6 State and National Parks to Explore Tallgrass Prairie

May 29, 2024

Centuries ago, tallgrass prairie reigned over vast swaths of central North America. Rising from the plains, as high as five-feet, the ecosystem extended from south-central Canada down through the Midwest, and into Texas. Receding glaciers left behind sediment that was ripe for prairie some 10,000 years ago, eventually engulfing one-third of the entire continent — making it the largest continuous ecosystem in North America, teeming with flora and fauna that relied on the billowing grasslands. In fact, the only ecosystem in the world that outpaces the tallgrass prairie, in terms of diverse animal life, is the Brazilian rainforest. Today, thanks largely to human development and climate change, less than 4% of the original prairie remains, mostly in Kansas and Oklahoma. Here is where to explore the wonders of the tallgrass prairie.

Looking to Explore the American Plains? Visit These Tall Grass Prairies

A light fog and heavy dew fills the valley as this warm sunrise warms the sky on a mild summer morning in the Kansas Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

1. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

The ultimate destination for tallgrass prairie is the aptly dubbed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. Designated in 1996 to protect the dwindling remnants of this once-vast ecosystem, the preserve contains almost 11,000 acres of tallgrass prairie, which reaches its seasonal peak in the fall. The terrain here, an expansive sea of rolling hills and soaring grass, is a quintessential kind of Americana, trod by bison and speckled with flowers. Three nature trails offer a self-guided glimpse close to the visitor center, while more rustic routes — like the Scenic Overlook Trail and West Branch, provide longer trails with more grass and more wildlife.

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Salina KOA Holiday

Bison grazing at the Joseph H Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

2. Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Just south of the Oklahoma border, the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve contains the largest protected acreage of tallgrass prairie on the planet. At 39,650 acres, The Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma oversees the protection of this vast and endangered wilderness, including more than 2,000 free-roaming bison and prescribed burns designed to keep the landscape healthy and thriving. The main attraction here is the 15-mile bison driving loop, with several hiking trails dotted along the way.

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Sunset over the green prairie.

3. Prairie State Park

Once upon a time, tallgrass prairie covered more than one-third of Missouri. Today, less than 1% of the initial grasslands remain — most of which is protected at Prairie State Park. Here, hiking and bison-spotting are marquee mainstays at the 4,000-acre park, and the Regal Tallgrass Prairie Nature Center features various exhibits and programs designed perfect for edutainment.

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Closeup of tallgrass with cloudscape in background.

4. Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Encompassing all or part of 85 counties in western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa, the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge represents some of the more northern reaches of the prairie ecosystem. Here, the largely tree-less terrain protects 5,000 acres of remnant tallgrass, including sections like the Touch the Sky Prairie Unit and the Prairie Smoke Unit.

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Autumn on a restored tall grass prairie; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the foreground.

5. Knott Tallgrass Prairie

Located along the floodplain of the Platte River, Nebraska’s Knott Prairie is known as a “wet prairie” for its high-water table and capacity to support a variety of wetland vegetation. Later in summer, and into fall, the tallgrass begins to soar, reaching heights of six-feet.

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Illinois prairie with blue sky.

6. Goose Lake Prairie

In the Prairie State of Illinois, where grassland once covered half the state, Goose Lake Prairie protects more than 2,500 acres of the ecosystem — making it the largest prairie remnant in Illinois. Take the Prairie View Trail to the tallest point in the preserve for a sweeping panorama of the regal grassland lined with ponds and marshes.

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Born and raised in New Hampshire, Matt Kirouac grew up with a love for camping and the outdoors. Though he’s lived in Chicago since 2006, he’s always on the lookout for new adventures. He writes about travel and food for outlets like TripExpert, Money Inc, Upventur, DiningOut, Food Fanatics magazine, Plate Magazine and Zagat, and he currently serves as Chicago editor for What Should We Do?! He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago (2016) and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago (2017).


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