Places We Protect

Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Oklahoma

Three large bison grazing in green grass, with a baby bison in the background.
American Bison A small group of these charismatic creatures grazing at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. © Morgan Heim

“We cannot not save the tallgrass prairie.”

Joseph H. Williams (1933-2023), founder of TNC's Oklahoma chapter, laid the groundwork for generations of tallgrass prairie conservation in this state and beyond. Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve was renamed in his honor in 2015. 

Read State Director Mike Fuhr's tribute to Joe

Overview

Description

The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve at 39,650 acres is the largest protected piece of tallgrass prairie left on earth. Urban sprawl and conversion to cropland have left this once expansive landscape, originally spanning across 14 states from Texas to Minnesota, at less than 4% of its original size.

Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma has worked to restore this fully functioning portion of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem with the use of 2,500 free-ranging bison and a “patch-burn” model approach to prescribed burning.

The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve offers excellent wildlife watching opportunities and exceptional views of a variety of natural habitats. Over 700 plants, 300 birds and 80 mammals make this prairie home. Visitors can experience the wide-open prairie and the patches of crosstimbers forest by circling the 15-mile bison driving loop, hiking along designated trails and stopping to take in the views at various scenic turnouts.

Access

Limited Access

Hunting, fishing, camping, dogs and off-roading are not permitted.

Hours

Preserve is open during daylight hours, seven days a week. Hiking trails are for foot traffic only. Visitor Center is open on certain days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Prior to your visit, please check the schedule to verify that a docent is on duty.

Highlights

Hiking trails, Visitor Center, historic cabin and cowboy bunkhouse, iconic bison, birdwatching, scenic turnouts and 15-mile driving loop

Size

39,650 acres

Explore our work in Oklahoma

Photos from the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Discover the wildlife and diversity in this expansive sea of grasses. Tag @conserve_ok on Instagram with your prairie pics when you visit.

American burrying beetle close-up.
Male prairie chicken doing a mating dance.
Sunset illuminates a field of coneflowers.
Eastern blue bird in mid-flight.
Bison calf standing in tallgrass.
Monarch butterly on liatris.
A burn boss rides an ATV and lights a controlled burn on the preserve.
Close up of a painted bunting.
Bobcat spotted among the trees.
Lone male bison in a meadow.

Docent Program

The visitor center at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve attracts thousands of visitors from across the world each year. Our volunteer docents tell the inspirational story of the prairie, its history, ecology and wildlife.

Schedule

The calendar below indicates dates on which the visitor center will be staffed by at least one volunteer docent, denoted by the “Reserved” label.

Volunteer Opportunities 

Interested in learning more about the docent program? Make plans to attend one of two hour-long informational meetings in the new year: 

Sunday, Feb. 4 - Hardesty Regional Library - 2pm

Tuesday, Feb. 6 - Bartlesville Public Library - 7:30pm 

For additional information, please contact tallgrass.docents@gmail.com.

More Info

  • When visiting the preserve, please do:

    • Take a hike and stay on the trail. Leave plants, insects or other species, soil, rocks, artifacts or scientific research markers right where you found them. Download a trail guide.
    • Enjoy viewing the bison and other wildlife. Remember, bison are dangerous with an incredible amount of power and very pointy horns. Stay in your car to ensure your safety as well as theirs.
    • Let us know (or call 918-287-4803) if you’re bringing a large group. We can help with logistics and work with docents to ensure a guide is available for your group.
    • Report to us (or call 918-287-4803) any problems you observe like campsites, plant removal, hunting, off-road vehicles or wildlife harm.

    Please don’t:

    • Bring your dog. The prairie is home to ground-nesting birds and other wildlife that are extremely sensitive to disturbance.
    • Hunt, camp or make campfires.
    • Leave trash. Take out what you brought in and please consider taking an extra piece of litter with you.
  • There are three self-guided nature trails at the preserve that can be accessed individually or as a loop:

    • The Nature Trail: Consists of three interconnected loops which pass through all of the major habitat types found on the preserve. The trail is mowed and graveled, with benches and boulders scattered along the route to serve as resting spots for hikers. It is a self-guided trail with numbered markers that coincide with information in this trail brochure. Take your time—smell the fresh air, listen and watch for wildlife, feel the buzz of life around you.
    • Bottomland Trail: This short trail is only about half a mile long and is an easy hike. It loops around the Sand Creek bottomland, staying on level terrain.
    • Study Trail: The second loop is approximately 1 mile long and is a fairly easy hike. It can be walked in about one hour at a leisurely pace with stops along the way. However, there are some loose rocks and uneven ground so appropriate footwear is necessary. Some spots may be muddy during wet weather.
    • Prairie Earth Trail: This loop is approximately 2 miles long and covers rough terrain with steep hills. This loop is recommended for those who want a vigorous hike and seclusion; allow at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Muddy spots are present on this trail during wet weather.

    Download a trail guide.

  • The preserve is open every day from dawn to dusk with no charge for admittance and can be accessed via county roads. There are scenic turnouts, hiking trails, picnic tables, visitor center and public restrooms. Go slow, enjoy the view and see how many different species you can find.

    Spring and Summer:

    • Late March through early May, prairie chickens sing, also known as “booming,” at sunrise.
    • In April, signature grasses such as big bluestem and switchgrass are thriving.
    • By mid-May, 600-700 bison calves are frolicking across the prairie.
    • Mid-May through mid-June, wildflowers cover the fields with blankets of color. Though wildflowers bloom throughout the warm months, they peak in spring, with another fine showing in late summer.
    • During the warmer months, migrating neotropical species, such as the dickcissel and scissor-tailed flycatcher, can be seen frequently.

