natural elements you learn about inside the discovery center.

The point of the Flint Hills Discovery Center is to pique your interest in what you see as you drive into Manhattan. Their mission to inspire, interpret, explore and preserve invites you to find your own experience in natural Kansas.

It reminded me of what I like about the Flint Hills. What is your favorite memory of this Kansas treasure?

Karen Ridder is a freelance writer living in Topeka. A former News Producer for KSNW-TV in Wichita, her work can also been seen in print publications including: Topeka Magazine, TK Magazine and the Topeka Capital-Journal. She has written for several national blogs and was recently recognized as one of the 2011 winners in the Annual Kansas Factual Story Contest. Karen has lived in Kansas for 15 years and married a native Wichitan. Together they are raising three little sunflower boys and a dog named George.