When you picture the “Old West,” what comes to mind? Cattle ranches and grasslands that stretch to the horizon? Rugged rock formations and towering buttes? Wagon trains, the Pony Express, and Cowboy cook shacks? If those images mean “Old West” to you, you are picturing western Nebraska.
Before my visit there, I lumped Nebraska in with other “fly over” states, and I didn’t really know what I would find there. What I discovered are scenic parks and sites important to our country’s pioneer history, wide open spaces, and rugged backroad beauty where you can easily put yourself back into the days of cattle drives, pioneers, and the Oregon Trail.
“Out here, you need an open mind for a sense of adventure,” Regina Ochoa told me as we shared a cup of Cowboy coffee and a hearty campfire breakfast. “Families who visit have a chance to really feel the Earth beneath their feet: to hike, climb trees, get dirty, wade in creeks, ride horses, and sleep out under the stars.”
Ochoa is part of Northwest Nebraska High Country, an organization of more than 25 farmers and ranchers who provide a variety of guest lodging, from bunkhouses to farmhouses, cabins, schoolhouses, and even vintage sheep wagons. The northwest corner of the state is just a few hours from airports in Rapid City or Denver but miles from “civilization,” or so it seemed when we visited High Plains Homestead. It was only around 20 miles from our previous night’s stay at Fort Robertson State Park in Crawford, but half that distance was on a gravel road and then on a dirt road that snaked across the prairie, past herds of grazing cattle, and across dry creek beds.
The isolation and the quiet can take some getting used to, said Mike Kesselring, who owns and runs the working ranch with his wife and son. “The first night, no sirens, no alarms going off. It’s not like any quiet you’ve experienced in the city. And it’s darker than you’re used to, so you see millions of stars. It’s the best show in the universe, and you have a front row seat on your front porch.”
Ochoa said visitors shouldn’t let the isolation or the dirt roads worry them. “There’s more farm and ranch traffic on these roads than you might think. If you get lost, just call and we’ll have someone out to you to escort you to your accommodations. We all know each other and help each other out here.”
There’s more to northwest Nebraska beyond the ranch experience. Follow the path of Oregon Trail pioneers, who traveled for months across the empty prairie watching for landmarks like Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. Visit the original Boot Hill in Ogallala, the end of the trail for Texas longhorn cattle drives and the final resting place for many cowboys, drifters, and gunslingers; and experience old U.S. Cavalry outposts and Native American villages. You can even time travel through ancient geological formations or search for prehistoric fossils at some of the largest fossil beds in the country.
And if all that reality has left you longing for the surreal, how about a life-size recreation of England’s famous Stonehenge made with silver-painted vintage cars? Carhenge, just a few miles north of Alliance, is one of those crazy roadside attractions you have to see to believe.
To learn more and to plan your trip to the high plains of Northwest Nebraska, visit
www.NebraskaHighCountry.com or www.VisitNebraska.com