It’s easy to forget what century you’re in as you stroll through a wide-open prairie, the emerald tips of the plants shimmering in the afternoon breeze like ripples on a lake. Patches of blackened earth mark the places where recent prescribed burns performed their rejuvenating duty, destroying perennial vegetation to allow the regeneration of native prairie grasses and forbs. In the 16th century, when European explorers first ventured into the North American interior, a vast sea of prairie grass stretched from the Mississippi to the Rockies.
The 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, created in 1996, protects one of the last intact examples of this endangered plains ecosystem. “The hard, rocky soil preserved this area of upland tallgrass prairie,” explains Heather Brown, chief of interpretation. “It just couldn’t be tilled.”
See it all on a 10-mile dayhike. From the visitor center, head 3.2 miles north on the graveled Scenic Overlook Trail to a bluff for the best view of the preserve’s herd of resident bison (there are 75). The meadow to the west explodes with prairie coneflower and wild indigo wildflowers in spring. Continue north on the Prairie Fire Loop, passing a shaded stream near mile 7 before linking up with the Davis Trail for the journey back. (Camping isn’t allowed at the preserve—drive 8 miles south to Chase State Fishing Lake for free first-come, first-serve campsites).
Distance 10 miles, 1 day Trailhead 38.433421, -96.558151 Season Year-round Permit None