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A Royal find: Crossing Nebraska on U.S. Highway 20 offers fascinating look at prehistory

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By Marion and Rich Patterson, correspondents

ROYAL NEB. — As paleontologist Mike Voorhies walked up a gully in Melvin Colson’s Nebraska cornfield he spotted a skull sticking out of a recently eroded patch of sparking gray ash. It was connected to a complete baby rhinoceros skeleton.

A rhinoceros in Nebraska? That may seem strange, but millions of years ago these lumbering mammals lived with browsing horses, oreodonts, three-horned deer, giraffe camels, bone crushing dogs, four tusked elephants, and a host of other long vanished creatures that once prowled much of North America.

One otherwise normal day 12 million years ago, a blizzard of gray volcanic ash settled over the prairie. Drifting from a massive volcanic eruption in what is now southern Idaho, the gritty cloud dumped about a foot of powdery ash on Nebraska. As rhino lungs filled with abrasive dust, a herd made a desperate attempt to find clean air and water in a low marshy area. It was a false refuge, as winds blew upland ash downward until 8 feet of it covered and suffocated the suffering beasts. This prairie Pompeii tragically killed hundreds of animals of many species. After Voorhies discovered the skull, an excavation revealed a treasure trove of bones that have helped paleontologists understand what life was like in a Nebraska much different from today.

Usually paleontologists find a scattered bone here and there, but at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park the ash blizzard quickly buried and preserved dozens of intact skeletons. Starting in 1977 and partly funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society, Voorhies supervised an excavation that continues today. He mentored current site superintendent Rick Otto who now welcomes visitors and supervises and mentors students who continue the excavation.

Because of its significance the site was acquired by Nebraska Game and Parks and has been designated a national landmark managed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. During warm months visitors are invited to enter a large enclosed rhino barn that protects the excavation area from the weather and to watch students excavate skeletons.

The Ashfall area is a pleasant place to overnight. We primitive camped in nearby Grove Lake Wildlife Area, but several modern campgrounds are nearby and motels abound in O’Neill and other communities. Ashfall is just north of U.S. Highway 20 near the town of Royal, Neb., about 360 miles from Cedar Rapids.

Drivers crossing Nebraska on Interstate 80 or South Dakota on I-90 often complain of hours of boredom. On their next trip west they should try taking U.S. Highway 20. We accessed this historic road near Waterloo and followed it 607 miles west to Crawford, Neb., with an overnight near Ashfall. The highway is sandwiched between two interstates and is a much more scenic route to the Black Hills and other western destinations. Driving U.S. Highway 20 has a downside. So many fascinating sights adjoin the highway that a curious traveler might never make it farther west.

More than prehistory and history dot the route. Swift water canoeing on the Niobrara River near Valentine makes a delightful travel stop. Several outfitters rent canoes and arrange shuttles. We were amazed at the current’s speed in terrain that appears nearly level. Paddling was effortless as we drifted by high bluffs and a waterfall. Nebraska has trout. Few might believe that this cold water fish would live in open country, but many clear cool streams bisect Highway 20 and offer surprisingly good angling.

Highway 20 sees little traffic and passes small towns that proudly welcome campers to overnight in their city park. We once spent a pleasant night in the Laurel, Neb., park and Plainview offers free camping in Chilver’s park. Camping, including water and electricity, is free. Want a smile? Just across the road from the camping area is the Circus Klown Doll Museum. It features an amazing array of toy circus clowns.

West of Valentine, Highway 20 bisects the huge, wild and beautiful Nebraska Sandhills of novelist Mari Sandoz fame. Too steep and sandy for cultivation the native prairie nurtures millions of blooming wildflowers. A stop at the Arthur Bowring Sandhills Ranch State Historic Park near Merriman gives a glimpse of a pioneer life in one of the remotest areas in the continental United States. Further west and just east of Chadron is the Museum of the Fur Trade. It transports travelers back to the mountain main era.

Northern Nebraska is lightly populated and lacks major cities, making the night sky spectacular. Few places in the United States offer better star viewing, often with the musical accompaniment of singing coyotes and hooting owls.

After miles of prairie, Highway 20 enters the Pine Ridge Country between Chadron and Crawford. Visited by few, it is a gorgeous landform of pines crowning steep rocky cliffs. The best place to enjoy the Pine Ridge is at Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford. Once home of the Seventh Calvary, today’s travelers can stay in buildings that formerly housed troops. Campers are welcome, and the entire area brims with both the history of the old horse cavalry and prehistory. The Park’s Trailside Museum features the locked together skulls of two massive mammoths. Engaged in a fierce mating fight thousands of years ago the bulls tangled their tusks. Unable to pull apart the hapless elephants eventually died of exhaustion.

We camped at Toadstool Park north of Crawford. The campground is operated by the U.S. Forest Service and ironically lacks trees but adjoins eroded badlands that hold bones of long extinct dinosaurs. A short hike brought us to a track bed where dinosaurs once walked in soft mud that hardened and was preserved by sediment that eventually eroded off. Not a single electric light was visible after sunset making star viewing spectacular.

Near Toadstool is the Hudson-Meng Bison bonebed where around 10,000 years ago Native Americans stampeded buffalo over a cliff. The terrified beasts plunged to their death, providing people with an abundance of food. Operated by the Forest Service it’s open to the public during warm months.

Like Ashfall it has a building protecting excavated bones.

Driving west across Highway 20 is not a linear progression in prehistory. The oldest specimens are dinosaur remains at Toadstool near the Wyoming line. Millions of years later rhinos died at Ashfall and millions more years later Native Americans herded bison off Hudson-Meng’s cliffs. The fur trade, settlement and construction of Highway 20 are amazingly recent in contrast.

We’ve never been able to wrap our minds around enormous textbook years explaining geological and paleontological eras. Instead we think of relative time this way:

5 a.m. today — Dinosaurs become extinct. See evidence at Toadstool.
Noon today — Rhinos die. See bones at Ashfall
9 to 10 p.m. today — Native Americans enter continent. Mammoths go extinct. Bison herded over cliff. See bones at Hudson-Meng Bonebed.
11:30 p.m. — Columbus makes landfall.
11:45 p.m. — Lewis and Clark head West.
11:50 p.m. — Fur trade. Visit Museum of the Fur Trade.
11:55 p.m. — Homesteaders arrive. Visit Bowring Ranch.
11:57 p.m. — Highway 20 is built.
1:59 p.m. — We set up our tent near Ashfall.

From The Chadron and Crawford area it is about 100 miles north to Rapid City and Interstate 90. The southern Black Hills and Wind Cave National Park are only about 50 miles north. It may take a little longer to drive west on Highway 20 instead of the interstates, but the blend of outstanding scenery and fascinating lessons from the past make for a memorable Nebraska crossing.

More information

• Nebraska Tourism Commission, tourism@VisitNebraska.org, (402) 471-3796.

• Canoeing and Bowring Historical site-Valentine Chamber of Commerce, www.visitvalentine.org, (402) 376-2969.

• Fort Robinson State Park, www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov/parks, (308) 665-2919.

• Hudson-Meng Education and Research Station and Toadstool, www.fs.usda/gov/detail/Nebraska

• Ashfall Fossil Beds, OutdoorNebraska.org, (402) 893-2000, Ashfall.unl.edu.

• Circus Klown Doll Museum, www.klowndollmuseum,com, (402) 582-4433.

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