A Flint Hills Journey
Tall grass stretches as far as you can see in the Flint Hills of east-central Kansas, an area of rock knolls and prairie that extends roughly from Wichita north to Abilene and east to Emporia. Winds play across the nearly treeless landscape, creating swaying patterns of wheat and grass that roll on for miles. The region, one of the last true prairies in North America, is a rare reminder of the time when open grasslands covered vast expanses of our continent.
Native Americans learned to survive in this unsheltered countryside. Today, Flint Hills ranchers still follow the ancient Indian custom of burning off their pastures to encourage the new growth. Flames often cast an eerie orange glow in the skies. Rains transform the blackened landscape into vibrant shades of green.
Towns steeped in Old West lore put out the welcome mat for visitors. Some of these communities such as Council Grove owe their origins to the historic Santa Fe and Chisholm trails, which once passed through the Flint Hills. Marshall "Wild Bill" Hickok kept an uneasy peace in Abilene, end of the trail for countless cattle drives.
German-Russian Mennonites settled Hillsboro, and Swedes migrated to Lindsborg. Descendants of both groups still reside in the towns, proudly keeping their Old World traditions alive.
Just north of Junction City along US-77, Fort Riley serves as the home to brigades from the Army's First Ar-mored Division and its highly deco-rated First Infantry Division, the "Big Red One." The post's military traditions began in the days of the Old West. Soldiers from General George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry first rode out from Fort Riley more than a century ago.
The U.S. Cavalry Museum depicts the life of those elite horse soldiers. Many of western artist Frederick Rem-ington's works are on display here, too, along with uniforms and weapons dating to the U.S Calvary days. You also can tour Custer's 1855 home.
Drive 2 miles south to I-70, then 3 miles east to State-57 and 34 miles south.
(Population: 2,230) A tree-shaded farm town, Council Grove claims a prominent place in American history. Hun-dreds of trading caravans rendezvoused in Council Grove before proceeding west with their goods on the perilous 550-mile journey along the legendary Santa Fe Trail. A self-guided driving tour includes 18 stops at historic sites.
The Last Chance Store sold sowbellies, beans and other supplies to those hitting the trail. Though it closed long ago, you still can drive by the stone building at Main and Chautauqua, two blocks west of the downtown.
Pioneers left letters for their friends beneath Post Office Oak, which is located downtown. The Council Oak Shrine commemorates another tree, the site of an 1825 treaty signed with the Osage tribe. The treaty ensured Euro-pean settlers safe passage south. The Kaw Mission State Historic Site once served as a school for Native American and white children.
Drive 16 miles south on State-57/177, through open farm country.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Established in 1996, this preserve saves a rare remnant of the vast expanse of tallgrass prairie that once covered much of the nation's midsection.
Cattle baron Stephen F. Jones established his Spring Hill Ranch on this land in the 1880s. View a video about the preserve in his grand home.
The nearly 2-mile-long Southwind Nature Trail takes you along a glistening stream to lofty overlooks. You can climb a nearby hilltop to a one-room schoolhouse, where prairie vistas spread for miles in every direction.
Drive 4 miles south on State 57/177.