Cowboys, Carhenge, and Crooked Trails: Explorations in Northwest Nebraska

Nebraska has more than a few surprises in store for outdoor adventurers.
Nebraska has more than a few surprises in store for outdoor adventurers. Melina Coogan
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I’ll admit that Nebraska seemed an unlikely place to go in search of adventure. And, as so often is the case with people who make assumptions, I was dead wrong.

Nebraska was unlike any place I’d ever visited, with a landscape that ranged from desolate to spectacular, from open grasslands to alien sandstone formations—and the sense that no matter how stalwart an adventurer you might be, your grit, stamina, and thirst for adventure barely held a candle to the settlers and cowboys that came before.

The Oregon Trail

My first day exploring the Great Plains began at a windswept state park called Ash Hollow, which had a plaintive, lonely kind of beauty. Here, I ran along a paved trail through an undulating prairie to two narrow indentations in the earth—possibly the most sought-after indentations in the country. This is where the wagon wheels rolled deeply into the ground as 500,000 pioneers headed west on the Oregon Trail, leaving behind ruts that are still visible today.

Chimney Rock is one of the most recognizable landmarks along the Oregon Trail.
Chimney Rock is one of the most recognizable landmarks along the Oregon Trail. Melina Coogan

The story of the Oregon Trail is intricately woven into the Nebraskan wilderness. People fall hard for the concept of manifest destiny and the westward expansion, both the romanticized version of hearty pioneer life and the grim realities of its endless perils. It’s this historical escapism that inspires visitors from across the world to make the trip to Nebraska to ‘touch the ruts’, watch living history exhibits, and visit Chimney Rock, the iconic landmark made famous by the campy 90’s computer game.

While I’ve never considered myself a history buff, it was surprisingly enthralling to reach down and touch the wheel tracks and imagine the stream of road weary travelers trudging alongside their wagons. It was a type of adventure I’d never experienced before—it felt like time travel.

Roadside Attractions

Sunrise on the way to the Hudson-Meng Trail from the back of a truck.
Sunrise on the way to the Hudson-Meng Trail from the back of a truck. Melina Coogan

While exploring a state as vast and looming as Nebraska, there’s no shortage of time spent behind the wheel, but driving across the Great Plains turned out to be an adventure in its own right—a little slice of the classic American Road Trip.

En route from Ash Hollow to Fort Robinson State Park, I dropped by ‘Carhenge,’ a bizarre roadside attraction that is exactly what the name suggests: a ring of grey-painted automobiles, stuck hood-down into the ground, and arranged like the stones at Stonehenge. "Is this a statement piece? Or is this utter randomness?" Asks a placard at the adjacent visitor center, although it never does answer the question.

Carhenge isn’t the only piece of roadside Americana you’ll find here. Nebraska boasts several of the world’s largest: ball of stamps, time capsule, and front porch (seats 17). Just two miles from Carhenge, is the Nebraska Rest Stop: a giant hay bale adorned with a toilet and recliner, with a whopping ten square feet of free wifi.

Bizarre as they might be, these oddities did lessen the sting of having to drive many hours between the parks and towns on my itinerary.

Exploring Pine Ridge

You can’t beat a slice of fresh cinnamon cream pie.
You can’t beat a slice of fresh cinnamon cream pie. Melina Coogan

I spent the night at Fort Robinson State Park in an echoing adobe barrack. Most of the state parks in Nebraska offer camping sites and cabin rentals, but if you skim just below the surface you can find quirkier places to rest your head—teepees, covered wagons, a room at a working ranch (I spent one night at an old homestead where the proprietor even gave me an ice-cold pepsi and cinnamon cream pie). The barracks at Fort Robinson were drafty and a bit of an eerie place to sleep alone, but that’s what I appreciate about the mindset of the Great Plains—it’s authentic and unapologetic.

I woke up the next morning eager to explore the 22,000 acres of this former military fort. Fort Robinson sits in the Pine Ridge, one of the most rugged landscapes I’ve ever seen. Had I been dropped there by helicopter, I would have thought myself in the middle of Utah or Arizona. I climbed through ruby-toned canyons to the flat summits of boxy buttes, and up and down small crumbling peaks of eroded sandstone. I instantly regretted not bringing my mountain bike—this place was like a natural skate park with a hard-packed trail weaving through the whole thing.

