Life

Wandering Nebraska and South Dakot's rich Fossil Freeway

Marion Patterson photos

Bluffs tower above the rolling high plains around Fort Robinson State Park in northwest Nebraska.
Marion Patterson photos Bluffs tower above the rolling high plains around Fort Robinson State Park in northwest Nebraska.
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A  shaft of morning sunshine squeezed between rocky buttes to illuminate and warm us as we sat on the veranda of Fort Robinson’s lodge. We wrapped our hands around a mug of steaming coffee on a chilly October morning as the rich history of this remote northwest Nebraska place oozed into us.

Our second-story perch overlooked a massive parade ground between former Army buildings. In the morning stillness we imagined soldiers hustling to roll call and beginning their day of varied duties. A few hundred yards to our right was the tragic spot where Crazy Horse was bayoneted on Sept. 5, 1877, only 15 months after humbling Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Dr. Walter Reed and Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur’s father, Arthur, once walked through the portal to the main floor below us while stationed at this distant fort.

A half-mile south once stood the Red Cloud Agency where 13,000 Lakota were interned before the reservation system was established. The fort was home for the Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalrymen who were touted as the world’s best horsemen.

Fort Robinson once was the world’s largest remount, where horses and mules were trained for military duty. It also was the training site for the K-9 Corps and later housed German prisoners of war captured from Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Corps.

Following military deactivation, Fort Robinson briefly was a beef research station before becoming a Nebraska state park in 1962. Today it’s a fascinating place to stay a few days in one of the many former Army buildings that have been converted to overnight housing. The park also has a campground.

Our October visit was to focus on Nebraska and South Dakota’s Fossil Freeway (www.fossilfreeway.net). The freeway isn’t a single road but part of the two states that are rich in paleontological treasures. The western portions of Nebraska and South Dakota boast places where people can see evidence of prehistoric life. The freeway starts in Kimball, Neb., and runs roughly north to its end in Rapid City, S.D.

Our plan was to base at Fort Robinson and explore fossil sites as day trips.

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We picked up Highway 20 near Cedar Falls and followed it more than 600 miles to reach Fort Robinson, which is bisected by the historic road. It’s the longest highway in the country, extending from Boston to Newport, Ore. After crossing the Missouri River, we drove through Nebraska corn and bean fields that looked much like Iowa’s scenery until crops faded into the immense mounded grassland of the Sand Hills.

Far more Angus cattle than people live in one of the world’s largest prairies. Rich with history and wildlife, the Sand Hills region is dotted with potholes important for migrating water fowl and sits atop the important Ogallala Aquifer. The region was designated a U.S. National Natural Landmark in 1984.

An unusual feature along the Nebraska stretch of Highway 20 is the many small towns.

Most have suffered population declines as young people moved away to find opportunities elsewhere. Despite that, many towns show civic pride through beautiful parks and local museums.

Plainview, Neb., is among the various towns that welcome visitors to camp in the town park. Sometimes there’s a nominal fee, but usually it’s free, and many campsites have electric plug-ins. The town even features the Klown Doll Museum.

Between Norfolk in the east and Valentine in the central part of Nebraska, we kept noticing what looked like a finished bicycle trail. Then, farther west was evidence of trail construction along an old railroad bed.

Sure enough, when we asked Kristina Reeves, tourism director for northwest Nebraska, about it, she handed us a brochure with a map and details of the trail.

Managed by Nebraska Game and Parks, it is touted as the longest rails-to-trails conversion project nationwide. It looks great.

In Valentine, we detoured slightly to visit Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts bison and elk herds. A ways past Valentine, the Sand Hills transitioned to more level terrain with crops near Chadron. The horizon featured rocky bluffs crowned with ponderosa pines. We’d entered the land beyond the Sand Hills: the Pine Ridge country that extends north into South Dakota.

Fort Robinson

“Fort Rob is the fifth most popular place for family reunions,” Reeves said.

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The fort can house large groups in historic buildings that once served as military billets. Comanche Hall, for example, once was the BOQ, or Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. Today it can accommodate 60 people and rents for $850 a night. That’s only $14 a person.

During summer, visitors enjoy hiking, fishing, swimming and organized activities that include jeep and horseback riding, cookouts and frontier crafts. We stayed in the main lodge, which has rooms that can be rented by couples or individuals. Our bare-bones room lacked a television and Wi-Fi, but the area was so interesting that we never missed it. And the whole reason to visit the Fort Robinson area is to slow down and absorb the natural and cultural heritage. Our overnight fee was about $70.

Anyone preferring to stay in a conventional motel will find many in Chadron, about 25 miles away, or a few in Crawford, three miles east. For a rural experience, they might opt to stay at the Down Home Ranch Guest House at www.downhomeranchhouse.com.

The Fort Robinson Lodge operates a dining room during summer. Otherwise visitors can experience interesting dining in Crawford, Chadron or Harrison. Because we visited in October, few tourists were around, making it easy to mingle with locals dining at the Gate City Hotel and Grill in Crawford and the Longhorn Saloon in Harrison.

At the Gate City Hotel and Grill, we encountered a couple wearing Western garb and introduced ourselves. That started a long and pleasant conversation with Sandy and Bud Hamaker, who run about 500 cattle on their nearby ranch and also operate the Down Home Ranch and Guest House. The next evening, in the Longhorn Saloon in Harrison, we enjoyed learning the history of this tiny and remote town from the woman who cooked and served our meals.

