Visitors may experience the prairie through the 40 miles of prairie hiking trails. Trails are open 24 hours, daily. No permit is required. Backcountry trails are moderately difficult ranging from 3.8 - 13 miles. Each trail offers a unique perspective of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Scenic vistas, prairie grasses, wildflowers, wildlife, and rugged terrain may be experienced while hiking. The preserve backcountry trails are listed as a year-round event in coordination with the American Volkssport Association.
Things to Know, Before You Go
Hiking Trail Maps and Trail Description Guides downloadable at nature.org
Trail maps are available at the visitor center and kiosks near the historic ranch buildings. A short ranger introduction is available before hiking into the backcountry during business hours.
Large limestone trail markers are positioned at backcountry trail intersections. Each block has a trail map, oriented North, and a location number respective to its position on the map.
Strollers may not be conducive to gravel roads and mowed trails. Use good judgement before hiking into the bison pasture with children in strollers. The Nature Trails offer shorter trail options with small children.
Bison reside in the Windmill Pasture and West Traps Pasture. All entrances have caution signs. Hikers are cautioned not cross through the electrified barbed wire fence. Allow at least 125 yards (more than a football field). Do not attempt to pet or come in close contact with the bison, even if they approach you.
Metal hiking gates provide access between all pastures. Simply raise the lift lever, push open the gate, cross through, then returning the gate to the closed position. Cattle crossings are large metal pipes that cover a pit. Their design keeps cattle and bison in their respective pastures.
Check the weather forecast before heading out. Temperatures and precipitation can suddenly change in the Midwest.
Visit the Safety page for more information on wildlife and seasonal checklists.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few popular choices. Each trail has its own beauty. We suggest you see them all at some point.
By far the most popular trail leading up to the bison herd. It's relatively flat after visitors make it up the hill to point 14. From there, visitors have a commanding view of the prairie. The trail is a wide gravel path, occasionally blocked by bison. The Scenic Overlook is 3.2 miles out. There and back is 6.5 miles with possible bison delays. Looping around the Davis Trail totals 7.5 miles.
This is a popular alternative when bison block visitors set on putting in 4-5 miles. The southwestern grass trail travels up the Ranch Legacy Trail and back down into Red House Pasture. A few hilltop vistas, small creek crossings, and a grove of giant cottonwood trees. Perfect for an average day hike.
These loops add onto the Scenic Overlook Trail totaling 8-10 miles. Visitors travel through more geologic layers north of the Scenic Overlook. Flint chunks occasionally cover the grass trail. The western ridge provides marvelous vistas. Less visitors travel this far north allowing more solitude and wildlife sightings. Rangers encourage a clockwise route for early adjustments for bison delays. Mind the horned lizards during the summer.
Prepare for the open prairie pushing at least 12 miles. Palmer Creek provides an oasis of shade trees next to a river-cut cliff. Limestone and shale slabs litter the creek for a mid-trip break. This is a peaceful place for those who who make it.
The 3.1-mile one-way trail on the east side is the only backcountry trail open to pets (when cattle are not present). This trail accesses the three catch-and-release fishing ponds. Two Section remains the only unconnected trail to the trail system. The open grass trail runs mostly level from the parking lot. A few shade trees and small hills break the scenery near the creek at point 65.
Last updated: April 7, 2022