“Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.“
~ “A Home on the Range”, Vernon Dalhart
Technically they’re bison; buffalo have never lived in North America. Similarly, no antelope play in the Americas either; what’s known as the American antelope is actually a pronghorn. Mr. Dalhart can be excused – both bison and pronghorns are very much like their elsewhere counterparts – plus, it is just a song.
These two pictures were both taken in Kansas, though not at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
We arrived at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Visitor Center at around quarter to twelve. Hopping out into the blistering heat, we headed inside to fill our hydration reservoirs for what promised to be another steamy hike on the great plains of Kansas. The temperature would reach 90ºF and was well on it’s way there already. The air was still and shade was nonexistent.
We were met just outside the visitor center by a masked lone ranger. Before you go looking for a “a fiery horse with a speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo …” know that this was a park ranger and his mask was fully covering his nose and mouth. He was in a cheerful mood and full of useful information about the hike we were about to take and the possible whereabouts of Tallgrass Prairie’s bison herd. Armed with info and laden with water we headed out the backside of the center and into the prairie.
We were hiking into one of the last areas of tallgrass prairie remaining in the United States. From the National Park Service website:
“Tallgrass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America, but within a generation most of it had been transformed into farmland. Today less than 4% remains intact, mostly in the Kansas Flint Hills. Established on November 12, 1996, the preserve protects a nationally significant remnant of the once vast tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Here the tallgrass makes its last stand.“
Crossing a field, we turned left onto the Scenic Overlook Trail and began to climb yet another one of the flat state’s pervasive hills. The path was wide and paved with the same white gravel as the trails at Konza Prairie (read here). A third of the way up the gentle incline, we made a short detour to a pond. Ringed in sporadically growing bushes and small trees, this one-acre pool sat idyllically among the rolling hills of the preserve, attracting swooping birds and buzzing insects. The idea of simply wading into the water for some relief from the swampy stillness of that midwestern afternoon flitted through our minds only to be quelled by the greenish murk of the pond. It looked as warm as the air.
When we reached the top of the rise, the trail turned sharply west and approached a steel cattle gate. To the north, along the fence line, ran the Davis Trail – we would return via that path. We passed through the gate, and an entertaining sign let us know that the fence was electrified so one shouldn’t
pee on touch it. The sign also warned that an angry bison will undoubtedly chase us down and kill us. Another, more welcoming sign read: Entering Windmill Pasture. This was where we wanted to be – the home of Tallgrass Prairie’s herd of American bison.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll see the herd, but the ranger at the visitor center had thought it likely – they had been spotted that very morning. The trail stretched out as far as the eye could see, a striking white thread woven into the rumpled green fabric of the American midwest. We hiked on, the gate receding rapidly behind us while the horizon, beyond which we just knew that herd of bison lurked, moved with us, never closer.
When we had tramped a mile and a half of trail, and the gate behind us was lost to view, we saw them. Tiny black dots floating in a green sea of grass. The herd! We were as excited as lieutenant John J. Dunbar in the movie Dances With Wolves but resisted the urge to shout, “tatonka!” lest the majestic beasts be spooked at hearing their old Sioux name after all this time and beat a hasty retreat. We quickened our pace.
When we were as close as we could safely be (the NPS recommends no closer than 125 yards) we stopped on the trail and observed the shaggy horde. Fifty or more American bison grazed unconcernedly on a small rise. The trail passed right through the herd; we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, even had we wanted to. Calves gamboled beside their mothers, while bulls lounged in the grass, clearly sated – for the moment. With only the well-manicured gravel path to indicate modernity, it was easy to imagine the indigenous peoples of the area, likely the Kickapoo, tracking the herd during a hunt.
When we had looked our fill, we turned away from the bison and retraced our steps back to the gate which, at that point, was over a mile to our rear. Along the way, a curious sight caught our eye. Two shiny black beetles were industriously rolling a ball across the path. These are dung rollers and the “ball” they were rolling was, of course, dung. These punctilious little poop-practitioners both feed on, and lay their eggs in, butt-biscuits. However you may feel about their fecal fixation, the dung roller is an amazing sculptor, crafting a perfect sphere, so smooth and flawless it could be mistaken for a chocolate truffle. Then they roll it great distances to be … used. Our takeaway was that they are an incredibly determined and hard-working insect … and that one should never eat truffles one finds lying about the Kansas prairie.
Reaching the gate, we passed through it and turned north on the Davis Trail. Setting out across an overgrown field, we lost elevation as we headed for a small creek. An eastern meadowlark, it’s bright-yellow breast flashing in the afternoon sun, sat on a wire fence warbling out its clear, high-pitched tune. We crossed the Fox Creek and began to climb back up through a sweltering field on a wide grassy path.
As we made our way up the trail, I noticed movement in the waist-high grass to my right. I looked more closely and almost jumped back in surprise. An enormous plains lubber grasshopper was clambering through the tangle of tall green blades. At three inches long this was the largest grasshopper I had ever seen – and nearly the largest in the world. That honor goes to the giant ueta of New Zealand. Still, three inches makes for one hefty hopper! This land lubber was almost completely green so we counted ourselves lucky to have even noticed it in the verdant pasture. We snapped some pictures before moving on.
Three-quarters of a mile from the cattle gate, we reached a junction. The Davis Trail continued north; we bore right onto the Schoolhouse Spur. Here the trail was mostly flat and on a slight ridge. We were happy for the little bit of air movement that wafted over us – it eased the oppressive heat. A little bit. The Schoolhouse Spur took us southeast to a small, stone, one-room schoolhouse. You saw that coming right? The little building sat on a knoll accompanied by a a flagpole and a swing set. A more quintessential and picturesque mise en scène could not be had on a prairie hike. I mean, besides a herd of bison. At the schoolhouse we turned down the Southwind Nature Trail and headed for the visitor center.
The nature trail squiggled its way down through open field and into a copse of trees where we once again crossed Fox Creek. We emerged from this all-too-short stint in the shade into another blazing sun-scorched field. Fortunately we were a scant half-mile from the trailhead. Reaching the visitor center we immediately looked for a shady place to eat some lunch.
Pro tip: Two hundred yards north of the visitor center parking, a gravel lane runs uphill between a large barn and a smaller building. Just past the barn is a large shade tree by a stone wall. Underneath, in the sweet, sweet shade, are two picnic tables with expansive views of the surrounding prairie. Make use of this delightful spot!
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a Great Plains nonpareil. Forty-six miles south of the Konza Prairie Biological Station, the two can (and should) be combined for a great day or two of hiking that offers an abundance of information and experiences that relate to this disappearing ecosystem. Wildflowers, wildlife, and some of the last remaining tallgrass prairie in the United States make this preserve a national treasure. Make time to get there, and enjoy the delights of the prairie, and remember, DO NOT eat the truffles! ♦
Date: July 6, 2020
Location: Strong City, KS
Trailhead: 38.432244, -96.558558
Distance: 4.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 227 feet
Difficulty: Moderate (due to heat)
BIT|Hiker acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike today. Our research indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Kickapoo.