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Visiting Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Oklahoma

Visiting Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

By: Amy Lynch

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  • States:
    Oklahoma

Experience Life Down on the Prairie.

Just south of the Kansas-Oklahoma border sits the legendary Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. This swath of protected land offers a glimpse into an era when the USA was sparsely populated and teeming with wildlife. The largest preserved tract of native tallgrass prairie on the planet, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the final remnant of the thriving ecosystem that once spanned 14 states from Minnesota to Texas. Now reduced by urban growth and cropland conversion to a mere four percent of its original size, the remaining 16,000 hectares have garnered the attention of conservationists, who are trying to preserve this habitat. Now largely owned and protected by The Nature Conservancy, the area offers a series of hiking trails and nature vistas, as well as a 16-kilometer gravel loop that encircles much of the prairie.

Meet the Furry Residents: Tallgrass Prairie Bison

Massive herbivores roam the area in spring, drawing visitors from near and far.

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is known for its enduring beauty throughout the year, but while there's certainly no shortage of natural wonders to enjoy, its endemic American bison are by far the main attraction for travelers. Drive the 16-kilometer loop to see many of the 700 giant, shaggy herbivores roaming the land in mid-May, when they're most visible from the road. 

In the USA, there were once anywhere from 30 - 60 million bison, but now bison is considered a near-threatened species due to their population dwindling down to 1.5 million today. It's important for visitors remember that these majestic creatures often weigh upwards of 1,450 kilograms and can run up to 65 kilometers per hour, so a strong word of advice for admirers: Remain at a safe distance and in the car at all times.

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Flora & Fauna: Other Wildlife on the Prairie

Both on land and in the sky, there's plenty of life to encounter on the preserve. 

Home to more than 700 plant species, 300 types of birds and 80 different kinds of mammals, the preserve offers a host of wildlife viewing opportunities throughout the year. From March through May, prairie chickens can be seen about the grounds. Local grasses like switchgrass and big bluestem start to flourish as winter tapers off in April, growing well into the late summer or early fall. 

Wildflowers bloom everywhere for one magical month from mid-May to mid-June, and as they disappear in the summer, an array of neotropical birds arrive for the warm season. The colder months (October through February) bring along bald and golden eagles, as well as red-tailed hawks, bobcats, deer and coyotes.

Take a Walk: Things to Do at the Preserve

With one driving loop and three hiking trails from which to choose, it's a few hours well spent.

The preserve offers a trio of hiking trails, each varying in length and habitat. The shortest (less than one kilometer), known as the Bottomland Trail, can be found near the trailhead information and parking area. The trail offers glimpses of bass, sunfish and Mississippi map turtles amid the creek and fertile grassland. Next, the 1.6-kilometer Study Trail offers a walk through a gallery forest canopied with oak, elm and ash trees and offering an abundance of songbirds, three-toed box turtles and five-lined skinks. 

For the most immersive hiking experience, continue to the Prairie Earth Trail. With its sometimes rugged terrain and patches of mud and water, it's best suited to hikers who don't mind a bit of dirt and sweat. The 3.2-kilometer hike can take up to two hours due to its level of difficulty. Bring binoculars to fully experience the bison wallows, small reptiles and amphibians, as well as gorgeous sweeping views across the land where the Caddo, Osage and Wichita native american tribes once lived.

Driving Directions: How to Get There

Go from Tulsa to Tallgrass in under two hours.

From Old U.S. Highway 60 in Osage County, take County Road 4070 at Pawhuska to County Road 4201. After taking the short detour across Country Road 4220 and reconnecting with 4201, follow the road into the preserve.

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