Get a real taste for the tallgrass prairie that once stretched across much of the Midwest and eastern Great Plains. Once the largest contiguous ecosystem in North America - occupying 400,000 square miles - less than 1% remains, with the largest single remnant existing in the Flint Hills of east central Kansas. Up to eighty miles wide in places and extending from near the border of Nebraska into Oklahoma, the Flint Hills is a picturesque land of limestone capped hills and deep winding valleys carved by crystal clear streams.
The underlying rock strata of the Flint Hills are of Permian Age. The layers of limestone have numerous nodules of chert (flint) within them, giving the area its name. The Native Americans prized these nodules for making into spear points and arrowheads. These extra hard rocks also insured the integrity of the Flint Hills by slowing erosion and hindering the plow. Farming was not possible here, but ranchers discovered what the buffalo knew for centuries before, that these hills provide excellent grazing. The big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass, maintained by managed fires and nourished by the calcium-rich soil, provide nutriment for thousands of cattle that roam this ranchland today. This 58-mile drive takes travelers into the heart of the area. The vistas are some of the most scenic in the country.
Coyotes may be encountered throughout the year. Raptors include red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, and American kestrels. During winter they may be joined by prairie falcons and rough-legged hawks. During spring and summer watch for upland sandpipers, common nighthawks, eastern meadowlarks, loggerhead shrikes, and grasshopper sparrows. These hills also harbor the largest population of greater prairie chickens in the world. The best times to visit are during spring and fall. Numerous wildflowers may be seen in addition to the wildlife. The flowers are often abundant in the roadside ditches and may sometimes be found growing in the middle of the road! In fall, the bluestem grasses show their subtle hues of blue and red.
No developed trails, but take the time to pull over, shut off the car and walk these seldom-traveled country roads. Vistas encompassing 100 square miles of the tallgrass prairie can be seen along this drive.
Directions: Download the map by clicking here. This is a 128K pdf file. You will need Acrobat Reader to use this file. If you do not already have this software, you may get it for free from Adobe. Use the map with the narrative description below to guide your exploration of the heart of the Flint Hills. Total length of this drive (including the side trip to Camp Creek crossing) is about 58 miles.
Begin in the town of Cassoday - "Prairie Chicken Capital of the World". Cassoday is 40 miles northeast of Wichita or 33 miles southwest of Emporia. There is an exit at Cassoday from I-35, the Kansas Turnpike.
Continue into the Flint Hills for another 7 miles to two large watershed lakes. At a jog to the right, NE 135th changes to Battle Creek Road. As this angles down into the Battle Creek valley to the southeast, you will cross a cattle guard. From here to the next turn you will be on open range, which means there are no fences on either side of the road. Cattle can be unpredictable in their movements! Drive slowly when they are near the road. Just below the dams, take a left turn and continue east. (Number 2)
In another 7.6 miles you will arrive at the small town of Lapland (three or four houses). (Number 3)
At the stop sign, turn left (north) and travel 4.5 miles on H Road to the next stop sign (NE 160th). Continue north and just past the intersection you will cross another cattle guard and be on open range again for the next 9.7 miles. The road takes two jogs to the east and you will drive past the remnants of a once active oil field. Only a few rigs are still pumping. After 4.5 miles you will come to an intersection at the top of a hill. At this point, you are on the divide between the Fall River and Verdigris River watersheds, with great views to the north and south. (Number 4)
Turn left (west) and travel another 5.2 miles to the next intersection. This road is one of the most scenic in the area! Turn right at the intersection and travel north another 2.6 miles. A microwave tower is just to the east at this point. Remember this intersection; if you take the following side trip you will eventually return to this spot. (Number 5)
Backtrack to the Number 5 intersection and continue west for 0.5 miles and then turn north onto Sharpe's Creek Road. For most of the next 11 miles you are on open range again. Before reaching the town of Bazaar, the north end of this drive, you will cross the North Fork of the Cottonwood River on an old steel trestle bridge. After crossing the railroad tracks, follow the paved road west through Bazaar to K-177. This is another good place to take a break. An old schoolhouse which has been renovated as a community center sits on the west side of the highway. There is a roadside park here with picnic tables. (Number 7)
If you still have some time, follow your tracks back to
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