Classic Roads: Kansas’s Flint Hills National Scenic Byway

Classic Roads: Kansas’s Flint Hills National Scenic Byway
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
-Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918)

Images of 19th century emigrants, transported west in their wagons across a vast virgin landscape of waving tallgrass, have spawned comparisons to schooners sailing the high seas. Millions of years ago, an actual shallow sea and its marine life deposited layers of limestone, shale, and chert that make up the bedrock of today’s Flint Hills in eastern Kansas. While the region’s rocky soil wasn’t suitable for agriculture, this prairieland’s tallgrass was the perfect nourishment for buffalo and later cattle.

While tallgrass prairies once spread across some 170 million acres of the Great Plains, only about 4% remain today. The 48-mile-long Flint Hills National Scenic Byway—or SR 177—immerses riders in lush, undulating prairielands. The rippling, heaving, and swelling sea of grass is a panoramic window into a land largely unchanged from its prehistoric past. And like an ocean, the vastness of this topography engenders a contemplative peacefulness on all who pass through it.

Trees are largely absent from this rolling terrain, except in creek bottoms found in folds of the expansive, earth-to-sky landscape. The designated byway’s southern terminus is in Cassoday and its northern one is in historic Council Grove.

Points of Interest

Cassoday

On the first Sunday of each month, from May through October, motorcyclists gather in this quiet little town for the Cassoday Bike Run. The event started in 1991 and has grown over the years. As many as 7,000 riders may show up on some summer Sundays.

Cottonwood Falls

The Chase County Seat is home to the stunning, red-roofed courthouse built in the Second Empire/French Renaissance Revival style of architecture. Although the waterfall is not quite Niagara-scale, the town has a rustic frontier ambiance and offers attractive shopping, dining, and lodging options.

Tallgrass Prarie National Preserve

Visitors can see bison and explore the tallgrass preserve along extensive hiking trails, tour the Spring Hill Ranch complex with its restored limestone mansion built by cattle rancher Stephen F. Jones in 1881, and gaze inside the Lower Fox Creek one-room schoolhouse.

Council Grove

Situated along the legendary Santa Fe Trail, Council Grove is steeped in 19th century American history. Notable sites in town include the Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park (site of the last Kaw Indian village), the restored calaboose (cowboy jail), the Council Oak (the site where the Osage Indian Treaty was signed and the town’s namesake), the Custer Elm, and the Hays House Restaurant, which—built in 1857—is said to be the oldest continually operated restaurant west of the Mississippi River.