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Come along on a trail run in the wild tallgrass prairie of Kansas

Many of the wildflowers in the prairie are delicate, adding dashes of ivory and yellow and red to the green landscape.
Brian Mann
/
NPR
Many of the wildflowers in the prairie are delicate, adding dashes of ivory and yellow and red to the green landscape.

Updated July 17, 2023 at 1:16 PM ET

Just before dawn, I let myself in through one of the cattle gates in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, an hour's drive north of Wichita, Kan.

These fences, maintained by the National Park Service, keep a bison herd from roaming outside the preserve's 11,000 acres.

From the trailhead, I can't see any of the big animals. But as I lace up my sneakers to run, I realize the fields around me are flush with birds.

Their songs color the morning as I set off running west on the gravel trail, climbing toward a full moon that hangs above the horizon.

As the sun rises, a sea of grass surrounds me. There are great waves of hills rolling in every direction, and at this hour I'm the only human here.

Soon, up ahead, I see the herd of 50 or so bison. The shaggy, big-shouldered beasts have gathered across the path, blocking it.

A bison herd blocks the path in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
A bison herd blocks the path in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

I want to keep my distance, but also want to keep exploring, so I turn and wade into the waist-high grass.

Then on a ridge ahead of me, maybe a football field away, a massive bull lumbers into view. A half-dozen bronze-colored calves dance around him, sprinting through the grass.

A trail run through the prairie often means wading through waist-high grass and meadows of wildflowers.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
A trail run through the prairie often means wading through waist-high grass and meadows of wildflowers.

I back away, following a path down into a valley along a muddy creek, past a grove of cottonwood trees. Here again the sky is full of birdsong.

And there are wildflowers everywhere. I think of the prairie as rough, arid country, but the blossoms are as delicate as anything you'd see in an English garden.

At sunrise it's easy to imagine the tallgrass prairie stretching from horizon to horizon.  These days, the Preserve encompasses roughly 11,000 acres of wildlands.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
At sunrise it's easy to imagine the tallgrass prairie stretching from horizon to horizon. These days, the preserve encompasses roughly 11,000 acres of wildlands.

Before running back to the gate, I stop for a while and just look. Tallgrass prairie like this, with big bluestem and switchgrass, used to cover 170 million acres of North America. Most of it is gone now.

Standing there, I can see no human footprint. There are bison and swales of sweet grass all the way to the horizon, and a vast blue sky, all completely wild.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tallgrass prairie used to cover 170 million acres of North America. Most of it is now gone.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Tallgrass prairie used to cover 170 million acres of North America. Most of it is now gone.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.

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