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Kansas: A prairie’s last stand

Above ground and below, Kansas claims some fascinating landscapes.

Whether it is the native tall-grass prairies of the Flint Hills or a salt deposit deep below the surface in Hutchinson, special geological features give Kansas a distinctive natural character. Visiting groups can see buffalo roaming on the prairies, travel underground into a salt mine and see wildlife from around the world at a zoo in Salina.

Take advantage of these options for adding some time in the great outdoors — or the great underground — to your next Kansas itinerary.

Flint Hills
Home to Kansas State University and its proud basketball tradition, Manhattan is also the gateway to the Flint Hills, a geological region that reaches from Kansas into northern Oklahoma.

“The Flint Hills is a remarkable place,” said Bob Workman, director of the Flint Hills Discovery Center. “It’s 4 million acres. Because the limestone is so close to the surface, it could not be broken by the plow. So now we’re the custodians of the last tall-grass prairie in North America.”

Groups interested in learning more about the Flint Hills can visit the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, a protected area just outside of Manhattan where scientists study the Flint Hills geology and the buffalo and other animals that make their home there. Visitors often see groups of wild turkeys or white-tailed deer at the 8,600-acre site and can hike several trails in the area, one of which leads to a preserved 1870s Swedish homestead.

In 2012, the new Flint Hills Discovery Center will open in Manhattan, giving visitors a comprehensive museum overview of the region. The center will employ an immersive theater, interactive programming and special terraced landscaping to highlight the area’s natural features.

“This project is meant to be a visitor’s entry point to the Flint Hills,” Workman said. “The exhibitry is a walk through the geology and biology of this region. There is a part about promoting stewardship, which will engage people in taking care of the environment around them.”

Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure
In Salina, visitors will find exotic animals from around the world at Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure, an attraction that started with a team of Belgian horses in a local man’s barn and grew to include dozens of dioramas and live-animal exhibits.

Today, the zoo has large and exotic animals from all over the world, among them rhinoceroses, orangutans, leopards, lions and tigers.

“Everyone’s favorites are the rhinos,” said group sales manager Debbie Tasker. “They come right up to the big pylons. You’re close enough to really see how gigantic they are.”

Groups can take a tram tour through the zoo, where they see as many as 130 species on display. There are hundreds more in the accompanying museum, which has an impressive collection of mounted animals surrounded by scenery from their native parts of the world.

“Most of these mounts come from a man who had a collection in California,” said Tasker. “It’s all completely interactive. We have four waterfall effects and 14 animatronic robots telling you about a day in the life of the animals. There’s no glass between you and the dioramas.”

Kansas Underground Salt Museum

More than 175,000 people have descended 650 feet into the underground caverns of the Kansas Underground Salt Museum since it opened as a tourist attraction in 2007.

“The salt mine has been here since 1923,” said executive director Linda Schmitt. “It was discovered in the 1880s. It really supplied the salt for the pioneers and expansion west of the Mississippi River.”

There are some 940 acres of mines under Hutchinson and 67 miles of roads dug out to transport workers around the mines. When groups visit the mine, they can take a “dark ride” — a guided tram tour that highlights some of the ecological and man-made formations found inside the mine.
“The other half of our tour is the underground gallery,” Schmitt said. “You see galleries on mining and some of the old mining equipment.”

In the galleries, retired mineworkers show heavy machinery, detonator cord and other tools used in the trade. The galleries also include exhibits on Underground Vaults and Storage, the company that holds thousands of film reels and Hollywood memorabilia in former mine spaces.

Because of their moderate temperatures and low humidity, the salt mines are an ideal place for long-term storage of fragile items.

At quest’s end
A bit of historical lore surrounds Coronado Heights in Lindsborg. Named for Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the hill overlooking the small Kansas town is believed by some to be the place where Coronado gave up his search for the Seven Cities of Gold and returned to Mexico.

“Rumor is that at some time, they found some chainmail up here,” said Thad Morrical, director of Lindsborg Parks and Recreation. “They associated it with Coronado, because it supposedly dated back to 1541.”

As a tribute to the legend, the town named the hill Coronado Heights, and the Works Progress Administration built a small two-story castle on top of the hill in 1936. Today, the building looks surprisingly like a 16th-century European structure, with hand-cut stones covered with a fine layer of green moss.

Groups that visit Coronado Heights can take a tour of the castle’s interior and climb up to the second-story tower for a panoramic view of the Smoky Hill Valley area below.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.