Text and Images by Scott Bean
Talk about landscapes in Kansas and a lot of people are going to think of the stereotypical image of Kansas – one big flat wheat field. Kansas certainly does have some flat regions, especially in the western half of the state. Kansas also has a lot of wheat fields – which are beautiful in their own right. However, Kansas has a number of unique landscapes that may surprise a lot of people. The Flint Hills are one of the unique physiographic regions of Kansas. They are an especially interesting area as they contain some of the last large contiguous areas of tallgrass prairie. The interesting topography of the Flint Hills and the flora of the tall grass prairie combine to make for wonderful photographic opportunities.
Wide open views and gently sloping hills are characteristic of the Flint Hills. I like to use a wide angle lens to try and capture the sense of space and the unique shapes that can be found out in the prairies, but short to medium telephoto lenses are also useful to bring in details of the hills and focus attention on the lines and textures of the region. Magic hour light can really bring out the contours and shapes of the hills, and sunrises and sunsets are often full of amazing colors.
Like any location, the Flint Hills change throughout the seasons and provide a range of different ‘looks’ to photograph. Early spring can be a very dramatic time to photograph the Flint Hills as large portions are burned off to control invasive species and to promote the health of the prairie. The tall grass prairie has a long history with fire and regular burning has been an important part of its evolution – without regular burning the prairies in the Flint Hills would be overgrown with woody vegetation and cease to exist. Areas that have been burned respond quickly, and within a few days bright, vibrant green grasses will be covering the hillsides. This is one of my favorite times of year to be out with my camera. The green of the new grass is amazing and the hills are lush and spectacular. Also in spring, wildflowers will start blooming and will continue to bloom until early fall. A large number of different species of wildflowers can be found in the Flint Hills. One of my favorite wildflowers to photograph is the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). I love how the red to orange color (and sometimes yellow) contrasts with the green of the prairie.
By late summer the heat (and sometimes drought) will have taken its toll on the grasses, but soon the cool temps of fall arrive and the grasses turn a beautiful reddish-brown. The fall colors of the grasses out on the prairie can be wonderful and the grasses can almost look glossy under the right light. This is another one of my favorite times to be out with my camera. Snow can be hit and miss in the winter and doesn’t typically last long, but after a snow the shapes of the hills can really be set off nicely.
The Flint Hills are located in a portion of the eastern third of Kansas and stretch across the state north to south, from just across the border into Nebraska down to almost the Oklahoma border. This is a big area so it is hard to recommend the ‘best’ spot to visit the Flint Hills. Like many agricultural states, most of Kansas is private land but there are places you can hike in the Flint Hills. One great place to visit is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve located near Strong City, Kansas in the center of the Flint Hills. The preserve has over 40 miles of trails and is open to hiking year round. The preserve also has a growing bison heard. Another popular place to hike the Flint Hills is at the public hiking trails on the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area located near Manhattan, Kansas. Both of these locations offer beautiful views of the Flint Hills and the chance to experience the prairie up close – many photographic opportunities are available at both locations. Other trails can be found around area lakes and parks.
You can also explore most of the Flint Hills from roads through the area including the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway as well as the Kansas Native Stone Scenic Byway. The Mill Creek/Skyline Drive Scenic Drive near Alma, Kansas takes you through some fantastic views of the Flint Hills. Country roads also offer a great way to explore the Flint Hills. There are too many beautiful drives along gravel roads to mention here, but the area around Matfield Green and Cassoday is especially beautiful. The location known as Teter Rock is also in this area and a visit there will reward you with outstanding views of the surrounding hills to photograph. You may even get a glimpse of some Bureau of Land Management wild mustangs that have been transported to roam the prairies of the central Flint Hills.
The landscapes found in the Flint Hills are often referred to as subtle. They may not immediately grab your attention like the Grand Canyon or the Grand Tetons, but if you take the time to look you might be surprised at the beauty to be found in the Flint Hills.