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Autumn hues and cooler weather make September an ideal time to experience the natural secrets hidden deep in Kansas’ tallgrass prairies. Witness tens of thousands of acres of prairie that stretch your imagination and inspire your heart. Join Naturalist Journeys on this tallgrass prairie tour to investigate world-class wetlands and grasslands as we explore the amazing prairies of central Kansas and the Flint Hills ecosystem. This is the only remaining area in America with intact, extensive tallgrass prairie landscapes.
September brings fall color and tall, mature grasses decorate the landscape. This is our guides’ favorite time to visit. Discover Big-bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass, and the other tall grasses that blanket these hills, and savor late-blooming wildflowers.
In the Flint Hills, limestone and chert geology defied use of the plow, favoring a grass and ranching agriculture that led to the preservation of large expanses of prairie. This rock foundation also provides a rich cultural and architectural heritage that we discover passing through small heartland towns. From stone fences to elegant homes, barns and courthouses, the native stone solidified history. As our route crisscrosses the Santa Fe Trail, we feel the pull of westward expansion that brought Norwegian, Irish, Swedish, and German settlers to this area.
- “I really loved this trip! My only regret is that I hadn't brought two or three of my friends with me! The genius of the trip was mixing so many things together in such an engaging way. I have visited the area once before but this time many more of its riches were revealed.” — Cheryl Miller, 2023 Traveler
- “A trip to the Flint Hills and Tall Grass Prairie of Kansas, exploring the areas of Kansas where the plow has not touched. (One highlight was) watching the American bison herd at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge and learning about these magnificent creatures.” — Brenda Richmond, 2023 Traveler
- Experience the grandeur and history of ranching days at the NPS’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
- Learn about the latest research on prairie ecosystems at Konza Prairie
- Visit the Maxwell Game Wildlife Refuge for a safe encounter with bison and possibly elk
- Observe raptors, gulls, early migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and with a bit of luck, American White Pelican by the thousands
- Explore with local guides, Ed and Sil Pembleton, who have their finger on the pulse of the area, and help you get the most out of your visit
Itineraries are guidelines; variations in itinerary may occur to account for weather, road conditions, closures, etc. and to maximize your experience.
Day 1: Arrival in Wichita, Kansas
Arrive in Wichita, Kansas, today. To ease your travels, we stay tonight at the convenient DoubleTree by Hilton, which has an airport shuttle. Please plan to arrive in time to meet at the hotel at 2:00 PM; if you’d like you can join the guides to visit the Great Plains Nature Center, which provides you with an introduction to the region.
We gather for a welcome dinner and introductions at 6:00 PM at a favorite steak house.
Accommodations at DoubleTree by Hilton (L,D)
Day 2: Dyck Arboretum of the Plains | Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
We depart this morning after breakfast, heading north to Hesston, Kansas, for our first taste of the flora of Kansas at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. The beautiful gardens emphasize native grasses, trees, and wildflowers, which are often teaming with moths and butterflies. If we’re lucky, Mississippi Kite still grace the skies before migrating south. We enjoy a hike through the gardens, followed by lunch at a local restaurant.
From the arboretum we head west across the mixed grass prairie and farm grounds to visit Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms taken together are considered one of the original “8 Wonders of Kansas.” With more than 22,000 acres of prairie and farmland containing both salt and freshwater wetlands, Quivira hosts a wide variety of waterfowl, shore birds, and upland birds. In fact, Quivira’s freshwater, Big, and Little Salt Marshes attract more than 300 of Kansas’ 453 bird species.
We journey back east to the Swedish settlement of Lindsborg for our dinner at the Crown and Rye. We finish the day with sunset at Coronado Heights, where often the calls of Bob White Quail or Greater Prairie Chicken reach us from the surrounding fields.
Accommodations at Dröm Sött, Lindsborg (B,L,D)
Day 3: Lindsborg | Maxwell Wildlife Refuge | Mushroom Rocks State Park
After breakfast, we head east on the Prairie Trail Scenic Byway for our appointment to meet bison up close and personal at Kansas Wildlife and Parks’ Maxwell Wildlife Refuge. Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, and perhaps Scissor-tailed Flycatcher are among our list of prairie and grassland birds we search for here.
The Friends of Maxwell uses a special tram for a guided tour into the bison pasture so that you can safely get a very close and personal view of these magnificent animals. If we are fortunate, the herd of elk may venture out into view. Later we catch an “aerial” view from the tower, give the prairie plants at Maxwell a thorough inspection, and search the adjacent McPherson State Fishing Lake for birds.
