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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: North West - Part 2

In the travel series View America, North West - Part 2 covers Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 150 full-sized photos.

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The Tall Grass Prairie

As the name indicates, Tall Grass Prairie is an ecosystem with particularly high prairie grasses, which average between 5 and 6.6 feet tall (1.5 and 2 m), with occasional stalks as high as 8.2 to 9.8 feet (2.5 to 3 m). During our visit in early July the grass was still only one foot high, but by the end of August it can grow up to an incredible nine feet (2.70 m) tall! The more rain there is during the rain season, the higher the grass will grow. In October the grass falls down, degenerates and becomes food for the soil and the roots, so that it can grow again after the winter.

This prairie used to cover almost the entire central part of North America. The formation of the region goes back to the Permian era, some 250 million years ago. After the rise of the Rocky Mountains and the expansion of the interior, the latter was covered by a vast inland sea. Deep layers of limestone were deposited, which in turn were covered by layers of sand.

After the inland sea dried up, there remained an immense plain, on which gradually these high grasses grew. They in turn became rich breeding grounds for the estimated eighty million buffalos, the Indians who hunted them, and other species who followed the buffalos.

During and after the colonization, only few settlers and farmers remained in this particular region, since the soil is too steep and rocky for farming and the layer of fertile ground over the limestone is too thin to allow plowing. For this reason agriculture is mainly concentrated in the west of Kansas. But the limestone holds far more moisture from rainwater, and this region is therefore ideal for cattle raising.

In 1880, Stephen F. Jones, a successful cattle-baron, built the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch. It consisted of an 11-room mansion, a massive barn in three levels, a small one-classroom school, and an ice cellar. A well was discovered on top of the hill.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve 1 Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve 2
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Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

The Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve offers a magnificent one-hour guided tour on the prairie. But if there are not too many tourists, the tour usually grows out with unending documentation to last nearly two hours. Our guide had a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge about all things in nature, and meticulously explained the local flora and fauna.

In 1880 Stephen F. Jones, a successful cattle-baron, built the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch. It consisted of an 11-room mansion, a massive barn in three levels, a small one-classroom school, and an ice cellar. A well was discovered on top of the hill.

In 1994 the ranch was purchased by a private group, the National Park Trust. They seek to manage endangered natural resources and to preserve them for posterity. The group bought (or received, that is unclear) an 11,000-acre surface of land from a Mr. Bass, a wealthy Texas cattle baron, and immediately went to work to preserve the last surfaces of Tall Grass Prairie in the U.S.

The preservation contains more than 450 plant species, 150 bird species, 39 reptile and amphibian species, and 31 animal species. The panoramic views over the rolling hills are simply stunning, and the eye is virtually uninhibited by shrubs or trees.

Every four years just about the entire surface is burned, which not only nourishes the soil but also eliminates imported shrubs and trees, which otherwise would overgrow the original flora. The original prairie also used to burn regularly by lightning. The Indians observed that after such prairie fires the buffalo's appeared in larger numbers to feed from the fresh young shoots of grass. The buffalo also brought in other animals, such as the black bear, antelope, cougar and wolf. Since the Indian's life cycle was completely based on the buffalo, they started setting the prairie on fire themselves.

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** Read more about the Flint Hills **