5 Reasons To Love The Prairie

Home on the range.

By: Joe Whitson
March 21, 2016

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When planning your next outdoor adventure, don’t look to the mountain wilds or the rugged coasts, instead consider the prairie. This vast and diverse ecosystem once covered a full third of the United States, stretching unbroken from Michigan to Montana. It’s land of wide spaces, an unyielding horizon, and an expansive sky, with a beauty in its very openness can only be understood by actually visiting. So here are five reasons to go experience the prairies for yourself.

1. The Sky

Drive the Eco-Tour Road in Grasslands National Park | Photo: Joe Whitson

One of the first things people notice when they find themselves in the middle of a prairie is just how big the sky is. No mountains, no trees, no buildings to obstruct the view. The sky is an uninterrupted, ever-changing dome over your head. Imagine watching a thunderstorm roll in, clouds towering into the sky, lighting visible miles away, the sky an unearthly shade of green. These kind of storms can only be found in the flatlands of the American Midwest. Imagine camping in the remote grasslands, miles and miles away from a major city, the landscape glowing under the light of innumerable stars, the Milky Way an unmistakable belt stretching from horizon to horizon. When visiting the prairie, never forget to look up.

2. Golden Hour

Hike up Buck Hill, Theodore Roosevelt NP | Photo: Joe Whitson

For the photographers out there, there is no sunset like a prairie sunset. What moments before seemed like a relentlessly flat landscape of neutrally colored grasses suddenly erupts in colors, every bump and rill crisply defined by the growing shadows. The prairie has been called a sea of grass and at no time is this metaphor as apt as during golden hour.

3. Wildflowers

Hike the Crow-Hassan Regional Park Loop | Photo: Joe Whitson

Native prairieland can be home to over a hundred and fifty different species of wildflowers over the course of a summer, a floral mosaic that is constantly shifting. Sometimes you’ll see a swath of goldenrod cutting across the land like the mark of a giant paintbrush, other times it will be a bold yellow sunflower standing alone. Even the humble thistle reveals their violet blooms if you look close enough. People often think that prairie hiking can be monotonous, but consider it a challenge to look closer, the beauty is in the details.

4. Remoteness

Hike the Crow-Hassan Regional Park Loop | Photo: Joe Whitson

Every wilderness adventurer knows the value of the remote – a place to be both distant and alone. The feeling you get when reaching a mountain valley void of people or camping on a tiny island after a week of canoeing through a maze of waterways. The solitude of the prairie is remoteness distilled - when you’re alone, you know it, you can see it. It isn’t the cloistered remoteness of the mountains, it’s a vast remoteness, teeming with life in the summer and hauntingly desolate in the winter. Since we’ve turned most of our prairies into rich farmland, it’s hard to imagine just how harsh the virgin prairie could be, a distant, lonely place that literally drove some of the first pioneers mad. So, in other words, a perfect place for an adventurer to get away.

5. It’s Almost Gone

Drive the Scenic Loop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park | Photo: Joe Whitson

Nothing makes a destination more desirable than the knowledge that if you wait too long, you might never have the chance to see it at all. This is the appeal of glaciers and rainforests. Few ecosystems are more endangered than prairies. Today less that .1% native prairie remains of a biome that once blanketed a continent. Its thunder of stampeding bison, the howls of wolves, and the scurrying of ferrets are no longer heard. And with current threats like the expansion of oil fields and mining operations, more intensive agriculture, and climate change, even that remnant may soon be gone.

Cover photo: Joe Whitson

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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.