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Lessons for High Plains drifters

Special to The Times

IT was the odd grunting noises in the breeze that made me stop pedaling. Dropping the bike in the sagebrush, I climbed a ridge and came upon dozens of grazing buffalo. The cows tossed their heads and called to tawny-colored calves. Bulls, exhaling and snorting in the morning air, stood as massive and solid as locomotives.

The herd turned to gaze up at me. Uh-oh. But then they turned as one and thundered away, hoofs thumping the dry earth, a trail of dust in their wake.

Encountering a herd of bison might seem as unlikely as mountain biking in Nebraska, a state known for its generally flat, tame terrain. But in the state’s panhandle, the Pine Ridge -- a rocky escarpment between the White and Niobrara rivers -- rises high above the grasslands and fractures the plains with buttes and ravines. The trails are challenging and the wildlife plentiful.

In late August 2004, my 12-year-old son, Kelly, and I camped at Ft. Robinson and Chadron state parks about 30 miles apart and rode into the surrounding Oglala National Grasslands -- administered by the Forest Service. The parks and grasslands cover tens of thousands of acres, preserving landscapes and native animals. We saw pronghorn antelope, whitetail and mule deer, coyotes, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and one very large prairie rattlesnake.

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Late August and September -- when most children are back in school -- are great times to visit. At Chadron, Nebraska’s oldest state park, we joined one other family at the outdoor pool and swam under a broiling, late summer sky while the young lifeguards discussed their first day of classes at the local state college. We biked a trail that climbed into the Pine Ridge above the park, where we took in dramatic vistas of the ranchlands and prairie below -- an undulating landscape specked with windmills, water tanks and the dark dots of cattle.

Each night as we made dinner, a pack of coyotes shrieked out a chorus above the campground. When the fire died down, we lay on our backs, unzipped the tent and watched meteors and satellites pass through star fields above -- the night unpolluted by artificial light.

For my son, the Pine Ridge was exotic country and his first look at real cowboys.

We drove into Crawford (population 1,150) for a rodeo sponsored by the National Senior Pro Rodeo Assn., which featured contestants 40 and older. When we arrived, pickups, horse trailers and RVs covered much of the grounds. The air smelled of horses, steers, dust and manure.

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Everyone -- participants, spectators -- wore cowboy garb, and we stood out in our sneakers, cargo shorts and T-shirts. Most people shunned the grandstand and crowded up to the arena fence, leaning forward to watch with serious expressions.

These were ranchers, here to see their own rope and ride.

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Inhabitants past

OF course, before the progenitors of these ranchers homesteaded this land, it belonged to the Plains Indians. When we moved our camp to Ft. Robinson -- an old Army post central in the war against the Sioux -- we found that for some people the history of white settlement remains a raw wound.

We ordered buffalo burgers at the Ft. Robinson Restaurant, where the back of the menu offered a short history lesson on the fort and described the killing of a soldier by “hostile Indians.” Someone with a pen had crossed out and replaced those words with “Native Americans defending their lands.”

It was at Ft. Robinson that Crazy Horse, the famed Sioux warrior, and his starving followers finally surrendered to the U.S. Army in May 1877. A soldier killed Crazy Horse as he was being led off to jail. A marker on the old parade grounds shows the spot.

Many Sioux who refused to stay on the reservations were incarcerated in the fort’s barracks. On a December night in 1879, about 100 people broke out of the barracks and tried to flee into the surrounding buttes. Eleven soldiers and 64 Indians died in the attempt. Our campground lay in what had been their escape route.

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Ft. Robinson continued as a military post until 1948, and many historic buildings remain. Tourists can rent rooms in the enlisted men’s quarters or stay in cabins that once served as homes for officers and their families.

At 22,000 acres, Ft. Robinson is a much bigger park than Chadron (976 acres), and there were a lot of activities with an Old West flavor -- trail rides, chuck wagon cookouts and history tours.

One morning, we took a tubing trip on the nearby White River, a narrow waterway a few feet below the prairie.

They gave us short paddles to push ourselves along, and the kids in the group soon struck out ahead of the adults. The stream was gentle, without hazards, and when Kelly made some friends, I hung back and floated along under the cool shade of the cottonwood trees as the river twisted and ox bowed through the dry landscape.

In the afternoon, I left him for a couple of hours in the arts and crafts room of the activities center, where he bought and carefully painted a ceramic statue of a bison. Meanwhile, I toured the Ft. Robinson Historical Museum, operated by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Later we took a stagecoach ride for a couple of teeth-chattering miles, which demonstrated to us the fortitude of 19th century passengers. No air turbulence on a passenger jet or a drive down a pothole-filled highway could compare.

