5. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Local lore has it that S. F. Jones came to Chase County in 1878 “with money sticking out of every pocket.” Intending to establish one of the grandest cattle ranches in the country, he soon built an elaborate limestone mansion that left no doubt as to his determination. Even the outbuildings, which include a three-story barn, were made of native limestone (a common building material in this relatively treeless region). Today his ranch is the site of an 11,000-acre national tallgrass prairie preserve, where buffalo and antelope might once again roam, as free as the wind that whips the waves on a boundless inland sea of grass.
Just a few miles south is the town of Strong City. In June, they hold an authentic western rodeo.
6. Cottonwood Falls
If the Chase County Courthouse, with its steep red roof, intricate ironwork, and clock-tower cupola seems impressive today, imagine the excitement it caused back in 1873. In those days the three-story edifice in Cottonwood Falls must have seemed a picture-book palace come to life. Farmers and ranchers came from miles around to celebrate its completion with a festive ball. Be sure to go inside for a look at the handsome woodwork, especially the spiral staircase with its black-walnut balustrade. Another historic structure worth a look is the Grand Central Hotel.
Like contestants before a panel of judges, male prairie chickens gather each spring to “dance” for an audience of potential mates. The grasslands around the little town of Cassoday—the self-styled Prairie Chicken Capital of the World—support a healthy population of these grouses, which have disappeared from much of their former range. Hunters converge on Cassoday in the fall to stalk the elusive fowl, while birders flock here in early spring to catch a glimpse of the birds’ ritual.
8. El Dorado Lake
Continuing southward, the drive skims the shores of El Dorado Lake, cupped in the prairie like a glistening blue gem. Another large reservoir, it is adjoined by a park offering many different recreational opportunities.
For recreation of a different sort—a taste of 19th-century pioneer life—contact Flint Hills Overland Wagon Trips in El Dorado or Country Boy Carriages & Prairie Adventures in Newton. On selected weekends in the summertime, passengers caravan in covered wagons, stopping for a campfire dinner and a night under the stars. After a hearty breakfast comes a return to the trail, where wagon wheels play a creaky counterpoint to the meadowlark’s whistled melody.