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Prairies USA: The National Grasslands of America's Heartland

Updated on August 7, 2011
Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska.
Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska.
LBJ National Grassland, Texas.
LBJ National Grassland, Texas.
Pawnee Buttes, Colorado.
Pawnee Buttes, Colorado.
Toadstool Park, Nebraska. Oglala National Grassland.
Toadstool Park, Nebraska. Oglala National Grassland.
Kiowa National Grassland, New Mexico.
Kiowa National Grassland, New Mexico.
Comanche National Grassland, Colorado.
Comanche National Grassland, Colorado.
Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas.
Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas.

Overview. Largely administered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service the National Grasslands are a logical outgrowth of their counterparts - the National Forests. All but three of the nation’s National Grasslands are located in the Midwest or Great Plains and the primary purpose is to preserve prairie habitat that is open for recreation such as hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and hunting. Even exploitation if mineral resources can be found. Grazing is also allowed and in this respect the designated Grasslands mirror the National Forests in their purpose. Authorized by the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937, the National Grasslands were originally developed to rehabilitate damaged lands (erosion) from the Dust Bowl era. There are a total of twenty National Grasslands covering 3,843,037 acres. There is also one National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois (see below), which is administered by the Department of Agriculture.

Black Kettle National Grassland, Oklahoma, Texas. Sprawled across 31,300 acres of which only a about 500 are located in Texas, the Black Kettle national Grassland is named after the Cheyenne chief who was killed by George Custer in an 1868 raid in the Battle of Washita, which located within the grassland. The Battle of Washita National Historic, a property of the National Park Service, is a good destination to head to get a feel for the preserved prairie. The Black Kettle National Grassland harbors small and endangered populations of the Lesser Prairie Chicken and has some forested areas along river bottoms. Colorful red sandstone hills and arroyos also typify the scenery.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota. The second largest National Grassland, Buffalo Gap occupies large areas of southwestern South Dakota and shares boundaries with Badlands National Park, Black Hills National Forest, and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Established in 1960 the grassland occupies 597,431 acres of mostly mixed prairie, badlands, some pine forest, and is very scenic.

Butte Valley National Grassland, California. One of three National Grasslands not located in the Great Plains/Midwest, Butte Valley covers 18,425 acres in northern California and was established in 1991. The area is popular with bird watchers and is relatively high in elevation at 4,200 feet with great views of the Cascade Range.

Caddo National Grassland, Texas. Consisting of 17,873 acres about 70 miles northeast of Dallas, the Caddo National Grassland was established in the 1930s to rehabilitate eroded prairie land.

Cedar River National Grassland, North Dakota. Only 6,717 acres, the Cedar River National Grassland in southwestern North Dakota is mostly located on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation among rolling hills, eroded buttes, and level plains.

Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas. Kansas’ only National Grassland is founding the southwestern part of the state and was established in 1960. Most flat, the Grassland has some notable topographic features which include river bluffs and the Point of Rocks, which was used as a landmark for early pioneers. The Grassland also has its share of history as the Sante Fe Trail formerly travelled through the area as well as the Cimarron cut-off. It was also the location of where Jedediah Smith was killed by Comanches in 1831. Camping, hiking, hunting, horseback riding, and fishing are popular activities and there is a self guided 30 mile auto tour mostly along dirt roads through the Grassland. Elk were reintroduced to the Grassland in 1981 and currently a herd of about 50 exists.

Comanche National Grassland, Colorado. Typifying the southern plains, the Comanche National Grassland in southeastern Colorado embodies the landscape of the high plains canyon country with views of the Rocky Mountains. Covering 443,081 acres the Grassland was established in 1960 with elevations up to 6,200 feet on Fallas Mesa. The topography is diverse with indented canyon land and level prairie and some mixed pine forest in areas. Wildlife is abundant as a result and Elk Mule deer, and pronghorn can be found as well as the Golden Eagle. Ancient Indian Petrogylphs (rock art) can also be viewed in the Grassland – some as old as 8,000 years and the Sante Fe Trail also travels through part of the Timpas unit of the Grassland. Unique to the Grasslands are the fossilized brontosaurus tracks at Picketwire Canyon as well as the old Spanish mission and cemetery at the same location. Both are in the Timpas unit.

Crooked River National Grassland, Oregon. Crooked River National Grassland is known for its scenic rivers as much as it is known for its grasslands which cover 112,357 acres. Located between Prineville and Madras, the Grasslands occupy the volcanic plateau in north central Oregon. Sections of the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers run through the preserve and are designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Curlew National Grassland, Idaho. This National Grassland, similar to others, resulted from the need to improve soil and to fight erosion. Today Curlew National Grassland covers 47,790 acres in southeastern Idaho in a mountain basin surrounded by National Forest.

Fort Pierre National Grassland, South Dakota. Mostly short-grass prairie, Fort Pierre National Grassland covers 115,890 acres in total in the central part of the state. It is one three National Grasslands in South Dakota and is perhaps best known for its scenery which was used for some of the filming of Dances with Wolves.

