High Plains Homestead
We awoke the morning of our second day of our Northwest Nebraska adventure in a bunkhouse cabin at High Plains Homestead entitled “The Hunter”. It was memorial day weekend – but it was still quite chilly up in this corner of the state. We were in a block of 4 bunkhouses, connected (but private), and our room could hold up to 6 people. There were no large couple-style beds in these bunkhouses – I think the 2 connected bunkhouses further down were designed for couples – one even designated as a honeymoon suite. Our room held 2 double beds and a bunk bed.
We arrived very late (like 9 pm) the night before. We pulled out food to cook over the open fire – there was a nice community outdoor kitchen. After that we settled in and fell fast asleep after a long day of travel.
Ohmygoodness – the Stars!
We did get to enjoy the night sky before turning in. It was A-MA-ZING. We live in a rural area with plenty of stars to behold, but I’ve seen nothing like this before. You could see so many stars – the sky was incredibly beautiful. Even the sky’s colors were richer. It would be worth it to make the trip to this remote corner of the state, even just to see the night sky!
In the morning, we officially checked in. I appreciate that the owner had left the rooms available for us to get into and deal with checking in in the morning. We checked in at the “Mercantile”, which also had local crafts and souvenirs for sale. One of the coolest things about this place is that it was designed like an old-fashioned old-west town. We had breakfast in the saloon. We cooked some food inside on a stove, but there was also continental breakfast style items – like bananas and yogurt.
Our kids proceeded to have a hay-day exploring the frontier village. There was an old-fashioned jail – they loved holding up the “wanted frame” around themselves for pictures. There was a stable, post-office and blacksmith shop too. There were props and all sorts of fun things for the kids to use. The town was apparently built from buildings moved out to the Homestead from rural Nebraska towns. Apparently there is a pool – I am not sure that was operational during our visit.
Those staying at the Homestead were also invited to explore the 40 acres of property the Homestead owns. There was a couple staying in one of the cabins there from Florida. Apparently this was a annual trip for them! Although they said they mostly went fossil hunting on nearby properties they had access to, these amateur fossil hunters showed our kids all sorts of pre-historic teeth, fragments of bone and other things they had found. We went down by the shallow river bed and our kids had a blast playing in the mud, digging and exploring the hills. The terrain is unlike elsewhere in Nebraska. Steep bluffs and sharp drop offs abound. The dirt even looks different. We didn’t find any fossils, but it was still a ton of fun! This part of the world is called “The Badlands” because people crossing it in pioneer days felt that nothing would survive well – much of it is considered desert. However, the Oglala grasslands are adjacent to this area.
There are RV and camper hook-ups for a fee and tent camping available for $10. We stayed in the row of bunk houses and there is also “Sand Creek Cabin” – a house with 2 bedrooms and a kitchen for larger groups/get-togethers. Groups can even rent the whole place out. The bunkhouses were decorated cutely in an “old-west” style. The mattresses were a little lacking and there were no linens – guests are encouraged to bring their own bedding – I suppose this reduces the cost/amount of service needed. They will provide linens for a fee. Everything was very clean. The only really problematic thing was the sulfur smell that came from running water. Apparently there was little that could be done about this as the water just has a high sulfur content. You could also make a donation and just bring your family to enjoy the frontier village for the day. It was a very “do-it-yourself” kind of place – explore on your own, cook in the community kitchen, etc.
Apparently, there was also a nearby ranch for horseback riding – Our Heritage Guest Ranch. We did notice the prices seemed to have gone up since we were there. It was $40 per night when we stayed and now the same room is $80. I can’t say that I blame them. It was under new ownership when we stayed and it might have taken a bit to figure out an appropriate profit margin.
We really enjoyed this place. It might not be for everyone – it’s pretty desolate. But for us – the natural beauty was stunning. We could have enjoyed much more time here.
Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed
Late morning we headed up to Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed. It was discovered in the 1950’s when a rancher tried to install a stock-pond, and was excavated in the 70’s. This is a prehistoric dig site where they think a large group of bison was slaughtered at once – by what – they don’t know (a large hunt? a prairie grass fire in the valley?) This area was home to some of the earliest hunter-gather peoples after the ice age – likely the first in this part of North America. It’s a great area for paleontology – a huge herd of prehistoric creatures in one concentrated site. They have enclosed it and made it into a research and visitor facility.
It was a bit difficult to find. It was really tucked back with access through remote roads but fairly near High Plains Homestead. We learned later you can also hike to it through Toadstool Geologic Park. The only bathrooms are up on a hill – they included a shower house and I am guessing some people camp in the area or the employees stay there because it is so remote.
When we arrived, an employee drove up and informed us that it was not open. The late Nebraska snows of the year had really impacted this part of the state and they had had some water damage to the building and grounds. Even though it was memorial day weekend – some of the drifts still had not fully melted and we saw remnants of these drifts around the building and along the path. However, this very kind man said he would show us around anyway.
