The American bison is the state mammal of Kansas and represents the state on the U.S. Mint’s Kansas state quarter. Even the state song begins, “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam…” So, as you would expect, Kansas offers several places to see the iconic animal.
First, let’s tackle a thorny question. Did “Home on the Range” get the fluffy cattle’s name wrong? Is the iconic short-horned, humped, bearded bovine a bison or a buffalo? That depends on the context. Scientifically, the big animal is a bison. Culturally, it’s called a buffalo.
Second, let’s tackle a frightening possibility. When you visit bison preserves, remember how close the giant mammal came to extinction.
Before the pioneers settled the Great Plains, 20 million bison roamed freely. The bison supplied Native American tribes with most of what they needed to live. And then several factors combined to nearly exterminate the vast herds. The workers that built the railroads and the soldiers that protected them needed meat, and the bison were the closest supply. Settlers wanted land and the Native Americans cleared. With no bison, the indigenous people would have to leave — or starve. Plus, buffalo hides made excellent drive belts for the Industrial Revolution’s machinery. People, including my great-grandfather, harvested the bison bones and shipped them east, where they became fertilizer, china, dice, and other items.
Two attractions explain the bison’s rescue from oblivion.
1. Buffalo Bill Cultural Center, Oakley
In 1868, William F. Cody hunted bison to feed Kansas Pacific Railroad workers. William Comstock hunted to feed Fort Wallace soldiers. Legend says that Cody and Comstock competed for the title of Buffalo Bill 10 miles west of present-day Oakley. The hunter who bagged the most bison in a day would win the title of Buffalo Bill. Cody won 69 to 46. Eventually, Cody became a world-famous showman.
The Buffalo Bill Cultural Center (BBCC) commemorates the contest with a 2.5-times lifesize sculpture, “Birthplace of the Legend.” The sculpture shows Cody on his horse, Brigham, aiming at a bison. Cutouts at the base of the sculpture’s hill enable people to pretend to be Cody; Lakota chief Sitting Bull, who starred in Cody’s Wild West Show; or ace shooter Annie Oakley. The city of Oakley is not named for Oakley the Wild West star. The BBCC is one of our Kansas places to relive the Old West.
Pro Tip: Oakley’s Fick Fossil and History Museum is one of our odd and unusual museums In Kansas.
2. Finney County Historical Museum, Garden City
Charles “Buffalo” Jones of Garden City hunted bison for their hides, but eventually he rejected the way of the hunter for the way of preservation. In 1871, the southern herd’s estimated population topped 4 million bison. By 1884, fewer than 500 bison were known to exist. Jones captured 14 bison calves in 1886 before the southern herd was gone. Three years later, his herd of 150 bison was one of the country’s largest. Jones persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to establish federal bison reserves. Roosevelt named Jones as the first game warden in the Yellowstone Game Preserve — later Yellowstone National Park.
Cody also worked for bison conservation.
One of Garden City’s main thoroughfares bears Jones’s name. Learn more about him at the Finney County Historical Museum.
Rejoice when you see bison at the state’s numerous bison preserves. But, before we take the bison tour, remember that bison are dangerous!
3. Sandsage Bison Range, Garden City
Since we’re already in Garden City, we’ll start with the Sandsage Bison Range a half mile south of Garden City. Nestled south of the Arkansas River, the range includes three pastures. No one has ever plowed this ground; it’s a virgin prairie. The 3,670-acre range houses the oldest public herd in Kansas.
In 1924, one bison bull and two cows came to the range from Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Now 80–100 bison roam the range. Ironically, the range originally belonged to the Kansas National Forest. Even though foresters planted 800,000 seedlings, the project failed. A small portion of the trees still inhabit the middle pasture’s northwest corner.
Contact the Friends of the Sandsage Bison Range to reserve guided tours. Beyond the bison, look for the threatened lesser prairie chicken, scaled quail, mule deer, various tallgrass species, and sand sagebrush.
Regulations allow fishing in the sandpit and some hunting.
