Three Great Hikes
From the rugged Pine Ridge, through the hand-planted Nebraska National Forest in the Sandhills,
to the serene Missouri River bluffs in the southeast, three great hikes highlight
the best of
Nebraska's scenic outdoors.
"Let's go for a walk." Could there be a friendlier, more universally understood invitation? Say it to a dog, and you'll be answered by a flurry of wagging, leaping and leash-fetching. Say it to a human friend, and the response, while perhaps more subdued, is likely to be just as quickly accepted.
Around the block, through a park or for three months on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, walking is the fundamental means of human locomotion. The rhythm of walking mirrors the rhythms of life - beating hearts and pumping lungs keep time with the beat of footsteps. Walkers travel at a natural pace, conversing, usually, and seeing a world rich in details that they would miss from the the seat of an air-conditioned car.
Nebraska has no wide reputation as a hiking destination; in fact, there are few opportunities for long backcountry expeditions. But the state's varied terrain - from riverbottom deciduous woodlands to Pine Ridge buttes and canyons - is laced with trails that can carry a determined hiker or a casual walker into some of the best scenery in the Great Plains.
The three routes described below - one in the Pine Ridge, one in the Sandhills, the third along the Missouri River - are starting points, incentives for discovering your own great hikes.
The Pine Ridge Hiking Trail
Few really believe the clichéd descriptions of Nebraska so beloved of Interstate-80 travelers - border-to-border cornfields, landscape so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days - but even some Nebraskans are surprised when they first encounter the Pine Ridge.
The rugged, pine-covered escarpment in Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan counties in northwestern Nebraska towers a thousand feet above the White River Plain, and from the crest - and from openings through the forest along the trail - the panoramas are spectacular. Punctuating the plains and ridges are tall, straight-sided buttes - Crow Butte, Coffee Mill Butte, Trunk Butte, Sugarloaf and many more - and the landscape is cut by streams and canyons with equally resonant names: Sowbelly Canyon, Dead Horse Creek, Indian Creek, Dead Man's Creek.
More than 170,000 acres in the northwestern corner of Nebraska - including many acres in and around the Pine Ridge, are publicly owned and managed for multiple uses by the U.S. Forest Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The region has many trails along which day hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers and equestrians meander through this unique Nebraska landscape of pine-covered hills, deep canyons, clear flowing streams and native grasslands.
A portion of the Pine Ridge Hiking Trail on the Nebraska National Forest and the Pine Ridge National Recreation Area southwest of Chadron has become a favorite, and deservedly so.
Stretching for about 12 miles between the Coffee Mill Butte Trailhead and the East Ash Trailhead, it is easily accessible from three roadside parking areas. On the western end, just off East Ash Road, is the East Ash trailhead. On the eastern end, off Dead Horse Road, is the Coffee Mill Butte Trailhead. At roughly the midpoint is the Roberts Trailhead, accessible from an unimproved county road.
Spring and fall are probably the best seasons for hiking the Pine Ridge. The air is cool, few mosquitoes and ticks are about, and foliage in the wooded creekbottoms is luxuriant and inviting. But northwestern Nebraska is known for sudden spring snow showers even in April, May and, occasionally, June, and spring weather can be hot during the day and chilly at night.
By late June and early July, hot and dry conditions prevail, and occasionally the danger of wildfires is high, but cool temperatures return in the mild, clear autumns season, and sparkling fall colors splash the hardwoods along the creekbottoms.
Mountain bikers rank the Pine Ridge Hiking Trail between East Ash Creek and Coffee Mill Butte as moderate to difficult, but it is ideal for a leisurely, two-day backpacking excursion with an overnight camp along the trail.
Off-trail hiking is permitted, and adventurous hikers can "pioneer," exploring more remote areas of the Pine Ridge National Recreation Area and extending a backpacking trip for several days.
Whatever the route or time of year, the Coffee Mill Butte to East Ash Creek stretch of the Pine Ridge Hiking Trail has some of the Pine Ridge's best scenery and opportunities for wildlife viewing.
Hikers may encounter mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, wild turkeys and, depending on the season, a variety of migrant and nesting birds.
Hikers should be aware that ticks are common along the creekbottoms in season, and, although they are rarely encountered by hikers, rattlesnakes have been seen in the Pine Ridge.
Hikers also will see a colorful variety of wild flowers and other vegetation. Poison ivy grows along the trail in some areas.
Hikers should carry water on most sections of the Pine Ridge Trail. Safe water supplies are few and far between, and drinking from streams or windmills without filtering, boiling or chemically treating the water is not recommended.
The trail is well marked with tree markers in forested areas and signposts in unforested terrain. Trail intersections, Nebraska National Forest pastures and National Recreation Area boundaries also are well marked. Cross fences carefully and leave gates as you find them. Access roads from highways to the trailheads are well marked. Most of the hiking trail is within the Pine Ridge National Recreation Area and is not open to motorized vehicles.
From the East Ash Trailhead, the trail covers 6½ miles to the Roberts Loop Trail intersection and 8½ miles to the Roberts Trail Head. The total distance from the East Ash Trailhead to the Coffee Mill Butte Trailhead, including the Roberts Loop, is 12½ miles.
