When I tell friends that I’ll be traveling across Western Nebraska, the responses are less than enthusiastic and more than a little sympathetic.
“Hope you like corn,” says one friend.
“The highest point out there is a pitcher’s mound!” jokes another.
“I guess it’s pretty in a … grassy … sort of way,” is the most indulgent response.
I mock cringe, nod, and roll my eyes; after all, Nebraska is a place you travel through, not to.
Having lived in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies for the past eight years, I’ve fallen victim to the type of geographic snobbery that comes with living in a place where other people vacation. The plains are simply a prelude to the mountains, and Nebraska is just Colorado’s northeast neighbor that you want fly over or drive through as fast as possible to get to somewhere else. Right?
I was absolutely wrong.
WILD WEST COUNTRY
Western Nebraska can be divided into four areas: the Wild West, Trails West, Sandhills, and Pine Ridge regions. My travels will take me along the western perimeter of the state, and as I head north, I will pass through every single one of these territories, each with its own unique history and particular brand of beauty.
I head into Nebraska on Interstate 80, a transcontinental highway that parallels the South Platte River. A narrow trout stream in Colorado, the South Platte becomes a wide expanse of placid water in Nebraska, feeding the groves of cottonwoods and agricultural fields that flank its banks. I trace the river into the southwest corner of the state—the Wild West region—to Ogallala, Nebraska’s “Cowboy Capital.”
Once just a humble train depot named after the Oglala Sioux who hunted in the area, Ogallala quickly became a cowtown with a wild reputation after the Union Pacific opened cattle chutes there in 1875, explains local historian Tomas England. The town became the terminus for Texas cowboys driving herds up the Western Trail, and as such, it was where these road-weary young men would receive their pay.
After some 700 miles of pushing cattle and eating trail dust, many of the hands would take their wages to the saloons, gambling halls, or brothels that populated the town. Fans of Lonesome Dove may recall the particular brand of fun that Ogallala represented.
It was such a Wild West bastion of hedonism that cowboy Andy Adams, in his book Log of a Cowboy, gave it the moniker “Gomorrah of the Cattle Trail.” And at least one trail boss—who had let his cowboys partake in Dodge City’s seedy offerings—refused to let them in Ogallala because of its notorious reputation, giving rise to the phrase that Ogallala was the town “too tough for Texans.”
Crime ran rampant in Ogallala, says England, and many cowboys met their end in the town’s streets. Some found their final resting place atop a hill north of town: Ogallala’s Boot Hill. Like Bill Campbell, who, in a drunken fit of bravado, accused two brothers of being “Yankee bean-eaters.” They took exception to the slur, and when the smoke cleared, Campbell was dead. Or Rattlesnake Ed, who was shot down over a $9 bet in a game of Monte. The gravestones also tell less colorful stories about the harsh realities of forging a life on the frontier; there’s 4-year-old Ida Alice Aufdengarten, who died of snakebite; and Tom Lonergan, who perished from a broken neck after his horse tangled with a steer.
Today, Boot Hill is open to any visitors who wish to pay their respects to lives lost in a bygone era. Overlooking the river valley, with wild flowers and native grasses wreathing the headstones, and under the watchful gaze of the bronze “Trail Boss” statue, the cemetery is serene; a final quiet for those casualties of a turbulent era.
In town, Front Street is a quaint tourist attraction that pays kitschy homage to Ogallala’s Wild West beginnings. Its seasonal museum, restaurant, gift shop, and Crystal Palace Revue and Shoot Out musical comedy show offer up an afternoon’s worth of fun family-friendly entertainment. Some advice: Although there’s plenty to choose from off the menu at the Front Street Steakhouse, make sure you do Ogallala’s cowtown heritage proud and order the rib-eye.
Ogallala’s Western Trail is only one of the many historic trails that traverse the state. The Lewis and Clark, Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer, and Pony Express National Historic Trails also extend across Nebraska. Wagon ruts, stage stations, trading posts, and cemeteries still dot the landscape, testament to the accomplishments and sacrifices of those early cowboys, pioneers, and settlers.
