Cottonwood Falls, Kansas: Prairie Road Trip Day Two

Cottonwood Falls Kansas
Red Cloud is practically walking distance to the border with Kansas. The drive southeast to Cottonwood Falls (above) is an easy 4 hours past farm and prairie, and on the way you can take a quick detour to visit the high and windy geographical center of the lower 48 states, near Lebanon, Kansas.

This is mostly big, big land and big, big sky punctuated by small towns, billboards, working farms and abandoned farmhouses moldering picturesquely. Exit the interstate and take State Route 177 into the heart of the Flint Hills, named for the thin layer of flinty soil that made the area unsuitable for farming. When the West was being settled, most pioneers passed through on their way to something more glorious. Because of this, these lands escaped the plow, preserving a large swath of virgin prairie.

Today the Flint Hills are a lovely rural getaway, the kind of place people dream of retiring to, maybe opening a little B&B. One location might be Cottonwood Falls, the center of what little action there is in this appealing part of Kansas.

Road Trip Starting Point:
Driving the Prairie

A gleaming white confection of a courthouse dominates Broadway, the town's main street; it's prettier still when it's lit up at night. Every Friday night, people set up lawn chairs in its glow on the street outside the Emma Chase Café for musical jam sessions that last well into the night. You'll hear a different genre each week: country, bluegrass, gospel, blues.

Part of Cottonwood Falls' appeal is its proximity to a pure swath of plains. Five miles out of town, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (right) is nearly 11,000 acres of virgin prairie, most of which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Free bus tours of the preserve leave from the LEED-certified visitor center from April through October as staffing allows or you can pick up maps and explore on your own.

The grasses on the rich bottomlands can grow to 8 feet tall by the end of a good summer with plenty of rain, which is something that's been lacking in recent years. In spring, controlled burns are a spectacular sight. A small but growing herd of bison graze on this prairie; visitor center staff track the herd and can direct you if you want to seek the beasts out.

Take the tour, sure, but hike out into the prairie as well, away from what little highway noise there is. Pause and listen for the song of the bobwhite, the chickadee and the meadowlark. Ironweed, wavyleaf thistle, bergamot and dozens of other wildflowers add color to the sea of grass. The preserve is always open -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Visit in the dewy morning, in the noonday sun, in the magic liquid light of late afternoon and at sunset, lingering as night settles over the prairie and coyotes start calling. The prairie is anything but monotonous.

Prairie Road Trip Day Three: Ponca City, Oklahoma >>
<< Previous Stop: Red Cloud, Nebraska

Looking for more road trip ideas? Visit our Great American Road Trips home page.

The beautiful great plains have a dark side -- this part of the country is also known as Tornado Alley. Storm chasing, to witness the grandeur of nature's power, is actually a tourist activity 'round these parts, but the massive twister that recently ravaged Moore, Oklahoma -- about 100 miles south of Ponca City -- was a disaster of unimaginable scale. Take tornado watches and warnings seriously, and follow National Weather Service safety tips. And if you would like to help Moore rebuild, here are some ways to help.

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