    Fall and Winter:

    • By September the big bluestem and switchgrass reach heights of 6 to 8 feet with a few patches stretching to 10 feet tall. Good rule of thumb: when trees turn to their rich autumn colors, so do the grasses.
    • Rough-legged and red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, and bald and golden eagles are common sights during the fall and winter. You also may see deer, coyotes or bobcats roaming the prairie.
  • Watch this video to see inside the cabin and listen as storytellers Harvey Payne and Patricia Webster give us an inside look at John Joseph Mathews and his historic cabin. When you’re ready for more, head on over to read the full story: an Osage Historian on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

  • Take a virtual tour and experience breathtaking 360° panoramas of Oklahoma’s native and diverse landscapes. Great for classrooms and living rooms alike to learn about the unique Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in eastern Oklahoma and all its plants, animals, and special ecology through this engaging multi-media.

    Take a tour.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations address the use of wheelchairs and “Other Power Driven Mobility Devices” (OPDMDs) by persons with mobility disabilities. These rules apply to “public accommodations,” which include TNC properties that are open to the public. The regulations provide that with regard to public accommodations persons with mobility disabilities are entitled to:

    1. Use wheelchairs and manually powered mobility aids (canes, walkers, etc) in areas that are open to pedestrian use. A wheelchair includes a manually operated device or power-driven device designed primarily for use by an individual with a mobility disability for the main purpose of indoor or both indoor or outdoor locomotion.
    2. Use OPDMDs if the landowner can make “reasonable modifications to its practices to accommodate them.” An assessment has been done for the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in accordance with the ADA regulations.
  • The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kansas, is the U.S.’s only national park unit dedicated to the tallgrass prairie, privately owned by The Nature Conservancy and co-managed with the National Park Service.

    Plan your trip to the Kansas prairie.

Ford and Frederick Drummond standing next to a fence.
The Drummonds Frederick Drummond (right)—pictured here with his son, Ford Drummond (left)—is one of the founders of the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. © Steve Rasmussen

1989-2019

Celebrating 30 Years at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

More than a quarter century ago, the dream of so many to see a significant piece of the iconic tallgrass prairie permanently conserved finally became a concrete reality. A fledgling chapter of The Nature Conservancy took a gigantic leap of faith that it could make a difference.

Hear from preserve founder Frederick Drummond, Community Relations Coordinator, Harvey Payne and others about the creation of The Nature Conservancy's first large-scale land protection project.

Watch the video to see the transformation of the tallgrass prairie as we celebrate 30 years of conservation.

Joseph H. Williams headshot with his name and the dates 1933-2023 in a text overlay.
A Preserve's Namesake Joe Williams established TNC's Oklahoma chapter in the mid-1980s, laying the groundwork for generations of tallgrass prairie conservation. © 2023/TNC

In Memoriam

Remembering Joseph H. Williams

By Mike Fuhr, Oklahoma State Director

I can’t say for sure what sparked Joe’s love for the tallgrass prairie of northern Oklahoma. I imagine Joe standing in a field of golden grass, enchanted by a peaceful sunrise as the quail he was there to hunt scurry around him—inspiring his dream of conserving the prairie for generations to come.

Joseph H. Williams’ contribution to conservation surpasses Oklahoma’s borders and is nearly impossible to quantify. I am saddened to share that Joe passed away April 27, 2023, at the age of 89 in his South Carolina home, surrounded by family. He will be remembered as a loving husband, father and grandfather, a savvy businessman and a visionary naturalist. Without his vision and dedication, it’s very likely The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve would not exist.

Joe approached conservation with the same determination, vision and leadership as his business—paving the way for innovation and growth within TNC. His journey began when he joined the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve Association, a small 501c3 supporting a bill to form a federal national preserve. Although the bill they supported did not move forward, Joe was not deterred. In the mid-1980s, he met with TNC’s senior leadership, who supported his vision and encouraged him to form the Oklahoma chapter of TNC. By 1986, Joe had put together the inaugural board, where he sat as chair, and the Oklahoma chapter was in business. However, his service did not end there. His exceptional leadership skills were noticed, and he served on TNC’s National Board of Governors, now called the Global Board of Directors, for a decade, from 1987 to 1997. During his tenure, he served as chair for two, two-year terms, when most only served one term.

In this part of the world, tracts of significant scale covering tallgrass prairie were rarely listed for sale. Even today, land is usually kept in the family—passed down from generation to generation. So, when the historic Barnard Ranch outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, was listed for sale at a bargain price, he knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Joe motivated our state and national boards to act—leading to TNC’s first-ever national fundraising campaign in support of a singular preserve. Years later, his hard work paid off. TNC raised $15 million, more than $35 million in today’s dollars, and purchased the 29,000-acre tract in November of 1989.

In 2015, the preserve was renamed in Joe’s honor as the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Today, the preserve spans 40,000 acres and is home to a herd of approximately 2,200 free-range bison. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of visitors from Oklahoma and around the world have visited the preserve—all thanks to Joe.

Joe Williams established an inspirational foundation of conservation in Oklahoma—a foundation on which we continue to build. I am proud to share we are building upon Joe’s legacy as TNC plans to conserve 210,000 additional acres of tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma and Kansas over the next seven years as a part of our Flint Hills Initiative. Without Joe’s initial vision and leadership, we would have never conceived such an aspirational goal.

Find More Places We Protect

The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.

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