Take a prairie hike for enjoying late summer wildflowers and grassland songbirds

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Kansas City
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Kansas City, Mo. – Summer is an adventurous and scenic time to hike at one of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) remnant native prairies.  Several wildflower types are in bloom and the warm season grasses such as big bluestem are sending up seed stalks. Grasses and wildflowers are tall in places. Whether an easy walk on a service road or pushing through lush growth, the rewards are seeing various butterflies, blooms, and birds in a native grassland setting.

A prairie hike provides a primordial feeling that’s similar to a walk in the woods, but one with different sights and sounds under a broad sky. Many people have never experienced prairie because so little of Missouri’s once-vast native grassland survived agricultural and urban development. Less than one-tenth of one percent of unplowed prairie remains in the state, and those acres are in scattered fragments.

However, MDC owns and manages many of the best remnants. Some are managed in partnership with the Missouri Prairie Foundation or The Nature Conservancy. Most are open to hiking. Prairies do have challenges, though, and planning can make your prairie hike more enjoyable.

Where to go

MDC’s Find a Place to Go interactive web page lets viewers search by county, nearby city, or by conservation area name. Visit https://short.mdc.mo.gov/Z9o to find a prairie near you. Any conservation area with prairie in the name is a good bet, such as Hi Lonesome Prairie near Cole Camp. But some fine remnants worth visiting are embedded in conservation areas without prairie names, too. Each conservation area has a web page that lists the types of native habitats on an area, so look for ones with unplowed prairie remnants or natural areas listed.

Once you find a prairie you would like to visit, it’s helpful to contact MDC staff and ask which areas or portions of an area are showy with wildflowers. A prairie given a fall or spring prescribed burn often has more wildflowers in bloom. Burns are done in rotation, so locations vary from year to year and weather conditions. Some prairies may also have special management practices underway such as grazing livestock. If you pull into a prairie area parking lot, please read and obey all signs pertaining to special conditions. Contact your local MDC office to make connections with prairie managers for hiking advice.

For the Kansas City region, the Wah’Kon-Tah and Taberville prairies north of El Dorado Springs are good destinations. Several prairies are in the Sedalia and Cole Camp area, such as Paintbrush Prairie just off U.S 65. In northwest Missouri, Pawnee Prairie west of Eagleville is a species-rich grassland. But many other remnant or restored grasslands in western Missouri are also worth visiting.  

When to go

Prairies change with the seasons. One that’s had a late-winter prescribed burn can be almost bare ground as spring arrives and yet have shoulder high flowers and grasses by August. Violets and ephemeral plants appear in spring and the grasses pop up. The red blooms of Indian paintbrush may appear by late spring and early summer. The purple flower stalks of liatris (blazing star) are skyward by late July. Various yellow blooms from species in the sunflower family appear from mid-summer into autumn. Summer’s green grasses turn bright golden brown in autumn. Topography, seed stalks, and plant structures are interesting in winter, and wildlife is more visible. Visiting the same prairie in each season reveals a native grassland’s fascinating diversity.

In summer, the time of day for a visit matters. Cooler temperatures for hiking and more active birdsongs and wildlife movement are found in the early morning hours. Pollinators such as butterflies will be more active in the warmer hours. But in summer heat, remember prairies are mostly treeless places with little shade. Hiking early and late may be more enjoyable.

Be prepared

Hikers should always take plenty of drinking water, and on prairies, sunscreen and insect repellant can be important. Ticks are found in prairies. Sometimes one or two will appear during a hike, but in some places they may swarm. Insect repellant, light clothing, long pants, and comfortable hiking boots are highly recommended. Some conservation professionals also take steps such as duct taping pant legs to the top of their boots to deter ticks. The sticky side of duct tape is also handy for nabbing tiny seed ticks. But insects are part of prairie ecology, don’t let them keep you from the good things such as seeing dragonflies land atop flowers or hearing bobwhite quail whistle.

Trails are few and far between at prairies. But most have MDC service roads that are closed to vehicles but open for hiking. They provide an easy-walking avenue for prairie exploration. Walking off-road through the grassland lets you be immersed in prairie and spot more flowers and interesting plant groupings. Sometimes the walking is easy, but some spots may have rank growth including briars that is more challenging.

Challenges, adventure, and beauty are why Missourians value the state’s outdoors. All can be found on prairies. Remember that different types of prairies, such as sand prairies or loess hill prairies, can be found in different parts of the state. To learn more about Missouri prairies, visit https://short.mdc.mo.gov/Zts.