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Wide Open Spaces: Visiting Our National Grasslands

National Grasslands

I can still remember receiving and listening to my first country music CD my freshman year of high school. It was the Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces” album, and I listened to it over, and over, and over on my portable CD player. Regardless of what your opinion is of country music or the Dixie Chicks, I think every song on that album is a work of pure talent and you will not convince me otherwise.

But I digress, what inspired endless daydreams and perhaps foreshadowed my future in “Big Sky Country” was the one track titled, “Wide Open Spaces.” Like so many other girls out here in the rural west, I can belt out the chorus beginning with, “She needs wide open spaces,” with the best of them. 

And I do. I’m one of those people that loves and needs those wide open spaces. I don’t particularly enjoy hiking trails that just lead me through the forest without taking me to at least an open ridgeline if not a scenic, open vista at the top of mountain.

I’d rather hike the rolling, open terrain of the prairie or badlands any day over exploring the mossy understory in a grove of giant trees. Being able to see all around me for a long distance sets my mind at ease. 

Visit our National Grasslands with Kids

This is just one of the reasons why in my humble opinion, America’s National Grasslands are the best kept secret and among the last best places to explore with the family.

National Parks and National Forests tend to get the most attention (and visitors), but the wide open spaces of the National Grasslands are inspiring and typically have far fewer visitors to compete with, so that’s where I’d rather be. 

crooked river national grassland at sunset.
Crooked River National Grasslands in Central Oregon.

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Wide Open Spaces

Wide open spaces can be made up of prairie, desert, canyonlands, scrubland, badlands or grasslands. Here in the western USA, we still have lots of wide open spaces and scenic vistas that are preserved and protected by private landowners and tribes, as well as by public lands managed by state or federal agencies. Depending on ownership or management, this will determine who can access and explore those wide open spaces and when.

National Grasslands

The National Grasslands are the result of land purchased or reclaimed by the United States Government after the Dust Bowl through the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935. They did not formally become National Grasslands until 1960.

Some of the National Grasslands have preserved small pieces of intact prairie that have never seen a plow or been tilled under, while other parts of National Grasslands are made up of forfeited homesteads and farms that were replanted or naturally reclaimed by grasses and other prairie vegetation following the Dust Bowl.

There are 20 federally designated National Grasslands in the United States. Most of them are scattered across the Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas, with a few located west of the Rocky Mountains. Today, they are publicly owned and managed by the United States Forest Service.

Just as National Forests are public lands managed for multiple use, so are the National Grasslands. Outdoor recreation, mining, wildlife and public lands grazing can all be found on National Grasslands. 

The wide open spaces of the National Grasslands are home to seas of grass and wildflowers; amazing buttes and badlands with funky rock formations; sage brush prairies teeming with wildlife; endless game trails and dirt roads to run, hike and explore.

Sunrises and sunsets are bigger in those wide open spaces  and more beautiful than anywhere else in my opinion. They are also a conservation “success story”- demonstrating how wildlife habitat, soil and water can be protected and enhanced through progressive agriculture practices and revegetation.

old overgrown orchard on the crooked river national grassland.
The Julius and Sarah McCoin Orchard on the Crooked River National Grassland is an example of the remnants of old homesteads that make up parts of the National Grasslands.

Why visit the National Grasslands? 

Stunning Views

Visiting the National Grasslands is worth your while if you love and find beauty or reassurance in wide open spaces. The grasslands are home to unique geography. Not only can you expect to see for miles in all direction, but you might come across canyons or bizarre rock formations resulting from a long history of water and wind erosion. 

Unique Flora

The blooming wildflowers and cacti of the grasslands are stunning in the springtime. The vegetation of the grasslands are primarily grasses, interspersed with forbs and brush, although various species of trees can be found as well. If you haven’t experienced what it is like to be surrounded by sagebrush so fragrant you can taste the smell on the wind, have you truly lived?!

