Time Traveling in Northwestern Nebraska

It never fails—traveling reveals magic. My trip to northwestern Nebraska this fall certainly did; I discovered a time machine.

Oregon Trail marker in northwestern Nebraska
The grass in the wagon ruts grows a different color (red), still marking the Oregon Trail. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

So many different days, I stood in a building or on a hill or plain and completely lost myself in the past. Goosebumps rippled my skin over pioneer wagon ruts still tracking the Oregon Trail. While the wind ripped through the trees, I looked down a craggy bluff at the trail Chief Dull Knife and his people travelled as they escaped massacre at Fort Robinson.

Looking down at Cheyenne Breakout Memorial near Ft. Robinson in northwestern Nebraska
Looking down at the newly erected monument memorializing Chief Dull Knife and the Cheyenne Breakout from the hill climbed in their escape. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

Hiking the trail from Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed to Toadstool Geologic Park, though, was like going to church. Ancient Earth church.

Cow skulls at High Plains Homestead in northwestern Nebraska
Cattle made the trek from Texas to Ogallala, Nebraska on the Western Trail. These skulls decorated High Plains Homestead, historic rustic lodging at the edge of the badlands. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed is an archeological site in the Oglala National Grasslands where, for some reason, ancient bison came to die. These aren’t the modern bison we’re used to—these were giant animals, an extinct or transitory species, and their skeletons accumulated over a span of 600 years more than 9,000 years ago. Why did they return? Why did they perish? Many theories exist, but a popular one among the scientists who’ve worked the site is that, some 12,000 years ago, the area was a natural spring, which attracted animals who may’ve been caught in severe weather conditions.

Formed some 38 to 24 millions years ago, Toadstool Geologic Park is a monument to eternity. It’s easy to picture earlier travelers on horseback navigating the harshly beautiful terrain, an introduction to Nebraska’s famous “badlands.” The park was sculpted out of rock by a prehistoric river; wind has sliced its way through, too, creating the park’s eponymous toadstool formations.

A 3-mile trail connects Hudson-Meng to Toadstool, and this is where Nebraska really worked her magic on me. Between the sunrise, changing terrain, incredible rock formations, and transmutable expanse of sky, this geologist’s daughter lost her heart. I admit to worshipping at this ancient outdoor church as we trekked along at dawn one late September morning.

The following photos give a better representation of that trip through time than any words could. At the end, I’ll have some links in case you’d like to go worship there, too.

Taking the Trail Through Time

Dramatic orange and yellow sunrise in northwestern Nebraska.
In Nebraska, all you had to do was point the camera and click for an amazing photo. This morning sky was photographed from a moving car through the window as I traveled to Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler
Sunrise over a painted bison skull trail marker at Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed Trail
Can you read the trail sign? We started from Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed and Archeological Site early in the morning to beat the heat. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Grasses and pond near Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed in Nebraska
Nebraska terrain changes as quickly as the sky. Hudson-Meng is part of the Pine Ridge; though it was consumed by wildfire (spread via 65 mph winds) in 2012, it’s coming back beautifully. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

 

