Autumn Splendor in the Grasslands

Veronica Hinke
Office of Communication
October 4th, 2017 at 9:15AM

An image of the Pawnee National Grasslands; a large black cow is in the forefront wiht a majectic butte in the background.
A majestic butte stands tall among the grasses that experience an awakening of gold just before their winter slumber at the Pawnee National Grasslands in Ault, Colorado.

America’s National Grasslands are in full color now as once-a-year blooms like asters, goldenrods, blazing stars, and more take their perennial – and all too fleeting – bows on fall’s stage. Like leaves, grasses and flora give seasonal shout-outs just before slumping and overwintering until spring. Catch them in their majestic awakenings as they add pops of color far and wide.

At Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, Illinois, bright, cheerful yellow abounds in the blooms of Riddell’s goldenrod and in the hearty little centers of lavender-leafed New England aster. Asters as white as snow and as pink as cotton candy punch through the grasses. Softer bottle gentian sprinkles in hues of light blue and supple shades of lavenders; a few of the strongest will bloom into spectacular periwinkle blues. You’re bound to see plenty of color right off the trails near the Welcome Center and the Iron Bridge Trail.

With its shorter season – and shorter stature – it takes a bit of searching to eye bottle gentian, but the reward surpasses the effort. Look where these gentle blooms like to grow: in areas of full or partial sun and in moist, rich soil.

Look up and around, too, and listen – because this is the time of year when birds begin their seasonal migrations south and to other locales where food will be more abundant over winter. You’re most likely to see bobolinks and upland sandpipers. The numbers of upland sandpipers are on the decline, and the Ft. Pierre National Grassland lies in the heart of their nesting habitat.

A picture of a grassland plant, a liatris punctatus, in the foreground; in purple bloom.
Brilliant blooms of liatris punctatus – you might call them blazing stars or gayfeathers –signal that it is autumn on Buffalo Gap National Grassland in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The Pawnee National Grassland in Ault, Colorado is another internationally known birding area. Just an hour drive from Ft. Collins, the Pawnee is a place to see many unique high plains bird species, such as the mountain plover, burrowing owl, and many birds of prey. Pronghorn, mule deer, coyote, swift fox, snakes and prairie dogs are among the other species that make this prairie their home.

You’ll also want to check the fall color at Buffalo Gap National Grassland in Hot Springs, South Dakota. It’s a sure sign of autumn when fabulous purple plumes of gayfeather start to appear, and this is the place the see them. "The liatris punctatus is a stunning flowering plant that represents the start of fall on the grasslands and prairies," said USFS Wildlife Biologist Brian Dickerson. You might have also heard these stunning autumn blooms called blazing stars.” Whatever you call this magnificent autumn bloom, everyone’s in agreement: This centerpiece of fall on the grasslands is one of the most  phenomenal sights on earth.

Can’t get to these places this year? Find your own spot in autumn’s splendor, even if it’s in your own backyard.  Or come with us on a virtual journey while we explore fall colors on our national forests and grasslands. At least you’ll have a good bucket list started for years to come.