While many of us love to hike in the mountains and love to stroll along the beaches in our beautiful country few will ever experience hiking in a tall grass prairie. Why? Because there are very few remaining true tall grass prairies in the USA and because most can be found in the so called “fly over” states. Some can be found in our home state of Texas but even there only 1% of the original 20 million acres of tall grass prairie remains. In fact the tallgrass prairie is the most endangered large ecosystem in North America!
Upon our arrival in Manhattan, Kansas a friend of mine whom I worked with back at Texas Parks and Wildlife (thanks Robert) told me about a nice tall grass prairie hike in Kansas called the Konza. The Konza is an 8,600-acre native tallgrass prairie preserve on mostly private land which is co-managed by Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy. The Konza Prairie was previously a working cattle ranch and now is being managed to maintain its tall grass prairie.
Once home to large herds of bison Tall Grass Prairies such as the Konza are scarce. When one sees this tall grass prairie for the first time they may look out over the flint hills and see a vast sea of nothingness or they may see a vast sea of waving grasses below an endless sky. How one sees the tall grass prairie tells how much they will truly enjoy what they see and experience…
Why preserve such grasslands? These Native grasslands protect our watersheds by reducing erosion thus limiting sedimentation in our lakes and reservoirs. This results in increased water quality and an increase water supply. Species of grass, insects, birds and mammals which had shown decreasing numbers are now protected and allowed to flourish. Lastly they offer great seed banks for planting in other tracts of land to increase the acreage of tall grass prairies world wide.
These prairies only remain unplowed because the soils in the Flint Hills which are very rich are also too thin to plow. The flint and limestone are shallow making this a poor choice for farmland. Thus the Konza has not been plowed and retains its native characteristics.
Tall grass prairies are dominated by native grasses such as big and little bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass. Big bluestem is known to grow as high as 10 feet tall! Woody species such as buckbrush and smooth sumac are constantly trying to invade these prairies but grazing and fire keep them in check. Managed grazing and controlled burning are used at optimal times to help these prairies thrive.
Home to Turkeys, deer and quail these prairies also house many endangered and threatened species such as the Attwater’s prairie chickens, Sprague’s Pipit and Le Conte’s Sparrow. On our trip there were numerous Dickcissels singing atop the tallest plants. Bison have even been reintroduced here. Not all of the land is covered in grasses as the steep drainages along King's Creek are dominated by Gallery forests and will have large quantities of burr and chinquapin oaks along with hackberry, walnut and hickory.
Lots of wildflowers were in the early stages of bloom during our visit to the Konza and most notable were the large numbers of Butterfly Milkweed, Plains Yellow Primrose and Foxglove Penstemon. Of course with so many flowing plants there were numerous insects and the butterflies were loving the now blooming Butterfly Milkweed. Although it is early for wildflowers at least we were treated to some nice displays and colors.
On our 2.8 mile hike we were treated to vast open sky, an unending sea of grass, a limitless horizon and a grand array of life. The Tall Grass Prairie is a great city of natural and native species all surviving in a sea of "nothing." Thanks again Robert for recommending this wonderful hike.
NOTE: We are add another day here at Perry Lake, KS so we won’t leave til Monday. Then we will drive a bit north to one of two casinos not too far away then into Nebraska for a while…