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:
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.
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.”
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.
7 East Beall Street, Suite 100
Bozeman, MT 59715
American Prairie Reserve is a unique effort to build a nature reserve to conserve and restore the grasslands of Montana. The reserve is home to bison, prairie dogs, swift fox, many grassland bird species, and more species. When complete, American Prairie Reserve will span more than three million acres of private and public land, showcasing the iconic landscape that once dominated central North America. It’s aim is to restore a complete and fully functioning prairie ecosystem through many techniques including restoration of plowed land and stream areas, fence removal, and prescribed fire. The largest of its kind in North America, the reserve is a critical piece in securing long-term conservation of grasslands.
70901 609th Avenue
Burchard, NE 68323
Big Blue Ranch is a place to enjoy the Great Plain’s wildlife and scenery on an operating cattle ranch. Along with tradiational hunting and fishing, ranch activities feature horseback riding, nature photography, and bird watching. It’s an especially great place to see the greater prairie chicken and blue herons. It’s a relaxing get away close to Lincoln, Omaha, and Kansas City. The ranch has been honored with a number of conservation awards including the Rangeland Conservation Award from the Lower Big Blue NRD. The open prairie, woodlands, and lakes are home to many species including coyote, bobcat, red squirrel, fox, and leopard frogs. The ranch’s owners, Billie Kay and Scott Bodie, have continuously worked to improve the sustainability and diversity of their pastures through rotational grazing, inter-seeding with beneficial species, and controlled burning.
701 4th Avenue
Holdrege, NE 68949
The Chicken Dance Trail provides opportunities to see not just prairie chickens, but a multitude of other bird species in south central and southwestern Nebraska. The Chicken Dance Trail is not a physical location, but a website full of insider information about canyons, reservoirs, and creeks where you’re sure to spot the birds on your bucket list—as well as rural communities to explore along the way. The Chicken Dance Trail organizes the information into five birdwatching trails that travelers can take independently, at their own pace. Grassland areas include the Loess Canyons and Medicine Creek.
86091 Double R Drive
Mullen, NE 69152
The drive to Double R Guest Ranch is along one of the most scenic and least populated stretches of highways in the state, Highway 97, connecting Mullen and Valentine. The property includes three big lakes and is a working cattle ranch. Owner, Pat Bridges is a knowledgable local guide. A number of buildings on the property include an old sod house, a restored one-room school house, a little store, stables, and a wooden cabin near a fishing lake. “At dusk the hills are alive with their deepest shades of green making early evening the best time to get the beautiful shadows on the hills, and to capture the clouds in all their glory. Activities on this lush prairie land include hunting, fishing, ice-fishing, hiking, bird-watching, star-gazing, horseback riding.
263 Sandcreek Rd
Crawford, NE 69339
Driving along a dirt road in the high plains of northwestern Nebraska, High Plains Homestead appears like an oasis. The Old West outpost is located in the middle of the Oglala National Grasslands, an expanse of 90,000+ acres of African-like savannah. Owners Mike and Linda Kesselring are veterans of Nebraska tourism and after 16 years of business have seen a lot of repeat visitors—and for good reason. The couple works hard at it, embodying western hospitality and greeting all guests that come through the screen door like long-lost relatives. High Plains Homestead includes a school house, saloon, mercantile, post office, jail, and blacksmith shop. Individual lodging is available. At the center of “town” life is the Drifter’s Cookshack, a restaurant featuring high-quality home-cooked meals.
8523 West State Highway 4
Beatrice , NE 68310
The ongoing tallgrass prairie restoration at Homestead National Monument of America began in 1939. And though the restored prairie at the monument will never exactly repeat the original mix of plant and animals life, species composition does resemble that of presettlement times. Species include prairie grasses (big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, goldenrod) and a variety of birds, insects, and mammals.
