The tallgrass prairie alone is worth the drive. But the small ranch towns steeped in history and charm enhance the allure of the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway in east-central Kansas.
The route rambles 48 miles on two-lane K-177 from Council Grove in the north to Cassoday in the south with a handful of towns and expansive views of rolling land in between. The region’s hand-cut limestone houses, barns and fences add to the visual treat.
Stop for a long look at the majestic rolling hills, suggests Patty Reece, a lover of the region as both a landowner and preservationist. Now, catch your breath and wrap your brain around the fact that the tops of the hills were once the floor of a vast ocean. And pioneer wagons once crossed this historic tallgrass prairie — today the largest remaining region in North America.
Plan to devote an entire day to the Flint Hills scenic byway. Vistas, historical markers, homesteads and small-town main streets will keep you fascinated and provide a wealth of photo ops. Sweeten your adventure by leaving the highway and venturing down a named side road. “If it has a street sign, it’s OK to wander down it — even though it might look like a private road,” Reece says.
Byway highlights, from north to south
» Council Grove, the final stop on the Santa Fe Trail, boasts 24 historical sites. Take a self-guided tour and then grab some chow at the bakery and café inside the 1861 Terwilliger House or The Hays House (try the fried chicken), the oldest continuously run restaurant west of the Mississippi.
» Next stop, Strong City, gateway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and adjacent Spring Hill Ranch with its 1881 limestone mansion and massive barn. Explore the property on your own for free (donations appreciated) and then skip over to the preserve for a 1.8-mile nature trail hike to a scenic overlook.
» Kansas’ oldest-working — and arguably most picturesque — courthouse is the star attraction in Cottonwood Falls. Peek inside the Grand Central Hotel and Restaurant and drop by the art gallery/headquarters for Symphony in the Flint Hills, the signature event of the Kansas City Symphony combining art, music and magic under the prairie sky each June. www.symphonyintheflinthills.org
» Continue on to Matfield Green and Pioneer Bluffs, an historic ranch with a 1908 farmhouse as art gallery and a mile-long limestone fence.
» Cassoday, at the end your tour, is the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World. Inquire here about Prairie Chicken Booming, the springtime mating ritual that draws spectators from around the world.
» With advance reservations in early spring or early fall, you can learn first-hand about the arched-roof stone cellars found in the hills. The Volland Store for art and community near Alma hosts tours. “It’s like poking around in somebody’s attic. It’s fascinating,” says Reece, who launched the program in 2016. The cellars date to the late 1800s, and they’re in almost every farm yard, Reece says. Most visited on the tour are still associated with the homestead. Your guide is a fourth-generation resident of the Flint Hills. “He’s a real cowboy,” Reece says. www.thevollandstore.com
» Visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan for a memorable introduction to the Flint Hills. Allow 90 minutes to view the interactive geology, ecology, culture and history exhibits. A must-see: the Immersive Experience Theater. The presentation demonstrates the resilience of the prairie, complete with smoke from grass fires, prairie winds and rain, rivaled only by a Disney production. www.flinthillsdiscovery.org
» Anderson Bed & Breakfast, near the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, makes a great home base for exploring the Flint Hills region. The host couple, Phil and Dawn Anderson, have three sparkling-fresh guest bedrooms in their Dutch-themed 1910 Craftsman-style home. Spa robes, chocolates on your pillow, fresh-baked cookies at the door, scratch breakfasts (featuring eggs from backyard chickens), bicycles to borrow. Not handicapped-accessible. www.andersonbnb.com
» The Loft at The Volland Store, nera Alma. From Alta Vista, head northeast about 6 miles on Old K-10/Mill Creek Scenic Drive. This second-level guest room has its own entry, red brick walls and loads of natural light. Kitchenette, sitting area, queen-size bed and full bath. Bed linens, towels provided. Two-night minimum. Not handicapped-accessible. www.thevollandstore.com; 785-499-3616
» Grand Central Hotel, Cottonwood Falls. Built in 1884, meticulously restored in 1995; 10 spacious, comfortable rooms with two queen-size beds in each. Tasteful western decor, ironed sheets; restaurant and bar on the premises. Pet-friendly. Handicapped-accessible. 620-273-6763
» Manhattan is a three-hour drive from Omaha. U.S. Highway 50 is the most scenic route.
» In the Flint Hills region, an old-fashioned road map is advised; GPS is rarely exact. And cell phone service is extremely spotty.