Wildflower Watching on America’s Great Plains
The “Great Plains” are almost mythical — known around the world through Hollywood images of cowpokes and bronc-busters, or of prairie schooners transporting pioneers to the edge of the American frontier or of Clint Eastwood- and John Wayne-style gunslingers in pursuit of outlaws or treasure.
In reality, this once vast prairie region of North America formed the basis of life for massive herds of the American bison (commonly called buffalo) and a way of life for the bison-hunting Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa Apache, Comanche, Pawnee and other Great Plains tribes. Later, cattle ranchers and sodbusting farmers made a living from the grass or the rich, underlying soil.
Much of the Great Plains story tells of native prairies falling to the plow, but pockets of native and restored prairie still exist. Wildflower (and wildlife) watchers know that the grasslands of America’s Great Plains are some of the best places to see a variety of plant and animal species.
Use our list to discover the true “nature” of the Great Plains.
Search By State: Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming
While Colorado is famous for its Rocky Mountains, the sparsely-populated eastern grasslands and high plains cover almost half of the state. At Pawnee National Grassland, about 35 miles (56 km) east of Fort Collins in Weld County, wildflowers begin blooming as early as April and peak in late May through early July. Since wildflowers are in full bloom as breeding birds are arriving to nest, the Self-Guided Road Tour for Viewing Birds (PDF) is also a great route for viewing poppies, flowering cactus, sunflowers, “snow on the mountain” and other wildflowers. Crow Valley Recreation Area is an oasis on the prairie that offers first-come, first-served camping as well as two short birding trails (you may see orchard orioles and brown thrashers). Dispersed camping is also available. Stop in at the Pawnee National Grassland office at 660 "0" Street in Greeley or call the office at (970) 346-5000 (open Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) for information or to request a wildflower brochure.
The high plains of southeastern Kansas are home to an abundance of spring and summer wildflower displays. Just two hours southwest of infamous Dodge City in the shortgrass prairie, Cimarron National Grassland offers the best wildflower viewing in late spring and again in late summer after seasonal rains. Follow the self-guided Sea of Grass Auto Tour (PDF) which includes a stop at the third highest point in Kansas and landmark on the historic Santa Fe Trail, Point-of-Rocks, a great area to see longleaf phlox, western wallflower, stemless Townsend daisy and stemless four-nerve daisy (among the plants most likely to appear in the spring even during drought). Lavender-leaf sundrops, sanddune wallflower, rose heath, dotted blazing star and Rocky Mountain zinnia are among the many other wildflowers that grow in the area. The grassland also offers excellent wildlife and bird viewing. The Cimarron Recreation Area makes a pleasant basecamp and offers first-come, first-served camping near Elkhart.Tuttle Creek Lake
Tuttle Creek Lake, an oasis in the Flint Hills of northeast Kansas, is also a wonderful place to view strikingly beautiful tallgrass prairie wildflowers such as dotted gayfeather, butterfly milkweed and black Sampson coneflower. Take a walk along the universally accessible Cedar Ridge Trail for wildflowers and scenic views. Ranger-guided wildflower walks occur periodically—contact visitor center staff at (785) 539-8511 for program schedules or stop in to preview the wildflower exhibit to help you identify what’s blooming. Spend the night camping at Stockdale or Tuttle Creek Cove and the next day, take an easy daytrip from the lake to scenic Konza Prairie Biological Station. Due to the research conducted here, much of the prairie is off-limits but the site offers over 12 miles (19 km) of public hiking trails (open from dawn to dusk when conditions permit). Check the site’s “What’s Blooming?" page before you go. From either Tuttle Creek or Konza Prairie, follow Highway 177 south to Council Grove where it becomes the Flint Hills Scenic Byway for incredible views of tallgrass prairie wildflowers en route to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (see next listing).Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Start or end your drive on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Walk the preserve’s nature trails in late spring and early summer to see blue wild indigo, tansy mustard, sunflowers and more. Download the park’s complete plant list (PDF).
While film director John Ford never shot a western in Minnesota, the Great Plains do touch the state’s south and west. Here you’ll find Pipestone National Monument’s tallgrass prairie — home to over five hundred plant species including the threatened western prairie-fringed orchid. The pink of the prairie rose, the purple of the blazing star, the silvery appearance of lead plant and countless other colorful wildflowers make Pipestone a remarkable sight in spring, summer or fall. Start at the visitor center (stop at the Three Maidens rock formation along the entrance road). From the visitor center, walk the Circle Trail where you’ll see not only the flowers of the native tallgrass prairie, but the pipestone quarries that Native Americans used for thousands of years, rock formations like Old Stone Face, Oracle and Winnewissa Falls.
