six of the best places in western Nebraska and this one offers surreal scenery
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Six of the Best in Western Nebraska

The great heartland of the USA is the prairie where buffalo once roamed and homesteaders put down roots. It is generally a flat land, with bits of rolling hills. Cowboys called it home. So did the Plains Indians, long before wagon trains headed west. Much of our history played out among its grassy earth.

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Toadstool Geologic Park

Located in the Oglala National Grassland the stark surreal landscape of Toadstool Geologic Park had its origins about 30 million years ago when the area was lush trees and bushes in a climate said to be similar to present-day Florida. A shallow river nourished early wildlife. It also carried volcanic ash that built up to form rocks. A similar geological process of erosion that created the buffs also sculpted exotic rock formations. Rain and wind eroded the soft clay leaving the harder stone in fantastical formations.

Early visitors compared them to toadstools, capstones atop narrow pillars. Continuing rain and wind further eroded these columns until they gave way and the sandstone boulders fell to the ground looking like a giant child's discarded building blocks. There's also said to be fossil trackways -- ancient rhinoceros, giant pigs and ancestors of modern day animals from horses to cats.

A mile-long loop trail takes hikers through the formations and over the ridge back to the picnic area. It starts off flat though prairie but soon transverses ancient streambeds, gullies and crags and makes for trickier footing.

Scotts Bluff National Monument

six of the best places in western Nebraska and Scotts Bluff one offers
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Located alongside what was once the Oregon Trail, Scotts Bluff National Monument, rising to 4,659 feet above sea, is one of the best examples of the ancient High Plains. These unexpected formations are not upthrusts created by large movements of the earth's crust. Unlike mountain ranges, the bluffs of western Nebraska are the remains of an ancient high plain, built of sediments deposited by wind and weather roughly 30 million years ago.

Some of the layers were soft and easily eroded but others were made of limestone and were relatively impervious to the process. The limestone acted as caps, protecting the layers below. Standing atop Scotts Bluff you're actually standing on the remnants of those ancient high plains and the views are striking.

In addition to its geological interest Scotts Bluff was important for homesteaders traveling the Oregon Trail. The break called Mitchell Pass, best viewed from the top of the bluffs, shortened a part of that journey. Visitor Center exhibits and costumed interpreters explain the Oregon Trail and the perils faced by those who sought a better life in the West. Although difficult to see there are the remains of the wagon ruts alongside what is now the highway.

Carhenge

six of the best places in western Nebraska and this quirky site offers the car version of stonehenge
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Alliance, Nebraska, a town of 8,500 people, is home to an unusual hybrid of Amarillo's Cadillac ranch and England's Stonehenge. Constructed from old cars covered with gray spray paint Jim Reinders conceived Carhenge as a memorial to his father and it was constructed on the farm on which he lived. Reinders father died in 1982 and five years later, the family opened this unusual memorial.

Thirty-eight automobiles are placed to reproduce Stonehenge in a circle about 96 feet in diameter. Take your camera with you, this is definitely photo op time.

Understanding perhaps the urge for to graffiti up the cars, a separate old hunk has been partially buried into the ground and has become an exuberantly spray painted vehicle.

Fort Robinson

six of the best places in western Nebraska and Fort Robinson combines history and recreation opportunities
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There's a lot of history in Fort Robinson and a lot of recreational possibilities as well in surrounding land.

Fort Robinson started a military post in 1874 pacifying the Native Americans who were unhappy with settlers taking over their traditional hunting lands. It was the site of the notorious Cheyenne Outbreak which occurred in 1879 when a band of Northern Cheyenne who were being held at the fort feared being sent to Oklahoma and tried to escape. Most were killed, and the few that survived were returned. Fort Robinson was also the site of the bayonet killing of the Oglala Sioux leader chief Crazy Horse. In fact you can stand where he was attacked and visit the building in which he died.

Today that history is part of the reason to visit, but there are recreational reasons as well. The 22,000 acres include miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, fishing, off road Jeep tours for stunning vistas and opportunities for mountain sheep viewing. Family activities are offered all summer including historical tours and chuck wagon dinners.

Boot Hill

Boot Hill was a common term used in the west to describe the cemetery where gun fighters, outlaws, and other somewhat disreputable folks were buried. The name came from the death of these men with their boots on -- suddenly and likely violently.

Now perhaps best known as the site of Lonesome Dove, Ogallala was the end of the trail for cattle driven up from Texas to the ranches of Nebraska, Colorado and northern states. Befitting that rough history there's a Boot Hill cemetery at the corner of D and 10th Streets on a promontory overlooking the South Platte River valley. Many were buried with little to tell who they were, and even those that did have some kind of marker it was often of wood and has disappeared with time and weather.

This burial place, the resting place for an estimated 100 men women and children, was abandoned in 1885 when the new Ogallala Cemetery was established, likely because the good people of the town didn't want to be buried with the outlaws and gunfighters. Sites of 24 burials have been identified and a pamphlet available at the entrance to the cemetery lists the names and a bit of the history of those that are known.

The graves are watched over by bronze statue called The Trail Boss, a replica of the statue located in Dallas Texas as part of a larger tableau sculpted by Robert Summers.

Legacy of the Plains Museum

The new Legacy of the Plains Museum is the partnership of two popular local museums -- Farm & Ranch, and North Platte Valley Museum. They pooled their resources and artifacts to re-envision telling of the story of the people of the High Plains.

Not only is the new high-tech interactive museum engaging, but there's also the Annex filled with historic machinery and equipment. The final piece currently on display is farmstead home that's a time-capsule of both the 1930s and the 1950s. In the future there will be a furnished sod house and an early log home.

As you wander the grounds, the vista of the monuments of the bluff make a beautiful backdrop.

Food and Lodging

We stayed in Gering at the locally owned Monument Inn & Suites. The staff was friendly and helpful and the included breakfasts were fresh made from scratch. Good coffee and a selection of tea is available 24/7 and there are often cookies to go with it. Gering is a town of green lawns and tall trees, and wrap-around porches. The small downtown has a smattering of local businesses. Julie's antiques offers furniture with great prices and an upstairs filled with some of Julie's whimsically painted furniture. The Gering Bakery is permeated with the aroma of freshly baked goods. Don't miss the cinnamon rolls -- moist and deliciously yeasty. You'll also find the town's beloved Runza.This tasty mince of ground beef and seasonings enclosed in yeast bun is the signature dish of the city of Gering.

Barn Anew Bed and Breakfast in Scotts Bluff is another great lodging option and the breakfasts are some of the best I've ever tasted. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and furnished with some of Cher and Allan Maybee's antiques. In fact, the whole place is filled with their collection of art -- each piece with its own story. They also offer guests the option to sleep in a real gypsy wagon.

Scotts Bluff and Gering also offers some excellent dining options. The newly opened Tangled Tumbleweed in Scotts Bluff has a seasonally changing menu in a converted garage that manages to be intimate and welcoming with a touch of funky. They specialize in tasty small plates. The Emporium also in Scotts Bluff is a coffee shop in front with an elegant an upscale restaurant behind it offering innovative and delicious dinners. It's a standout.

In Gering, don't miss the Steel Grill. It's got an industrial vibe and everything is delicios. Lisa and Troy Weborg also own several feed lots so it was natural for them to focus on beef. Their steak nachos is a signature dish and totally on your must-try list. No need to order anything else except beer. They also have spuddy nachos with baked potatoes instead of chips and a more cheesy sauce. Differently excellent.

Learn more about visiting Western Nebraska at Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author



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