The "Pine Ridge Trails Illustrated Topo Map" is available from many bike shops or from the Chadron Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 646, Chadron, NE 69337 ($6.95 plus $1 shipping and handling). The map includes all the Pine Ridge Hiking Trail, hiking trails on Fort Robinson State Park, on the nearby Nebraska National Forest and on Soldier Creek Wilderness Area west of Fort Robinson. U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle maps also show the area in detail.
For information and updates of weather and hiking conditions contact the Nebraska National Forest office in Chadron at (308) 432-0300 or Chadron State Park at (308) 432-6167. Information about the trail and about other recreation opportunities in the area also is available from: Fort Robinson State Park, (308) 665-2900; the Pine Ridge Ranger District office, (308) 432-4475; and the Chadron Area Chamber of Commerce, (308) 432-4401.
Scott Lookout National Recreation Trail
When a gentle breeze wafts through the hills, carrying with it the subtle but distinct essence of ponderosa pines, hikers on the Scott Lookout National Recreation Trail in eastern Thomas County might feel as if they were traversing a Rocky Mountain slope or
a Pine Ridge trail. Instead, the trail cuts through a 20,000-acre, hand-planted forest, the Nebraska National Forest, near Halsey in the center of Nebraska's notably treeless Sandhills.
The strategically planned three-mile trail is designed to reveal the history and display the present-day mission of the national forest established in 1902 during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.
The cone-and-needle strewn path leads hikers past markers keyed to a brochure that provides interpretive information about the history of the forest and about current programs of the Bessey Ranger District. Other markers identify plants and, of course, trees - primarily jack pines, ponderosa pines and American red cedars, species best adapted to the sandy soil of the Nebraska Sandhills and to the climatic extremes of the northern Great Plains.
The winding, sometimes demanding trail is named for Charles A. Scott, who was charged with creating the forest. It was the idea of Dr. Charles Bessey, a University of Nebraska botanist, and today's forest confirms Bessey's belief that trees could thrive in the dry, sandy environment of the Sandhills.
Bessey's dream became Scott's outdoor laboratory, and planting began in 1902. The Nebraska National Forest is now the largest hand-planted forest in the nation and is sometimes called "The Forest that Man Made."
The trail ends at Scott Lookout Hill where a fire watchtower, also named for Scott, was erected in 1944.
Major fires burned portions of the forest in 1905 and 1910, but those conflagrations were dwarfed by the prairie and forest fire of 1965 that destroyed 10,000 acres of trees and blackened 7,000 acres of Sandhills grass. The Scott Trail passes through areas where the skeletal remains of burned trees are still apparent.
The trail also passes through stands of jack pines, a species whose cones open to scatter seeds when exposed to intense heat. Heat-induced seeding in 1965 resulted in regrowth of the species.
An extensive stand of ponderosa pines along the trail denotes another kind of regrowth: After the 1965 fire, thousands of ponderosa seedlings were planted by Forest Service employees and volunteers. Mature ponderosas develop heavy, insulating, fire-resistant bark, but they do not reseed as efficiently as jack pines following a wildfire.
The Scott Lookout National Recreation Trail was cut through the forest by members of the Nebraska National Forest's Young Adult Conservation Corps in 1979, and immediately was designated a National
Recreation Trail. The trail is open to foot travel only, and a walk on the trail is a shaded trek through the Sandhills, a unique experience in this region where trees - and shade - are rare.
Scott Lookout Tower presides over the largest hand-planted forest in the United States.
The trail winds its way upward to Scott Lookout Hill from the camping area, climbing and descending a series of hills throughout its gradual ascent. Hikers beginning at the tower and walking down to the trailhead follow a generally downhill course, but also have to climb a few hills on the way. The trail surface is sandy but some areas have been surfaced with gravel. Loose sand and steep climbs make the three-mile jaunt somewhat physically demanding.
Hikers often see white-tailed deer, mule deer and wild turkeys. In the forest, birdwatchers find migratory species not commonly seen elsewhere in the Sandhills. Migrating birds often linger for several days before continuing their seasonal journeys. Porcupines, best observed from at least a tail's-length away, are sometimes encountered along the trail and prairie rattlesnakes are occasionally seen.
The Scott Lookout National Recreation Trail is open year round, but hikers should be prepared for the harsh weather sometimes characteristic of the Sandhills. Late spring hikes are ideal with generally comfortable temperatures and an abundance of birds. Hikers will also find the 65-foot Scott Lookout Tower open for a climb and a visit 1 to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday and 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday from May 20 through Labor Day.
The current tower, the fourth on this site, is staffed when fire danger is high. The first tower was a 30-foot windmill tower erected in 1916. In 1917 it was replaced by a lookout building with a small, glass-enclosed second story. That structure was replaced in 1928 with a 50-foot tower that was moved to Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest southwest of Valentine when Scott Tower was erected in 1944.
No open fires are allowed along the trail, and hikers are cautioned to be extremely careful with any devices that might spark a forest fire.
