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Kansas Road Trip: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Here’s a free family getaway you’ll be remembering long after its done. If you live in Wichita or nearby, you have an easy drive to see and experience something rare and unique. This is also a really fun and educational day trip!

At the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, you can see what the prairie looked like when the settlers first arrived.

 


This national park in the Kansas Flint Hills preserves one of the last and largest remaining stands of tall grass in all of North America, which at one time was vast – it covered 170 million acres.

The trip is barely over an hour from Wichita, and the drive itself is part of the experience! Hop in your car and enjoy one of our favorite Kansas Road Trips.

Related: Kansas Road Trip Travel Essentials

Plan Your Visit to the Tallgrass Prairie

The very first thing you should do before your trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is to check out the Plan Your Visit page on the website. It will give you updated information about what is available, park hours, and any important conditions you need to know about. 

Spend plenty of time clicking around on all the sections on that page, because they contain important information. For example, the current conditions page tells you about the bison activity, insect and wildlife warnings, and more things you need to know. 

This is not optional. You need this information. 

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Plan Your Visit

How to Get to Tallgrass Prairie National Park

You have a few options to get to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve from Wichita.

The I-35 Turnpike Route

You could take the turnpike, I-35, to Cassoday and follow the signs to meet Highway 177 north to the Preserve. But who living in Kansas hasn’t already taken the turnpike? (It is beautiful, and convenient, but if you’ve “been there, done that” then you might enjoy one of the alternate routes.)

Kansas Flint Hills Scenic Byway Route

Another option is to go east of El Dorado on Kellogg/Highway 54, and then north on Highway 177. This will take you past El Dorado Lake State Park and right to Cassoday and the beginning of the Flint Hills Scenic Byway, where you’ll continue north to the Preserve.

And this trip is narrated! When you’re on the Scenic Byway in Strong City and Cottonwood Falls, there’s a radio station you can tune in to and listen to the history of and facts about the area. We saw signs indicating this; I don’t remember the station so be on the lookout for the signs.

The Big Circle Route

And a third option is what we did. When our family took a day trip to the National Preserve, we opted to make a big circle so we could see even more Kansas scenery. To start our trip, we went north on I-135 to Newton, then northeast on Highway 50 to Strong City, where we turned north and followed the brown attraction signs to the Preserve. Taking this northern route, you’ll pass by the very picturesque Clover Cliff Ranch B&B. (Looks amazing but is not, ahem, cheap!)

We chose to return to Wichita by way of the Kansas Flint Hills Scenic Byway, passing many small towns, gorgeous scenery, and the lake until we reached Highway 54 (Kellogg Drive), where we turned right and drove through picturesque downtown El Dorado.

Be sure to see a few notable extra stops we made on the way. There’s an added section at the bottom of this article.

Our family day trip to Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve

All told, even with all the stops we made (including one for dinner in Strong City), our trip from Wichita only took nine hours – 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Because our day trip was during the long days of summer, we easily made it home before sunset without feeling rushed at all.

The rest of the story here is told by our teenager:

To be completely honest, when I first heard that we would be taking a day trip to the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, I was skeptical. I thought, “I can see tall grass anywhere in Kansas, and there are bison at the zoo. Why is this cool?”. When we arrived I realized this was going to be a day trip I would not forget.

We opted for a bus tour of the preserve. Depending on funding the Tallgrass National Park may offer bus tours of the land, but if they’re not available, you can do a little Kansas hiking. (Mom’s note: It would actually be a lot of Kansas hiking; the preserve is huge and the trail system stretches all through it. I think I read somewhere that it has 40 miles of trails.)

Note: See more information about the free Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve bus tours below.

The bus tour took us up to the top of a hill where you could get out and look around and see the vast prairie land. It was gorgeous.

After stopping on the hill we continued through the preserve. The view out the bus windows was stunning. I had never seen Kansas look quite as gorgeous as it did that day.

On the way back, the bus drove us through a section of the preserve where the bison were. When we first rode through that section, we had seen the bison far out in the fields laying down, but the second time, we were in for a treat. The bison walked right across the road in front of and behind the bus! Perfect for us to see them and take photos of them.

It was definitely the coolest part of the trip. The park rangers had warned people who were hiking to be very careful around the bison because they had calves and were very protective of them, another reason we were happy we chose to take a bus tour.

When we had finished the bus tour we went to check out the barn and farmhouse museum they had open. It was really neat walking through both buildings looking at old bedrooms, and old farm machinery.

Before we left the preserve, storm clouds started to form right over us. These were pretty serious looking, but in the end they just dumped a bunch of rain, which turned out to be a good thing for our stop at Chase State Lake Waterfalls. (We waited out the storm inside a Mexican restaurant in Strong City.)

It’s a great day trip, we left around 11 am and were back home (after a few other activites) by 8 pm.

Bus Tour Schedule for Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

This could change at any time, so be sure to check out the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve website (linked here) to find specific dates and times. Weather conditions, road conditions, and staff availability all may cause the schedule to change. There may also be schedule variations for holidays or other special days. But here is the usual schedule for bus tours during the nice weather seasons:

(Make a reservation by calling 620-273-8494 and hit 0)

Be sure to double-check the schedule before you head out!

Great resources for more information about Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas

National Park Service’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve page

The Nature Conservancy’s page

Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 8 Wonders of Kansas

Extra stops on the way to the Tallgrass Prairie

Cottonwood Falls

Very briefly, we drove through Cottonwood Falls and took a look at the outside of the impressive courthouse there. The town was pretty quiet that day, and this is an unplanned stop, so we didn’t see very much of it. Here are some snapshots we took!

Chase Lake Waterfalls

This was amazing. Highly recommended stop if we’ve had any rain in the week leading up to your visit.

As you’re heading south for home after visiting Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, there are a couple of stops you might want to make. The first is Chase State Fishing Lake, just west of Cottonwood Falls. You can read all about our experience where we got to see the Chase State Lake Waterfalls full of water and rushing down over four levels of rocks!

Schrumpf Hill Scenic Overlook

On the Flint Hills Scenic Byway, there’s a turn-off further south on 177; it was right past a sign that said Bazaar Cattle Pens, but what we found at the turnoff were daisies in full bloom! (Our trip was in late May, so you may see something besides daisies.) According to TravelKS, this is called Schrumpf Hill Scenic Overlook. (“Schrumpf” sounds a little like the sound my husband made when he saw my daughter and I grabbing our cameras and knew we would be staying a while. 😀 ) Anyway, we took way too many pictures of daisies, but I don’t regret it.

More Kansas Roads Trips:
Coronado Heights
Mushroom Rock and Kanopolis State Parks
Henry’s Candy Company in Dexter, KS (Dexter is where helium was discovered!)
Maxwell Wildlife Refuge and McPherson State Lake
Cowley State Lake Waterfalls
Chase State Lake Waterfalls

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