Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kans. Visited: August 5, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 71 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? 10,894 acres of tall grass prairie purchased by the National Park Trust for future development and use as a National Park. A barn has been turned into an open air Visitor Center. A 19th-century ranch house and one-room schoolhouse can be visited as part of a ranger-led tour. Limited walking paths skirt the edges of the prairie.
BEAUTY (7/10) The beauty of the prairie comes from absence and expanse rather than any notable landmarks. And despite its name, the grass in the Tallgrass Prairie is not very tall. Tallgrass denotes the type of grass, not its actual size. After getting over this initial disappointment, we were able to enjoy the peaceful serenity of the rolling prairie hills interrupted only by a few clusters of trees and accented by fields of wild flowers. The scene has a very calming effect.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) An independent, nonprofit land conservancy purchased the land for the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve from private owners for the purpose of creating a National Park. NPS owns only a small portion of the land. The rest is in the hands of the Trust, which has a say in how things are managed. This public/private partnership is the first of its kind. It will be interesting to see how this relationship develops. Particularly since yet another private organization, the Kansas Land Trust also wants to participate in the experiment.
The National Preserve is the only NPS area dedicated to the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. It represents the remaining 2% of tallgrass prairie in the United States. Once this land is destroyed, it cannot be replenished or replaced.
CROWDS (7/10) We shared our prairie bus tour with one other couple. The bus looks as if it could fit about 30 people comfortably. Our questions and conversation with the Ranger extended our hour and a half tour by at least fifteen minutes. When we returned to the Visitor Center, 15 people were waiting to go on the next trip. For a place that is not yet fully open to the public, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is enjoying some early popularity. Our visit was enhanced through participation in our tourís ad hoc discussion group. Besides, it would have been awkward to be the only two people on the bus.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) Although almost 11,000 acres of prairie are protected, only a very small portion of it can be explored by walking or bus tour. This is one of the reasons the Kansas Land Trust wants to purchase some of the land and aid in its development. There is one gravel parking lot at the foot of a hill, which one must climb to reach the Visitor Center and other park services. Limited accessible parking is available at the top of the hill. Port-a-Johns are your restroom options. We saw no accessible entrance to the ranch house. The diesel bus used for the prairie tours is a relic and is not very accessible for guests who have special needs.
Keep in mind that this National Preserve is quite new and the General Management Plan is not yet finished. Plans for a campground, more accessible activities, extended tours and walks, both self-guided and ranger-led, and perhaps even the introduction of bison are being discussed.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5) The bookstore is located in a first floor room of the ranch house. We did not see an accessible entrance. We found several items we had seen in other gift stores here for a higher price. The book selection was average. The bookstore is also where one pays for bus tours and combination house and bus tours. Someone should have mentioned this to the sweet teenage girl who started her first day as cashier when we were there.
COSTS (2/5) Bus tours, really the only way to get into the prairie at this point, cost $5.00 per adult. Ranger-led tours of the ranch house are free. A combo tour, which includes a walkthrough of the ranch headquarters and the bus tour, is $7.00. This is offered for groups of 15 or more and must be arranged at least two weeks in advance.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) Four Rangers were on duty during our visit, more than enough to handle the visitors who were trickling in. One was stationed at the Visitor Center, another at the ranch house; the other two each led a bus tour. We had the undivided attention of Bob, our Ranger on the bus tour once we could get his attention over the roar of the diesel engine.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) There are few exhibits in the barn/Visitor Center mostly consisting of farming items found on archeological digs at the site. There is also a huge ball of barbed wire. Some folding chairs are set up in front of a monitor which plays a short 15 minute video about the tall grass prairie.
What makes the Center is the accessibility of the Rangers. Another visitor must have asked a Ranger a bird-related question. Halfway through the video, the Ranger quietly crept over to the questioner to point out the answer in a reference book and point her in the direction where she might see the bird in question.
We boarded an old blue bus for an 11:00 a.m. tour. The senior Ranger at the site slipped behind the wheel and slipped on a hands free microphone. He guided us through the prairie with a leisurely monologue, chatting about a variety of topics: the Scottish fence builder hired to recreate the stone walls; the weather; the true size of tall grass and the relationships between the NPS and its neighbors. We disembarked the bus twice. Once to check out the various kinds of tall grass which sadly, he couldnít completely name. And once when we arrived at the top of a hill to enjoy the prairie vista and talk about early and current use of the land.
FUN (6/10) Gab enjoyed the leisurely pace of the bus tour and the rambling nature of the guide. Michael was frustrated by busís diesel growl and the Rangerís lack of botanical knowledge. We both enjoyed the self-guided walking tour and wished it would have been longer. The emerging partnership between the National Park Trust and the NPS, as well as the various agreements with local ranchers and the Kansas Land Trust fascinated us. We appreciated the Ranger taking the time to answer questions from us and the other couple on our tour.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10) This is the only place where one can see such a large uninterrupted expanse of tallgrass prairie. If you grew up reading Little House on the Prairie books like Gab, you might really enjoy this stop.
This site is beautiful now; it could be incredible with just a few improvements, like some additional trails and some Bison. A campground would be fantastic. Our visit left us wanting more. Our Ranger also had dreams of leading day hikes to a nearby creek bed and additional services at the Preserve. Hopefully in a few years, we can return to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and see the Park Serviceís plans carried out.
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