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Hitting the back country

THE fort maintains riding stables as well, and wranglers lead trail rides into the hills and buttes of the park’s expansive back country. We weren’t horsemen, but our bikes got us into the country. Trails ascending the steep, wooded escarpment of the Pine Ridge required some skill and effort. We stuck primarily to the flatter country of the Oglala National Grasslands, riding dirt roads and jeep tracks to isolated overlooks, badlands and windmills.

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We biked through sagebrush, prairie grasses and late summer sunflowers, which I often stopped to photograph. Such close observation of the land led to odd, even macabre discoveries of detritus preserved by the dry winds of the high plains. We found the bleached skull of a steer, the desiccated but still brilliant plumage of a dead western meadowlark and the shed skin of a rattlesnake being consumed by a horde of beetles. My son loved it.

I cautioned Kelly to watch for snakes, to scan several feet ahead as he walked and to be careful where he placed his hands when climbing. A rattlesnake, unless surprised, usually gives ground or alerts you of its presence, I said.

In the Oglala, we took a three-mile hike to see a fossil bed. When we reached a gate on a barbed wire fence, I leaned on a post to check my map. A sharp, unmistakable rattle -- like castanets -- crackled.

We jumped and ran a few feet -- breathless and giddy.

A prairie rattler lay coiled in the narrow shadow of the fencepost.

It was a closer call than I wanted to admit and a lesson learned. Rattlesnakes find shade where they can in this hot and open country. After a few minutes of mutual staring, we realized the snake wasn’t about to leave its cool refuge to give us safe passage.

Instead, we retreated, walked down the fence line, shinnied under the wires and picked up the trail on the other side -- pleased with the encounter and the outcome.

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In the heartland

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Northwest, United and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes) to Rapid City, S.D. Restricted round-trip fares start at $383. Connecting service into Chadron, Neb., on Frontier and United starts at $443 round-trip.

From Rapid City, it’s about 110 miles to the parks of the Pine Ridge. Take Route 16 west from Rapid City to U.S. 385. Go south on U.S. 385 through the Black Hills into northern Nebraska. Chadron Park is on U.S. 385, nine miles beyond U.S. 20. Ft. Robinson is on U.S. 20, 21 miles west of U.S. 385.

WHERE TO STAY:

Chadron State Park, 15951 U.S. 385, Chadron, NE 69337; (308) 432-6167. Has 70 campsites ($11-$15) and 22 two-bedroom cabins, available April to November. Cabins are equipped with blankets, towels, stoves, refrigerators, silverware and cooking utensils. Park has a pool, tennis and sand volleyball courts, craft center, mountain bike rentals, horseback trail rides and evening historical programs. Reservations are taken a year in advance. $55-$65.

Ft. Robinson State Park, 3200 U.S. 20, P.O. Box 392, Crawford, NE 69339; (308) 665-2900. Ft. Robinson has 60 miles of hiking and 20 miles of mountain biking trails. Horses can be ridden on 20 miles of designated horse trails and fire service roads and be boarded at the park. The Trailside Museum interprets the geology and natural history of the fossil-rich region. The park has 125 camping sites ($11, $19 with electric). There are also rooms in the enlisted men’s quarters and cabins that date from 1874 to 1909, each with kitchens, baths, living rooms and bedrooms. Rooms $35-$50. Cabins $80-$110.

Oglala National Grasslands, Forest Service, 125 N. Main St., Chadron NE 69337; (308) 432-0300, www.fs.fed.us/r2/nebraska. Backcountry, or primitive, camping is allowed almost anywhere. There are six campsites at Toadstool Park (several miles north of Crawford), which is characterized by wind-eroded, clay/sandstone formations. Vehicle fees, $3 per day, $5 overnight.

WHERE TO EAT:

The Ft. Robinson Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner during the summer season. The buffalo burgers and steaks are from the park’s resident herd. Snacks are available at Sutler’s store in the activities center. Other mom-and-pop restaurants and some national chains are also in Chadron and Crawford.

THINGS TO DO:

Biking in the Pine Ridge can be difficult. Many of the single tracks are steep and require skill. The topography is gentler on the prairie, but the abundant prickly pear cactus can easily puncture tires. Bring a patch-repair kit and extra tubes.

Fossils are prevalent. The Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (www.nps.gov/agfo/), 45 miles southwest of Ft. Robinson, is one of the best-preserved Miocene mammal sites in the world. And the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill (www.hudson-meng.org) near Crawford displays the bones of hundreds of bison that simultaneously died 10,000 years ago.

TO LEARN MORE:

Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism, P.O. Box 98907 Lincoln, NE 68509-8907; (877) NEBRASKA (632-7275), www.visitnebraska.org.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 2200 N. 33rd St., Lincoln, NE 68503; (402) 471-0641, camping reservations, (402) 471-1414, www.ngpc.state.ne.us/parks.

-- James McCommons


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