Ironically, when we lived in Nebraska, we loved to go camping in Colorado. However, when we moved to Colorado, we missed our old Nebraska haunts, so we decided to revisit them all in “one fell swoop” (to quote Shakespeare). We planned an ambitious, three-week trip through the Great Plains, beginning the middle of May 2016 at Fort Robinson and then heading south to Pine Ridge near Chadron, Halsey National Forest, Kanopolis State Park near Ellsworth, Kansas, Cimarron National Grassland on the Kansas/Colorado border, and then home. With stops to visit grandchildren in Nebraska and Oklahoma, the camping trip with our two horses and dog would be an odyssey.
Planning proved to be time consuming and complicated. First, we had to take to horses to our veterinarian for health papers and coggins tests where we learned that we had to have separate documents for each of the states that we would be visiting as well as the dates we would be in that state. Then, we had to reserve camping sites as well as stalls and corrals at Fort Robinson and Kanopolis. So much for spontaneity. Then, since we have not been camping with the horses for a year, the camper and trailer needed to be cleaned and packed. We had downsized considerably, so finding space for enough hay as well as feed for the horses and dog to last three weeks as well as tack proved challenging. Then, since the weather report for early May in northwestern Nebraska looked chilly and Oklahoma hot and humid, we had to pack everything from heavy jackets to shorts and sandals. At the last minute, fortunately, we threw in some long underwear and stocking caps.
Our first stop was Fort Robinson after a stressful drive through Denver on I-25 to I-80. However, we arrived at the fort in plenty of time to retrieve our reservations and instructions from the office door (it was after hours) and appreciate the sign posted above the entry: “Through These Portals Passed the World’s Finest Horsemen.” (The stalls cost $13 per night and the campsite without water is $20.) We headed to the mare barn to feed and bed down the horses in their clean, roomy stalls after our ten-hour drive, and then we set up camp in the campground. We had reserved a campsite without water or electrical hookups since our camper is self-contained; however, we were close to the stables and the restrooms, which also had showers. Several groups were returning from their trail rides, and since Bear is a people magnet, we met horse people from several states and received good advice on where to ride.
We chose first to follow the Red Cloud Trail to the buttes. We had forgotten how amazing the view was overlooking the valley high above the fort. What a history this site has had from its beginnings in 1874! It has been an army camp during the Indian wars, the Red Cloud Indian Agency, a cavalry remount station, a K-9 training center, and a POW camp. Tragic events have left their ghosts, too, with the deaths of sixty-four Cheyenne in the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the murder of Crazy Horse. The trail was fairly easy until we circled around to the west where we encountered a short, steep, rocky stretch on the way back down, but we were able to dismount and let the horses slip and slide without us messing up their balance! We crossed the road and headed for Soldiers Creek, following it through the prairie. We ate our lunch of peanut better and jelly sandwiches along the creek under the cottonwoods while the horses grazed. Several shallow water crossing were excellent practice for Terry’s young gelding, and Bear proceeded to undo the $75 grooming we had asked him to endure for the trip since a huge, smelly, shedding dog is not a fun traveling companion. All in all, it was a good day for everyone. According to our GPS, we rode 11 miles and spent five hours in the saddle. Everyone slept well that night.
On our second day of trail riding, we headed back to the buttes and turned east, trying to figure out the map we had been given at the Fort’s office. They told us that the new maps had not arrived, and we wished that they had because none of the trail markers matched those on the map. We had no idea which trail we were on, but because we could see the fort, we didn’t worry about getting lost. Unfortunately, we did end up on a trail (we have no idea which one) that cut across a steep incline where the horses had trouble keeping their footing. Then we came to some big rocks, and the trail disappeared up over them. As there was no turning around or even getting off, we gave the horses their heads and hung on. Obviously, we have no photos of this part of the trip, but we gained a new respect for our guys as rock climbers. After surviving that, we came to a beautiful grassy and forested part of the buttes overlooking Crawford where we all rested and lunched. That day we logged 7 1/2 miles, but only rode four hours since the wind was increasing, and it was beginning to sprinkle. Thankfully, we had on our thermal underwear, stocking hats, gloves, and oilskin drover coats, so we were comfy.
We had planned on camping near Chadron the next day, but it began raining, so we decided that the horses would prefer the dry stalls at Fort Robinson to the primitive campgound at Pine Ridge. We spent the day in the camper, reading and napping, and rented a stall for Bear near the horses. He wasn’t too happy about that, but I did not want to spend the night with a wet dog in a pickup camper!
The next morning we decided to skip Roberts Campgound at Pine Ridge since the dirt roads might be impassable after the rain. Because Halsey was only a few hours away, we rode in the morning near the fort. The state park, established in 1962, covers 22,000 acres, so we had plenty of options. We also found several new trails that were being constructed in this area. With the new trails and the new map, it should be an even better place to ride in the future. And we had not even ventured to the trails in the Wilderness area.
