If Nebraska had graduated into statehood without any alterations from its creation as a U.S. Territory in 1854 it would be one of our largest states. But political bargaining by subsequent territories snatched land here and swiped land there and we are left today with the stout, forward-looking panhandle so familiar in the center of the country. For canine adventurers the Nebraska Panhandle is a smorgasbord of prairies, sandhills and wind-sculpted ridgelines...
Chadron State Park
South of Chadron, home of the Museum of the Fur Trade, this park provides the ideal introduction to Nebraska’s Pine Ridge, a 20-mile wide swath of broken ridges and sandstone buttes that rudely interrupt the ocean of rolling, grassy swales of the Great Plains. Although it wouldn’t be recognizable as a recreation area for fifty years, this was Nebraska’s first state park, established in 1921. The park is a recreation center now, anchored by a modern campground with a swimming pool and a languid lagoon plied by paddleboats. You can even
watch demonstrations of fur trading as it took place on the frontier at a simulated trading post. Hiking trails bisect the park, sliding through meadows and dense stands of Ponderosa pines. The well-blazed trails roll out of the park and connect with the expansive Pine Ridge Trail system in the Nebraska National Forest.
Fort Robinson State Park
With more than 22,000 acres, Fort Robinson is one of Nebraska’s largest recreation areas. It is also one of the most historic. Fort Robinson was born as a military post in 1874 and it was here on September 5, 1877 that the great Lakota Sioux chief Crazy Horse, victor at the Battle of Little Bighorn, was killed while in Army custody. Later the post evolved into the world’s largest facility for the training of horses and mules for cavalry forces. During World War II the country’s K-9 Corps training center was established at Fort Robinson. More than
14,000 dogs were trained for military duty and civilian service here. Your dog won’t recognize Fort Robinson as a military installation - the only fences are strands of barbed wire. Your dog can tour the grounds to inspect the historic buildings and visit the stone pyramid erected at the site of Crazy Horse’s death. Trails near the Visitor Center wind around rows of cottonwoods trees along some of the park’s numerous waterways. These are just leg-stretchers for the surrounding pine-covered hills, walls of buttes and open prairie where your dog can strike out on 60 miles of trail.
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Hiram Scott was one of thousands of anonymous fur traders sent into Indian Territory during the early 1800s to bargain for valuable pelts of muskrat, rabbit and, especially, beaver. That his is the name that survives centuries later on a national monument is by virtue of his premature death - most likely from disease but with every retelling the circumstances became increasingly more dramatic. What is known for certain is that he died near this arid bluff that towers 800 feet above the North Platte Valley. The “hill that was hard to go around” was a
path marker for emigrants on the Oregon Trail and with each passing there was mention of the demise of the fur trader at “Scott’s Bluff.”
When Scotts Bluff National Monument was established in 1919, it was believed to be the highest point in Nebraska (the highest point is actually at a rise in the prairie known as Panorama Point that your dog can visit over in Kimball County near the Colorado state line). It will feel like the highpoint, however, when you lead your dog up the Saddle Rock Trail. It is 1.6 miles, paved all the way, to the summit with spectacular views of the surrounding flatlands, Chimney Rock and the panhandle’s largest city, Scottsbluff. Less adventurous canine adventurers can drive to the summit and take easy strolls to the overlooks. Off the bluff, west of the Visitor Center, your dog can walk along a stretch of the actual Oregon Trail, which led 350,000 people into the West on this roadbed between 1841 and 1869. Scotts Bluff is one of the most dog-friendly properties operated by the National Park Service - they even supply courtesy bags at the trailheads.
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area
For pure hiking with your dog in the Nebraska Panhandle, it is hard to top the Wildcat Hills. There are no streams for fishing, no lake for boating, no developed campground. About the only thing to intrude on the purity of the natural experience are a few picnic sites. The Wildcat Hills landscape is a rocky escarpment that rises several hundred feet on the south side of the North Platte River. The plant and animal life is more typical of the Wyoming mountains many miles to the west. Cougars that had been eradicated from the region around 1900 returned to the area in the early 1990s but are seldom seen. The Wildcat Hills are rippled with steep-walled canyons that are the highlights of the three-mile trail system. The shelters scattered along the trails were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, crafted of native stone quarried nearby. The wood for the footbridges in the canyons came from logs cut in the pine-covered canyons.
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