After a picnic lunch, we explore the prairie, and the unique geology and history of Mushroom Rocks State Park (another of the “8 Wonders of Kansas). Time permitting we scout Kanopolis Reservoir for Bald Eagle, gulls, and migrating waterfowl.
Accommodations at Dröm Sött, Lindsborg (B,L,D)
Day 4: Lindsborg, The Land Institute | Konza Prairie
After breakfast and checking out of our hotel, we spend some time exploring Lindsborg historic mill and main street. If we are fortunate, we may get to meet National Geographic photographer, Jim Richardson, whose outstanding photographs have graced many National Geographic articles including an April 2007 article on the Flint Hills.
We travel north to The Land Institute, a nonprofit science-based research organization developing ways to advance perennial grain crops in a mixture (polyculture) that protects and builds the soil rather than depleting it. In short, their revolutionary goal is to reform our food production into a sustainable system. Since 1976, their research has developed new perennial grain crops with a goal of building a polyculture cropping system that functions similar to native prairies.
We depart the Land Institute and head into the “Heart” of the Flint Hills, for a hike at the 8,600-acre Konza Prairie Biological Station operated by the Kansas State Division of Biology. Dedicated to long–term research, education, and prairie conservation, Konza is part of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research System and carries out some of North America’s most sophisticated studies of prairie ecology.
Accommodations at Hilton Garden Inn, Manhattan (B,L,D)
Day 5: Mt. Mitchell Heritage Prairie | Native Stone Scenic Byway
We turn east along the expansive valley of the Kansas River with a stop to see the historic Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, before exploring Mt. Mitchell Heritage Prairie. Originally protected to honor the role Kansans played in the “underground railroad,” this rather small area contains one of the most diverse prairies found in the Flint Hills.
We proceed south on the Native Stone Scenic Byway, through Alma (“The Native Stone City”) and then across the Flint Hills, where the valleys harbor ranch homesteads with stone buildings, and the pastures and roadsides are graced with amazing historic stone fences.
After lunch, we visit the award-winning Flint Hills Discovery Center, where engrossing hands-on exhibits help us understand the region better. The Center also features a unique immersive experience theater, an exploration of the “underground prairie”, and much more. One past tour participant called the Center “proof that the Flint Hills ecosystem has a fan club.”
Accommodation at Hilton Garden Inn, Manhattan (B,L,D)
Day 6: Santa Fe Trail | Native Americans | Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
This is Santa Fe Trail country so filled with the past that today we have a potpourri of natural and historical experiences. Our day begins with birding along a prairie/riparian trail looking for grassland sparrows and Red-headed Woodpecker. The trail is part of the Kaw Nation’s Allegawaho Heritage Memorial Park, where a 35 foot limestone monument stands in honor of the Kanza people who lived here before European settlement. We sample Council Grove’s treasure of historic landmarks including the Kaw Mission and our luncheon restaurant, Hays House, built by Daniel Boone’s nephew.
After lunch, we explore to the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. This is the only unit of the National Park System dedicated to the rich natural and cultural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. The historic 1881 limestone ranch house and stone ranch buildings give us a feel for the history. This is a relatively new and still developing park managed by a unique partnership between the NPS and The Nature Conservancy. Bison have been reintroduced to a portion of the area and are usually visible along the trails. At almost 11,000 acres this is a part of the Flint Hills where we experience the sweep of the prairie and the expanse of open skies.
Accommodations at The Grand Central Hotel, Cottonwood Falls (B,L,D)
Day 7: Cottonwood Falls | Matfield Green Prairie Art Path | Pioneer Bluffs
After breakfast, we explore Cottonwood Falls, the county seat of Chase County, which was the setting for William Least Heat-Moon’s book, PrairyErth. We visit the beautiful county court house, and other main street sights, then we have options to revisit the National Tallgrass Prairie Reserve or search for grassland birds and waterfowl at Chase County State Lake.
After lunch, we visit two sites that offer an interesting and very different lens through which to view the prairie. First stop is the historic Rogler ranch, headquarters for Pioneer Bluffs, an organization dedicated to preserving the ranching heritage of the Flint Hills. Our second is a hike on the Prairy Art Path, designed by architect/artist Bill McBride, to connect people to the prairie through art.
