Grand Central Hotel
Doubles start at $140, breakfast included.
IN HIS 1882 MEMOIR Specimen Days, Walt Whitman captured the allure of America's Great Plains, noting that prairies, "while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America's characteristic landscape." Visit Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, and you'll see what he meant. Situated amid the Flint Hills, the town is surrounded by the nation's largest stretch of remaining tallgrass prairie, a rolling landscape of bluestem and switchgrass, largely unchanged since Kaw and Osage Indians roamed here in the 1800s.
Cottonwood Falls itself is a ranching enclave (cattle outnumber humans ten to one) about 80 miles northeast of Wichita; the brick, two-story, ten-room Grand Central Hotel was built in 1884 and is enjoying a renaissance, including having its grill named Best Beef Restaurant in 2001 by the Kansas Beef Council for serving the state's finest premium-choice steak.
We explored the Tallgrass Prairie National Preservefour miles up the road and second only to your average rainforest in its variety of plant and animal species. We scratched the dirt for collared lizards, horny toads, and dung beetles, and uncovered a piece of worked flint, possibly from the 1860s. True, the prairie may not have the in-your-face grandeur of Yosemite or Yellowstone, but ten months after our visit, I can still hear wind rustling through the tallgrass.