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Land of the Lost

The 40,000 acres of protected land at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is a unique and awe-inspiring place featuring self-guided hiking trails, bison and an abundant and diverse variety of birds.

Hannah Gray Gordon
January 1, 2017

The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is one of Oklahoma’s greatest natural treasures. Located in Pawhuska, it spans over 40,000 acres of protected land and is less than 4 percent of the original tallgrass prairie ecosystem. It is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest private, nonprofit conservation organization. This beautiful land is a captivating and educational place to visit with the family.

In 1915, James A. Chapman and Horace G. Barnard purchased land in Osage County. Over time they pieced together over 100,000 acres of tallgrass prairie land. As time passed, much of the land was destroyed by development. The preserve began in 1989 with the purchase of over 29,000 acres from the Horace G. Barnard Trusts, and the Nature Conservancy has built the land up to 40,000 acres, as well as conservation easements on 6,000 additional acres.

The Tallgrass Prairie gets its name from the heights reached by the grass, comprised of big bluestem and switchgrass. While not unusually tall for part of the year, during the summer it stretches to the sky and by autumn will reach an incredible 6-8 feet, with some areas growing to as much as 10 feet.

One of the most incredible sights found on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the herd of bison. In 1993, 300 bison were donated by Kenneth and Diana Adams in honor of their daughter, Christina. The Christina Adams herd was settled on 5,000 acres of the preserve and now includes over 2,500 bison on nearly 25,000 acres. The preserve is also home to cattle which are brought in seasonally to graze the land and assist in maintaining the ecosystem.

The Tallgrass Prairie was subject to fire, climate and bison before settlement and development occurred, and so the preserve is careful to maintain the land in similar fashion.

“We use controlled burning to mimic the seasonality of fires that shaped the prairie,” says Harvey Payne, community relations coordinator at the Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma. “We have bison for the grazing influence they provide.” Additionally, Oklahoma State University is piloting a cattle and patch burning research project on 11,000 of the acreage to help ranchers commit to conserving the biodiversity of their own lands while maintaining production rates.

‍Guests are welcome from dawn until dusk throughout the year, and admission is free. 

Guests are welcome from dawn until dusk throughout the year, and admission is free. A visitor center serves as the preserve headquarters and is run by volunteers from March to December. Two self-guided hiking trails — the Study Trail and the Discovery Trail — begin near the preserve headquarters. In the summer, the grass stretches toward the sky until it towers over its visitors.

There are many interesting things to do at the preserve in addition to hiking. scenic turnouts and vistas, picnic tables for lunch, a gift shop at the visitor’s center, like and photography. “We get visitors from most states and more than 30 foreign countries,” says Payne. “This is the only functioning tallgrass ecosystem in existence. Visitors will get a different prairie experience every time they come.”

One of the most popular activities is bison watching. These magnificent animals tout a wild beauty in every season, but none more awe-inspiring than in the winter months when snow is on the ground — and often on the bisons’ backs. In the late spring, bison calves can also be found prancing around the grounds. It’s important to remember that if you are not on a designated hiking trail, and especially if you are near bison, stay in your car and stay on the county road.

The preserve is home to an abundant and diverse variety of birds, and birding is another common activity. There are ground-nesting birds, scissor-tailed flycatchers, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and golden eagles, as well as wintering raptors. Other animals that can often be seen around the area are coyotes, bobcats and deer. In addition, wildflowers are prevalent in the spring and summer months and provide even more photographical and memorable experiences. It’s important to note that since this is protected land, no plant or animal life may be picked or collected. Star gazing and photography is easy to do, as the sky is unpolluted and clear at night.

If visiting in person is not possible, the official website features virtual tours of many areas, including its beautiful historical buildings, as well as photos and multimedia presentations. You can use the website to plan your trip or to check the calendar of events for anything that piques your interest.

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
15316 County Road 4201 | Pawhuska