“As to scenery, while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the aesthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.” -Walt Whitman
The first cool weekend after summer’s heat is always special, and some local Sierra Club members and their friends made the most of it recently with a lively Saturday outing to the Flint Hills. It was a great time for us all to learn about the Flint Hills, its history, and its ecosystems.
Our destination was the Tallgrass Prairie National preserve in Strong City, Kansas. The nearly 11,000 acres of pristine, rolling vistas are a stunning example of the fragile prairie ecosystem. At one time, 400,000 square miles of tallgrass prairie covered North America; now, less than 4% of that remains.
The preserve began its modern history in the late 1800’s as the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch, established by Stephen F. Jones and his wife Louisa. Today, in addition to the magnificently preserved limestone ranch house, barn and curious outbuildings, the preserve boasts nearly twelve miles of scenic backcountry trails.
After checking in at the barn and securing our backcountry permits, we struck out on the Red House Trail, which loops down to the south end of the preserve. Sunshine, breezes and endless, jewel-toned views made for a happy start! In every direction, the rolling landscape of tall, waving grasses and late-season wildflowers seemed to go on forever. Our rather large group of fourteen hikers got to know one another along the way, sharing jokes and taking lots of pictures. Hiker Al Storms was our field guide, identifying a host of native plants and educating us on their characteristics. Tom Kutscher, a hiking purist who takes to the trails barefoot, shared with us the philosophy and benefits of barefoot hiking (check out his great website at www.geocities.com/jetwalkers).
Six miles later, mid-afternoon found us back at the big limestone barn. The heat of the day was stoking up, so several folks opted for a tour of the stately (and air-conditioned) ranch house. Others explored the barn or lounged in the shade, enjoying views and conversation. We ended the day with a pretty drive up 177, the “Flint Hills Scenic Byway”, to dinner in the town of Council Grove. The Hays House, known as the oldest continuously operating restaurant west of the Mississippi, did right by us with a delicious buffet featuring fried chicken, brisket, salads and dessert.
A great day was had by all, and we parted company with promises to “see you on the next Outing!”
PHOTOS BY JULIE HULL
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Little Hike on the Prairie