Wildlife Refuge (USFWS)
The eastern plains of Montana’s “Big Sky” country come alive in June with the color of wildflowers and chorus of arriving birds. Visit the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge where native prairies give way to the rugged Missouri River Breaks—the badlands of rock outcroppings, steep bluffs and grassy plains first documented by explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805. Here, a profusion of wildflowers carpet the hillsides and meadows and visitors can view elk at the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area. Biking is a great way to explore the area. Download the refuge plant list (PDF) before you go. There is also abundant BLM land to explore nearby and the privately run American Prairie Reserve.
Homestead Monument of America in Beatrice tells the story of the pioneer homesteaders who settled the area beginning in the mid to late 1800s. The monument also offers areas of restored tallgrass prairie where native wildflowers bloom from mid-spring to fall. Check the park’s list of wildflowers and bloom dates, then view them via the park’s easy trails. Learn about the role the schoolhouse played in the history of the prairie frontier and community life with a short walk to the Freeman School.Oglala National Grassland
Grassland (Mary Lata/USFS)
Many wildflowers await the visitor at Oglala National Grassland, a unique area in the “badlands” of northwest Nebraska. In the spring, you may see Missouri milk vetch, shell-leaf, gumbo lily or as spring moves into the summertime, yellow evening primrose and ten petal blazing star dot the landscape. Goldenrods bring autumn to a close. The Oglala is also the best place in Nebraska to view the pronghorn antelope. A one-mile (1.6 km) loop trail from the picnic area at Toadstool Geologic Park offers wildflowers as well as fascinating geology and paleontology and a replica early homesteader-style sod house (pick up an interpretive brochure at the trailhead). The three-mile (4.8 km) Bison Trail also leads from here to the Hudson-Meng Research and Education Center, an active archaeology excavation in progress, where 10,000 years ago paleo-hunters stalked and slaughtered 600 bison.
The classic 1952 western “High Noon” was set in the New Mexico Territory. Its fictitious town, “Hadleyville,” existed only on Hollywood movie sets, but it is easy to picture the story set against the gently rolling hills of northeastern New Mexico. Here on the margin between the plains and the desert, Fort Union was the largest territorial fort in the region and commanded the Santa Fe Trail from 1851 to 1891. Visitors come to see the ruins of the adobe-style fort and the remains of Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts that cut through the shortgrass prairie. In the spring and early summer (depending on rainfall), visitors may also see sunflowers, New Mexico thistle, Indian paintbrush, globemallow or prairie zinnia blooming alongside yucca or green-flowered hedgehog cactus.Kiowa National Grassland
Kiowa National Grassland is a special place with a surprising diversity of 493 plant species. Along the Canadian River, the apache plume is showy both in flower and fruit and scarlet penstemon, easter daisy and a huge variety of asters grow in the sandy soils of the Mills Canyon. The magenta blooms of cholla cactus appear throughout the grassland. On the plains, timing and rainfall are everything. In April and May and again in July and August, the right amount of rainfall can lead to carpets of sand verbena, scarlet globemallow, blazing star, Indian paintbrush and chihuahuan flax on the plains. Plus, you may also see pronghorn antelope. Kiowa National Grassland offers two rustic, first-come, first-served campgrounds.
The rugged landscape and strenuous life Theodore Roosevelt experienced here on the plains of North Dakota would shape his outlook and his presidency. The abundance of prairie plants provides for impressive wildflower displays in the late spring and summer months. In April, the pasqueflower is the first to bloom. Soon after, from May to September, a broad range of flowers appear on the landscape with many blooming in the peak flower-viewing months of June and July. Some flowers, such as sunflowers, asters and rabbitbrush bloom in the late summer months of August and September. A native plant garden in front of the visitor center in Medora displays some of the park's common wildflowers. The park also manages a herd of 200 to 400 bison. The park offers first-come, first-served camping and reservations at Cottonwood Campground, Juniper Campground Group Site and Roundup Group Horse Camp.Sheyenne National Grassland
The Sheyenne National Grassland in southeastern North Dakota contains the largest tract of northern tallgrass prairie in public ownership, and supports a key portion of the federally listed western prairie fringed orchid. The Biesterfeld Allotment and Hay Meadow viewing areas are a great place to view wildflowers, and is also convenient to a 30-mile (48 km) segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail. The trail offers easy walking, mountain biking or horseback riding through the grassland where visitors may view the western wallflower, prairie smoke, purple prairie clover or Maximilian’s sunflower among other wildflowers.
