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An outsized outdoors in Grand Central

Outdoor adventure means different things to different people. For some, it’s a quiet walk through the swaying prairie grass or a brisk hike to a hidden bubbling spring. Others want to ride horses or feed a bison. Still others crave the adrenaline of an ATV tour or an off-roading Hummer trip.

Fortunately, the Grand Central states deliver a wide variety of outdoor activity options for groups looking to satisfy a range of adventure tastes.


Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Strong City, Kansas

At Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas, there are moments when visitors may feel like they’ve stepped into a bygone era of bison herds and covered wagons.

“There are points on the preserve where they will see nothing man-made; it looks exactly like it did 100 to 200 years ago,” said Heather Brown, chief of interpretation and visitor services.

Tallgrass prairie once covered about 170 million acres, but less than 4 percent of that remains today; the rest has been lost to generations of farming and development. The 11,000-acre preserve protects a remnant of tallgrass prairie and is also home to native wildlife and a small herd of bison.

Bison, the most genetically pure breed available, were first introduced at the preserve in October 2009; there are 23 in the park today. Although the park can’t guarantee visitors a sighting, “they’re out there,” Brown said.

“Having that animal back on the landscape that has been missing for about 150 years, it’s a huge story,” she said. “Between 30 [million] and 60 million bison once roamed the plains, and they were hunted down to less than 1,000.”

Although people go to see the bison and the tallgrass, they can also experience other parts of the plains’ history, including ranching. Tours are available of the park’s three-story stone mansion that cattle baron Stephen Jones built in 1881, as well as the barn and other historic outbuildings.

The preserve’s new visitors center features exhibits and a short orientation film.

Although the preserve is no longer offering its prairie bus tours, groups can walk or hike on three nature trails and backcountry hiking trails.

Visitors should also remember that tallgrass isn’t tall year-round, Brown said. It’s only about a foot high in the spring and reaches its maximum height in September and October.


Mount Magazine State Park

Paris, Arkansas

Mount Magazine State Park in northwest Arkansas is home to Mount Magazine, which is the highest point in the state at 2,753 feet above sea level.

The 2,200-acre park is surrounded by the Ozark National Forest, and its thick oak-hickory and pine woodlands are interrupted only by rocky cliffs that are perfect for rappelling, rock climbing and hang gliding. But the park offers plenty of group recreation activities for those who don’t want to hang, dangle or jump off a cliff.

Among the most popular is Schluterman’s ATV Tours, said Heidi Ryan, director of sales and marketing for the Lodge at Mount Magazine. Guests can sign up for a three- or five-hour guided tour of the Huckleberry Mountain trail. One of the company’s guides teaches group members how to drive the ATVs and then leads them into the Ozark National Forest, where they tool through the trees and splash across streams.

Geocaching is another favorite for groups of up to 50 people, Brown said. Geocaching is somewhat like a high-tech treasure hunt; participants use GPS devices to locate targets hidden at geological landmarks or historical points of interest around the park.

“There are a lot of historical sites in the park; this used to be a resort community back in the day, and some people lived up here and farmed,” Brown said. “Then the Depression hit, and everybody lost their lands.”

The park also has 10 mountain bikes for rent, and guides are available to lead groups on mountain biking trips on the park’s trails. Mount Magazine guides and interpreters are also available to lead groups on hikes, or even an overnight campout, Brown said.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.