What do cattle drives, iconic automotive art, and awe-inspiring natural wonders bring to mind? Residents of the Lone Star State might confidently answer “Texas,” and they’d not be wrong. But getting off the beaten path in northwestern Nebraska offers some surprisingly similar adventures for those willing to explore.
Boot Hill, Ogallala’s Cowboy Cemetery
In Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about two ex-Texas Rangers on an epic cattle drive, the young hands eagerly anticipate arrival in Ogallala. The city marked the end of the Texas Trail (also known as the Western Trail), which originated in Bandera. According to Karen Stansbery, author of “The Bodies on Boot Hill,” more than a million cattle were driven along the trail between 1870 and 1885; the trip took some three months, and many a cowboy met his demise in Ogallala.
In 1884, an outbreak of Texas cattle fever (now known as babesiosis) brought quarantines for longhorns and an end to Ogallala’s reign as “Gomorrah of the cattle trail.” Today, a walk among the markers at Boot Hill reveals homesteaders, gamblers, a Cheyenne warrior, and Union Pacific workers killed by raiding Lakota warriors.
Walking Through History at Fort Robinson State Park
Fort Robinson, first established as a military camp in 1868 to protect the Red Cloud Agency, has seen life as a post during the American Indian Wars, remount depot, war dog kennel, and World War II POW camp. The original Camp Robinson lies across the street from today’s state park headquarters and museum; there, a reconstructed cabin and stone marker identify the locations of the Cheyenne Breakout and Sioux leader Crazy Horse’s murder.
According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, members of the Ninth and Tenth Calvary—known as Buffalo Soldiers—were quartered at Fort Robinson. From 1866 until 1885, Buffalo Soldiers ranged from Ft. Davis in West Texas to the Texas-Mexico border before being reassigned to various outposts, serving at Fort Robinson from 1885 until 1907. Visitors to the state park can stay in the preserved barracks, eat buffalo sandwiches from the lodge restaurant, and ride horses or mountain bikes on the surrounding trails; plays are performed during summer months, and there’s a free rodeo every Thursday night. Herds of buffalo and bighorn sheep graze its acreage and, in November, you can buy a longhorn.
Hudson-Meng Bonebed, An Archeological Mystery
What causes hundreds of ancient bison to die over the years in one particular spot? At the Bonfire Shelter near Langtry, TX, archeologists have concluded that early Native Americans stampeded herds over the canyon’s cliffs during hunts. But there’s a bit of mystery behind the 600+ bison skeletons resting in the 10,000-year-old bonebed beneath the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Research and Visitors Center in Nebraska’s Badlands. It’s possible that only a third of the site has been excavated, and theories abound as to why these massive mammals died in this one spot over many years.
The site is staged to illustrate an active archeological dig, and interactive activities and guided tours are available. Want to get out for a walk in Ogalala National Grassland? The 3-mile Bison Trail connects Hudson-Meng to Toadstool Archeological Park, where breathtaking rock formations and fossils surround you every step of the way.
Carhenge, Monolithic Homage on Nebraska’s High Plains
Amarillo boasts Cadillac Ranch; Alliance is home to Carhenge. Geologist Jim Reinders created this bit of Americana in 1987, replicating the 39 boulders that form Stonehenge by arranging vintage autos on the family’s 10-acre farm as a memorial to his father.
Like the prehistoric English temple, Carhenge aligns with the heavens. According to NASA, it will be an excellent spot to witness the 2017 total solar eclipse; on Aug. 21, visitors to Carhenge will experience some two and a half minutes of darkness, starting at 11:49 a.m. (MTZ).
Tips for Making That Northwestern Nebraska Trip
Get Behind the Wheel. As in Texas, horizons stretch for miles between attractions. Rent a car, ride your motorcycle, or drive that RV; navigating Nebraska is easy, and the wide expanse of sky provides an ever-changing backdrop. Bonus: Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota are a short drive away.
Pick a Home Base. Gering is a convenient place to stay: Scotts Bluff National Monument is within sight, and longer trips to Ogallala, Alliance, and Chadron radiate out like spokes on a homesteader’s wagon wheel. I recommend Monument Inn & Suites, which has a comfortable family feel and is located close to neighborhoods, parks, and downtown amenities.
Plan Your Trip. Because cities are far and attractions tucked away, pick your pleasure and work an agenda in advance. Birders, for example, might focus on the Great Migration, when 80 percent of the sandhill crane population travels through the Platte River Valley; links lovers could sample The Prairie Club, nestled among the sandhills of Nebraska (denoted as “one of America’s top 10 golf states” by Golf Digest).
Pack Accordingly. Nebraska is “big sky country,” so sunscreen and lip balm are required. Central Texas flatlanders will also feel an elevation change; Scotts Bluff National Monument, for example, sits at 3,849 feet—its summit, 800 feet higher. Think layers of clothing, as temperatures rise significantly throughout the day, and a hat can help combat constant wind. Hike safely: carry water, as that sun, wind, and elevation combo can quickly cause dehydration.
Find a Local Legend. Artists Harvey and Howard Kenfield, twins in their 80s, make beautiful music boxes and artwork as well as delight in showing visitors a rock that bends. Don’t miss Park Ranger Lesley Gaunt, who dresses in historically accurate clothing to regale visitors to Scotts Bluff National Park about the tribulations of traveling the Oregon Trail by wagon. Find Bern Miller (director of the Pioneer Trails Museum in Bridgeport) to see his Indian riding skills demonstration, what he calls “horse history.”