The Flint Hills of Kansas: where nature and culture collide
05/16/2014 3:43 PM
06/03/2014 10:17 AM
The Flint Hills of Kansas, just two hours west of Kansas City via Interstate 70 or Interstate 35, are a favorite destination for hikers, amateur photographers, bird-watchers, stargazers and sunset revelers. The picture postcard landscape is home mostly to cattle ranchers, since the flint that gave the region its name proved unyielding to the plow.
Forget the GPS and use DeLorme’s Kansas Atlas & Gazetteer to plot a “blue highways” and rock backroads tour through the spectacular rolling, rocky hills that are home to North America’s largest remaining stand of virgin tallgrass prairie — just make sure you have sturdy tires and a spare in the trunk. Technicolor wildflowers peak in May and June. Come around a new moon for stunning nighttime views of the Milky Way, planets and stars.
Wildlife abounds, from wild mustangs on private pastures to wild bison at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City. And yes, antelope roam, as do bobcats, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and meadowlarks. Folding lawn chairs, a cooler and binoculars are must-have accessories for Flint Hills cruising. And go ahead and top the tank off whenever you pass a gas station — the distances between them can be vast, and it ruins the fun of being lost in the hills if the needle on the gas gauge is sinking toward “E.”
History buffs will want to read up on the area’s Civil War and westward trails sites before a visit. If you’re into vintage collectibles, just about any medium-size town on the map will have an antiques or vintage store full of interesting things you don’t often find in Kansas City and at generally lower prices.
Flint Hills Discovery Center, Manhattan, flinthillsdiscovery.org. A panoramic film chronicling four seasons on the prairie, a walk-through “underground” root forest, displays of native artifacts.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, nps.gov/tapr. Short nature trails and longer back-country hiking trails (3.8 to 13 miles) traverse pastures that are home to native wildflowers, meadowlarks and wild bison.
Flint Hills National Scenic Byway. This 47-mile stretch of Kansas 177 from Council Grove to Cassoday recently made Smarter Travel’s list of 10 iconic drives in the U.S. The northern stretch of 177 from Manhattan to Council Grove offers equally breathtaking vistas.
Flint Hills Rodeo, June 5-7, Strong City, flinthillsrodeo.com. The longest consecutive-running rodeo in Kansas is a slice of classic Americana.
Symphony in the Flint Hills, June 14, Rosalia, symphonyintheflinthills.org. Tickets may still be available to hear the Kansas City Symphony perform on a remote stand of tallgrass prairie. Generally the second Saturday in June.
Flint Hills Folklife Festival, June 14-15, Cottonwood Falls, flinthillsfolklifefestival.com. Live music, demonstrations of pioneer skills and crafts for sale on the lawn of the historic Chase County Courthouse.
Clover Cliff Ranch Bed & Breakfast, Elmdale. Elegantly furnished historic limestone home.
Millstream Resort Motel, Cottonwood Falls. Rustic, retro 1960s property on the banks of the Cottonwood River.
Matfield Station, Matfield Green. Renovated former railroad worker housing units have kitchens, nice bathrooms and front-porch rocking chairs.
Food and drink
Four Olives, Manhattan, fourolives.biz. Posh wine bar in downtown Manhattan is a huge step up from college-friendly Aggieville offerings.
Burns Cafe & Bakery, Burns, 620-726-5528. Famous locally for huge breakfasts and wonderful pie. Everything is from-scratch, including the bread. Call ahead; hours vary.
Ad Astra, Strong City, adastrafood-drink.com. Ever since the New York Times and Saveur revealed the charms of this oasis of beef, bison and beers, you need a reservation. Open Friday-Sunday only.