Grand River National Grassland, South Dakota. At the confluence of the North and South forks of the Grand River, this 154,783 acre Grassland in northwestern South Dakota derives its name from the river which flows through it. Interspersed with groves of pine covered buttes and rolling plains the National Grassland offers hiking, mountain bike trails, and horseback riding.

Kiowa National Grassland, New Mexico. Sprawled across the northeastern corner of New Mexico, the Kiowa National Grassland occupies 136, 417 acres and was established in 1960. It is one of the most scenic grasslands, especially the reaches along the Canadian River, and besides the prairie one will find Pinyon pine, juniper, and ponderosa forests – vegetation that typifies the high plains as they meet the mountains. Close to the Kiowa National Grassland is located Rabbit Ear Mountain (6,058’), a volcanic peak, which rises more than 500 feet above the surrounding prairie.

Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota. The largest of the nation’s National Grasslands, Little Missouri covers 1,033, 271 acres and is administered by the Dakota Prairie Grasslands which is a division of the U.S. Forest Service. Established in 1960 the grassland is a mixture of tall and short grass prairie interspersed among colorful badlands and buttes, which includes White Butte, North Dakota’s highest point. The Little Missouri National Grassland shares boundaries with Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland, Texas. Northwest of Fort Worth is the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland which covers 20,309 acres and is one of four National Grasslands in the state of Texas. The Grassland primarily functions for recreation such as camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing, but some grazing is allowed as well.

McClellan Creek National Grassland, Texas. A small Grassland only covering 1, 449 acres in the Texas Panhandle, the Grassland was established as a response to restore badly eroded prairieland. The entire Grassland was burned through in the wildfire of 2006 including all of the trees in the preserve.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Illinois. Holding 15,454 acres, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is one-of-a-kind administratively speaking. While it is not a National Grassland its mission is much more defined which makes it a unit that focuses on preservation of the vanished eastern prairieland. Formerly on the land of the Joliet Army Ammunition plant and located about forty miles southwest of Chicago, the preserve has four objectives which include conservation/restoration, research and education, agriculture, and recreational purposes that are compatible with the first three objectives. Administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the preserve is mixed forest-grasslands and the only tall grass prairie protected which is federally protected east of the Mississippi.

Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado. The northern plains of Colorado just south of the Nebraska and Wyoming state lines are preserved in two parcels as the Pawnee National Grassland. Covering 193,060 acres the Grassland is a large depopulated area that never experienced a great degree of cultivation. The best known natural feature in the area is the Pawnee Buttes, which rise about 300 feet above the prairie. Like most isolated rock formations on the Great Plains, they are residual sedimentary features that resisted erosion while the surrounding plains wore away.

Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska. Nebraska’s only National Grassland is located in the northwestern corner of the state and offers striking scenery within its 94,520 acres. Well known for its badlands and isolated buttes, Oglala National Grassland’s best-known site is the Toadstool Geologic Park which requires a fifteen mile drive along unpaved road. Fossils, agate, and bizarre rock formations highlight a visit to the park and a one mile loop hiking trail is also popular. South of the Grassland is the Nebraska National Forest’s Pine Ridge Area.

Rita Blanca National Grassland, Oklahoma, Texas. Mostly located in the Texas Panhandle, Rite Blanca is very dispersed and made up of numerous parcels of land rather than a solid block. It encompasses a total 92,989 acres of mostly short grass prairie in Dallam County, Texas. The topography is mixed with flat plains and some deeply intersected arroyos. The Grassland also borders Kiowa National Grassland in New Mexico.

Sheyenne National Grassland, North Dakota. One of three National Grasslands in North Dakota, the Sheyenne National Grassland covers 70,180 acres of mixed and dispersed parcels of land. It is unique in that it protects one of the last remaining pockets of tallgrass prairie in the United States and harbors a large population of greater prairie chicken. Of recreational interest is the twenty mile stretch of the North Country Trail which runs through the Grassland. It is the longest of the eleven national scenic trails in the United States.

Thunder Basin National Grassland, Wyoming. Thunder Basin National Grassland is one of the larger National Grasslands and the only one in Wyoming covering547,620 acres in the northeast part of the state mostly south of Gillette and adjacent to the Black Hills National Forest. Established in 1960 the Grasslands consist of high (elevation) prairie with eyesight of the Rocky Mountains. Pronghorn antelope are a common denizen in the area that is also famous for its oil deposits among them Teapot Dome.


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    • jvhirniak profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Shawn S - Texas has about five, and the Dakotas combine for six Grasslands. Off all places, California, Idaho, and Oregon have one each - you wouldn't expect them there. Thank you for visiting!

    • jvhirniak profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Kat11 - Many thanks for your kind compliments! These are probably the most underappreciated preserves in the United States.

    • Shawn Scarborough profile image

      Shawn Scarborough 

      7 years ago from The Lone Star State

      Great hub with some beautiful photos. I didn't even realize that there were so many national grasslands in Texas. Thanks for sharing this. Voted up.

    • kat11 profile image


      7 years ago from Illinois

      Well written hub. Enjoyed the beautiful photos. The United States still have beautiful grasslands. voted up


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