Flint Hills Festival – Saturday 5/21

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

This Saturday, the Flint Hills Discovery Center will be hosting their annual Flint Hills Festival.  Live music, tasty food, archery, rock climbing, and, yes, bison chip throwing – all focused around celebrating the Flint Hills.

On their website, you can find out more details about the schedule.

If you go:

Buy your tickets at the door or get in free with a Flint Hills Discovery Center membership.

Adult (18-64): $9
Youth (2-17): $4
Military, College Students, Educators and Seniors (65+): $7
Under 2: free

315 S 3rd St.
Manhattan, KS 66502

Senate declares 11/2 to be National Bison Day!

English: Bison bison. Original caption: "...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s National Bison Day! On October 30, 2013, the Senate passed a resolution that dedicates the first Saturday of November as National Bison Day.

The bison is the Kansas state animal, and there are a few trails that take you close to the mighty creatures that once roamed in the thousands upon thousands across the Kansas prairies.

Our favorite is at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge. Read more about it here. Other opportunities to see them include Konza Prairie south of Manhattan, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the heart of the Flint Hills, and Sandsage Bison Range near Garden City.

Discovering the Flint Hills Discovery Center

“The Flint Hills don’t take your breath away; they give you a chance to catch it.”

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

This Jim Hoy quote is included in an exhibit at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in southern Manhattan, Kansas, and I couldn’t have expressed it better myself. The subtle beauty and the quietness of the space in the Flint Hills can be difficult to describe.

Having gone to school in Manhattan, coming back to the town to research the bike trails by the river, I figured that I knew all the city had to offer. But the Flint Hills Discovery Center opened in April 2012, and it’s a great place to go and get lost in the history and lure of the Flint Hills for an hour or two, especially for those with kids or who have any interest in Kansas, history, geography, biology, or ecology.

What’s special about the Flint Hills? Once 250 million acres stretching from Canada to Texas, the tallgrass prairie is now 95% gone – plowed under and turned into farmland.

Thanks to the rocky soil, mostly limestone, in the Flint Hills area, the prairie here was saved. This rare and delicately balanced ecosystem is home to all kinds of flora and fauna from grasshoppers to bison and snakes to butterflies.

Looking through the first floor exhibits at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, you see the prairie from all angles: formation of the rock layers and the rolling hills over thousands and millions of years, the plants and wildlife that make the prairie what it is – including beneath the soil’s surface, the importance of fire to keeping the prairie healthy, history and culture of the Native Americans who called the prairie home or hunting ground and were then relocated with the European influx, the cowboys and ranchers who have driven cattle to and from the grassland for grazing.

Native American exhibit

Native American exhibit

What stands out is the mix of exhibits like the rolling video of interviews with people of the Flint Hills and the interactive activities. While appealing for kids, they’re also interesting/entertaining for adults – like the Auctioneer’s Karaoke (I couldn’t keep up!).

You can also see how you’d do keeping a section of prairie healthy with a touch screen simulation – balancing the amount of cattle or bison with the number of burns over a 7-year time span with a luck-of-the-draw amount of rain. My first try ended poorly with my bison hungry and with non-native, invasive species encroaching on the prairie. Whoops! I tried it again with better results. I’ll let you see how you do!

Also on the first floor is the auditorium for the multi-media “immersive” program: “Tallgrass Prairie: Tides of Time.” The 15-minute presentation takes you to the prairie throughout its seasons, including blowing wind and falling snow. I’ve never been in a museum presentation quite like it, and I’m sure that it’s a hit with kids who might find other “educational” presentations boring. It’s also got some pretty great cinematography and photography that really show off the prairie at its most beautiful and dynamic.

While much of the downstairs area is kid-friendly, upstairs is primarily the kid’s area, and, bonus, it’s actually ideal for kids of all ages. A lot of museums or centers like this one include activity zones that are better for older kids and leave nothing for younger ones. This has a 30lb and under section where kids can crawl and explore. Then there’s a dress-up area, a reading spot, a “prairie pipe organ” and even a slide.

Flint Hills Discover Center

Flint Hills Discovery Center

Also upstairs is the temporary exhibit space. Until September 8, 2013, the exhibit is Conservation Quest. All about how to save energy, it also has plenty of interactive stations. The building itself is energy efficient and sustainably designed.

To commemorate your visit, there’s a little gift shop with many items made in/from Kansas with a mix of books, jewelry, candles, and toys.

I was lucky to be staying in the Fairfield Inn, which is right next door; otherwise, since I hadn’t heard about this spot before, I might have missed out. Don’t risk making that mistake!

If you go:
315 South 3rd Street

Adult: $9.00
Youth: $4.00
Military, College Students & Seniors (65+): $7.00
Children under 2: FREE

Monday through Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 5 p.m.

Monday through Wednesday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 5 p.m.

Hiking with bison

The chance to get up close and personal with large free-ranging bison is an unforgettable experience.  There are a few places to observe bison in Kansas; including the Sandsage Bison Range near Garden City, the Konza Prairie south of Manhattan, and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the heart of the Flint Hills.  However, one of my all-time favorite locations to see these shaggy beasts is at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge just north of Canton.  Maxwell maintains a herd of around 200 bison and 50 elk, making this the only public area in the state where you can observe both of these species.  The really cool thing about Maxwell is that the access road for the state fishing lake runs right through the middle of the bison pasture.  A leisurely drive will easily give you the chance to see large bison bulls and cow/calf groups scattered throughout the mixed-grass prairie hills.

Bison grazing at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge

Bison grazing at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge

If you have binoculars, climb to the top of the wildlife observation tower which lets you look out over almost the entire area and really see the wildlife that’s out there.  We drove through the area last weekend and were lucky enough to see part of the elk herd and have several bison walk within 10-feet of our vehicle (which was about as close as we would have liked them to be).

This kind of a viewing experience would cause a traffic jam and photography frenzy at Yellowstone, but we virtually had the whole place to ourselves.  It’s easy enough to see bison and elk most days, but to see even more of the refuge and find out a little more about the natural history of the area you can also reserve a backcountry tram tour through the Friends of Maxwell Group website.

After checking out the wildlife we took the family on a little hike along the nature trail by the state fishing lake.  The woods were starting to show signs of spring with buds swelling and getting ready to burst at any time.  We didn’t see any morels, but saw several people out on the hunt.  The trail was a nice short hike through the woods by the lake with a loop option to add a little variety.  The highlight for the kids was definitely the stream at the end of the trail (and the trail snacks of course).  All said, it made for an afternoon of good hiking and great wildlife-viewing!