Sunset at Pawnee Buttes, Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Discover America’s National Grasslands

Photo: Gerald

Although not as well-known as national parks, national grasslands are definitely worth a visit.

Most outdoor adventurers are only familiar with a small portion of America’s vast public lands open to all: iconic national parks like Yosemite, or maybe a few large national forests. National grasslands often get overlooked, but these open spaces contain rich history, incredible beauty, and ecological bounties that are often impossible to find elsewhere in the world. 

The U.S. has 20 national grasslands totaling nearly 4 million acres of land. These preserves spill across the Great Plains and beyond, stretching from Texas to North Dakota and from California to Illinois. It’s time to get to know them.

History of the Grasslands 

The national grasslands system was established in 1960 under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service, but the history of the land stretches back much further. For thousands of years, the grasslands were part of a massive expanse of grass and wildflowers stretching across the Great Plains. Bison, elk, foxes, ferrets, and a wide variety of birds covered the expanse, roaming and relying on its varied plants for food—either eating them or preying on the animals who did. 

It was not devoid of humans, of course. Many Native American tribes, including the Hunkpapa Sioux, Apache, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Shoshone, Teton, and Wichita, relied on the land to hunt game, gather food, and raise crops like maize and beans. For millennia, these tribes lived in harmony with the land and adapted to shifting weather patterns and droughts.

In the 1500s, Spanish and other European explorers began moving into the Plains. They brought horses, guns, trade, and conflict. Encroachment increased over the centuries and reached a fever pitch in the 1800s: Events like the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1820, and the Homestead Act of 1862, which promised 160 acres of free land to white settlers who agreed to cultivate it, brought even more settlers into Indigenous lands. America’s desire for land ultimately led to decades of bloody conflict, the forced removal of Native Americans, the creation of reservations, and discriminatory laws like the Indian Removal Act of 1830. 

By 1890, the once wide-open prairie now hosted 60 million settlers of European descent. In short order, they nearly eliminated the bison, and in the decades to come, their agricultural practices stripped away the grasslands’ thin topsoil and led to the Dust Bowl. By the 1930s, with the land across wide swaths of the Great Plains literally blowing away in the wind, it was clear that America’s grasslands were in need of help.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands US Forest Service sign in South Dakota Photo: Don

The Creation of the National Grasslands

In the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, the government bought back much of the Great Plains’ non-arable land with the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935. The land bounced around between government agencies until 1960, when nearly 4 million acres of it was assigned to the Forest Service as the national grasslands. 

Today, the grasslands are managed for mixed-use conservation, farming, grazing, disciplined resource harvesting, and recreation. They’re a great place to camp, bird watch, hike, hunt, mountain bike, stargaze, and more. If nothing else, they’re worth visiting to experience the incredible sight of the rolling landscape stretching to the horizon in all directions—much like it was before America existed. 

Where To Start: 4 National Grasslands To Visit

Looking to explore America’s national grasslands? These are great places to start.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland

State: South Dakota

Area: 595,715 acres 

Buffalo Gap National Grassland offers a wide range of activities: camping, hiking, biking, animal watching, off-road trail driving, and hunting (to name a few). It’s located in southwestern South Dakota, which makes it ideal for visiting in tandem with other nearby parks, including Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Memorial. 

Pawnee National Grassland 

State: Colorado

Area: 193,060 acres 

Located just west of Fort Collins, Colo., Pawnee National Grassland is perfect for a weekend adventure. While many enjoy camping and hiking here, the area is particularly popular for animal and bird watching. The grassland is a key stopping point for migratory birds like the lark bunting (Colorado’s state bird), mountain plover, and burrowing owl. For those interested in human history, Pawnee also contains remnants of old settlements, including cemeteries and homesteads. 

Oglala National Grassland

State: Nebraska

Area: 94,520 acres

Oglala National Grassland has all kinds of outdoor recreation opportunities, but it’s also worth a visit for its unique points of interest. Fans of paleontology should make a stop at the Hudson-Meng Education & Research Center, which highlights the fascinating archeological history of the area (like the Bison antiquus, the ancestor of today’s bison). Kids and earth science fans alike will love the Toadstool Geological Park, which is home to unique geological features that look like giant mushrooms.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

State: Illinois

Area: 18,226 acres

Midewin is the only national grassland east of the Mississippi, which makes it a great destination for travelers based in the eastern half of the U.S. This prairie preserve has more than 33 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, and it’s also home to a new herd of bison that was introduced in 2015. The herd is part of an ongoing experiment to learn more about the role of bison in grassland restoration.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.