The best way to hike the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is to start before sunrise and walk to the top of the first treeless rise.
You can stand there in the dark before dawn and believe, as the ancients believed, that the universe is a giant, overturned bowl of stars covering an endless world. There is little light pollution, so you can see the Milky Way and the Orion Nebula. And you know now that the world here is a place of vast quiet, and that your part in it, and the problems you carry around with you, are smaller than you’d believed.
Watch the sky turn pink. After the ball of flame rises over the distant ridge, keep walking.
Besides stunning vistas, a hike here in late summer includes spiderworts and sunflowers, hawks and horned lizards and northern harriers, primroses and prairie chickens, and pathways that cover 40 miles.
If you don’t like maps, the trails can lead you astray, but never mind: It’s better sometimes to not know which way you’re going, or when you might get there, or where you might end up, and what you might find along the way.
If you find that solitary grazing bison, let him be. Did the herd banish him for belligerence?
Three dark heads with horns appear, as though from underground, climbing to the top of a draw, tails flicking at flies. Ten more bison appear, then 20, 30, 50, 80. The full headcount stands at 110.
If you are lucky, you will stop at the edge of another deep draw and hear the yipping chorus of coyotes, their serenade eerie, undulating and sad. Probably pups, with their mother teaching the song.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
What: 11,000 acres managed by the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. It attracts 22,000 visitors a year. Hiking trails are open every day, 24/7. The parking lot and historic ranch buildings close at 4:30 p.m.
Where: Two miles north of Strong City, Kan., on Kansas 177. The preserve is about 17 miles west of Emporia and 80 miles northeast of Wichita.
Why: Stunning, treeless Flint Hills vistas in daylight, stargazing and meteor showers at night, and a 110-head bison herd
How: To see first the stars and then the sunrise, stay in Emporia or Cottonwood Falls the night before and get up long before dawn.