Experiencing a native prairie

The 612-acre Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is a native prairie, which means it's never seen the blade of a plow.

The prairie was acquired by the Willa Cather Foundation in 2006, through a gift by the Nature Conservancy. Shortly after that, the Foundation started a 3-year restoration effort to restore the prairie to its pre-1900 conditions. "We removed several thousands invasive tree species, mainly red cedar and Chinese elm," Willa Cather Foundation Executive Director Ashley Olson said. "It's really a special experience here. The prairie itself played a role in Cather's life, and much of her writing. Coming out to a place like this gives you a chance to experience what a native prairie would have looked like, and how one might have felt after walking out and being surrounded by a sea of grass."

The Willa Cather Foundation is using a management strategy on the prairie that tries to imitate what would have occurred historically and naturally on prairies. "Of course, an area like this would have been historically grazed by bison, and Mother Nature through lightning would have introduced fire," Olson said. "So we use cattle grazing and prescribed burning. Cattle are grazed on a rotational basis, and fire is introduced."

The prairie five miles south of Red Cloud is also a good place for bird enthusiasts. "The prairie is a national birding site," Olson said. "It's also on the Chicken Dance Trail. We are affiliated with the Great Plains Eco-Tourism Coalition, so there are a number of species of grassland birds that can be found here."

Olson says the prairie is open year round. If you go, be sure to stop by the Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud. The organization offers a backpack filled with items like binoculars, and even a journal to help enhance your experience on the prairie.