Pro Tip: During the spring, male prairie chickens drum to attract mates on a booming ground. Come at dawn or in the evening for the best chance to view them.
4. Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley
Unlike most other herds, Wind Cave National Park’s bison herd has no cattle genes. (Wind Cave is on our Dakotas National Park Road Trip.) To ensure the survival of this pure herd, the Nature Conservancy has expanded herd locations, including Smoky Valley Ranch.
Before the bison left South Dakota, staff snipped samples of their tail hairs. Why? To ensure genetic diversity.
Smoky Valley Ranch spans 18,000 acres southwest of Oakley. Local cattle ranchers lease most of the ranch’s acres for cattle grazing, but bison, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope also graze in peace. Lesser prairie chickens dance on their leks to attract mates in the spring. The ranch cooperates with area ranchers to improve the prairie chicken habitat without sacrificing profitability.
The ranch’s hiking and horseback trails (PDF) offer chalk cliffs and sweeping plains vistas on two trail loops. One loop is a mile long and the other is five miles long. Trails are only open during daylight hours.
Pro Tip: Before you leave the ranch area, you must explore the adjacent Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park. The 332-acre park encloses a mile-long swath of 100-foot-tall spires and cliffs of eroded Niobrara Chalk.
5. The Arikaree Breaks, St. Francis
The Arikaree Breaks in the state’s northwest corner are most famous for their spectacular badlands. On the north end of the Land and Sky Scenic Byway, the Breaks are one of our favorite Kansas scenic drives. But now explorers have another reason to visit. A local rancher has added bison to the Breaks. Cheyenne County’s Breaks tour leaves St. Francis from two directions. To go straight to the bison, head northwest to Devil’s Gap. The herd includes a rare white bison. For Native Americans, white bison are sacred and a sign of approaching good times.
A sign at the Cherry Creek Encampment north of St. Francis notes that hunters killed the last Cheyenne County bison nearby. Pack a picnic and enjoy panoramic views at Sue’s Picnic Table southeast of Devil’s Gap.
Pro Tip: The roads through the Breaks are unpaved. Before you leave St. Francis, fill up your gas tank and check road conditions, because wet roads may be impassible.
6. Frontier Park West, Hays
The bison bull Wild Bill and the cow Calamity Jane began the Hays bison herd in 1953. Currently, Nekko is the herd’s lone bull with a large harem of cows. Come in the spring to watch new cinnamon-colored calves play in the pasture.
Pro Tip: Pete Felten’s bison sculpture, The Monarch of the Plains, stands across the road from the bison’s pasture. The bison on a pedestal marks the entry to Fort Hays State Historic Site on our Kansas I-70 road trip.
7. Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, Canton
At the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, guests can see both bison and elk roaming in a prairie grass hall of fame, including big and little bluestem, and switchgrass. Board a tram and enjoy a 45-minute tour in the heart of the Smoky Hills. Watching the grasses bend and sway in the wind as insects flitter above is a magical experience. Adding the bison and the elk only intensifies the watchers’ delight. Maxwell is one of the best things to do in McPherson.
Bring binoculars to watch for birds. Over 100 species visit the refuge.
Pro Tip: In the spring, look for wildflowers on the shores of McPherson State Fishing Lake. Fish for bass, catfish, and panfish at the lake on the refuge’s western edge.
8. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City
The bison at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve are also transplanted from Wind Cave. Like Sandsage, no one has plowed the preserve’s land. In a wet year, the grasses can reach 7 feet high by fall, a paradise for wildlife and wildflowers.
Hike the Scenic Overlook Trail to watch the humped, shaggy beasts in the Windmill Pasture. Be prepared to wait or take an alternate route because sometimes the bison will block the Davis Trail. The round trip is 7.5 miles, but plan for another hour when you visit the pasture. For your safety, remain 100 yards away from the bison.
In non-pandemic times, the preserve sponsors bus tours that enter the bison’s pasture.
Pro Tip: Nearby Strong City and Cottonwood Falls are on our list of the most charming Kansas small towns.