There were quite a few places that I had listed on my Oklahoma Bucket List before we moved back to Oklahoma from Europe, and a visit to the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve to see the bison was right at the top.
It’s a simple (if slightly ambitious) day trip from Oklahoma City, and there are some really great things to do at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve that aren’t easy to do anywhere else! After all, it is the largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie left on earth!
Here’s everything you need to plan your visit, including what to do, what to wear, how to get here, and more!
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Where to Stay Near the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
While you can visit the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve as a day trip from Oklahoma City, Tulsa, or Wichita, there’s enough to do in the area that you can stay overnight or on a long weekend and visit other parts of Osage County like nearby Pawhuska.
Since you cannot camp in the preserve, I have suggestions for staying in Pawhuska, which is about thirty minutes away.
Here are my suggestions for where to stay in each budget category, plus an Airbnb recommendation. Recs are based on listed prices at the time, but keep in mind they can fluctuate based on availability, so always double-check the linked-to website for pricing for your exact dates.
Best Budget Option (Under $100 a night)
Best Mid-Range Option ($100-200 per night)
For a stay with a cozy appeal, check into the Historic Whiting Hotel Suites, located a tenth of a mile from The Mercantile and the rest of downtown. Rooms feature private balconies, kitchenettes, and kitschy decor. See pictures and availability here.
Best Luxury Option ($200 or more per night)
For a relaxing stay, check into the Frontier Hotel Pawhuska, which offers a sophisticated take on Wild West decor without scrimping on comfort. The rooms are stunning, with a mix of modern and farmhouse style and layers of country fabrics. See pictures and availability here.
Best Airbnb Option
If you’ve always been curious about tiny house living, check into the Prairie Cottage Queen, a tiny house located steps from The Mercantile. This tiny cottage sleeps up to four and features a modern cottage-chic decor. Perfect for anyone looking to avoid a hotel or traveling in a small group. See pictures and availability here.
What is the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve?
Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the largest tract of tallgrass prairie left in the world.
Located in the Osage Hills / Southern Flint Hills of Osage County, Oklahoma, over ten thousand visitors come here each year to hike and experience the prairie as it existed for hundreds of years before settlers encroached on Native American land.
Things to Do at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
You can spend a few hours here, a half day, or you can find enough to do to fill a full day from dawn to dusk. It all depends on how ambitions your Tallgrass Prairie Preserve itinerary gets. Here are five of the most common activities, though there are certainly other things to do here as well!
Drive the Bison Loop
This is (most likely) what you came for – to see the buffalo hanging out on the prairie. And driving the Bison Loop, a fifteen-mile loop through the main portion of the preserve, is the perfect way to see them.
Of course, the American buffalo is actually a bison (and not a buffalo at all), but they’re amazing to see out in the grass. And since the preserve is home to over 2500 bison, you’re likely to see more than just one or two.
You’ll see signs everywhere, but keep in mind that bison are dangerous, and you should stay in your car to stay safe. Bring a good zoom or telephoto lens. These were taken from the car on my iPhone 12 Pro.
I wish I would have brought my Nikon and my 24-300mm lens, but I decided to travel light (traveling with a toddler is always an adventure by itself).
TL;DR if you want up-close pictures of the bison, bring a telephoto lens or hope you spot one crossing the road.
While some of the parts of the preserve are closed during the winter or during state emergencies, the Bison Loop is open from dawn until dusk year-round.
Make sure to drive slow on the gravel roads and always pay attention to the road.
There are times when the bison are rounded up in the autumn, so if you’re worried about seeing them, you can check directly with the preserve before going out.
See the Visitor’s Center
Built in the buildings of the Bernard Ranch, the preserve also keeps this historic Oklahoma ranch intact so visitors can glimpse what it would have been like to be here during most of the twentieth century.
The Visitor’s Center is closed during certain portions of the year and for other emergencies, so you can check here if they are currently open. Even if you can’t go inside though, you’ll want to come here to use the restroom (read: port-a-potty) as well as see the historic buildings from the outside.
There are also maps on display of the preserve, so even if you come during times when the Visitor’s Center is closed, you can still visit here to get your bearings.
Besides looking for souvenirs and using the facilities, a stop at the visitor’s center is a great way to get acclimated to the preserve as well as learn the interesting history of how nearly 40,000 acres came to be preserved in this way.
Go on a Hike
I have not had a chance to go on this hike yet, but my dad and brother both highly recommend it! If you don’t want to spend your visit in your car, getting out and walking the trails.
There are three trails here. The shortest is the Bottomland Trail which is a half-mile trail that is on flat terrain. This is considered an easy hike.
The second hike is the Study Trail. This hike is also considered easy and is one-mile long. You should set aside an hour for this hike to allow for scenic stops and photographs.
Finally, the longest hike here is Prairie Earth Trail. At two miles long, it’s not significantly longer than the Study Trail. However, this hike is much hillier and steeper, and is considered vigorous and takes ninety minutes to two hours if you want to be able to stop and enjoy the terrain along the way.
Of course, if you’re looking for a longer hike you can combine the three routes, which would cover 3.5 miles in total.
