William Least Heat-Moon in his book PrairyErth describes the prairie thusly, "Whatever else prairie is - grass, sky, wind - it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from the apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge."
The Flint Hills region, which runs north and south through east-central Kansas, is one of the few large areas of native prairie grassland left in the United States. The area is a small narrow strip running from Nebraska to Oklahoma. The grassland that covers the Flint Hills once covered most of central and western Kansas and the surrounding states. Once this land was settled, the prairie was either plowed for farmland or turned into cities. Away from all the roads and buildings, the Flint Hills looks much as it did 10,000 years ago.
The Flint Hills cover approximately 12 counties and totals between 2.5 million and 4 million acres. The majority of the land is used as rangeland. The land is sloping to steeply sloping hills. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. It is home to the largest tallgrass prairie reserve and a national park located on the old Z-Bar Ranch in Chase County.
Even though the Flint Hills is known for its rolling grasslands, it is named for flint, a type of rock that is found embedded in the limestone that forms the hills. Flint (also called "chert") doesn't erode as easily as the softer limestone. When the limestone on the surface is eroded by wind or water, it eventually breaks down into soil. The exposed flint is broken down into gravel mixes with the soil and makes the ground rocky.
The Flint Hills were created by the melting of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The runoff from the melting glaciers carved valleys into the once flat land. Typically, the hills are contoured with rocky outcroppings and the valleys are wooded. When settlers first moved through Kansas most of them passed the Flint Hills by. They wanted good farmland and the rocky soil was difficult to plow. Although the area is now used for cattle grazing, very little of the land has ever been plowed to for crops.
The soil depth varies from shallow to deep and produces medium to tall native grasses that provide excellent grazing grounds for livestock. These pastures are mainly warm season grasses that have supported livestock for over 100 years. The bison (or "buffalo") of old have been replaced by cattle today. A most interesting sight occurs early each spring as the ranchers maintain a tradition going back to at least 1860. The pastures are set afire and burned to the ground. Watching the fire line traverse the hills at night is a mystical event. This process prevents the small brush, weeds, and trees from overtaking the ranch land. The grasses grow again in fertile black soil and the summer grazing can be perpetually maintained.
Of the 142 million acres of tailgrass prairie that once covered the American heartland, less than 5% is left. In 1996, a 200-acre tract at the center of the old Z-Bar Ranch near Strong City was designated as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, a national park. The remaining 10,714 acres will be owned by the National Park Trust, a nonprofit, private conservation organization. The preserve is the first and only park in the National Park System singularly devoted to the tallgrass prairie. This fragile ecosystem is home to 40 species of grasses, 200 species of birds, 30 mammals, plus reptiles, amphibians and as many as 10 million insects per acre. Look for swooping redtailed hawks, cotton-tailed rabbits, foxes, coyotes, and the occasional massasauga rattlesnake.
Highway K-177 is designated as The Flint Hills Scenic Byway. It is 47 miles of beautiful scenery running south from Manhattan down south past the national park. It's a great way to spend an afternoon and take in a large part of the Flint Hills at the same time.
On a more personal note, my family comes from Chase County, KS. My ancestors have owned land in these hills for over 100 years. I've spent a lot of time staring out at the gorgeous sunsets and listening to water splashing along the hundreds of tiny streams. My grandfather and grandmother are buried side-by-side overlooking the immense beauty of the hills. I don't find it a chore to go back at all. Peace flows throughout.