Wildlife Refuge (Cory Maylett)
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma prepares for an influx of wildflower enthusiasts each spring, especially after wildfires such as those recently seen in the region, which promotes wildflower growth. Photographers come to capture images of the photogenic Indian blanket, plains coreopsis, wild blue indigo, coneflowers, Indian paintbrush and even prickly pear and barrel cactus flowers. The Friends of the Wichitas offer periodic wildflower walks — call (580) 429-2197 for information.
Kevin Costner filmed most of his award-winning western saga “Dances with Wolves” on the plains of South Dakota, including locations in Badlands National Park, which protects one of the largest expanses of mixed-grass prairie in the United States. A trip to the park from May through June increases the likelihood of viewing yellow prairie coneflower, curlycup gumweed, showy milkweed or bluestem pricklypoppy along trails, roadsides and washes. The park’s mixed-grass prairie is also home to bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. The Sage Creek Wilderness Area within the park is the largest prairie wilderness in the United States (see views of the stark and stunning landscape in the video, South Dakota: Badlands Backcountry).Black Hills National Forest
The Black Hills are “islands” of ponderosa covered peaks that rise from the Great Plains. The change in elevation make them a “biological crossroads" with many transition zones. There are pockets of mixed-grass prairie, such as those you’ll see on 6,800 foot (2,066 km) Hat Mountain or see a spectrum of flowers along the 3.2 mile (5 km) Crow Peak Trail from the trailhead to the summit at 5,787 feet (1,795 km). Enjoy a picnic at the J.H. Keith Cascade Springs Picnic Area, then take the short walk to the largest single springs in the Black Hills, known for its rare plant species.
The Texas panhandle, with Amarillo as its center, is a destination for Old West enthusiasts from all over the globe. This is the “Llano Estacado” (palisaded or staked plain) of the Great Plains, which includes 82 Texas counties. The history of the area is told at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum (a Smithsonian affiliate), but for prehistory that predates the cowboy-era by millennia, visit Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument 35 miles (56 km) north of Amarillo (on the shores of Lake Meredith). The park offers impressive spring and early summer wildflowers (depending on seasonal rainfall). Sand lilies grace the park in the late summer and attract bees, hummingbird moths and butterflies. The only way to visit the Alibates’ quarries is by joining a free ranger-guided tour (by reservation only; contact the site directly).Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Wildlife Refuge (USFS)
Find spring wildflowers at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, one of the best remaining high plains shortgrass prairies on the Llano Estacado. Spring and summer wildflowers here are highly dependent on seasonal rainfall, but even if you visit in an “off-year” there are plenty of visitor activities to help you see and learn about the shortgrass prairie. The bison no longer roam here, but this bit of prairie is so important that the High Plains Natural Area — 175 acres (70 ha) of the refuge’s 4,000—carry the National Natural Landmark designation. The Prairie Dog Trail takes you through the natural area where you’ll see black-tailed prairie dogs and burrowing owls. Experience a sea of mixed grass on the 2-mile (3.2 km) Grassland Loop which joins the 1.25-mile (2 km) Cottonwood Hiking Trail along the old shoreline of Buffalo Lake. The Cottonwood Canyon Birding Trail has a reliable source of water and is a great place to see both birds and wildflowers.
In the classic 1953 western film “Shane” based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, a mysterious gunman helps the high plains homesteaders of eastern Wyoming fight back against a powerful cattle rancher. Many farming families settled this area after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862 into law, yet today Wyoming remains one of the least populous regions of the United States. Cattle and sheep continue to graze in the Thunder Basin National Grassland’s 3 million acres (1.2 million ha) of rolling grass. The scenic Cheyenne River Road takes you through a large area of prairie between Douglas and Gillette, and is a great way to see Indian paintbrush, kitten tails, Simpson’s ball cactus and other flowers growing among the iconic (but less showy) sagebrush. The area is also haven for eagles and other raptors, deer, elk and antelope.
To follow the Cheyenne River scenic drive, take Highway 59 to Bill and then take the Steinle Road turnoff (a good gravel road) to the Dull Center Road up through the Fiddleback Ranch. You can return to Highway 59 via the Steckley Road or continue on to the Cheyenne River Road by going east on Dull Center Rd to the Lynch Rd and heading north to the Cheyenne River Rd. Call or stop by the Douglas District Office at 2250 E. Richards St, (307) 358-4690 for more information. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to noon and 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.