Across the western third of the state stretches a vast expanse of high tablelands, rolling hills, sand plains, and sometimes bare ground—the awesome High Plains of Kansas, the largest and highest region in the state. Do not be fooled into thinking that the High Plains are flat. Although the terrain is not as rugged as that of the rest of the state, the ground still gently rolls as far as the eye can see. Flatness is only an optical illusion created by spacious skies and wide-open prairies.
Much of the rock underlying the High Plains is a loose mass of sand and gravel. However, in some places this rock has cemented by calcium carbonate into a porous layer of sandstone called “mortar bed.” Another type of sandstone held together with opal can be found in parts of the region, but particularly in southern Phillips County.
Moss opal is not considered a precious stone, but it is nevertheless interesting and can be found in Trego and Wallace counties.
Much of the soil in the High Plains is fertile loess. Sand, however, is scattered throughout the region, mainly south of the Arkansas River. Erosion can be a problem thanks to the strong winds.
Trees are scarce, while cacti and yuccas are common. Most of the vegetation consists of drought-hardy shortgrass prairie. The little bluestem, buffalo grass, and grama grasses covering the plains are ideally suited for the area’s semi-arid climate and long hot spells between rainfalls. In return for underground minerals, the complex root systems of these grasses help hold the soil firmly in place.
Greater prairie chickens are one species that call the High Plains home, as are prairie dogs along with the associated predators ranging from badgers to prairie falcons. Bodies of water attract a variety of species, ranging from shorebirds to fish-seeking ospreys. The southwest corner of the region is a good place to see birds more commonly associated with the Western United States than with the Midwest.
The famous, high-quality Ogallala Aquifer is the lifeline of the High Plains. Abundant as the groundwater is, however, the future of irrigation is debatable. Water is currently being pumped out of the aquifer faster than it is being replaced.
The High Plains receive only 15 to 25 inches of precipitation each year, making this the driest region in the state. Strong sunshine, small amounts of rainfall, and sweeping winds, unrestricted by any natural barrier, leave little moisture in the air or on the ground for long. Therefore, this region can be classified as semi-arid. Severe droughts are periodically broken by floods, however, and temperatures can swing from one extreme to the other in short order.
Although much of the area is home to expansive ranches, farming has become the major feature of the region. High Plains farmers primarily raise wheat, sorghum, and corn. Yes, corn. Drought-resistant strains have been developed in recent years, and the High Plains are growing more corn than ever before, often for local feedlots. Without irrigation, however, most of the High Plains could only support a corn crop one year in five.
Also of Interest
Agriculture is the mainstay of the sparsely populated High Plains. The remainder of the region’s economy revolves around energy production in the forms of wind, oil, and natural gas.
A satellite image of the High Plains. The green circles are areas of center pivot irrigation.