Nebraska Panhandle Rambles

Wilderness can take many forms.

The default view of wilderness, at least in the 21st century, tends to be majestic mountains, remote canyons or deep woods.

Places that are something out of an Ansel Adams photograph or a Georgia O’ Keefe painting.

But many of these “wilderness” areas are crossed by large amounts of jeep roads, have many campers and often have crowded trail heads.

Which is partially why I’ve been attracted to the High Plains in recent years.

My current home inBoulder County is 750 square miles. Within this area is part of both the Indian Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park. Total population? Three-hundred thousand people.   Add in nearby Jefferson County, at  roughly the same size, and there are an additional 550,000 people. Add in parts of nearby Weld and Adams county to make it an about even 2000 square miles.  Roughly 1,000,000 people within an hour of much of the outdoor places in my “backyard”.

Where I went this weekend?  1500 people in 2000 square miles.

Yes, I went to the Nebraska Panhandle.

I don’t know if this area was “wilderness”, but it was wildness.

Where we explored an ancient Miocene fossil bed, camped in a lush canyon with blazing cottonwoods, explored geological wonders, saw  big horn sheep and wild turkeys. We saw a night sky unblemished by any light.  And we had it mainly to ourselves.

The area was not far from where I was a month or so ago when I was in Scotts Bluff.  However, if the old Oregon Trail around Scotts Bluff is a relatively populated and used agricultural corridor, areas north of the Platte River valleys aren’t very different from 150 years ago.

They are mainly dry, isolated and starkly beautiful.

The Mrs. and I started off at Agate Fossil Beds. Not only known for the site of fossils that are now located in museums throughout the world, but also for an exquisite display of Plains nations artifacts

We enjoyed the exhibits and marveled at how much western history took place around this very spot.

The museum was left and we took a walk in the monument. The Niobrara river was crossed.

We soon reached the hills where much of the original excavations were done.  

A commanding view of the high plains were enjoyed.

The someone even found a fossil….

Diligent person she is, someone placed the fossil back.

The Mrs. headed back to the museum. I decided to explore a little more and went to the “Bone House”. A place where much of the original research was done over 100 years ago.

I made my way back and had a view of the two famous buttes where so much of the natural history was explored.

On the way out, we did another hike to see fossils. The plains stretched before us with arroyo-like gulleys and buttes in the distance.

We drove north for our evening campsite in the picturesque Pine Ridge.

We found free, dispersed camping at a site in a canyon. The cottonwoods were yellow. The pines protected us from the wind. And a flowing stream made everything lush.

We had the place to ourselves. As night came, we sat outside for a long time. The night sky, with no moon or light pollution from nearby towns, was perfect. The Milky Way slowly came out and was vibrant. It was a night sky as amazing as anything I’ve seen in Utah.

We drove out the following morning to Ft. Robinson and enjoyed the rock formations on the way. We were able to see a ram and four big horn ewes.

Most of the exhibits were closed, but the natural history museum was open.

We even saw the fossil remains of a mammoth located not far from the museum.

We then went to the Toadstool Geological Park. More hiking, rock formations and fossil imprints.

Fossilized hoof print.

I was reminded a bit of a badlands version of Goblin Valley.

As we walked around with the wind whipping, it is easy to see why this area of the high plains were called “badlands”.

But, much like THE Badlands not far north, this area was starkly beautiful.

The weather soon picked up. Time to head back.

I’ve been to Nebraska twice now in the span of six weeks.

I suspect we’ll back again in the future.


All the photos…

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Drew Smith
Drew Smith
8 years ago

Nice TR Paul.

A book I think you would appreciate is “Great Plains” by Ian Frazier. Check it out, if you have not already read it.

Steve Myers
8 years ago

Outstanding photos Paul! Glad you got to see some of the awesomeness of the plains up close and personal . . .

Tim Bishop
Tim Bishop
8 years ago

As a reluctant Nebraskan who recently tripped to ‘your backyard’ to hike the Buchanan/Pawnee loop, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s beauty on this side of the state line, as well.

Great photos! I’m inspired to get out and explore more of my home state.

Patrick Hill
8 years ago

Love to hear about the “uncool” Wilderness!