Kansas is a land of unprecedented beauty that has changed drastically throughout time. Its unique natural features have shaped the culture and history of the state. The story of Kansas’ natural history begins millions of years ago, when the land lay beneath a vast body of water.
The Permian Sea
A great number of Kansas’ physical features are the result of the Permian Sea. During the Permian Period, about 250-290 million years ago, the land of Kansas lay below an immense, yet shallow sea. The warm ocean was home to hundreds of different species of plants, fish, and amphibians. As these plants and animals died, their remains sank to the ocean bed, leaving behind formations of limestone and chalk, as well as deposits of other natural resources such as coal, oil, and salt. Today, remnants of Kansas’ natural history can be found in the astounding landscapes throughout the state.
Little Jerusalem Badlands
One of the state's greatest natural wonders can be found on the prairies of the Smoky Hills. “Little Jerusalem”, sometimes referred to as “Castle City” because of its resemblance to castle ruins, is the largest Niobrara Chalk formation in the state. Some of these remarkable formations reach up to heights of 100 feet above the Smoky Hills River. Millions of years ago, when the land of Kansas was underwater, chalk sediment was deposited, leaving behind astounding formations. Today, these natural creations provide a habitat for many different species of plants and animals, including Great Plains wild buckwheat, which can only be found in these chalk bluff prairies of Kansas.
In addition to being home to a variety of wildlife, these landforms also provide a glimpse into Kansas’ past. Within the formations of Little Jerusalem, fossils of giant, ancient clams and reptiles can be found, providing a clearer picture of wildlife in Kansas millions of years ago. The chalk formations, located in Logan County, are now a part of the Little Jerusalem Badlands National Park. The park gives the public a closer look at this wonder of the plains. Visitors can explore the full magnificence of the landforms with access to trails, guided hikes, and scenic overlooks.
Post Rock Limestone
Extending north and south across the central portions of Kansas, significant deposits of limestone lie beneath the surface of the Flint Hills region. Limestone played a significant role in the history of Kansas’ settlement and continues to be an important resource in the state today. Early Kansans have been resourceful and determined since their first attempts at taming the land. Pioneers quickly adapted to an environment with extensive grasslands, but few trees. Limited resources made it difficult to construct homes, buildings, and fences using lumber; however, evidence of early settlers' ingenuity can be found in the limestone post fences and structures that remain spread across the region today. More recently, artists have found inspiration in the limestone, creating beautiful, intricate sculptures in the stone posts.
These works of art, which are set against the majestic backdrop of the tallgrass prairies, reflect the unwavering strength and beauty of the Flint Hills. An 18-mile stretch of Kansas Highway 232 has been dubbed the Post Rock Scenic Byway, where people can admire the state’s native stone and the unique artwork inspired by the state’s natural history.
The shallow, rocky soil of the Flint Hills made farming difficult for settlers; but, the land was ideal for pasture and cattle, thus sustaining an intricate tallgrass ecosystem more extensive than any other in the United States. Prairie plants have extremely long root systems; in fact, about 80% of the prairie is underground. The deep root system has allowed native plants to survive in Kansas, even during years of drought. Home to over 500 species of flora and fauna, the Kansas tallgrass prairie is one of the most complex and astonishing ecosystems in the world. Tallgrass prairies once covered about 40% of the United States. Today, only 2% remain, with the majority of these grasslands being found in Kansas. Located in the heart of the state, over 10,000 acres of land make up the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This is the only U.S. National Park devoted to maintaining and protecting the natural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Visitors of the preserve can experience the native plants and animals of the prairie as they existed hundreds of years ago. People can explore the park and take in the simple beauty of the prairie on walking trails, guided hiking tours, bus tours, and visitors can even fish in various ponds.
Strataca Salt Mines
While the prairies provide some of the most stunning, breathtaking views on Earth, deep below Kansas’ surface, one of the most magnificent natural wonders can be found. Formed millions of years ago by the Permian Sea, one of the world’s largest deposits of rock salt sits hundreds of feet below the Kansas plains. Although there are other salt mines in the United States, the Strataca salt mine in Hutchinson, is the only one open to tourists. Visitors of Strataca get a unique experience 650 feet underground. The expansive mine houses a museum featuring exhibits and tours that provide geological and historical information about mining in the past, as well as practices used today.
From picturesque expanses of rolling hills and endless seas of prairies, to breathtaking rock formations filled with clues about the past, Kansas is filled with a variety of landscapes and natural wonders waiting to be explored.
Secret Kansas: Uncovering Our History
Kansas is a land of unprecedented beauty that has changed drastically throughout time. Its unique natural features have shaped the culture and…