It was quite the trail to even get to the building. There were educational signs along the way – many that seemed water damaged. We got inside and could see where some of the signage had been damaged and there was “junk” stored in some of the offices – but since this guy was doing us a favor with it not being officially open – I certainly wouldn’t complain about that! I think when it’s officially open, you could get tours and there were interactive science exhibits. (Our gracious facility employee was deaf, and communicated with us via paper, so a giving tour was not probably an easy option for him.) We got to walk around the perimeter of the dig and see where bones had been unearthed and read about the history. When my friend dropped her sunglasses into the dig on accident, he kindly retrieved them.
This stop didn’t have a whole lot of interaction, except for reading and seeing the massive number of bison skeletons unearthed, except the kind employee who let us in made this a very memorable trip for us! He asked if we would like to learn how to use atlatl’s. An atlatl is a early hunting tool – sort of like spear, the you sort of throw using a notched wooden device. There was a bison target out back and adults and kids alike got a lesson in throwing these at the target. Our teacher was quite a pro! This entertained us for much longer than we spent inside. (Plus, our kids enjoyed throwing snowballs in late May!)
Unlike Anything You Have Seen Before
Our next stop was Toadstool Geologic Park. This is in the corner of Nebraska, nestled up to South Dakota (and very close to Wyoming as well). The roads leading up to it were not great – damage from the water and snow had mounted. Even without the weather damage – don’t expect smooth, well cared for roads to get to these impressive but remote national forest/grasslands! There is really nothing there in terms of accommodations. You could possibly camp, but I am not sure there are hook ups even though it claims to be a campground. There are 2 bathroom buildings and a sod dug out house that tourists can walk around that was added for educational purposes – showing how early pioneers used what they could for housing in the absence of wood – but don’t expect any visitor booths or souvenir stands.
None-the-less, Toadstool Geologic Park was stunning in a way, the likes of which I had never seen before. Although the same general look as the terrain leading up to it – the difference in what lay in front of us was vastly unique. I’ve seen deserts, great red rocks, beautiful valleys and rivers, mountains, and rolling sandhills. But nothing like this. It almost looks like you’re on the moon. In fact, part of it is called “the moon-scape.” The rock formations are just plain weird – but cool! There are multiple layers of color. These sandstone blocks remain from a prehistoric river that ran through the area, and volcanic ash created the layers, varying what kind of soil deposited. Wind and streams enhanced the effects. Prehistoric animal tracks are still visible and fossilized remains of many creatures are present, preserved by the ash. There is a little stream that flows through the flatter areas.
Too much to Explore
There were so many paths one could take. We picked one and could have just explored and played in the first part of the park (what’s visible by the parking lot) for a good couple of hours. The rock formations were so cool. They looked like random shapes sticking out of the ground – and they were massive. We took pictures of boulders that looked like they would fall over, random crevices our children could climb in and lay on their side, and the whole group of us (except me – I was the picture taker) climbed up on a massive, oddly shaped boulder for a pretty cool group picture.
We had a full schedule that day, and it was already early afternoon, so we decided to try to see a bit more. We took a wagon to try to haul the boys – that was a mistake. There was no way a wagon was going to make it over that rough terrain. We hiked trails, stopped to take pictures on the sides of clumps of boulders, jumped over a trickle of a stream that ran in zig-zags through the park (I suspect due to the heavy snowfall – I doubt it was there in other years). The area is known for rattlesnakes, but we luckily didn’t run across any.
Limited on time, we headed back and went to the left for a bit when we reached the entrance to the park grounds. (We had gone right the first time.) This allows us to climb up huge rocky bluffs and feel like we were on top of the world! (I didn’t let our kids go nearly as high as the teens did in the family that went with us.)
Toadstool Geologic Park is definitely something we should have allocated more time for. We could have hiked for miles and hours to see the whole thing. The geology, the archeology, the beauty – it was definitely worth it. Out of the way – yes. But worth it. This trip was a bit of an “overview” trip to see the northwest part of the state which none of us had seen before, but now knowing what was there, we all decided that we wanted to come back some time and spend a whole weekend, or even several days exploring the High Plains Homestead and Toadstool Geologic Park part of the world!
On to South Dakota
https://www.mammothsite.org/Next, we want back out to the rough gravel road, and within a few miles, were in South Dakota. Our original aim was to see Northwestern Nebraska, but when we realized how very close we would be to Mount Rushmore, we felt like we needed to see it’s fame. So, that day, we trucked on to Hot Springs South Dakota, where we saw Wind Cave and the Hot Springs swim park – Evans Plunge – that night, and then the next day the Mammoth Site, Mount Rushmore (of course) the Alpine Slide and Cosmos Mystery Area.