Three hikers on the Bison Trail between Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed and Toadstool Geologic Park in Nebraska.
Starting out on the 3-mile Bison Trail connecting Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed and Toadstool Geologic Park. Poles mark the trail. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
U.S.D.A. Forest Ranger Robyn Coughley guides a group on the Hudon-Meng Bison Bonebed Trail.
As part of the Oglala National Grasslands, Hudson-Meng and Toadstool fall under the care of the USDA Forest Service. The trails are open year round; seasonal ranger Robyn Cloughley guided us through the park on this beautiful late September day. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Looking down into the river bed at Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed Trail on the way to Toadstool Geologic Park.
The trail descends, changing from grassy prairie to river bottom. This is the trickiest footing of the trail, with loose gravel and hills to navigate. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Hikers descending into the river bottom on the trail between Hudson-Meng and Toadstool.
When hiking, wear closed-toed walking shoes (trail running shoes were perfect). For those with balance problems, trekking poles would help with this descent, but the trail is generally an easy walk–even for young children. Bring water and check the weather before you go. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Hikers in the crevasse as they make their way toward Toadstool Geologic Park.
Once you’ve descended, the transition to Toadstool Geologic Park becomes apparent. The terrain has been described as a “rocky moonscape.” Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Wildflowers and cliffs on the hike from Hudson-Meng to Toadstool Geologic Park.
Looking up at the striated geology of the cliffs reveals the passage of time in stone’s color variations. Vegetation, like these wildflowers, dot the area and, in some spots, there is water in the river bed. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Riverbed trail from Hudson-Meng to Toadstool Geologic Park.
Much of the well-marked trail simply meanders down the river bed. Sediment holds some of Nebraska’s oldest fossils and trackways. Though you can touch them–they’re all around!–collecting any fossils and tracks is not allowed. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
A toadstool rock formation in Nebraska's Toadstool Geologic Park
The toadstool formations, which give the park its name, range from giant (like this one, high on a ridge) to as small as a thumb. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Rippled, slanted rocks created by earthquake and fault movement on the trail to Toadstool Geologic Park
Earthquakes and faults also created unique rock formations, like these slanted, rippled boulders. The closer to Toadstool Geologic Park, the larger and more varied they became. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Rock formations in the White River Badlands of northwestern Nebraska on trail to Toadstool Geologic Park
Toadstool Geologic Park and its rock formations are part of the White River Badlands, which extend through parts of Colorado, Wyoming, northwestern Nebraska, and South Dakota. Brule formations, named for Nebraska and South Dakota’s Brule Indians, are perhaps one of the most important of the White River formations because of their high fossil content. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Signs marking Toadstool Loop Trail and Hudson-Meng Bison Trail in northwestern Nebraska
In addition to the 3-mile trail between Hudson-Meng and Toadstool, there is also a 1-mile loop trail near the Toadstool Geologic Park trailhead. Brochures are available for self-guided tours of the trails. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Large slanted bolder at Toadstool Geologic Park in northwestern Nebraska
The trail spills out into the public area of Toadstool Geologic Park, where several extremely large boulders can be climbed. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Recreated pioneer sod house at Toadstool Geologic Park in northwestern Nebraska.
At Toadstool Geologic Park, a typical Nebraskan pioneer sod house has been recreated. There are also modern amenities (parking, bathrooms, covered picnic tables, grills, information kiosk) at the trailhead. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Trailhead area at Toadstool
Trailhead at Toadstool Geologic Park. According to District Ranger Tim Buskirk, Toadstool is their most popular campsite. Different rules apply to USDA Forest Service-maintained areas, and visitors are allowed to camp anywhere they can pitch a tent. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler
Cowboy breakfast prepared by
We ended our morning trek with a delicious cowboy breakfast prepared in cast iron Dutch ovens by members of the Northwest Nebraska High Country. Why does everything taste so much better when cooked over an open fire? Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

 

Learn More About Northwestern Nebraska

The cookshack at High Plains Homestead in northwestern Nebraska
There’s a bar and restaurant inside the cookshack–and a huge smoker and grill outside–at High Plains Homestead. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

My Texas Lifestyle Magazine article, “#TravelTuesday: 4 Nebraska Adventures with a Texas Twist,” gives more information about Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed and Archeological Site

Details about Toadstool Geologic Park

For places to stay and additional recreational information: Northwest Nebraska High Country

High Plains Homestead, unique lodgings with a historic slant and cowboy amenities and activities

Love fossils? Check out the Fossil Freeway, which includes Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed

Discover Oglala National Grasslands

Learn about Chief Dull Knife and the Cheyenne Breakout at Fort Robinson

View of Chimney Rock in northwestern Nebraska from the Chimney Rock cemetery.
Pioneers, like the ones buried in the Chimney Rock cemetery, used iconic land formations like Chimney Rock to guide their travel.
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