Travel

Three options for fall tours of America’s largest remaining stand of tallgrass prairie

Instagram might drive many folks to farms offering big-as-your-face sunflowers, but I think a prettier scene is a patch of wild, yet smaller, sunflowers with a backdrop of what looks like never-ending prairie stretching behind the yellow blooms.

I count myself as fortunate to be able to drive not much more than an hour from my home in Wichita to see 11 varieties of sunflowers growing in the largest remaining intact tallgrass prairie left in North America, Kansas’ Flint Hills.

I don’t do it nearly enough but am happy to see there are growing options for those who need an organized tour as incentive, want insight into what you’re seeing that a guide can offer or access to areas we don’t normally get to see.

Several years ago, The Volland Store in Alma started cellar tours that take you onto private farms in the Flint Hills of Wabaunsee County.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, a collaboration between the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy, has daytime bus tours narrated by a park ranger starting from its visitor center in Strong City, about miles northeast of Wichita.

A new option this year has been regularly scheduled weekly tours led by Casey Cagle and centered in Chase County, the only one of the 22 Kansas counties that touch the Flint Hills to be completely contained within the tallgrass prairie. Cagle started Prairie Earth Tours, a small group tour operator, in late 2016. He said he has been tweaking offerings since then to find the right mix of tours that will fill his 14-passenger bus.

“If people are going to the Grand Canyon, they might know to Google for a bus tour but if they are coming to Kansas, they might not even think of looking for a bus tour,” said Cagle, 36, who led cross-country tours, then worked as a tour guide in California and Australia before returning to his home state to fill what he believes is a void in the tourism market here.

“My goals are to help people explore and enjoy Kansas and also to raise awareness about the need for conservation at the tallgrass prairie.”

While the prairie might look like it’s massive and goes on forever, it’s the most altered ecosystem in North America in terms of acres lost, said Brian Obermeyer, the Flint Hills project director at The Nature Conservancy. Just 4% of North America’s 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie remain, and it’s more important than many realize.

“We are second only to the rainforest in our biodiversity,” Cagle said. “That’s incredible and not many people realize that there’s so much more than just grass out here. I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places in the world and the tallgrass prairie is right up there in its beauty and significance. It’s a significant, iconic landscape that we’re lucky to have in Kansas.”

He’s not sure he has the right mix of tours yet, and each year he has changed what he offers. It’s too early to say what he’ll offer when the 2020 season starts in April, but there’s still time to catch one of Prairie Earth Tours’ scheduled outings before this season ends. All tours must be reserved in advance at prairieearthtours.com. Cagle also arranges private tours; his bus, which has large windows, holds up to 14 passengers.

Though the weekly daytime three-hour tour on Saturdays that he offered this year from Flying W Ranch is already finished for this year, Cagle is still leading a weekly two-hour sunset tour on Fridays through Oct. 25. Departure times for the Prairie Sunset Tour, $25 per person, are based on sunset so this time of year they leave at 5 p.m. from outside Grand Central Hotel on Broadway in Cottonwood Falls.

There is also one remaining date for a Wild Edible and Medicinal Plant Tour that Cagle offers in collaboration with Thomas Eddy, a botanist and entomologist who is retired from Emporia State University. The Oct. 4 tour departs from the Granada Theatre, 809 Commercial St. in Emporia, at 7:30 a.m. and returns about 10 a.m. The cost is $25 per person.

“We’re on the bus just long enough to get to where the tour takes place, somewhere close to Emporia that Dr. Eddy will pick just before the tour based on what’s growing where,” Cagle said. “It’s not a hike, though there is some walking and standing as Dr. Eddy talks about identifying wildflowers and the use of these plants for food and medicine. It’s an excellent interactive tour that can be completely different in what we see from the spring to the fall.”

All but 20 minutes of the Prairie Sunset Tour was on the bus, which was a lot of sitting after spending about 75 minutes driving to Cottonwood Falls on a Friday afternoon. For every one like me who wants her feet on the prairie, though, Cagle has inquiries from people who want to make sure there will be no hiking.

It’s a tour that occurs during sunset and with those bus windows, you see the entire sunset. You’re on the bus most of the time because there is a lot of ground to cover. There’s also a lot of information for Cagle to share as he drives and narrates the history of the towns he passes through, mixing in facts and folklore, along with past and current conservation issues. He also shares his interest in plants, pulling up some specimens as soon as the bus unloads.

“My favorite part of the tour is getting people out and interacting and talking about the prairie,” he said. “I am considering having more active tours next year. I’ve been focusing on the scenic bus tours and next year I may try to offer more things outside the bus, more ecotourism with hiking. That’s still under development, though. It’s a tricky market because people who are really active are less likely to book an organized tour. I hope I can make it work because I’m interested in that.”

Cagle said the best way to track what tours he is offering is to sign up for the newsletter at his website, prairieearthtours.com, or follow the business on Facebook.

Other tours in the Flint Hills:

The Volland Store in Alma, about 140 miles northeast of Wichita, has several barn and arched-roof cellar tours scheduled this fall on private property in Wabaunsee County. Events are on Sept. 22, Oct. 5-6, Oct. 18 and Nov. 2-3 and are listed at thevollandstore.com, though several are sold out. Tours last about four hours and cost $26.50 per person. Full details are on the website.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, off Highway 177 in Strong City about 80 miles northeast of Wichita, offers a free guided bus tour daily. The 60 to 90 minute tour drives about 3 miles into the preserve’s 11,000 acres, through a bison pasture to a prairie overlook area and back the same route. A National Park Service ranger leads the tours at 11 a.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday from April through the last weekend in October. Reservations are recommended and taken by phone at 620-273-8494. Walk-ins are accepted as space allows. Details are at nps.gov/tapr.

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