Unique Fauna 

The national grasslands are host to a variety of wildlife, so whether you are a bird watcher or hunter, you will be impressed with what you observe. Migrating birds frequent the vast expanses of the National Grasslands while they are in transit or looking to rear young or overwinter. Plus, here you may spot charismatic megafauna such as antelope, deer, elk or even coyotes. You may also spot prairie dogs, black footed ferrets, snakes and lizards. A true diversity of natural treasures to look for.

Not Crowded

Most of the National Grasslands are very rural and generally a long ways away from any busy urban areas. This remoteness and solitude adds to their aesthetic and mystique. Because many of the National Grasslands are in very rural locations, you typically won’t encounter crowds. In total, one million people visit the National Grasslands annually and these visitors are split between 20 grasslands across 12 months, so more than likely, you will not be encountering a crowd.

Dispersed Camping

Some of the National Grasslands may have developed camp sites (toilets, campfire rings, potable water, etc) or designated trail heads, others have none. Dispersed camping (free range camping without amenities) is more common, as is free range exploration by foot since many of the National Grasslands do not have a developed trail system other than the often primitive road accessibility.   

Get Away From It All

Did I mention many of the National Grasslands are VERY rural? Think: unpaved roads that may become inaccessible with rain or snow due to high clay content; no cell phone service; the closet town may be over an hour away and all it has is a gas station with one self service pump (no convenience store); no crowds or other people to help you out if you get a flat tire (or get lost); etc. Another perk to being really rural and remote? Minimal to no light pollution so you can stargaze all night long while listening to the coyotes howl.

Opportunity to Learn About Culture and History

Although most of the National Grasslands are rather undeveloped, they have a rich history. They were the homelands and hunting lands of many Native American tribes that traversed the West and were here long before pioneers staked out homesteads. Some marks of homesteaders are still left on the landscape, while others have be completely reclaimed by nature or blown away with the last breath of the Dust Bowl. The National Grasslands Visitor Center in Wall, South Dakota shares information about all 20 of the National Grasslands and provides special ranger led programs for the family in the summer months, as well as a Junior Ranger Program for curious explorers of all ages.

Opportunity to Learn How to Navigate

Whether you want to test your map reading skills or your kids’, the National Grasslands are a place to do it! I highly encourage contacting the National Forest and specific Ranger District that administers or oversees the National Grassland you are planning to visit.

They can alert you as to current local conditions and accessibility, as well as provide you with detailed information regarding outdoor recreation opportunities (camp sites, hiking trails, horseback riding trails, star gazing, etc). They should also be able to provide a map of the area for you to use. 

Another complexity with the National Grasslands is because they are often made up of former homesteads, they are very checkerboarded as far as land ownership parcels. Within the exterior perimeter of the National Grassland (typically referred to as an administrative boundary), there may be privately owned land, state lands and/or lands managed by other federal agencies or even tribes.

This can complicate accessibility and travel across the National Grassland, so it is best to have a detailed map or a dependable land boundary app like onX or navigation tool like Avenza maps which can indicate land ownership boundaries and help you navigate. 

hand pointing to Black Kettle National grassland on a map.
I highly encourage contacting the Forest Service Ranger District that administers the National Grassland you plan to visit to get detailed local information and maps, or at least have a good navigation tool or app like Avenza or onX.

National Grasslands I’ve Visited

Of the 20 National Grasslands, I’ve visited or traveled through 4: Thunder Basin (Wyoming), Comanche (Colorado) Black Kettle (Oklahoma & Texas) and Crooked River (Oregon). 

Thunder Basin National Grassland

Thunder Basin is the third largest of all the National Grasslands. It is also home to some of the most intact native prairie left in North America. It has no developed campsites, so all camping here is considered dispersed  camping. Thunder Basin is a great place to watch stars and watch the big thunderclouds with lightning storms roll in on hot, hazy summer afternoons.

