In a region known for its hill and forests, vast tracts of prairie dot the Ozarks landscape.
Flat acres of grassland, nearly devoid of trees, are found in Northwest Arkansas, northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri. These prairies are remnants of what was once expansive square miles of tallgrass prairie in the Ozarks and around its perimeter.
Tallgrass refers to grasses like big bluestem and Indian grass that grows tall, as if reaching for the sky. That’s how Joe Neal of Fayetteville describes these wind-blown, big-sky grasslands. He’s a regular prairie prowler and birder, exploring acre after acre with an eye out for birds and prairie plants.
In Northwest Arkansas, Chesney Prairie in Siloam Springs and Searles Prairie in Rogers are two protected prairies open to everyone for exploring. Urban areas of Northwest Arkansas are built on what was once tallgrass prairie.
“Rogers, for example, is built entirely on former tallgrass prairie habitat,” Neal explained.
Southwest Missouri is blessed with thousands of prairie acres, most within the Ozarks interior, others on the edge.
Earlier this winter, Neal and a friend enjoyed a two-day tour of these Missouri prairies. They’re reached via a short drive north of the state line. One trip was Dec. 30 and another on Jan. 20. Either one makes a nice excursion with stops for a prairie walk.
The first tour stop Dec. 30 was at 160-acre Wah-Sha-She State Natural Area, 15 miles northwest of Joplin, Mo. and just north of Asbury, Mo.
“I hear longspurs. They’re a sparrow of the open prairie,” Neal said while exploring near the parking area. He identified wildflowers, such as rattlesnake master, even in winter when they aren’t in bloom.
The Nature Conservancy is instrumental in preserving prairies, Neal noted. A major donor, Katherin Ordway, gave substantial funds to the conservancy. The group uses the money to purchase prairies such as Wah-Sha-She, Neal said.
Next stop and the crown jewel of the tour was Prairie State Park 22 miles north of Wah-Sha-She prairie or 18 miles west of Lamar, Mo. The park is 4,000 acres of prairie amazement. There’s even a free-roaming herd of bison.
Grasslands are seen nearly from horizon to horizon, with amber waves of tall grass dancing in the wind. Neal explored a swath of the prairie far from a small gravel parking area. He appeared tiny, like a miniature man, wandering in this almost boundless wide-open space. Through binoculars, Neal could see the backs of about 20 bison grazing far away in the prairie grass.
Prairie State Park has mowed hiking trails, several trailheads, a visitor center, campsites and a picnic area. An optional stop in the city of Lamar is the Harry S. Truman State Historic Site, 1009 Truman St., where the 33rd president of the United States was born.
Driving east from Lamar, Neal’s excitement level hit the red line on the approach to 600-acre Golden Prairie near Golden City, Mo. A plume of smoke big as a mountain meant the Missouri Department of Conservation was doing a prescribed burn. Timing was perfect for Neal to see the tongues of flame and rising smoke.
Fire is critical to preserving prairies and keeping them healthy. Periodic controlled burns foster growth of native prairie grasses and keep woody plants from taking over.
“Without fire, prairies become forests,” Neal said.
Days later, back at his home in Fayetteville, Neal proposed another prairie outing, this one to Diamond Grove Prairie Conservation Area southeast of Joplin and four miles west of Diamond, Mo. on Missouri Route V. The tour would end with a picnic stop at George Washington Carver National Monument near Diamond before heading back to Arkansas.
Diamond Grove Prairie takes in 852 acres of big bluestem, little bluestem and other prairie grasses. Trees are situated here and there and Neal stopped to admire the gnarly branches of a black jack oak, devoid of leaves in midwinter. It’s a common prairie tree, Neal said.
At George Washington Carver National Monument, mowed trails guide visitors through the surrounding prairie. The visitor center is the centerpiece of this national monument.
A volunteer at the front desk showed Neal around the numerous rooms and exhibits that reveal the courageous and full life of George Washington Carver, “The Plant Doctor,” as he was known.
There are trails to hike with statues and information, a home the Carver family built, a pond and picnic areas.
All these prairies, plus the Carver national monument, await just a short drive away.