I leave the interstate behind in Ogallala and head north into the Trails West region. Driving northwest up U.S. Highway 26, now following the North Platte River, there is a perceptible shift in topography. The gentle swells of grassy hills become more dramatic outcroppings as I make my way toward Windlass Hill and Ash Hollow, major landmarks along the emigrant trails.
Ash Hollow—now Ash Hollow State Historical Park—was a precious reward to pioneers; its lush landscape was a reprieve from the monotony of the arid plains, and it offered fresh spring water, firewood, natural shelter, and plenty of grass for stock.
However, a price had to be paid before accessing such plenty. Travelers first had to conquer Windlass Hill—the 25-degree, 300-foot descent into Ash Hollow. According to Ash Hollow Park Manager Jeff Uhrich, Windlass Hill was the steepest descent pioneers would encounter east of the Rockies.
Today, a paved walking trail with interpretive signs leads from a parking lot to the top of the hill, where a beautiful view rewards those willing to make the climb. It’s a view that pioneers were eager to see.
“They were looking forward to Ash Hollow after traveling across the short grass prairies of Nebraska, where there hadn’t been spring water, shade, or firewood for the last couple hundred miles,” explains Uhrich. “When they got to the crest of Windlass Hill and looked down, they would finally see trees, fresh water, and good grass. It was truly an oasis for them.”
Even with helpful modern aids like pavement and handrails, the climb up Windlass Hill is steep, and from the top looking down, I marvel at the courage of those who willingly braved its daunting slope. It’s an incline I would hesitate to tackle on two feet, let alone navigate in a hitched wagon.
An interpretive sign recounts similar sentiments from one pioneer who reportedly said, “I cannot say at what angle we descend, but it is so great that some go so far as to say ‘the road hangs a little past the perpendicular.’...”
Uhrich explains how pioneers managed: “They locked the wheels from turning and let the wagons skid, or they tied their oxen to the back of the wagon as a counterweight to keep it from careening down. There are reports of wagons crashing, but amazingly, no reported fatalities.”
To this day, Windlass Hill is scarred with deep gouges from the countless wagon wheels that made the precipitous descent.
From Ash Hollow, continuing on U.S. Highway 26 toward the town of Scottsbluff, I pass three more impressive natural landmarks: Jailhouse and Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff National Monument—giant stone monoliths that acted as geological beacons for those heading west.
Of these formations, Chimney Rock—a lone, 325-foot-high spire that towers above the plains—is the most famous. Given its physical prominence, Chimney Rock was visible to wagon trains for days, and has the distinction of being the most noted landmark in journals kept by those on the Oregon Trail.
While taking in the awesome sight of these natural monuments, I think about the centuries of travelers they’ve silently observed. For nearly all who have passed in their shadows—from frontiersmen to pioneers to today’s tourists—these massive formations have been a comforting sight, a reminder of progress toward a land of promise.
Heading north, now along Nebraska Highway 71, I enter the westernmost perimeter of the Nebraska Sandhills, a unique region of grass-covered sand dunes that comprises much of Western and Central Nebraska. Spanning nearly 20,000 square miles, the Sandhills cover just over one quarter of the state. It is the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere.
Although sand dunes bring to mind stark desert landscapes, the Sandhills are anything but. They teem with life. Early one evening, I’m graced with a view that makes me understand the deep allure of the region. I look out over an endless sea of blue grama and buffalo grass, rippling in the breeze and cast gold in the low light of the setting sun. Summertime wildflowers punctuate the view in splashes of yellow, purple, pink, and white. To look out over the rolling hills on this peaceful summer evening, as pronghorn placidly graze and cattle low in the background, is to truly experience the magic of this region.
I’m not the only one captivated by the sights and sounds of the Sandhills. The Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, a 272-mile stretch of Nebraska Highway 2 that begins in Grand Island and ends in Alliance, has been named one of the top ten scenic drives in North America.