Visit the Historic John Joseph Mathews Cabin
Best-selling author John Joseph Matthews grew up in the Tallgrass Prairie. After serving abroad and, he returned to his childhood home and built a cabin he called The Blackjacks. It was in this cabin that he wrote his most famous works.
Part Osage, he was considered a bridge between the White settlers and the Osage Nation.
His cabin has been preserved and can be visited during specific times. Check the Nature Conservancy’s schedule before your visit.
Enjoy a Picnic
No one would blame you if you save your mealtime for a visit to the Mercantile in Pawhuska, but if you do want to eat during your visit, bring a meal and enjoy a lunch or snack under the trees at the public picnic tables on the preserve.
Things to Know Before Your Visit
Here are some important tips for your visit.
First, make sure you have enough gas before you get here. There isn’t a gas station close and you will be driving for a while in the preserve if your goal is to drive the bison loop.
Second, dogs are prohibited because they can upset the delicate eco system.
Third, you are supposed to stay in the car on the Bison Loop, however, there are several scenic lookouts with educational placards to read. I got out of the car to read them since there were no bison nearby. If you do get out, watch out for buffalo dung!
Fourth, pay attention to what’s happening on all sides of your car. Don’t get distracted by animals on one side fo the car, because others could walk up to the other side of the car.
Finally, follow all posted signs for your safety and the safety of the animals.
How to Get to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
There’s no easy way to get to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve via public transportation. The best way to get here is to drive your own vehicle or rent one.
If you will be starting your trip in Pawhuska, here are the instructions for how to get from Oklahoma City to Pawhuska. There are also instructions on how to get to Pawhuska from Tulsa and Wichita in this post.
If you’re coming straight to the preserve, follow these instructions.
From Oklahoma City
This is the way I go when I visit, since I’m based just north of Oklahoma City. To get form OKC to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve takes about two and a half hours.
While most of the drive is I-35 North and Highway 60, you will want a navigation system to help you get there when you go through smaller towns like Shidler as you get closer.
There are no tolls on this road.
The trip from Tulsa to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is about ninety minutes each way. You will take OK-11 most of the way, but you will want to have access to a navigation system on your trip since there are multiple turns.
This journey from Pawhuska to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is an easy thirty minute drive on Co Rd 4201.
There are several ways to get from Wichita to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. The quickest goes on country roads most of the way, while you can simplify your trip by taking I-35 South most of the way. Just beware this route has some tolls. The total drive time should be around two hours each way.
From Route 66
If you are planning a Route 66 road trip, you can fit in a day at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve quite easily! Just plan to spend the night in Tulsa and take a side trip to the preserve for the day.
Tulsa is the closest major point to the preserve that’s along Route 66. I would not, however, try to visit the preserve and skip visiting the important Tulsa Route 66 sites. You can fit both in with an extra half-day or an extra full day in the area.
Tips for Renting a Car in Oklahoma
It’s awfully hard to get around Oklahoma without a car. Trust me, I’ve tried! While we went ahead and bought a car when we moved back, if you’ll only be here for a short while (or if you’re coming in from out of town), then you will want to rent a car.
I use Discover Cars when I rent cars on my travels. You’ll be able to pick up a car at any airport or in your hometown.
Check availability and get a quote for a rental car for your trip here.
What to Wear to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
If you will be staying in the car and then visiting Pawhuska afterwards, dress casually or smart-casual, depending on your evening plans. Of course, if you are planning on hiking then wear appropriate clothes for whichever level of hiking you are intending to do.
What to Bring to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
First, bring a camera! Whether you use your phone (a lot of these pics were taken with my iPhone 12 Pro), or you can a point and shoot like my Sony ZV-1, or even if you have a DSLR or Mirrorless (I have an old Nikon D810), it doesn’t matter. Do bring the best longest telephoto or zoom lens you have.
Just make sure you bring a camera (or two). The area is so photogenic, you won’t want to leave without having some of your memories captured!
Second, bring a phone charger! Whether you need an iPhone lightning cable or a Samsung USB-C charger, don’t leave yourself without internet access or the ability to make an emergency call from the road or on your hike.
Third, bring a charging bank! Since you’ll be out in the middle of nowhere, bring a portable charging bank so you can charge your phone on the go.
Fourth, bring a pair of sunglasses! This part of the state is windy and sunny, so you’ll be happy to have some eye protection from the glare and grime. I need prescription sunglasses (my latest pair I ordered online on Zenni), but I also love my Maui Jim’s aviators.
Finally, bring your sunscreen! You will spend a lot of your time outdoors, so prepare by having your sunscreen on before you leave and bring it with you so you can reapply as needed.
Bonus! Bring a great day bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc).
My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for traveling because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets if you take it to bigger cities.
It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
Oklahoma Travel Resources
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for your trip make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I have used World Nomads when I travel since 2016, and I happily recommend them.
Getting coverage is important whenever you’re more than a hundred miles from home in case of an accident, sickness, theft, etc.
Get a travel insurance quote for your trip here.
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Stephanie is a born-and-bred Oklahoma mom and travel expert who has been to over fifty countries. After living in Eastern Europe for four years, she has moved with her family back to Oklahoma to write about her favorite places growing up: Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, & Route 66!