Three kinds of prairies once covered an estimated 140 million acres (57 million hectares) of America: tallgrass prairie to the east, dominated by so-called sod grasses (bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass); short-grass prairies closer to the Rocky Mountains, where hardy buffalo grass and grama grass dominated; and a more varied mosaic of mixed-grass prairie in between. Prairie grasslands are perhaps the planet’s most efficient ecosystem for removing carbon from the atmosphere—and yet 96% of these tough grasslands were lost. Against all odds, these parcels have survived:
Edge of Appalachia Preserve, Ohio
Along Ohio Brush Creek, near Lynx, Ohio, a series of 10 adjacent preserves protect 13,500 acres (5,463 hectares) with pockets of rare Allegheny short-grass prairie along cliff edges, ridge tops, and forest openings. The limestone bedrock here is essential to the persistence of blue-stem grasses and wildflowers. The best hike is the 3-mile (5km) Buzzardroost Trail.
Cressmoor Prairie Preserve, Hobart, Indiana
This 38-acre (15-hectare) parcel of land is a remarkable hunk of pure silt-loam prairie in the northwestern corner of Indiana. Walk its 2-mile (3km) mown trail and you’ll soon be surrounded by prairie grass as high as 5 feet (8m), studded with brilliant flowers like prairie lily, sunflowers, blazing star, and a whole range of asters and goldenrod cycling through from summer through fall.
Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, Illinois
This preserve totals 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares), with a fair amount of that being tallgrass prairie and dry prairie, and on such a large-scale landscape, species diversity thrives. Many rare plants, including the threatened prairie bush clover, prosper here, as well as endangered butterflies and grassland birds like the dickcissel and grasshopper sparrow.
Terre Noir Blacklands, Arkadelphia, Arkansas
There used to be 12 million acres (5 million hectares) of blackland prairie, from Alabama to Texas. Only 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) of this imperiled ecosystem have survived, mostly in Arkansas. There are no marked trails at this 240-acre (97-hectare) site along Highway 51 in southwestern Arkansas, but you can hike all over its rolling terrain, where wildflower-splashed prairie alternates with dense thickets of oak and pine.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa
With some 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) of restored tall grass prairie—mostly seeded by plants rescued elsewhere by volunteers—the refuge is big enough to sustain larger prairie residents such as American bison, white-tailed deer, elk, pocket gophers, badgers, pheasants, red-tailed hawks, and Indiana bats. For a glimpse, check out the 2-mile (3km) Tallgrass Trail, which is paved, signposted, and handicapped accessible.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas
In the Flint Hills of northeastern Kansas, this 11,000-acre (4,452-hectare) preserve includes one area of quite rare prairie ecosystem: riparian bottomland tallgrass. The preserve’s staff is replanting 500 acres (200 hectares) along Fox Creek to restore all the native plants of this rarely seen type of prairie. The Bottomland Trail has a 1-mile (1.6km) interpreted loop where you can watch the restoration in progress.
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Tolstoi, Manitoba
Here in the so-called Prairie Provinces, most prairieland was ploughed under for the vast wheat fields of Canada’s bread-basket. Yet these 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) in the Red River Valley were strewn with just enough boulders and swampy sloughs to make them untillable. Among the preserve’s endangered flowers are the small white lady’s slipper and nodding ladies tresses. The Prairie Shore self-guided trail loop is off Highway 209; the Agassiz Interpretive Trail is off Highway 201.
Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Kadoka, South Dakota
No less than 56 different species of grass grow here, the taller ones thriving in moist seasons, shorter grasses coming into their own in the height of summer. It’s rife with prairie dogs, and the rare burrowing owls that take over their empty burrows. There’s a 5 1 / 2 -mile (8.9km) loop trail with great badland vistas near Wall, South Dakota.
Oglala National Grasslands, Crawford, Nebraska
Rock hounds are drawn to this 95,000-acre (38,445-hectare) short-grass prairie preserve in northwestern Nebraska, a desolate-seeming badlands where fossils abound, stark rock formations are heaped around the Toadstool Geologic Park, and 10,000-year-old bison skeletons are excavated at the Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed.
Pawnee National Grasslands, Briggsdale, Colorado
Lying in the rain shadow of the Rockies, this windswept 60-mile-wide (97km) plateau ripples with the distinctive dry green of short-grass prairie. Try the Birdwalk Trail starting out from the Crow Valley Campground to see lark buntings, Western meadowlarks, and mountain plovers; another wonderful hike takes you to the Pawnee Buttes, which thrust momentously upward from the plateau.