The drive through the Nebraska sandhills was picturesque and relaxing, for we met only a few pickups, everyone giving us the farmer wave, and we reciprocated. The Nebraska National Forest at Halsey is our favorite trail riding location. Tucked between the Middle Loup and Dismal rivers, the forest consists of more than 90,000 acres with about 22,000 acres of hand-planted trees. Botonist Charles E. Bessey, a conservationist and proponent of scientific farming, persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to establish a national forest in the sandhills in 1902, and between 1903 and 1921, 13,500,000 seedlings were set out. I have a special connection with this forest because in 1928 when my father was fifteen, he spent the summer working in the forest reserve, presumably in the Bessey nursery, cultivating seedlings that that would be distributed to farmers as well as to Nebraska cities to shade parks and schools.
Our destination was the Nattick Campground and corrals on the west side of the forest. We had camped at the Whitetail campground on the east side of the park, and although it is near the river and has corrals, it is also very popular with dirt bikers and four-wheelers, not a good mix with horses. Since we were probably some of the first to use the wooden corrals at Nattick, I had to pull some of the weeds growing in the lots because our horses have only been fed hay, and I was afraid they would colic if they ate too much of the high-protein, spring greenery. Water was nearby in a tank by a windmill, and we were able to find a nice camping spot not far from the corrals. We set up camp, and Terry soon had a nice fire going and hamburgers on the grill.
The following morning, we headed east out of the Nattick Campground for a fifteen mile ride, making much better time in the Sandhills than the mountains! The area is divided into separate, large pastures that are leased by area ranchers, and each pasture has one or more windmills, each one being numbered. Although there are trails in most of the pastures, some are very faint, and the trick is to find the gates between pastures to navigate among them. Fortunately, a map can be obtained at the park headquarters that includes the number of each windmill, so riders can pinpoint their location. An app of the “Bessey Ranger District” is also available that can be downloaded to a cell phone. The GPS map shows you where you are physically within the park, but it does not give the windmill numbers, gates, or fences.
We again took along our gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water, and trail mix and headed out for all day. One of the advantages of riding at Halsey is the varied terrain that changes from forest to treeless rolling hills carpeted with prairie grasses. In some places, Ponderosa pine and cedar line both sides of the trail; in others, there is a mix of pines and gently rolling hills; and the western part of the park is as treeless as when the Sioux roamed the prairie searching for buffalo. The soft sand and matted prairie grasses made easy walking for our horses used to rocky mountain trails, and we could choose to follow a trail or strike off on our own to explore. The park was as wonderful as we had remembered . . . and we did not need long underwear.
That evening we decided to drive into Halsey to eat at the local steak house, the Double T, one we remembered with anticipation for their amazing steaks. Once, when the owner, who looked like a rancher, delivered our medium rare steaks, he said, “You don’t want any steak sauce to ruin these, do you?” Of course, we didn’t. We were natives! As we drove down the one block of main street, we discovered much to our chagrin, that it was closed on a Friday night. We headed to nearby Thedford for groceries and discovered a wonderful butcher shop in the of heart cattle country, so we stocked up on good Nebraska beef and pork. The next morning, Terry cooked sausage and eggs over the fire, and that evening we feasted on steaks. Wow!
The next morning we decided that we would ride west into the treeless sandhills, return to camp for a noon lunch, and then take another route in the afternoon. We checked the map and planned our routes. We ended up riding most of the day because some of the windmills weren’t marked or the gates where they said they were on the map. Fortunately, the day was sunny with a warm breeze, we had packed trail mix and water, and the horses had plenty of tanks where they could quench their thirst, so we followed the GPS map and eventually found our way back to camp. I had read stories about how the Sioux could easily elude the cavalry in the sandhills when the men became disoriented in the endless, undulating hills, and we could understand their confusion. They, however, did not have the security of GPS. As we were wandering through the prairie grasses, we were encouraged by the cheerful meadowlarks and watched over by the soaring red-tailed hawks. We took our time, stopping occasionally to enjoy the prairie flowers and let the horses rest and graze. Fourteen miles later, we returned to camp.
The weather report again predicted a heavy chance of rain for the next several days, so we decided to break camp and head to our next stop, Hildreth, Nebraska, where I had raised my children and where my son still farms. We thought we would wait out the rains and continue on our journey, but we learned that the weather bureau was issuing tornado warnings for our next campground near Ellsworth, Kansas. Halfway through our ambitious tour, we decided that the weather had triumphed, so we headed home. Although we started early in the season and encountered typical spring weather, we also beat the mosquitoes, the ticks, and the hordes of vacationers. Besides, we had logged over forty miles, enjoyed most of them, and encountered no calamities. We declared our adventure a success!