Indian Cave State Park Trails
In early spring the foreground is a delicate haze of pale green tinting the dark crosshatching of innumerable bare branches - oaks, hickories, basswoods - on the undulating, brown hills. By June, green has become the dominant color, covering the hillsides and filling the valleys in a multitude of shades and replacing the fuschia accents of redbud blossoms, which colored the woods a month earlier.
In October a cascade of warm hues - yellow, amber, burnt orange, brown - pours down the slopes and, as autumn winds tug at the drying leaves, the leaf-covered forest floor reappears as rolling loess hills, steep bluffs, shaded moss-green floodplains and airy bluff-top prairie remnants.
And, from almost any ridge top, the distant view includes the wide, sinuous Missouri River, flowing southwest toward the old town site of St. Deroin and the Half-breed Cemetery near the park's northeastern boundary, then arcing in a wide curve below Rock Bluff and continuing southeast past the petroglyph-marked sandstone overhang - Indian Cave - that gives the parks its name.
Eleven marked hiking trails, totalling about 20 miles, meander through Indian Cave State Park's sprawling 3,052 acres. One, the Rock Bluff Run, with its spectacular views of the Missouri from a high bluff top, is listed among the country's 100 best walks in the Mid-America Walking Atlas.
This relatively pristine river-bluff park, located 15 miles from Brownville on the Richardson-Nemaha county line, provides a wealth of opportunities for day hikes and short backpacking expeditions year
round. The trails also are used by mountain bikers and cross-country skiers, and one is open to horseback riders.
A reconstructed log cabin on the site of the old river town of St. Deroin gives Inidan Cave visitors a taste of 19th century life.
Trails range from less than a mile to about six miles. There is very little level ground at Indian Cave; the terrain is hilly and often steep, so even short walks can be strenuous. Although the park is not far from population centers, the well-laid-out trails are seldom crowded, especially in off-seasons.
Spring and fall foliage can be spectacular, and wildlife is abundant. Hikers often see deer, turkeys, coyotes and squirrels, and the forest attracts many species of resident and migrating birds in season. The Missouri River and the lower reaches of several of its tributaries are among the few areas in Nebraska with significant stands of eastern deciduous forest and its
associated flora. Indian Cave State Park is one of the best places in the state to see woodland flowers and plants.
Primitive camping is permitted year-round at campsites and shelters along the trails. Cookstoves are allowed anywhere, but open fires are permitted only in fire rings at the campsites and shelters. Off-season hikers should bring their own water.
Trail Number 5, the Hardwood Trail, winds through old-growth deciduous forest in the park's less-traveled southern end. It is the only trail in the park open to equestrian use. The North Ridge Trail, near the park's north boundary, is for day-use only. No bikes or pets are allowed on it from May through October.
The park also has more than 200 recreation vehicle camper pads, a dump station, showers, modern and primitive toilets, laundry facilities, playground equipment and picnic areas. Modern camping facilities are open May 1 to September 15. Trail rides, living history activities and old-time craft demonstrations are available in season. The restored school, general store and a log cabin on the site of St. Deroin, the first town in Nemaha County, provide a glimpse of life in a 19th century river town, and the history - and legends - that surround the area are well interpreted for park visitors.
For more information about Indian Cave call the park
(402) 883-2575. A 52-page brochure describing all Nebraska State Parks also
Minimum-Impact Hiking and Camping
Protecting Nebraska's hiking trails and the often-fragile, natural landscapes through which they run in an important consideration for every trail user, whether on a day hike, an extended camping trip or seeking only a few minutes of solitude. Leave No Trace, a national organization dedicated to keeping public recreation areas clean and natural, and experienced trail users offer the following suggestions:
Plan and prepare: Obtain the latest maps and trail-use information in advance, and plan a minimum-impact outing. Considerations should include group size, length of trip, weather conditions and trail amenities, including designated camping areas, toilets and approved water sources. On backcountry trails without designated camping areas and sanitation facilities, hikers should follow minimum-impact practices. Leave No Trace recommends hikers carry a small trowel or shovel to bury human waste. Latrines should be located at least 200 feet from trails, campsites, water and dry gullies. Dishwashing and personal washing should be done at least 200 feet from water sources and campsites.
Pack it in and out: Remove food items from breakable jars, cans or bulky packaging. Carry food in plastic bags and reuseable containers. Use extra plastic bags to carry out trash. do not bury trash; animals will often dig it up. Pick up trash left by others.
Keep a clean, safe camp: Select a campsite away from the trail and water sources and avoid areas with potential fire hazards such as overhanging limbs and dry gullies. Be prepared for high winds and flooding. Use a small cookstove to avoid using open fires. Where an open fire is permitted, consider whether one is necessary. If you build a fire, minimize its effects on the campsite. Leave the campsite as you found it.
Do not disburb nature: Leave all natural and cultural artifacts as you find them. Avoid disturbing wildlife and other trail users and campers. Leave fence gates as you find them and respect private land. Avoid fragile wetlands and other sensitive sites, including side slopes and stream banks.
Additional information on minimum-impact hiking and camping is available from Leave No Trace at (800) 332-4100 or on the Internet at www.lnt.org