Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 190 miles.
When to go: Year-round.
Nearby attractions: Fort Riley, military installation with historic buildings and museums, west of Manhattan; Kansas State University, Manhattan.
Further information: Kansas Travel and Tourism Division, 1000 S.W. Jackson St., Suite 100, Topeka, KS 66612; tel. 800-252-6727, www.travelks.com.
A Kansas newspaperman, Rolla Clymer, captured the essence of the Flint Hills when he wrote that their “gay colors and the magic softness of their outline … send forth a constant message of repose and quiet and abiding peace.” Travelers will find those qualities and much more in this region, where wildflowers spangle prairies lush within a virtual sea of grasses that grow taller than a person can reach.
1. Hollenberg Pony Express Station
As regularly as clockwork in the early 1860s, the silence near the present-day town of Hanover in northeastern Kansas was broken by the thumping of hoofbeats as a dusty Pony Express rider galloped in on his horse. He’d jump to the ground at the Hollenberg Pony Express Station, transfer his saddlebags filled with mail to another mount, then be off again, pausing barely long enough for a drink of water. The scene would be repeated by riders all the way to Sacramento, California—a journey that was completed in just 10 days.
The Hollenberg station, a state historic site on Rte. 243, had other roles as well: the weathered wooden structure also served as a store, tavern, and inn along the Oregon-California Trail. The travails and triumphs of both the riders and the pioneers who passed this way are remembered at the station, which perches on a sweeping grassy knoll surrounded by scattered trees.
2. Tuttle Creek Lake
At Marysville the drive turns south on Rte. 77, then, at Randolph, takes Rte. 16 east to Carnation Road, which links up with Rte. 13 south as it passes Tuttle Creek Lake, a lengthy expanse wedged between grassy hills. Parks dot the scalloped shores, enticing travelers with such pastimes as swimming and camping. The lake is also well stocked, and fishermen try their luck in the many coves for catfish, walleye, sunfish, and bass.
Bald eagles, which winter here roosting in tall cottonwoods, are among the avian anglers that are likewise drawn to Tuttle Creek Lake. Just as thrilling for wildlife watchers are the flocks of white pelicans that pause at the lake to feed and rest during their spring and fall migrations. Soaring majestically, the birds circle silently down from the sky and land on the water with a gentle splash.
3. Konza Prairie
“Eternal prairie and grass, with occasional groups of trees” is the way one visitor described the Flint Hills in 1842. Although most of America’s original tallgrass prairie has been lost to cropland, these rolling hills, stretching on for some 200 miles, remain much as they were when the first settlers arrived. Their name hints at the reason: the hills are formed of limestone and chert, a hard, fine-grained rock also known as flint. Rough and difficult to plow, the prairielands here thus survived largely intact.
Rte. 901, a side trip off Rte. 177, leads to the headquarters of Konza Prairie, a good place to sample the grassland. Complete with bison, this 8,600-acre preserve was set aside for research use. As a result, much of it is off-limits to visitors except during special events. Visitors, though, are always welcome to walk the preserve’s three well-marked trails, which begin at the park headquarters.
The predominant grasses on the prairie are big and little bluestem, along with switchgrass and Indian grass. Growing up to eight feet tall, the grasses are accented in summer with the golden heads of sunflowers, spikes of liatris, coneflowers, compass plants, and countless other wildflowers. Here and there, bur oak, hackberry, green ash, and honey locust trees add a pleasing vertical note.
4. Council Grove Lake
As the drive rolls gently southward along Rte. 177, it crests low ridges blanketed with native grasses—grazing grounds for the region’s large, prosperous cattle ranches. Traveling beneath the vast azure dome of sky, visitors here discover extraordinary solitude. But for the thin gray ribbon of the road, a lone sign of human presence is the long lines of barbed-wire fences extending to the horizon.
The serenity of the scene, however, can vanish quickly when dark thunderheads mushroom overhead. As locals are acutely aware, such clouds mean keeping a wary watch for the whirling funnels of nature’s most fearsome windstorms, the tornadoes—most likely to occur in April through June.
Farther along, Rte. 177 parallels the eastern shore of Council Grove Lake, a local favorite for swimming, sailing, and waterskiing. Turnouts let you stretch your legs and enjoy the views. Just to the south, on the banks of the Neosho River, lies the historic town of Council Grove, once a supply point for the Santa Fe Trail.
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.
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