Thunder Basin is also VERY checkerboarded in nature so it is worth having a good landownership map or app to assist you with navigation ad exploration. In 2016 I worked as a widland firefighter responding to lighting caused fires in North Eastern Wyoming. Identifying a fire’s location was easy due to the rapid growing smoke column, but navigation was tricky and slow due to the complicated land ownership boundaries. To get a map or specific information regarding travel to Thunder Basin, please consult with the Douglas Ranger District of the Medicine Bow-Routt Nation forest who administers this National Grassland. 

Crooked River National Grassland

Taking advantage of the warm weather the PNW had in December, my family went camping and exploring across Central Oregon. Crooked River National Grassland is centrally located in between Prineville, Bend and Madras, Oregon. It is very accessible, and of all the National Grasslands I have been to, it was the busiest.

Because of its proximity to three towns, ease of accessibility and sharing a border with Smith Rock State Park (birth place of U.S. sport climbing); Crooked River seemed very busy with visitors- and we didn’t even visit the developed campgrounds!

Despite encountering many outdoor recreationists on our visit, we still enjoyed our visit. Due to the mild weather and lack of snow, we were able to navigate the unpaved roads and trails easily across the National Grassland, although I would recommend a 4WD vehicle with a high clearance.

For additional or specific information on visiting Crooked River National Grassland which is administered by the Ochoco National Forest, call the Crooked River National Grassland Office* in Madras, OR (*the office is temporarily closed to the public, but IS accepting phone calls).

crooked river national grassland sign at sunset.
The Crooked River National Grassland is stunning and easily accessible.

Comanche National Grassland

Comanche National Grassland sprawls across South Eastern Colorado. After a particularly long fire season in 2012, I decided to take solo road trip with my dogs to the Texas Panhandle to rest and refresh, and my travels took me right through the Comanche National Grassland. I had been planning on camping in the back of my truck somewhere out on the National Grassland when I saw it.

Despite the fact I was traveling about 55 mph, I could see up on the highway up ahead of me something large and dark moving slowly. As I decreased my speed (there was no traffic) to examine this foreign object traveling slowly across the highway, I realized I was looking at a tarantula the size of a dinner plate. This immediately cured me of my desire to camp on the Comanche National Grasslands and I continued on to a hotel somewhere in the Texas Panhandle. 

The Comanche National Grassland is administered by the Pike-San Isabel National Forest. For more information on visiting the Comanche National grasslands,  please contact the Carrizo Unit located in Springfield, CO for more information for more information.

Black Kettle National Grassland

Black Kettle National Grassland was a pleasant surprise for me while traveling from the Texas Panhandle into Oklahoma. Having never visited Oklahoma before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I loved the parts of Western Oklahoma that I saw! It wasn’t flat, there were rolling hills, wide open spaces with beautiful green grass growing and a fair amount of deciduous trees as well. I found it beautiful!

This gem of a National Grassland is technically administered by the Cibola National Forest located in New Mexico, however the Black Kettle Ranger District Office is co-located within the National Park Services’s Washita Battlefield National Historic Site near Cheyenne, Oklahoma. Please contact them for additional information.

Photo of Black Kettle National Grasslands (lots of grass and wide open space).
Photograph taken somewhere on the Black Kettle National Grassland in western Oklahoma.

Visit the National Grasslands with your Family

Visit a National Grassland. You won’t be disappointed and may be pleasantly surprised! The past two years has increased the number of visitors to U.S. National Parks and National Forests resulting in some limiting visitor numbers by requiring reservations or lottery permits to certain locations.

Visiting the National Grasslands is FREE. Some campgrounds or busy trailheads may require you pay a small administrative fee, but the cost at those few locations is low and helps keep them maintained, clean and open to the public.

The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) has been catching on in recent years here in the states. As someone who spends a lot of time outside, I can support that and believe in the physical and mental benefits one may receive from taking in the forest atmosphere around them. But me personally? Put me in those wide open spaces and watch my body, mind and soul come alive.

The National Grasslands of the United States:

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Wide Open Spaces: Visiting Our National Grasslands

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