The Loup Rivers Scenic Byway is a 4 hour, 40 minute path between Wood River and Dunning (at the edge of the Nebraska National Forest). From rolling farmland to the stunning Sandhills, this trek is full of small-town charm, beautiful vistas, and plenty of wildlife-watching spots. It’s an excellent chance to leave Interstate 80 and experience what Nebraska really looks like.
P.O. Box 414
Valentine, NE 69201
Steve Hanson and his family run Niobrara Riverview Retreats, a business that transforms their love for the outdoors into an experience to share with visitors. A former fisheries biologist in Alaska, Steve is an expert naturalist who can explain in detail the botany, geology, biology and ecology of his surroundings. Niobrara Riverview Retreats borders two miles of the Niobrara River. It includes hiking trails and a 25-acre marsh, appropriate for canoeing and catch and release fishing. The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is only 15 miles away, a stunning landscape of over 30 sandhills lakes spread out across 70,000+ acres with 260 identified bird species spotted. The ranch is also just miles from Ft. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in which a visitor can see bison, prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and many other species. Activities include tubing, canoeing, guided nature walks, orienteering, overnight stabling and horseback riding.
Crawford, NE 69339
Our Heritage Guest Ranch is nestled in the foothills of the picturesque Pine Ridge. Owner Jean Norman is a fourth generation rancher with fifty years of experience and knowledge working in the Nebraska Panhandle. She organizes special experiences for her guests, including guided fossil digs, natural horsemanship training and multi-day horseback journeys. Her six-day Lakota journey is led by a tribal member who introduces groups to the plants and animals of the area as well as Lakota culture, astrology, traditional cooking and storytelling. Jean has shorter horseback expeditions as well, and also the option to participate in everyday ranch activities: fixing fence, haying, lambing and calving. Jean also makes beautiful art incorporating natural materials — ask her to tell you the story of the fence post, now bedpost, that saved her life in a blizzard! Activities include horseback riding, hiking, biking, fishing, stargazing, photography, and holistic health instruction.
61 Country Club Road
Chadron, NE 69337
In their hay day, sheepwagons were simple mobile homes for sheepherders living amongst their flocks in the open rangelands of the western United States. They’ve all but disappeared from use, but thanks to Jim and Lora O’Rourke — rangeland scientists, ranchers and sheepwagon collectors — you can wake up in one of these Old West wagons, tucked into the hills of Ponderosa pine. The O’Rourkes run RuJoDen Ranch and are international range management experts. They accept a limited number of visitors, providing nature walks, historical land use discussions and demonstrations of sustainable grazing practices.
83720 Valley View Ave
Burwell, NE 68823
Calamus Outfitters is a family-owned business providing outdoor recreational activities for diverse kinds of tourists: from hunters, to serious birdwatchers to families who want to float down the river or lounge at the nearby Calamus Reservoir. The operation is located in the north central Nebraska Sandhills, near Burwell, right along the Calamus Reservoir, a prominent regional tourist attraction. They see a massive influx of monarchs when they migrate in the fall, which you can read about on our blog.
455 Brewster Ave
Brewster, NE 68821
In 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an Executive Order establishing Fort Niobrara as a “preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” Later that year, the Refuge’s purpose was expanded to include the conservation of bison and elk herds representative of those that once roamed the Great Plains. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is 19,131 acres in size and features a trail system, boardwalks, observation decks, hunting and photography blinds, fishing piers and boat launches. Bison, elk, deer, butterflies, and prairie dogs can be seen along the 3.5 mile wildlife drive throughout the year. The Fort Niobrara NWR’s visitor center features self-guided and ranger-led interpretive services and is visited by approximately 40 million people each year.
Wachiska has several prairies under their management in southeast Nebraska, and they encourage visitors. They especially suggest Wildcat Prairie, 30.5 acres in Gage County, south-southwest of Virginia, Neb., as a particularly good spot for orange-red milkweed plants, which are especially good at attracting a range of butterflies.
Know of an ecotourist-friendly place in the Great Plains to see a sea of grass? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org