Accommodations at The Grand Central Hotel, Cottonwood Falls (B,L,D)
Day 8: Departures
This morning, we check out and depart for the airport. Please make flight reservation for noon or later. If you are staying on in Wichita, the Doubletree provides a shuttle.
NOTE: This itinerary is subject to change depending upon environmental conditions and availability of rural services.
Cost of the Journey
Cost of the journey is $TBD, from Wichita, Kansas. Cost includes: all accommodations; all meals as stated in the itinerary; departure group airport transfers; ground transportation; professional guide services; park, preserve, and other activity fees; and miscellaneous program expenses. Tour price does not include: roundtrip airfare to and from Wichita or items of a personal nature such as laundry, porterage, telephone charges, or alcoholic beverages. Gratuities for your guides and others staff are not included and at your discretion.
Browse below for trip reports and species lists from past versions of this and other tours from this destination.
A native Kansan who grew up in the Flint Hills and made annual trips to see the Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska, Ryan is a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer who is passionate about natural history, wildlife, conservation, and exploration. He earned his PhD in anthropology with a doctoral specialization in environmental science and policy from Michigan State University. Ryan has lived and traveled throughout rural Namibia, studying wildlife conservation, natural resource management, and human-environment interactions. He has also worked for Audubon of Kansas and engaged with conservation efforts in the Great Plains, where his ongoing research focuses on issues of rural life. While teaching at Kansas State University, Ryan helped many students set off on adventures abroad and learn more about the natural world and the need for conservation at home. An avid traveler and photographer, he has vagabonded and worked on farms in Canada and Europe, taught English in China, travelled by bus through Mexico, and explored diverse parts of southern Africa and the United States. He enjoys speaking Spanish and learning Afrikaans, German, and other languages. Ryan lives in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where he loves to hike, birdwatch, explore nature with his two kids, and contribute to the stewardship of his family’s prairie ranchland.
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Essential Information +
This information is important for being prepared for your journey; we want you to have the best experience possible. If you only read one section, this one is key!
Ahead of Your Tour
- Please talk with your doctor about general health needs. It is a good idea to consult with your doctor about general vaccinations recommended for travel.
- Please plan to make air travel plans only after the minimum group size has been met. We will send you a confirmation email as soon as the trip has been confirmed. After you make travel reservations, please send a copy of your travel itinerary to the Naturalist Journeys office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Travel insurance in case of serious medical emergency is recommended. Full health coverage and repatriation is available through Allianz Travel Insurance.
- Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Remember to pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.
We will share a copy of your health and emergency contact information with your guide. This information will be kept confidential but is very important in case of a medical emergency. In addition to bringing any prescription medications with you, we recommend that you have a copy of the prescriptions in case of loss.
Pace of the Tour & What to Expect
You will receive a Schedule-at-a-Glance and list of hotels (our eContact List) a few weeks before your departure. This will serve as an outline for each day and alert you to any recent changes made in the schedule or to our hotels, if needed.
Our journeys are set up to follow the rhythm of nature. Our focus is on birding and nature; we offer full, well-planned field days and often get up early for that magical time around dawn. We generally follow the published itinerary, but we stay flexible to the weather, wildlife opportunities and the interests of the group. Your guide will keep you apprised of the next day’s schedule at each evening meal, noting what to bring and what to prepare for. Questions and/or concerns are welcome.
The pace of our Naturalist Journeys tours is moderate; to fully participate you should be able to get in and out of vehicles several times a day, and walk 1-3 miles over uneven terrain. It is important to participate with a flexible attitude as adjustments may be made in our schedule to make the most of our time in the field or for other purposes at your guide's discretion. We are not a “listing” bird company that drills down on target species, but at times we do wait for those special species unique to the places we visit. During the day, we take time to stop for photos and for educational opportunities to learn about conservation projects, landscapes, and geology. We appreciate other taxa as well as birds, with mammals often the biggest draw but plants and butterflies are also very popular. Our clients often lend their own expertise to the mix.
We like to make meals a fun and memorable part of the experience, too. Breakfasts are often at hotels, and we carry snacks, fruit, and water in the vans each day. Lunches are a mix of picnics in the field (weather dependent) and a chance to dine with locals at small cafes and restaurants. For dinner, we pride ourselves in our homework to keep up with the best choices for dining, choosing restaurants with atmosphere that specialize in local foods. On occasion we keep dinner simple to go back out in the field for sunset wildlife viewing or night walks. In some remote locations, our choices are limited. If you are tired, room service for dinner may be an option you can choose.
