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Kansas prairie park preserves vanishing tallgrass

This one-room schoolhouse, which was used from 1882 to 1930, is part of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kansas.
This one-room schoolhouse, which was used from 1882 to 1930, is part of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kansas. AP

Stand here in a field of tall, windblown grass and wildflowers, and twirl around like a child. It’s like being inside a prairie snow globe: You’re surrounded by a sea of green, brown and yellow grass, with a blue-sky dome above.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas is one of just a few places in the country where you can immerse yourself in this serene but vanishing landscape. Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America, including much of the Midwest. But only 4 percent of that ecosystem remains, wiped out by more than 150 years of human settlement, cattle-grazing and farming.

The Tallgrass Preserve here in the Flint Hills is one of the last tracts left, consisting of 11,000 acres mostly owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed with the National Park Service. There are miles of trails here to explore, but the Southwind Nature Trail is an easy-to-walk loop trail — just under two miles — that offers a sublime sense of what the landscape felt and looked like when it was covered with tallgrass and wildflowers across the region.

The preserve is also home to a historic site — a late 19th-century ranch with outbuildings, along with a one-room schoolhouse used from 1882 to 1930. A free cellphone tour provides details on each structure, including a barn bigger than the house, an icehouse, carriage house, chicken coop with a sod roof (using plants as insulation, way ahead of its time), and outhouse with three holes. (Not that three people would have used it at once, mind you: one seat was for a child, and the other two were likely rotated in use.)

A prosperous cattleman, Stephen F. Jones, lived here on the Spring Hill/Z Bar Ranch with his wife and daughter in the 1880s. Limestone was easily quarried from the layers of rock beneath the rich prairie soil, allowing Jones to build an elegant mansion and stone fencing around his vast property.

But once you’re on the Southwind Nature Trail, away from the ranch, you can almost suspend your disbelief and pretend you’re experiencing this extraordinary landscape before settlers arrived, when the only destruction faced by the tallgrass was from a natural cycle of lightning-sparked fire, rainfall and grazing bison.

The park is open daily, year-round, and each season offers a different experience of weather, colors, flora and fauna. On a visit in early autumn, the trail was lined with fields of tall yellow flowers dancing in the breeze, punctuated by bursts of other purple, red and white wildflowers amid the grasses.

Tiny lizards, a snake and grasshoppers darted across the path. Rabbits, prairie chickens and other birds and other creatures live here, too. The trail meanders gently into higher ground and over a brook, then finally to the school, still furnished with a woodstove, wooden desks and benches, along with portraits of George Washington and Abe Lincoln.

As you walk back toward the ranch house to the parking lot, you travel a path parallel to a road where the occasional car zips by. It’s a good reminder of the human factor that led to the prairie’s demise.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Where: Visitor center is 2 miles north of the intersection of two roads, US 50 and KS 177. Located a half-mile west of Strong City, Kansas; about 100 miles from Wichita, Kansas, and 130 miles from Kansas City, Missouri.

Open: Open daily, year-round. Free admission.

Information: www.nps.gov/tapr/index.htm, 620-273-6034 or 620-273-8494.

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