There are about 100 miles of trails and old service roads at Fort Robinson open to biking, hiking, and horseback riding (you can even board your horse there). Only a handful of these trails are signed or mapped, and while the ranger I talked with said it was a work in progress, the park doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. This attitude was something I encountered many times during my trip: do what you want out there, as long as you’re prepared to deal with the consequences. In fact, every acre of Game and Parks space in the state is open to hikers, as long as you get in touch with the local office before you head out. Just don’t expect trails, signs, or maps—you’re on your own out there, just like the original pioneers.

Later on in the day, I accompanied a ranger on a Jeep ride through the surrounding hills to search for bighorn sheep. The state’s emphasis on wildlife is one large contradicting tangle of protecting, viewing, fishing, and hunting for it. Fort Robinson owns its own herd of buffalo and longhorn sheep, and working ranches turned historical parks throughout the state are big tourists draws.

Nebraska is also a birders paradise. The Platte River Valley in the northeast, part of the Great American Flyway, is a spring stopover for 80% of the world’s sandhill cranes, along with millions of ducks and geese.

Start your morning in Nebraska with a hot mug of cowboy coffee.
Start your morning in Nebraska with a hot mug of cowboy coffee. Melina Coogan

Nebraska: No Pretense

Living in mountain cities my whole life, I have my après-adventure routine pretty well hammered out. It usually involves a pint of craft beer and the company of other outdoorsy folk who look and think almost exactly like me. In Nebraska, I found myself in bars and restaurants that held no pretenses whatsoever. I ate various cuts of steak with baked potatoes as my vegetable and an enormous tray of a vanilla pudding cookie concoction for dessert. A jukebox sang tinny songs in the corner and actual cowboys—boots, hats, and all—wordlessly drank bottles of Bud Light. Somewhere outside of Crawford I was treated to two separate entrees for which the bar was famous: steak nachos and potato nachos, both ‘double-loaded.’

As much as I love my sporty little niche at home, I found it a great relief to find a state that had serious opportunities for outdoor recreation, but was missing the scene that is found in some many of the popular outdoor towns in the U.S. It felt fresh and low-key—a good change of pace. The bar wouldn’t have been caught dead calling itself farm-to-table, but the steak was from cattle raised just next door.

Hiking the Hudson-Meng Trail to See Rock Formations

Hands down, my favorite excursion was the sunrise hike on the Hudson-Meng Trail. My ranger guide and I began at dark, crossing through the Oglala Grasslands on a narrow path that soon ducked down into an ancient riverbed. The guide was very kind, but also very serious and extremely passionate about the land. Every few minutes he would turn towards me and, speaking through a sign language interpreter, explain how important it was it was that all visitors refrain from touching or pocketing any fossil, bone, or stone.

Toadstool Geologic Park is filled with unique natural formations.
Toadstool Geologic Park is filled with unique natural formations. Melina Coogan

As the warnings increased to every few steps, I finally realized what he was implying. "Wait! Do you think I’m taking things?" I exclaimed. “I wouldn’t do that, I don’t need any more bad luck in my life!” (This is true.) The man smiled, gestured to his eyes with two fingers, then pointed them right at me. I could only imagine how many visitors he’d led through this wilderness who had tried to gather fossils behind his back.

The trail continued deeper into the gulch. Rock formations in the shape of mushrooms emerged on either side of us, and the sun rose over a dusty palette of pinks, oranges and muted purples. Finally we entered Toadstool Geological Park, home of the Nebraskan Badlands. We each drank a cup of cowboy coffee, grits and all, and watched the sun bleed over sweeping moonscape.

The last day was dedicated to exploring large rock formations with old-fashioned names. We hiked to the base of Courthouse and Jailhouse Rocks, and saw Chimney Rock, too, just outside of Scottsbluff. They were too crumbly (and too federally protected) to climb, but by this point I’d had a good taste of the wild, wide-open Nebraskan landscape, and I felt no need to scale, conquer, or stand atop it.

I had no tick-lists, no projects, and no agenda other than to walk through it, observe it, disappear into it, and hopefully find my way out of it in the end.

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