In east-central Kansas, travelers to the Flint Hills explore Kansas' treasured tallgrass frontier at museums and preserves, on hikes and byway excursions and in towns celebrating the prairie's past.

Before the modern rancher arrived, Kaw Indians resided in the Flint Hills and Santa Fe Trail travelers passed through them. The landscape hasn't changed much since that time. Unspoiled, nearly treeless hills with bluestem grasses, accented by bright-orange butterfly milkweed and other wildflowers, provide glimpses to a time when open grasslands covered more than 1 million square miles of the continent.

Konza Prairie
Rugged hiking and nature trails crisscross Konza Prairie's 8,600 acres of largely untouched prairie near Manhattan. Photo by Blaine Moats.

Overnight Getaway

For a thorough orientation to the region, start at Manhattan's Flint Hills Discovery Center. The museum immerses visitors in the beauty and heritage of the nearly 10,000-square-mile region, especially during an introductory film with special effects that include gusty winds, falling snow and billowing smoke.

Flint Hills Discovery Center
Flint Hills Discovery Center. Photo by Blaine Moats.

Walk a couple blocks from the museum to four-block-long downtown Manhattan, home to independent restaurants like Bourbon and Baker, which serves twists on standard American fare like corn bread sliders and deviled eggs with Sriracha. Closer to Kansas State University, students rock into the wee hours in the Aggieville bar-and-restaurant district, and daytime shoppers frequent some of the 90-plus specialty shops and eateries, including Radina's Coffeehouse and Roastery.

About 40 miles south of Manhattan, the 47-mile Flint Hills National Scenic Byway (State-177) connects the ranch towns of Council Grove and Cassoday. It gives road trippers the best two-lane tour over the undulating hills, past ranches and occasional cowboys working their herds. Along the byway in Council Grove, campers stake a site at Canning Creek Cove Park, one of eight parks surrounding the 3,300-acre Council Grove Reservoir. Water laps within earshot of many of the campsites, set among hills and limestone outcroppings rising from the shoreline.

Flint Hills National Scenic Byway
Flint Hills National Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy of KDWPT.

Also in Council Grove, Allegawaho Heritage Memorial Park features a 35-foot monument that pays homage to an unknown Kanza warrior, plus a 2-mile heritage trail that connects with the 117-mile Flint Hills Nature Trail. Before leaving town, learn about the town's Native American roots at the Kaw Mission State Historic Site—built in 1851 as a school for Kaw children.

The roller coaster byway continues south of Council Grove to more room to roam at the 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. A visitors center video sets the stage for touring the 1881 limestone house, barn and one-room schoolhouse and hiking the 1.8-mile Southwind Nature Trail to an overlook.

Days of exploring call for cut-to-order steaks at the 1880s Grand Central Hotel and Grill in Cottonwood Falls. Take a self-guided tour of the French Renaissance Chase County Courthouse on Broadway Street.

Chase County Courthouse
Chase County Courthouse. Photo by Doug Stremel.Music on the Praiie

The 80-piece Kansas City Symphony performs alfresco at a different ranch each year. The Symphony in the Flint Hills tends to sell out well in advance, so be sure to purchase tickets early.

Chasing Waterfalls

A series of three waterfalls cascades in quick succession at Chase Lake Falls, part of Chase State Fishing Lake west of Cottonwood Falls. A 10-minute walk through the woods beyond the spillway ends at the base of the falls. Similarly, the soothing sound of water in the woods lures hikers down the short, narrow path at Geary State Fishing Lake, 12 miles south of Junction City, to the top of 35-foot Geary Lake Falls.

Chase Lake Falls
Chase Lake Falls. Photo by Ginger Crichton.