A Walk on the Prairie
Pulling my wide-brimmed straw hat down low on my forehead to keep it from taking a flyer down the hill and throwing my daypack of supplies over one shoulder, I began my walk up the backcountry trail in search of Palmer Creek. It’s located at the extreme north end of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
You see, my mind’s radar is always searching for scenic areas to explore and when a friend mentioned the picturesque, secluded little stream that runs through native tallgrass prairie on its way to join up with Fox Creek in Chase County, I had to put it on my list of places to explore. Normally, my exploring is done behind the wheel of my 4-Runner, but today it would be on foot.
My early morning drive put me on the hiking trail just before eight o’clock with the low sun at my back and the 20 mph Kansas breeze in my face. Writing this now in August, it’s hard to believe that I was actually thinking that I should have packed a jacket along with my Cliff Bars and water bottles. I had the luck to choose the last of the cool summer days in June before the string of 30-plus triple digit highs.
Rising in elevation from the Spring Creek Ranch headquarters, the Backcountry Trail is one of those trails that tests your determination. The path reaches its highest elevation in the first two miles but it’s well worth the effort. Stopping for water on the high ridge of the rolling Flint Hills, out of view of building or road, with only the sound of the wind in the grass and the prairie birds as companions, I stood there mesmerized by the view that reached out to the full 360 degree horizon.
Up close, the variety and texture of the grasses mixed with scattered wildflowers of all colors created a patchwork of details that gradually blended into the soft green rolling hills that most travelers that drive the Flint Hills are familiar seeing. Therein lies the difference between grassland and prairie. Stopping to look closely at the prairie at your feet will reveal much more diversity in species than ever will be seen from a car window rolling down the highway. The true prairie is a diverse ecosystem that has evolved over millions of years. Just standing there I felt a connection with all the grazers, tribes and pioneers who crossed over and lived off the prairie. It’s pretty heady stuff!
At the three mile point, the trail reaches the Scenic Overlook at elevation 1495 ft., some 225 feet higher than the headquarters. With Palmer Creek on my mind and everything downhill from the overlook, I took another swig of water and headed on north.
One of the surprises you find as you hike the hills is that every pasture and every hillside has its own variety of plants. Minute changes of sunlight, moisture and soil make-up have caused different plants to thrive and dominate over their counterparts. It’s an ever-changing canvas as you make your way from one pasture and hilltop to the next! The changing cloud patterns moving over your head and the changes on the rolling ground plane keep you moving ahead to see what is over the next ridge.
At the five mile mark I can see the trees lining the banks of Palmer Creek. It’s a mile downhill to reach the creek and another mile back up to where the path turns back toward home, but having come this far I need to complete the trek. As I head down the winding path toward the line of trees, it’s like I have entered a valley that has been untouched by man. The fertile soil which has washed off the hillside into the valley has given nourishment to the tall grasses and new varieties of wildflowers. The whole feeling of the area is a contrast to the vast, rolling hills seen from the ridgeline.
Massive Bur Oaks, Hackberries and Cottonwood trees line the rocky, clear-running stream. As I stand there taking it all in, five of the largest wild turkeys I have ever seen strut cautiously from their hiding spot to the next clump of undergrowth. In the muddy creek edges, deer tracks mingle with the hoof prints of the managed cattle herd. One shy Ornate Box Turtle scrambles in his slow motion way to get out of sight. I want to explore and find more about this hide-away, but time and my waning energy level remind me of the six mile walk I still have ahead of me.
I click off a few panorama shots as I make my way up the hillside and I am back on the path toward home.
As each segment of the trail back along the lower edge of the preserve unfolds, there are new views and new points of interest to occupy my mind, including views of the little Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse, but it’s hard to clear the images of the secluded Palmer Creek Valley.
I don’t know if it was just the effort and time commitment to get there or the feelings that I was in a place that has been virtually untouched by the hand of man, but the Palmer Creek Valley in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Take a walk on the prairie, look at the grasses and the flowers at you feet, watch the clouds move across the sky and see the hills roll toward the far horizon… Do this once and you will understand my love for this land.
Find out more about the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve at: http://www.nps.gov/tapr/index.htm