Food & Drink
We carry water and juices/cold drinks in the cooler each day, and sodas if people like them. Please also plan on bringing and filling your water bottle for hiking each day. We try to use as few plastics as possible!
Packing, Clothing & Laundry
Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Please pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.
Dress is informal and is casual even at restaurants. Layering is a great way to stay comfortable. Protective clothing is essential, whether it be from from sun, rain, cold, insects, or vegetation. You need closed toe shoes, and we comfortable walking shoes with good tread. Hiking boots with good support for hiking and on rocky terrain can work well.
Many people ask how much to plan to bring as spending money. Part of that depends on how much you want to shop. Most shops will take VISA and MasterCard or American Express. Typical items people purchase include local souvenirs and T-shirts, caps, and natural history books. You may want to bring cash for drinks with dinner (if available) or smaller local purchases.
Expect the normal tipping protocol to apply for hotel maids and bar service. If at the end of the tour, you would like to show your appreciation to your guides, tipping is entirely appropriate but at your discretion. We hope that you will be pleased with all professional services. Gratuities for group meals are included. For your birding tour guide, we suggest $10-$15 per day per guest. Note that if there is more than one guide, this amount can be split among them.
Cell Phones & Internet Service
Wi-Fi and cell phone service are available in most US destinations, although there are some exceptions in remote locations. Wi-Fi is generally provided in all hotels, lodges, and restaurants you visit, at least in public areas. Please refrain from taking or making cell phone calls in the vehicles when traveling with other passengers unless it appears to be an emergency as this disrupts other guests – please plan cell phone calls on your own time.
Smoking is not permitted in any vehicle or in any situation where the group is participating in an activity together, such as a vehicle excursion or a guided walk. Please respect all designated smoking areas at hotels and restaurants.
For this tour, your guides will drive travelers in either full-size or mini-vans or a combination of those two. We ask all attendees to please rotate your seating, so you ride with different drivers and alternate between front and back seats.
Photo Release & Sharing
We take many group photos and will share photos with the group. And after your tour, we will organize a chance to share photos via Dropbox or Google Photos. Please note that this is our policy and if you prefer to be excluded, we need to know ahead of your tour.
By registering for this tour, you agree to grant to Naturalist Journeys and its authorized representatives permission to record photos and/or video of your participation in the tour. You further agree that any or all of the material photographed may be used, in any form, as part of any future publications, brochures, or other printed materials used to promote Naturalist Journeys, and further that such use shall be without payment of fees, royalties, special credit or other compensation.
Please contact Naturalist Journeys by email at email@example.com or telephone our office: (520) 558-1146 or toll free: (866) 900-1146 if you have any questions. Many thanks for traveling with us and we hope you enjoy your journey.
Packing List +
Please Pack Light!
Be sure to have your name and address on the inside of the bag, as well as on the luggage tag on the handle. Please check with your airline regarding carry-ons and weight restrictions. Be sure to pack your personal medication, airline tickets, binoculars, camera, and other essential items in your carry-on bag. You will want a daypack for field trips, so this is the ideal carry-on. The pair of shoes most important to the trip (your boots) are good to wear on the plane.
In general, the most important advice is to make sure you bring clothing for a variety of temperatures, as this time of year can be quite mild, or if a storm moves in, bring the first seasonal cold. Generally, Kansas in September tends to have daytime averages with highs in the 70s and 80s. Morning and nighttime lows usually average in the upper 50s. Check your favorite weather website closer to your departure to better predict what the weather will be on your adventure.
Dress is very informal. We want you to be comfortable and the key to that is layering. Fabrics like fleece, as well as rain gear, will protect you from rain and wind and keep you warm. Also, choose clothing you don’t mind getting dirty and that is comfortable and easy to wear. Supportive hiking boots are essential for our walks.
