Seas of Grass

“Over 50 million years ago, an ocean receded and gave birth to the Great Plains. Waves of grass now glisten in early morning light, lap at your ankles, and invite you to share the wild riches of the prairie.”

—Lauren McCain, Co-Founder, Southern Plains Land Trust

“Anybody Can Love the Mountains, But It Takes a Soul to Love the Prairie” — Willa Cather

America’s central grassland originally stretched from Illinois to the Rockies and from north Texas to mid-Manitoba, and it astonished early travelers. Many could not get comfortable in its vastness and lack of visible landmarks, and few could resist using the “sea of grass” metaphor.

It remained for the first true field botanists, Charles Bessey’s students Roscoe Pound and Frederic Clements at the University of Nebraska, to discover the incredible biodiversity contained in each small patch of prairie, which typically harbors 150 or more different species of grasses and forbs. As settlers remained to work the land, the prairie steadily disappeared. It was plowed under to seed fields of corn, soybeans and wheat. Only the shortgrass prairie, beginning at roughly the 100th meridian and extending to the foothills of the Rockies, survives in large intact areas. Elsewhere there are pockets of original native prairie that deserve protection.

 Want to visit a native prairie? There are a number of good places to experience the remaining native grasslands in the state:


Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center

This 850-acre tallgrass prairie nature preserve is located 20 minutes southwest of Lincoln. Visitors can enjoy miles of walking trails all year long, meandering through a landscape that includes ponds, wetlands and scenic vistas — along with a diverse assortment of birds and other wildlife. Spring Creek Prairie offers a variety of programs, from wildflower and bird walks to a firefly event to papermaking and basket weaving classes. There’s plenty for the whole family to enjoy.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is 612 acres of native mixed-grass prairie just outside of Red Cloud, Nebraska. According to the Willa Cather Foundation, which manages the prairie, it is the largest, never-been-plowed prairie in the six surrounding counties and home to 250 reliant plant species, including the rare Fremont’s evening primrose and Fendler’s aster. The Foundation offers a plant guide to the Prairie available at the Willa Cather Foundation in town. The Prairie is also recognized for it’s birding, associated with both the Nebraska Birding Trails and The Chicken Dance Trail. Nearly two miles of mowed walking trails make it possible for the public to get up close and personal with an abundance of plants and wildlife.

The Foundation says, “We see the preservation of the Prairie as part of a holistic approach to the study of America’s art, history and culture through the works of Willa Cather, who was a great champion of prairie lands.”

Crane Trust Nature & Visitors Center

The Nature & Visitor Center is located on the largest continuous tall and mixed grass prairie in Nebraska (4,500 acres), which has more than 10 miles of natural trails.

Know of an ecotourist-friendly place in the Great Plains to see a sea of grass? Email us at cgps@unl.edu