Nebraska's Pine Ridge country is the perfect gateway to South Dakota's noted Black Hills. But irresistible diversions line the way. Murmuring pine forests, twisted badlands and extinct beasts combine with real cowboys and cowgirls and a 10,000-year-old mystery to lasso tourists and hold them in Nebraska.
Nebraska's Monument Valley, in the panhandle, brings back Oregon Trail days of 150 years ago, when the North Platte River Valley was a prairie thoroughfare. Dramatic Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff confirmed to 19th-century travelers that they were making progress in their great journey across North America.
North from Mitchell, placid, white-faced Herefords graze green swales, but fossilized bones of more exotic mammals that roamed here 19-million years ago are found at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. In the visitors center, drawings of weird beasts with strange-sounding names _ moropus, menoceras, parahippus _ look like fantasy animals. Geologists and paleontologists revel in the treasure trove in these hillsides on the creeklike Niobrara river. Two-horned rhinoceroses smaller than Shetland ponies pranced here in vast herds.
Take a right turn on the outskirts of tiny Harrison, Neb., and you're only 25 miles from Fort Robinson State Park. A gray, tree-studded escarpment _ Pine Ridge _ rises behind the historic fort, where Oglala Sioux Chief Crazy Horse died in September 1877 under still-controversial circumstances.
Fort Robinson retains its military mien along with many original buildings. At 20,000 acres it is Nebraska's largest state park; it was a military post from 1874 to 1948. Enlarged photographs from early days grace the walls of the excellent year-round restaurant in the main lodge.
Set in cottonwood-shaded lawns, the white-frame two-story museum documents some of the people who spent time here at Fort Robinson: American Indian chiefs Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Dull Knife; famed doctor Walter Reed; Arthur MacArthur, father of the four-star general.
Established in 1874 as an Indian Agency, the fort's later years were less than dramatic. Companies of "Buffalo Soldiers" (black cavalry) served here, as they did at many frontier posts after the Civil War. During World War I the world's largest Quartermaster Remount Depot was here, and huge horse barns are still on the grounds. Today, visitors can rent horses to ride marked trails into prairies and canyons that reach to the base of high gray cliffs.
In World War II, dogs were trained here for the military, and some German prisoners of war were kept at the fort. Then for several decades it was a U.S. Department of Agriculture research station.
A stagecoach ride jounces visitors around the grounds, giving passengers some sense of how rough it actually was to cross middle America in such relative luxury. Fishing, hiking, biking, picnics, Jeep rides to the top of the ridge and swimming (indoor pool) are also available.
Less than 50 miles from Fort Robinson is Chadron State Park. Sharing the Pine Ridge's woods and rocky outcroppings, both parks make good headquarters for a family vacation.
Day trips north into the bluff country reach Nebraska's badlands at Toadstool Geologic Park, where the magnitude of the process of erosion shows clearly.
A sod house has been built near the trailhead, so people can see what some Nebraska pioneers called home. Warnings on trails heading into Toadstool Park remind hikers to watch out for rattlesnakes. On the Toadstool Park road, also watch for a small, hand-lettered sign pointing out the road to the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site. This dirt road winds along ridges and down into canyons, past ranch houses _ some occupied, others with windows and doors staring blankly.
The trail ends above a pond of blue-green water outlined by cattails and willows. Here, students from Colorado State University crouch in roped-off squares to dig for bones of an estimated 600 buffalo that died here one day perhaps 10,000 years ago. The animals were not slain in a hunt, experts say, so why and how they died remains a mystery.
Chadron State Park is about nine miles south of the town of Chadron, on Highway 20. In the way that Fort Robinson recalls frontier military life, the Chadron area goes even farther back, when lone trappers _ almost always Frenchmen _ built dugouts beside creek beds and spent winters trapping animals with valuable pelts. Beavers were the most sought-after.
More than 900 acres of prairie and Ponderosa bluffs, meticulously maintained Chadron State Park sits on the Pine Ridge division of the Nebraska National Forest. Altitudes approach 5,000 feet above sea level, making summer temperatures pleasant.
Available activities range from swimming to trout fishing to horseback trail rides; cabins are available and campers set up beneath scented pines.
The town of Chadron began in the early part of the 19th Century when a trapper named Chartran (handed down to us today as Chadron) camped beside a creek and began trapping and trading with the Indians for furs.
All of which is recounted at the Museum of the Fur Trade, just east of Chadron. Exhibits include samples of trade goods, clothing that trappers wore _ quite gaudy on special occasions _ and firearms through the years.
On museum grounds is a reconstruction of the small Bordeaux trading post built on this same creek about 1833, and operated by James Bordeaux until 1872. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the site was carefully excavated in 1955 and the buildings put on the original foundations.
The Pine Ridge country is also an ecological crossroads where pine trees stand next to deciduous woodlands interspersed with prairieland, creating ideal conditions for birds.
A checklist is available documenting 285 species that can be found in the 51,000-acre Nebraska National Forest and 94,000-acre Oglala National Grassland, Fort Robinson and Chadron State parks and adjacent private property.
Birds found only in this northwest section of Nebraska include the saw-whet owl, poorwills and evening grosbeaks. The pinyon jay, a bluish member of the crow family, is found in Sioux and Dawes counties.
Flitting here and there may be white-winged juncos, which are found nowhere except in the Black Hills, Pine Ridge and one small corner of Wyoming. The area also serves as a flyway for migratory birds. Hummingbirds, green-tailed towhees, MacGillivary's warblers and Townsend warblers work their way south via pine growths like the Pine Ridge region.
Elk live in the Bordeaux Creek area east of Chadron and in the hills west of Fort Robinson, while mountain sheep like the buttes. A herd of buffalo pastures on Fort Robinson land in Smiley Canyon. Predators include coyotes, foxes, badgers and weasels. Once in a great while a mountain lion ventures into the area.
If you go
For more information, contact the following:
Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism, Dept. of Economic Development, P.O. Box 94666, 700 S 16th St., Lincoln, NE 68509-4666; (800) 228-4307, fax (402) 471-3026.
Scotts Bluff National Monument, P.O. Box 27, Gering, NE 69341. Ask about Oregon Trail Days celebration held annually in mid-July.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Museum: (308) 586-2581. Or contact Nebraska State Historical Society, 1500 R St., Lincoln, NE 68508.
Fort Robinson State Park offices. P.O. Box 392, Crawford, NE 69339-0392; (308) 665-2900, fax (308) 665-2906. Accommodations include cabins, lodge rooms, brick houses (once officers' quarters), camping.
Chadron/Dawes County Chamber of Commerce Information Center, (308) 432-4401. Ask about Fur Trade Days and Powwow in July.
Chadron State Park, 15951 Hwy. 385, Chadron, NE 69337; (308) 432-6167. Two-bedroom cabins, camping sites.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, (308) 668-2211.
Eagle Bookstore, Chadron State College. Carries area history books, including those by Gordon author Mari Sandoz; (308) 432-2200.
The last part of July the annual Ride the Ridge departs from Fort Robinson for a western safari into the Pine Ridge country. Anyone with a horse is welcome to come along. Contact Fort Robinson offices (308) 665-2900.
In Chadron at the Olde Main Street Inn, folks stay in the hotel where General Nelson Miles made his headquarters during the tragic Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890; (308) 432-3380.