Points of Interest:
- Climb to the top of steep hill top prairies for commanding views of the Missouri River floodplain.
- Enjoy prairie wildflowers and grasses more common to the Great Plains.
- Observe groves of majestic, gnarled bur oaks growing between prairie openings.
- See prairies that were seen by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804.
The prairie here is found on steep slopes and the grasses and wildflowers are a “mixed grass” prairie more common in central Nebraska. The soil that makes up these bluffs and hills is called loess which is comprised of fine angular silt particles. The loess deposits here are thick, from 25 to over 100 feet deep. These silts were produced from the grinding forces of glaciers and were later carried out by glacial meltwaters onto vast deltas. From here the silts were wind-blown by great storms and deposited at their present location during the Pleistocene.
Further erosion of these hills through time has created 30 to 45+ percent slopes. The combination of steep, west-facing slopes, the rapidly drained nature of loess soils, and a powerful predominant westerly wind combine to create arid conditions here. These arid conditions have allowed many plants more common 100 miles to the west to do well here. Some of these Great Plains species include soapweed yucca, hairy grama grass, nine-anthered prairie clover, skeleton plant, locoweed, dotted blazing star, and large-flowered beard tongue. The great plains skink and the plains pocket mouse also inhabit the prairie. All told 22 species of conservation concern inhabit the natural area.
Despite the harsh environmental conditions, these prairies still need periodic fires to thrive. Research done on fire scars of ancient bur oaks at nearby loess hill sites indicate that before 1820 fires occurred every 6 years in these hills. Today Conservation Department staff use thinning and prescribed fire to keep woody plants from taking over.
Star School Hill Prairie has a rich human history too. On July 16th 1804 William Clark described this area: “This prairie I call Ball pated prarie, from a range of Ball Hills parallel to the river & at from 3 to 6 miles distant from it, and extends as far up & Down as I can see..” B.F. Bush, an early Missouri botanist, explored this area in 1893 and first described the Missouri occurrences of many of the rare plants here. The prairie’s namesake, Star School, is the name of Atchison County’s last one-room school house that sat at the base of these hills. The school ran from 1889 to 1948.
A hike to the top of these loess hills provides the visitor with a panorama of the Nishnabotna and Missouri River floodplains. From the highest summit on a clear day you can see almost five miles to the west. During the fall you might spot waterfowl in Gray’s Lake, an old meander of the Nishnabotna, from the vantage point of the hill top.