Experience True Kansas at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
If you live in Kansas, or plan to visit, and haven't yet been to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, it's time you get out and explore some of the best hiking that Kansas has to offer. Rolling hills, wildlife, amazing views, and a variety of native flora await visitors to the preserve. Before you go, we would like to offer you some tips to help you plan your adventure!
Tallgrass Prairie is located in Strong City at 2480 Kansas Highway 177, which is about 80 miles northeast of Wichita and the same distance southwest of Topeka. There is plenty of parking available and a kiosk at the entrance with mapping information about the trails. The visitor center is open daily from 8:30 AM until 4:30 PM during the peak season and 9:00 AM until 4:30 PM during the colder months. The visitor center offers an informational video about the park, exhibits, gifts for purchase, and a restroom. There are no other facilities out on the nearly 11,000 acre preserve, so be mindful of that if you arrive for an evening hike after the visitor center has closed.
The preserve offers a variety of hiking trails which are all free to access and open 24/7, though camping is not allowed at the preserve. There are three nature trails where dogs are allowed on a leash (Southwind, Fox Creek, and Bottomland); pets are not allowed on any other trails. These trails are closer to the visitor center and/or are on the east side of the highway. This article will focus on the main trails, which are west of the highway and out on the open prairie.
We have experienced Tallgrass Prairie during each of the seasons, and each has something different to offer, as well as different things to consider before you go wandering out onto the prairie for a few hours.
During the spring season, it is important to check the preserve website or Facebook page regularly for information on trail conditions and accessibility. Rain waters can flood the creek and make some areas more tricky to navigate; however, with a little exploring you can usually find another way around, or you can just go for it and get a little wet. In the spring and summer, it's important to watch the weather during your trip, because storms can roll in quickly and catch you off guard.
In addition to the weather, sometimes access to certain pastures and trails is restricted due to the movement of cows or bison into those areas. There's nothing like hiking a mile and then realizing a particular trail entrance is closed and having to backtrack. This happened to us when access was restricted to the Davis Trail that runs through the West Traps Pasture. There are three trail entrances which allow access to the majority of the backcountry trails on the prairie, and two of them run through that pasture. When access to those trails is restricted, the only other trail to take is the Scenic Overlook Trail, which runs through Windmill Pasture where the bison are located. It's a great trail; just be prepared to walk through that pasture to access the rolling hills on the other side, and then be prepared to walk back the same way! If you want to be certain about available access to the trails, call the office prior to your visit.
A view of the main trail that runs between the main entrance and the bison pasture. Copyright hiking mojo.
During the summer months, it can get extremely hot and humid. Be sure to carry plenty of water and sunscreen. You don't want to be four or eight miles away from your car and realize you are out of water or burning. In addition, it's always important to wear bug spray, as some of the trails are simply mowed grass pathways. Speaking of bugs, the only issue we ever had were with wasps on one occasion in July. They were in the bison field and were aggressive. Luckily, we made it through without getting stung! Other than that, we have always worn bug spray and have never picked up any ticks. One last tip on the bugs would be to stick around past sunset in the summertime so you can witness an ocean of fireflies in waves above the fields!
Fall and winter hikes on the prairie can be awesome if you prepare appropriately. Bundle up! It's always windier out in the open and can get quite chilly during the colder months. It's very peaceful during this time though, and you can avoid all of the summer bugs. They burn off the tall grasses in the fall and early winter, so keep an eye on their site or social media, or call ahead if you are concerned about your timing.
One of the very best things about this hike is the solitude. You are out in the middle of the prairie, generally with no one around. The views are amazing. The sound of the wind blowing across the vast openness is so calming. It is a great place to reconnect with the earth and with yourself. It's a great place to fall in love with Kansas.
You will likely encounter bison or cows along the way. Always use common sense when walking through an area where these animals are roaming. It's absolutely stunning to see how large a bison is in person and to walk through a field where they are grazing or resting. It's also terrifying to a certain degree. The trail from one end of the bison pasture to the other, which is the most direct route to the most scenic parts of the preserve, is almost two miles in length. Bison may be resting in the tall grasses, which can make them difficult to see until they stand. They may also be hanging out very close to the exit gate on the other side. Do not approach the bison. Just have a backup plan for what you intend to do should the bison be obstructing your path. Snap up some photos and be on your way! It might be a pain to have to double back, but it's better than upsetting a bison.
Cows are generally roaming around in most of the pastures. If you are not accustomed to being around large animals, this can be a little intimidating, as they will generally all stare at you and sometimes even walk in your direction. We have found that, if you just calmly walk around them, they are happy to share the trail with you.
Happy cows in the West Traps Pasture. Copyright hiking mojo.
One of our favorite places to hike near and photograph is the old schoolhouse, which is shown in the background of the above picture. It provides a sweet backdrop for your photos! If you love taking photographs, try arriving early enough to catch sunrise pictures over the schoolhouse, or stay for sunset shots of the bison field. You can even venture out and take shots of the sunset from a hill with a great view; just be prepared for about a four mile journey back in the dark through the pasture. We would not recommend walking through the bison field in the dark, so the pastures with the cows are the best bet. It's a beautiful and serene walk at night, and the stars put on quite a show. We were able to snag this sunset shot from the hills!
Sunset shot taken near the intersection of the Scenic Overlook Trail and the Prairie Fire Loop. Copyright hiking mojo.
There are several ways to keep your bearings as you hike. You can take a picture of the map on the kiosk, download one, get a map from the visitor center, or you can track your journey along the way. The preserve has made it really easy for visitors to find the correct path by placing stones with maps at each trail intersection. Generally, there are a couple of miles between each stone map, and it's exciting when you see that you are approaching one and about to connect to a new trail.
This is an excellent place to visit for mid-length to longer hikes. We've done anywhere between four miles and a half marathon. The hills are a good challenge and provide a great workout. The trail pathways are very well-maintained and easy to navigate. Just prepare for the season, and then get out there and enjoy it! You'll be so glad you did!
For more information about the preserve, visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve website.
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