There Be Tallgrass in Them There Hills

As Bev mentioned in the last post, we decided to revisit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City, Kansas on our way back east. The first time we visited was in July 2017.  The grasses were only about 2 feet high. So, like many, we asked the rangers, “Where’s the Tallgrass?” They patiently explained (seems everyone asks that question) that the grass grows during the summer months and reaches its full height during the September/October timeframe. Then you can see the grass at around 5-6 feet depending on the amount of rainfall during the summer.

Last year, we drove in the car and spent several hours exploring the area. This time, we kept it short and stopped by in our RV. This is one park that has ample parking for RVs and their toads. The ranger told us that the best views of the Tallgrass were in the Bottomland Nature Trail area. Hmmm. We knew we couldn’t get to that part of the park in our RV. It’s a tiny parking lot with limited parking access to the trailhead. And we definitely didn’t want to unhook the car just to drive 3 miles. So we opted for the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse Trail. Not as much Tallgrass, but still worth visiting. Even better was the fact that we could take the dogs with us on this trail. Bonus! (The other trail that allows pets is the Fox Creek Trail which leads you to the Bottomland Nature Trail).

Before I reveal the new pictures, I’m going to tell you more about the park and its importance. Last year, I posted our visit on my Facebook page, but I didn’t really give much information about this really interesting park.

Way back when, before Europeans arrived, the prairies pretty much covered the Midwest. They stretched all the way from Canada down to Oklahoma and Texas. East to West they covered parts of Michigan and Indiana, all the way to Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. The prairies had three distinct types of ecosystems. In the far west, it was drier, so the grasses were short. In the east, there was more rain, so the grasses grew much taller. In between was a mixture of short and tall grasses.

The Tallgrass Prairie covered 400,000 square miles alone. Today, there is only about 4% of it left. Most of it is in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where we stopped. Two other parks are still holdouts of the Tallgrass Prairie, one in Oklahoma, the other in Indiana. The Tallgrass prairies disappeared because they were ideal for prime farmland. The remaining section in the Flint Hills is still there because the soil is so poor due to the rocks in the area (stay tuned for your geology lesson on the Flint Hills). The prairies support a huge range of flora and fauna. Over 350 species of wildflowers, shrubs, and other flowering plants can be found here along with over 70 species of grasses.

The park itself is a public/private enterprise. In 1994, a trust was created and it purchased 10,864 acres of the historic Springs/Z-Bar Ranch. But they objected to the National Park Service owning it. So a deal was brokered where the land is owned by the trust, while the park service mostly manages it. They worked jointly to develop the property into a park. The trust donated 32 acres of the ranch including the ranch house, outbuildings, and a one room school house to the park service in 2002. In 2005, it transferred the remaining land to The Nature Conservancy.

Since the prairies only have 4 – 11% tree cover, wood was in short supply as a building material. The settlers got very creative in the use of rock to replace wood. The buildings on the ranch were all locally quarried limestone. The limestone is totally squared with smooth sides except for the face which was left rough. They say that they could not duplicate creating the same amount of perfectly square stones today. I guess those folks had some skills back then. The main house was built in 1878.

Jones Ranch House at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City, Kansas.

Another example of using rocks in place of wood is the fencing around the ranch. It stretches for over 30 miles and is made entirely of stacked limestone. In other parts of Kansas, you can see fence posts made from quarried stones.

Limestone fence with Jones Ranch House in background. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

The one room school was really nice the way it was restored. They actually re-furnished it the way it would have been. There are big student desks in the back of the room (for older students) and smaller desks up front (for those young pint-size students). The blackboards are covered with different assignments and information on them. The school was built in 1884 and was in use up until 1930. The school taught from 1 to 19 students in grades 1 through 8.

So where did all this limestone come from? From the Flint Hills, an area covering from Kansas to Oklahoma (Oklahoma calls them the Osage Hills). They were formed during the Permian Period around 280 million years ago. It was a shallow sea bed, with lots of sea life including mollusks, oysters, clams, etc. These critters pulled calcium carbonate from the waters and when they died, their bodies decomposed on the sea floor, creating limestone. Then the seas would retreat a bit and mud deposits became stone in the form of shale. These alternating layers are what make up the topography. The terraced look is formed in a process called differential erosion. The hard limestone layers are more resistant to erosion than the intervening shale layers, so it creates a stairstep pattern. The limestone layers contain a lot of chert, a dense microcrystalline quartz. It is also called flint and the Native Americans used it in making tools. The geologists are still not sure what exactly creates the chert in the limestone, but I am sure they will figure it out eventually.

The hills, combined with the rocky soil kept the area from being heavily farmed. Instead the areas is better suited for cattle ranching due to the nutritious flora. The main grasses are the Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indiangrass. Even though these grasses can grow to be 5-8 feet tall, they represent only a small percentage of the visibly seen plant. There is actually 75% more plant underground in the root system. This dense mat of roots binds the soil together and helps absorb water and nutrients. In fact, the historic Dust Bowl in the 1930s was directly caused by all the plains being plowed up and turned into farmland. The new crops did not have the extensive root system so when the drought came, the soil was free to blow around.

There is also a growing herd of bison on the park property. In 2009, the park service brought 13 bison from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. Another shipment of 10 in 2014 and 10 in 2015. After breeding the herd size now numbers around 100. They hang out in the area called the Windmill Pasture. As expected, with the herd being in the area it means no dogs are allowed on the west side of the park.

Here are the new pictures from this year. The main type of grass we saw was the Big Bluestem. It was hitting somewhere around 5 feet. This summer was on the dry side so the grasses didn’t grow to their full height. Still, it was pretty neat to walk the trail surrounded by these tall plants. They didn’t look so tall, until we realized we had to take the wind into consideration. The wind was pushing the tops down. So you’ll see me in one of the pictures holding up the grass so you can see just how tall it really is.

This is truly a wonderful park to visit. There is so much to see. If you come in the summer there are lots of wild flowers in full bloom. The plants attract all kinds of wildlife for your viewing pleasure. The buildings from the ranch are a marvel of an earlier age. There are several trails on which you can explore the environment. Plus you can bring your four footed children. Just remember to bring lots of water and sunscreen during the summer months.

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