Clothing and Gear
- Long pants, 2-3 pair
- Long-sleeved shirts/turtlenecks, 1-2
- T-shirts or equivalent, 2-3 for layering
- Comfortable clothes for evening (a cleaner version of your field clothes)
- Raincoat and pants – these double as wind breaker
- Coat/jacket/sweater – think layering
- Vest, windproof if possible, this is a great clothing item for this climate
- Hat and light gloves
- Hat with broad brim for sun on dry days
- Personal underclothing and pajamas
- Socks – several pairs ranging in weight, easy to wash and dry material
- Comfortable walking shoes (such as tennis shoes)
- Supportive hiking boots – medium weight is fine
- Comfortable shoes or sandals if you wish for evenings, travel days
- Swimsuit (optional)
- Bandana (optional)
Equipment and Miscellaneous
- E-ticket verification
- Personal identification
- Small daypack or fanny pack to carry gear while hiking
- Umbrella (compact, not brightly colored)
- Walking sticks (optional, but recommended if you usually walk with them)
- Flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries and extra batteries
- Alarm clock, or use your cell phone
- Sunscreen/lip balm with spf
- Insect repellent
- Sunglasses with neck strap
- Toiletry articles
- Earplugs if you are noise sensitive
- Binoculars (a hotel shower cap is great to cover these when it is raining)
- Spotting scope (optional - Guides will have a scope to share, but feel free to bring your own)
- Camera and extra batteries, digital chips etc., lens cleaning supplies and your instruction manual. Do a good check before leaving.
- Water bottle (or plan to reuse our store-bought water bottle if preferred)
- Laundry soap for hand washing
- travel sewing kit
- Notebook or journal and pen (optional)
- Field guides (optional)
- Rechargeable power bank or charging your phone or other (optional)
WE DO NOT RECOMMEND TRAVELING WITH PRECIOUS OR VALUABLE JEWELRY – don’t tempt anyone and don’t bring things you’d regret losing - your mind will be at ease!
Medical and First Aid Items
- Personal medication
- Copy of eyeglass and medical prescriptions, and any medical alerts
- Motion sickness preventatives if likely to be needed in vans
- Personal first aid kit including medications for general and stomach ailments (Imodium or Lomotil, antihistamine cream or tablets, eye drops, etc.)
- Band-Aids, moleskin to protect against blisters
- Foot powder, lotions for dry skin, general “comfort” items
- Small bottle of hand sanitizer
- Insurance information
- Vaccination records
- Extra pair of eyeglasses or contacts
Suggested Reading List +
There are many wonderful books about Kansas and the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem. Here are a few that we enjoy to get you started.
Merlin App. A phone-based birding app from Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. You can download it here.
Your guide will also have a selection of reference books and materials for participants to share. As an Amazon Associate, Naturalist Journeys earns from qualifying purchases, and may get commissions for purchases made through links on this page at no added cost to you.
Useful Links +
Nature, Wildlife & Biology
Audubon of Kansas
Kansas Bird Tracker
Wildflowers and Grasses
Conservation, Parks & Reserves
Great Plains Nature Center
Dyck Arboretum of the Plains
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway
Kansas Wetlands Education Center
Maxwell Wildlife Refuge
Mushroom Rocks State Park
Flint Hills & Discovery Center
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Virtual Tour Lower Fox Creek School
Konza Prairie Biological Station
Mt. Mitchell Heritage Prairie
Native Stone Scenic Byway
The Land Institute
Geology & Geography
Geography of Kansas
History & Culture
A Brief History
Kansas’ History and Culture
Jim Richardson, National Geographic Photographer
Helpful Travel Websites
Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (ICT)
Homeland Security Real ID Act
Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
Date & Time
Photo credits: Banners: Prairie Photos and Greater Yellowlegs by Ed Pembleton; A Walk in the Grass by Ed Pembleton; Snowy Plover by Greg Smith; WIld Turkeys by Ed Pembleton; Blue-winged Teals by Carlos Sanchez; Burrowing Owl by Greg Smith; American Bittern by Carlos Sanchez; Willow Leaf Sunflower by Ed Pembleton; Indian Grass, Ed Pembleton; Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Ed Pembleton; Burrowing Owl, Peg Abbott; Prairie Dog, Ed Pembleton; American Avocet, Carol Rivchun; Snowy Plover, Greg Smith; Barn Owl, Peg Abbott; Coyote, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Terry Peterson; Walking in the Tallgrass, Ed Pembleton; Greater Prairie Chicken, Greg Smith; Indigo Bunting, Doug Pratt; Bison Herd, Ed Pembleton; Bobolink, Steve Wolfe; Great Blue Heron, Sandy Sorkin; Wild Turkeys, Ed Pembleton; American Bittern, Carlos Sanchez; Blue-winged Teal, Delsa Anderl; Burrowing Owl, Greg Smith; Eastern Meadowlark, Terry Peterson; Greater Yellowlegs, Ed Pembleton; Yellow-headed Blackbird, Ed Pembleton.