STRONG CITY — Bernadette Hagadorn and her daughter Jenny were passing through Kansas on their way down to Oklahoma, but with so much shut down, they figured they might as well make the most of their road trip. They stopped by Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
The South Carolinians were taken aback at the milelong views and rolling waves of amber tallgrass.
“It seems like you can see forever,” Jenny said. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever seen.”
But it’s not just out-of-staters finding a new experience at the vast park. As the pandemic has shut down most other attractions and public spaces, more locals and first-timers are making their way out to hiking trails, which wind through some of the last remaining tallgrass prairie in the world.
Randy Bilbeisi, superintendent at the preserve about an hour south of Manhattan, said the park has seen an uptick in visitors, even after he made the difficult decision in March to shut down the park’s restrooms and visitor center.
“I realized there were going to be a lot of people still wanting something to do, so I left the 41 miles of trail open to the public,” he said. “It gave people a place to come and spend time without having to spend money.”
Beyond hiking, the park’s trails also offer people the opportunity to see bison, birdwatch or even go fishing at some of the preserve’s ponds and creeks. On the prairie preserve, which was formerly ranchland, there’s a historic ranch house, limestone barn and one-room schoolhouse. Visitors can make their experience whatever they’d like, with hiking loops that take less than an hour to traverse or loops that take the better part of a day.
Shelley LeValley of Manhattan was out on the trail with her daughter-in-law, Theresa, sister, Janet of Emporia, and best friend, Kristy Bever of Wamego. The group hadn’t seen each other since shutdowns started in March, but after video chatting and a few glasses of wine, the group had decided to meet up at Tallgrass.
“I just like the peace of it, because it feels like the chaos out there isn’t here,” LeValley said. “And when we’re not yapping, I imagine the covered wagons coming through here. It just runs forever, it’s such a peaceful place.”
Bilbiesi said the park will likely start bringing back services on June 1, with rangers giving limited and socially-distanced outdoor presentations to the public. The restrooms are already open, and Bilbiesi said he hopes to reopen the visitor center, which includes a small theater for presentations on the prairie, by mid-June. Plans for resuming the guided bus tours of the preserve are a bit trickier, he said, since it’s harder to keep people apart on a bus.
The Konza Prairie Nature Trail also has seen a similar uptick in visitors, said Jill Haukos, director of education. But as a prairie research station, Konza requires visitors to stay on the trails and avoid doing things that could jeopardize research activities.
“It has put increased pressure on the trail, and we do ask that people respect the rules of the trail,” Haukos said. That includes staying on the trail, not taking items and not bringing dogs onto the trails. “The trail is there for the public to hike, but it’s not really an exploration site. It’s an appreciation-of-the-prairie site.”
She encouraged people to “take only pictures, and leave only footprints” as they visit the park, especially as people might be tempted to take wildflowers, which are in full bloom right now. Additionally, right now is peak season for bird watching as several species migrate through the area. Haukos encouraged visitors to research the prairie’s wildlife and wildflowers ahead of time to try to identify some of those species on the trail.
And for those who might not be able to make the trek out to the prairie, Haukos has started sharing “Nature Nuggets” — quick facts and pictures to educate the public about the prairie — on Konza’s Facebook page. Originally, the posts were meant to engage kids in learning about the prairie, but Haukos later adapted the posts to fit a wider community after finding that adults were engaging with them just as much as the kids.
Bilbiesi said prairie trails offer a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors, as well as a sense of peace in chaotic times.
“A lot of the hikers really appreciate the solitude and the chance to get away from everything,” he said. “There’s places at Tallgrass Prairie where you’re walking and it’s hard to find any sign of civilization for miles. It takes you back in time for sure.”