Such beauty and bounty is supported by a unique and vital a part of the region: The Ogallala Aquifer. The vast subterranean water table under the Sandhills is a life-giving resource, and thousands of lakes, marshes, and meadows can be found between the dunes, where the water table is exposed. And though the sandy, plant-anchored dunes don’t lend themselves to farming, they are perfect for grazing. This is cattle country.
In fact, cattle represent the state’s largest industry. According to the Nebraska Beef Council, there are 20,000 beef cow operations in the state, which have a $12.1 billion impact on Nebraska’s economy. Nearly 5 million head are finished and marketed in Nebraska, a state with a population of less than 2 million. In Nebraska, cattle outnumber people nearly 4 to 1.
Ranchers have been utilizing these lush grasslands—often referred to as “Home of a Million Cattle,” and “God’s Own Cow Country”—since the late 1800s, and the famed Haythorn, Pitzer, and Spade Ranches are among the the many operations to call the region home.
In the town of Alliance, the beautifully curated 19,000-square-foot Knight Museum and Sandhills Center delves into the area’s ranching, Native, pioneer, and railroad eras with extensive displays and exhibits.
As I travel north, the grassy dunes of the Sandhills give rise to the Pine Ridge region, an area of rugged beauty in the northwest corner of the state that is characterized by steep buttes, small canyons, ponderosa pine forests, meadows, and countless streams.
I text an image of the landscape to a friend.
“Guess where I am?” I write.
“Wyoming? No, Montana!” she speculates, assuming the dramatic terrain must belong to a state well known for its mountain vistas.
I’ll be spending two nights in this stunning region at Fort Robinson, a former U.S. Army fort-turned-state park that is a vacation paradise for historians and horsemen.
The historic outpost is saturated with Old West history. It served from the days of the Indian Wars until after World War II and was the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak as well as the death of famed Sioux Chief Crazy horse. Over the years, it served as the Red Cloud Indian Agency, a quartermaster remount depot, training site for the United States Olympic Equestrian Team, and a beef research station.
Today, Fort Robinson—known as Fort Rob—is a horse camping destination that attracts equestrians from all over the country who come to ride amidst the beautiful scenery of the 22,000-acre park.
Bernis and Louise Hollaway, husband and wife ranchers from Colorado, have been hauling their horses to Fort Rob for years.
“Visiting here is like going back in time,” Bernis says of the park’s restored military buildings and unspoiled natural beauty. “You can just imagine walking down the same streets, going through the same doorways, and riding across the same country that people did 150 years ago.”
“Everyone is surprised to discover just how pretty it is here,” Louise chimes in. “You’re driving through flat farmland and all of a sudden the landscape changes and—boom!—you’re in the buttes and pine trees and it’s just stunning.”
Both mention the stellar riding opportunities.
“You can ride anywhere,” Bernis says. “There’s terrain for every rider, and whatever type of ride you’re looking for, you’ll find it here.”
One of Louise’s favorite rides is over the buttes and into the nearby town of Crawford, where you can ride your horse through the drive-through window of Staab’s Drive Inn.
“And stop at the R Bar,” she recommends. “They serve the coldest beer I’ve ever had. When it’s hot out and you’ve just spent all day in the saddle, there’s nothing better.”
For those not inclined to mount up, there’s plenty to do. Take a tour of the grounds in a horse-drawn wagon; explore the flora and fauna of the Pine Ridge in a Jeep ride; eat under the stars at an evening steak cookout; take a self-guided tour of more than a dozen historic structures; and check the event calendar—Fort Rob hosts rodeos, powwows, the popular Ride the Ridge annual trail ride, and plenty more.
From its grassy plains and soaring buttes to its wagon ruts and boot hills, Western Nebraska tells the story of the people who made their mark upon this land. The evidence of their progress is gouged into steep hills; the hoofprints of their horses and cattle imrpint sandy soil; and their bones are buried in the earth. As history has revealed, this is ride-through, graze-upon, bleed-for, breathe-in, fight-for country. It is not fly-over country. It is anything but.