On prairie hiking trails, social distancing comes baked into the experience

It’s not just out-of-staters finding a new experience at the vast Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. As the pandemic has shut down most other attractions and public spaces, more locals and first-timers are making their way out to hiking trails, which wind through some of the last remaining tallgrass prairie in the world.

Randy Bilbeisi, superintendent at the preserve about an hour south of Manhattan, Kansas said the park has seen an uptick in visitors, even after he made the difficult decision in March to shut down the park’s restrooms and visitor center.

“I realized there were going to be a lot of people still wanting something to do, so I left the 41 miles of trail open to the public,” he said. “It gave people a place to come and spend time without having to spend money.”

Beyond hiking, the park’s trails also offer people the opportunity to see bison, bird watch or even go fishing at some of the preserve’s ponds and creeks. On the prairie preserve, which was formerly ranchland, there’s a historic ranch house, limestone barn and one-room schoolhouse. Visitors can make their experience whatever they’d like, with hiking loops that take less than an hour to traverse or loops that take the better part of a day.

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