BEYOND THE GATES - Discover prairie’s beauty in backyard, beyond
A trail winds up a hill along the Konza Prairie. Visitors can select from among three hiking trails, each affording panoramic views of the prairie as well as glimpses into mini-ecosystems in the Flint Hills. Photo by: Julie Fiedler, POST.
Story by: Julie Fiedler
1ST INF. DIV. POST
Editor's Note: Beyond the Gates is a monthly column by staff writer Julie Fiedler. In Beyond the Gates, Julie helps Soldiers, Family members, civilians and retirees discover Kansas by highlighting local destinations, fun and easy day trips, as well as quirky Kansas attractions.
When my husband was creating his wish list of potential assignments, we scratched our heads at the final blank space. I'd lived on both coasts, but never smack dab in the middle of the country.
"Why not Kansas," I said.
I think you know what happened next. Here we are, and I'm doing my best to take advantage of all that Kansas has to offer. Whether chowing down on Kansas-style barbecue or seeking out local artists, I'm enjoying the unique elements of life on the prairie.
But aside from driving along Interstate 70, I hadn't spent much time getting to know the prairie itself.
KONZA PRAIRIE TRAILS
What better way than to head out for a hike in the Flint Hills?
If you are under the impression that Kansas is flat, try hiking one of the Konza Prairie Trails just outside of Manhattan.
A steep incline near the beginning of the trail gave my thighs, glutes and calves a workout during my more than four-mile hike.
The trails, part of Kansas State University's Konza Prairie Biological Station, are open to the public from dawn to dusk. Hikers can select from among three trails that run more than two, four and six miles.
The trails wind through several micro-ecosystems, like creek beds, wooded areas, grassy patches, and, of course, flinty hills. Vistas of rural Manhattan spread out from the higher elevations on the trails. In one of the lowland stretches, you can climb around Hokanson Homestead, a Swedish settlement dating back to 1878.
Having hiked the two shorter trails during different times of the year, I am always struck by the small details that emerge, even within a single season.
Take, for instance, my recent trip. A controlled burn had recently been conducted, and new grass was starting to sprout through the scorched earth in soft and bright green patches reminiscent of a baby bird's feathers growing in. There weren't vibrant wildflowers in bloom, but by keeping my eyes open, I spotted patches of tiny color, like the yellow blooms of wild parsley and delicate purple petals of ground plum.
The opportunity to breathe in fresh air and take in the sights and sounds of nature provided balm for my spirit, as well as a good workout.
Although there is a steep climb, the terrain is manageable, and you do not need to be an experienced hiker to tackle the trails. Even so, there are portions with uneven footing, so hikers should exercise caution. Planning ahead and bringing water, snacks, proper shoes, sunscreen and insect repellent is always a good idea.
A $2 trail fee is suggested.
For more information, visit http://kpbs.konza.ksu.edu/konzatrails.html.
FLINT HILLS DISCOVERY CENTER
Before you hit the trails, consider stopping by the Flint Hills Discovery Center, or FHDC, to get some background and perspective on the rich ecosystems that comprise the prairieland.
The permanent collection on the first floor provides lots of opportunities for interactive exploration of plant, animal and other prairie life.
While I typically avoid the introductory films shown in museums, the one at FHDC is so artfully done that I advise you not to miss it. Without giving a spoiler alert, let me simply say it has several surprises that are likely to induce a sense of childlike wonder.
On the second floor, stroll through "Touch the Sky: Prairie Photographs by Jim Brandenburg," a temporary exhibit, featuring exquisite photographs taken in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Minnesota and other states. The photos are likely to open your eyes to beauty, both big – like sweeping skyscapes – and small, like a grasshopper on a flower.
Brandenburg is a photographer for National Geographic, who traces his roots to the Minnesota prairie.
"I traveled and photographed grand landscapes of the world. Many were covered with alluring luxurious forests and jungles," Brandenburg said in a press release. "But the visual language dialect that still seems to translate with the deepest meaning in my work is that of the open sky prairie-like landscape."
Seeing the prairie through Brandenburg's studied eye inspired me to look more closely and more broadly in my own backyard during my most recent Konza Prairie Trail hike. I was feeling quite the artiste as I knelt by a tiny patch of ground plum, angling my camera just so, in order to capture the pale violet against the drab brown of winter.
Thanks to a special printing process that renders the images on canvas, rather than photo paper, Brandenburg's photographs take on a painterly quality.
While enjoying his and other works at the discovery center, be sure to head out to the terrace for some fresh air and Manhattan views.
If you're not the active sort, a visit to FHDC will provide your own hands-on experience of the prairie without having to go hiking. If you are the active sort, the exhibits will only enhance your time spent on the trails.
"Touch the Sky" will be on display through May 26.
FHDC offers a military discount.
For more information, visit www.flinthillsdiscovery.org.