Flint Hills Discovery Center-Manhattan-Kansas-flint hills-grasslands-prairie-science center

Digging The Flint Hills Discovery Center

We have visited Manhattan, Kansas many times in the past, but our trips were always concentrated on the local university. Once that association ended, we never seemed to find the time to return. On a warmer than normal winter day, we made the just under two hour drive from Kansas City to the “Gateway City to the Flint Hills.” Upon arriving in town, one of the first sights was the Flint Hills Discovery Center, which happened to be our first stop. This beautifully designed building was the first change we noted since our last visit.

We want to thank Flint Hills Discovery Center and Visit Manhattan for their hospitality. Rest assured that all opinions are our own.

The Flint Hills Discovery Center makes an impressive sight as you enter Manhattan, Kansas.

New To Us

The building opened in April of 2012, which made us realize just how long it had been since our last stop. We found a nearby parking space, and made our way into the three-story glass encased entry. Our visit had been arranged by Visit Manhattan, and the front desk staff gave us a short rundown of the building’s layout. They suggested a visit to the introductory video, which runs on a loop.

At many museums and science centers we have been shown an introductory media presentation, but the one we experienced here was memorable. For those that know a little about the Flint Hills, there are certainly sensory triggers that are related to the region. During the video presentation some of these experiences come to life like the snow falling from the ceiling when winter is described. There are other triggers that are used, but I will leave a few as surprises for your own visit. This video is certainly not to be missed.

The displays are made to be interactive and draw visitors to engage.

Getting In Touch

The Flint Hills Discovery Center is filled with displays designed to be interactive. Everywhere we turned we found hands-on experiences that drew us in and beckoned us to learn more about this unique ecosystem. Placards spin showing a variety of educational facts. Interactive maps allow visitors to dive deeper into the geological formation of the surrounding hills. There was even a staff member showing the pelts from some of the wild creatures that inhabit the region. It felt like everything was a sensory experience.

Scavenger hunt placards are scattered around the center and offer educational information to visitors.

Educating The Masses

Throughout the center we found these Scavenger Hunt clue stops. At each one there would be a question posed, and the answer would be available by simply lifting the cover. It was fun testing our knowledge of the region, and it makes for an effective education tool. There are also clipboards at the entrance with additional sets of questions to be solved. This looks like a good family activity.

The underground area showcases the grass roots, insects, and animals the live below the surface of the Flint Hills.

A Look Below The Blades

The Flint Hills, as well as the Osage Hills in Oklahoma, are the last substantial area of tallgrass prairie. Most of the prairie has been converted to farming, but the rocky terrain makes the land hard to plow. At the Flint Hills Discovery Center we learned more about the specialized grasses and insects that call this land home. With rocks laying so close to the surface, grasses need long roots to reach down to the underlying water. Fire is a necessary danger that helps promote renewed growth each year. The deep roots allow the grasses to quickly recover for a new season.

The region is filled with rock just below the surface, which makes it suitable for grazing instead of farming.

These Hills Rock

A large amount of the rock seen in the Flint Hills is limestone and shale. Much of this was put down millions of years ago when the lands were covered by an inland ocean. The layers are filled with fossils, which are popular with rock hounds. The layers are easily seen as you travel Interstate 70 through the region. Road cuts offer a peek under the surface, where the numerous layers beg to be explored. A series of displays explain about the various rock types that are found throughout the region. We even noticed a candy dispenser filled with colorful stones. Obviously, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to start our own collection.

Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the Flint Hills and the center has a large section of information about the tribes.

Early Inhabitants

It is estimated that the first inhabitants came to the region around 13,000 years ago. Over the years many spear points and arrowheads have been discovered. By the early 1800’s, the Flint Hills were primarily occupied by the Osage and Kansa tribes. Hunting parties found the lands filled with grazing buffalo. The Flint Hills Discovery Center has a variety of exhibits on these early residents, and it’s easy to spend a lot of time in this section.

Cattle drives brought cowboys to the area, and the growing towns were happy to host them.

Taming The Prairie

Since 1821,  pioneers had been crossing the area on the Santa Fe Trail, but it wasn’t until 1854 that the area would be opened for settlement. The plentiful grasslands were perfect for grazing, and soon the region would become the destination for cattle drives from Texas and Oklahoma regions. Once they arrived, the cattle could be fattened up, before being shipped east on trains. Those were the days of the cowboys, and as towns flourished land owners lined up to claim their stake.

The exhibits are designed to be user friendly for visitors of all ages.

Family Fun

One thing that quickly became apparent to us was the versatile design of the exhibits. While some information boards may be passed over by the younger visitors, there are still plenty of displays to hold their attention. Plenty of interactive video monitors beckon to them. Spinning wheels, a model train, video storyboards, and even an auctioneer challenge are popular with guests of all ages.

A section of the second floor is dedicated to younger visitors.

Flint Hills Discovery Center Takes Fun Up A Level

We realized that we had been at the center for quite a while, and we were still just seeing the first floor. The second floor is dedicated more heavily toward the younger crowd, but we feel pretty young at heart. We climbed the stairs, and found two distinct sections. To the left was a collection of play and educational exhibits. A walk through butterfly tent lets guests get up close to these fluttering beauties. After checking for stowaways, you make your way to the playground area. It was popular with kids exploring, and parents taking a rest break.

An area is dedicated to temporary rotating exhibits like the Rainforest Adventure that runs through April 2018.

Traveling Exhibits

We doubled back to check out the path to the right. Passing through a door, we found ourselves at the temporary exhibit. Currently it highlights the rainforests of the world. As we made our way through a maze, we were challenged to answer questions, which decided our path. This is a fun way to learn facts about the rainforests. This specific exhibit will run through April, before being replaced with a new one for summer. We will have to see if we can find time to return to see the new one, which will be about dinosaurs. It promises to be a combination of traditional exhibits, along with state-of-the-art video game technology. These temporary displays may be geared toward younger visitors, but we still find them to be entertaining and engaging. The big question is, when are you planning to visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center?

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2 thoughts on “Digging The Flint Hills Discovery Center”

  1. Very interesting article on the Flint Hills. I lived in manhattan while assigned to Fort Riley during the mid 70’s. Beautiful area and this blog makes me want to plan a trip there soon. BTW– I met Jeff at the St. Louis Zoo and I am so happy that I learned about this site.

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