We are glad we took time to chat with the folks who call this region home. The Haymakers have ranched the area for generations. Some streets in Harrison are named for the “young ladies brought in to entertain the workers,” the server said. We checked it out. Rose, Grace, Kate and May streets all lined up on one side of the crossroads in this small outpost.

This is ranch country, so beef was prominent on menus. Although we don’t normally eat much red meat, we enjoyed delicious burgers in area restaurants. The steaks are superb.

At about 22,000 acres, Fort Robinson is one of the largest state parks in the United States. Few non-Nebraskans would imagine that the state has trout, but during a hike in the park we encountered Jim Budde, who enjoyed outstanding fishing for wild brook trout in Soldier Creek. Budde drives in from eastern Nebraska a couple of times a year.

“It’s just me and the fish,” he said, grinning.

Towering pines above the stream reminded us of places in states farther west.

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Fort Rob’s history started way before the U.S. Army arrived. At the trailside museum next to the lodge was an exhibit of two massive bull mammoths found just 12 miles north. These huge animals locked their tusks together during a mating battle. Unable to separate, both died about 12,000 years ago, only to have their skeletons discovered and placed in the museum.

Rainy weather

The Trailside Museum of Natural History was our first stop on the Fossil Freeway. Unfortunately, our visit to western Nebraska coincided with a rare multiday rainstorm. Some area roads are paved but more are gravel. Cars can negotiate them easily almost year-round, but we found gooey gumbo that prevented us from visiting some paleontological sites. Fortunately, we had been to them a few years before.

A few miles northwest of Crawford is Toadstool Geologic Park. It is in the Nebraska Badlands. Although treeless, it is administered by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Oglala National Grassland. A few years ago, we camped at Toadstool’s edge and enjoyed spectacular star views miles from light pollution.

The following day we enjoyed a loop hike that wove between Badlands terrain with ancient fossils poking from the earth. A three-mile hike from Toadstool takes intrepid walkers to the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Station, also operated by the U.S. Forest Service. About 10,000 years ago, at least 600 bison died in a small area. A roof covers the excavation, and visitors can spot the remains of a bison species that was the ancestor of the familiar animal of today. During normal dry spells, Hudson-Meng is easily accessed by car.

South of the tiny town of Harrison is Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. It can be accessed by paved roads, but we elected to try to reach it from Chadron via gravel roads that, at first, appeared passible. Ten miles in, we hit “gumbo roads” and turned back with plans to visit the monument on our next trip.

Our October itinerary changed somewhat because of inaccessible roads but led us to interesting places we might not have otherwise visited. One was the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center on the campus of Chadron State College. Exhibits feature the life and literature of Sandoz, who was born and raised in the vastness of the Great Plains and wrote “Old Jules” and “Love Song to the Plains.”

A few miles east of Chadron on Highway 20 is the Museum of the Fur Trade. It features a history of the fur trade from ancient times to today.

South Dakota

After two days in northwestern Nebraska, we headed north on paved roads to Hot Springs, S.D., on the south edge of the Black Hills. We enjoyed a few hours at the Mammoth Site on the edge of town. It’s a significant point on the Fossil Freeway.

In 1974, a developer planning to convert 14 acres into housing discovered huge bones during an early excavation. It proved to be a treasure of ancient life. For about a 50,000-year period starting around 190,000 years ago, two species of extinct elephants attempted to drink water from a deep pit surrounded by slippery soil. They could get in but not out and eventually died.

The Mammoth Site is a nonprofit open year-round. Research conducted there has revealed much about these once-mighty animals. The organization welcomes visitors, and we took in an introductory film and guided tour that circled the excavation area under a massive roof to protect it from weather. The interpreter shared stories of how parts of the site were uncovered, pointed out the unusual “tennis sneaker bottom” type grinding teeth, and introduced us to Sinbad the really gigantic mammoth. People can volunteer to excavate at the site.

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We had just seen the mammoth skeletons at the Trailside Museum in Nebraska and had learned that they died about 12,000 years ago. The mammoths found near Hot Springs lived much earlier. They were truly immense, and it’s hard to imagine that these wild elephants roamed much of the northern hemisphere for perhaps a million years. No one is certain why they went extinct. Perhaps because of overkilling by a new predator — people who had recently arrived in North America. Or perhaps climate change or other factors led to their demise.

“Possibly it was a combination of several stresses that they just couldn’t overcome,” said Justin Wilkens, geo- spatial technician and educator at the Mammoth Site (www.mammothsite.org).

Most mammoths were extinct by 10,000 or 11,000 years ago, but populations of dwarfs persisted on Pacific Ocean islands until around 4,000 years ago. Dwarf is a relative term. These elephants were much smaller than their mainland cousins but still were huge animals.

After a day in Hot Springs, we drove north through Wind Cave National Park and set up our tent near the Game Lodge in Custer State Park. It was the one clear night of our trip, and the stars were spectacular. Clouds moved in, and as we were rolling up our tent the next morning, snowflakes began swirling down. Our short drive to Rapid City, S.D., was in near-blizzard conditions.

Rapid City is the northern end of the Fossil Freeway. We couldn’t leave before driving Skyline Drive and walking up to massive concrete dinosaurs created during the Depression as a tourist attraction. Clouds finally had cleared away. While standing beneath the neck of a giant concrete dinosaur, we enjoyed a spacious view of Rapid City and the Great Plains to the east.

Rapid City is the largest town in that part of western South Dakota and Nebraska. It has diverse restaurants and dozens of motels.

South Dakota tourism sites generally are open during spring and fall but Nebraska sites mostly are open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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