The beauty of Prairie State Park reveals itself, slowly, to first-time visitors.
“People are used to trees and water – this is more about large landscapes and great vistas,” said Katy Holmer, natural resource steward of the park near the Kansas state line in the southwest corner of Missouri.
“It’s best to get out on the trails and experience the winds and the clouds, the vastness of the prairie.”
And the best time to visit the park may be Saturday, Sept. 24, during Prairie Jubilee. That’s when visitors are guaranteed to see the star attraction – the bison herd that sometimes wanders out of view on the undulating grasslands.
“We have about 90 in the herd,” Holmer said. “They’re more active in the morning. But in fall, when the grass is tall, it’s amazing how they can hide when they’re hunkered down.”
The park staff has GPS collars on three of the animals and can determine where the herd is grazing. During the day-long jubilee, visitors are invited to grab a seat on a hay bale on one of three truck-pulled trailers that leave the Nature Center every 20 minutes or so in search of the bison.
Dana Hoisington, naturalist at the park, said the rides are the most popular attraction at the jubilee and offer an up-close and personal look at a bison.
“We’ve had them come up and eat the hay bales we’re sitting on,” Hoisington said. “We don’t really like it to get that close. Usually, they’re about 100 yards out.”
The herd includes about a dozen, which are sometimes referred to as “pumpkins” because of their cinnamon color when they are in their first year.
“They’re usually born in May and June,” Holmer said. “But you might get to see the new one that was born this summer.
“We have a bison hike nearly every month. But the hay rides during the jubilee definitely are your best chance to get close to the bison.”
Bees, Beetles and Butterflies
More than a third of Missouri, up to 13 million acres, once was prairie with grasses so tall they were said to hide a rider on horseback. Today, the 4,000 acres of Prairie State Park is the largest remaining tallgrass prairie in the state. The expanse remained unbroken by the plow largely because of its rocky soil.
A waving sea of grasses and wildflowers, the color scheme changes each month with the blooming of various species.
The purple spires of gayfeather, or blazing star, were prominent this summer. By September, the yellow of sunflowers and golden rod and purple of asters will be in abundance. In winter, bouquets of dried wildflowers stand amid the russet and gold of the grasses and the fiery red of the sumac.
Hoisington said one of his fall favorites is the deep blue bloom of downy gentian.
“It’s a cup-shaped flower, about 6 to 8 inches tall,” he said. “When you find it, it just knocks your socks off.”
The vegetation attracts a diversity of insects – bees, beetles and butterflies by day; moths, cicadas and crickets by night.
“Birders, botanists and hikers really like the park,” Holmer said. “We have Henslow’s sparrows, bluebirds, meadowlarks and scissor-tailed flycatchers. You’ll see short-eared owls and northern harriers in winter. The campground has woodpeckers and barred owls.
“We haven’t seen any prairie chickens in a while, but we have tons of quail.”
Holmer said her favorite time to walk the park’s more than 15 miles of trails is on a fall morning, when the dew on the spider webs looks like a string of jewels.
“I just love all the birds that are out in the morning,” she said.
Spear Throwing and Bison Barbecue
The events during Prairie Jubilee run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The bison tours end about 3 p.m.
There also will be face-painting for the kids, natural history displays, musical entertainment, crafts and games and demonstrations on throwing an atlatl, an ancient spear.
“We have cowboys come in with horses and wagons, and an Osage lodge set up to talk about the Osage that lived in this area,” Holmer said.
“The Missouri River Bird Observatory will have guided bird hikes,” Hoisington added. “You may see the scissor-tailed flycatchers in the trees, and we’ve had short-eared owls as early as August, so that’s a possibility.”
The event is free. The FFA will sell barbecued bison – locally grown, of course – as a fund-raiser.