By Shelby Reininger
When you hear the term “Badlands” you probably envision the barren, rocky terrain and uniquerock formations portrayed in movie westerns, most often associated with South Dakota. Similar “badlands” terrain also exists in far northwestern Nebraska. Although this corner of Nebraska is known as the Oglala National Grasslands, the abundance of eroded sand stone you’ll find here has revealed a hidden treasure, the natural wonder of Toadstool Geologic Park.
Named for its magically balanced unusual rock formations, resembling mushrooms, this park includes a campground and picnic area that’s open twenty-four hours, seven days a week. Toadstool Park offers a one-mile scenic loop hike that is best experienced in the earliest hours of daylight. I opted for the longer 3 to 6 mile hike that features several geological points of interest.
I started my hike from an area known as the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill. There is a visitor and research center there dedicated to the farmers who, in 1954, accidentally found the largest cache of fossilized bison bones on record. I was greeted by two friendly Nebraska Parks and Recreation rangers delighted to show me the path.We set out on a long walk through open pastures with occasional colored markers to help hikers stick to the trail. On this hike, you’ll need to keep an eye out for cattle because they own the land here. After the first mile,the elevation of the trail declines as you make your way down to where the 3-mile Bison Trail begins. In the depths of this terrain you can clearly see where millions of years of water and wind have created the unusual rock formations the park is known for. These “toadstools” were created by uneven erosion of the harder sandstone rock layers and the softer layers of clay, sometimes resulting in a larger rock perched atop a clay pedestal. Among the toadstool formations, you’ll also find fossilized remains of tortoises, rhinos, saber-tooth cats, three-toed horses and camels that overtaken and buried by windblown volcanic ash 12 million years ago. This is a unique hiking experience you surely won’t want to miss.
Western Nebraska not only has a varied geologic landscape, it has a rich historical significance as well. Just 23 miles south of Toadstool Geological Park, you’ll find Nebraska’s premier state park, Fort Robinson. As its name implies, Fort Robinson was operated as a military stronghold from the early days of the Old West until after World War II. Many original buildings survive and remain in use at the park today, and others have been reconstructed. Fort Robinson was the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the death of famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse. Over the years, the fort was re-purposed as a cavalry remount station, a K-9 dog training center, a POW camp and a beef research station. Finally, in 1962, It was established as a state park. These vast parklands span more than 22,000 acres of breathtaking pine ridge scenery featuring comfortable lodgings, scenic camping and hiking and it’s also home to several native buffalo and longhorn herds.The State Historical Society operates a museum and many restored or reconstructed exhibit buildings to represent Fort Robinson’s history. The University of Nebraska operates the Trailside Museum, which lets guests explore the unique geology and natural history of the region.
Of all the ways to spend a day at the fort, the most authentic experience may be a horse drawn tour through the pine ridge forests. You might also choose to enjoy a refreshing early morning horseback ride, book a nature tour aboard the Fort Robinson Express or opt for an open-air Jeep ride. When the weather gets too warm you can always head for the indoor pool and sun deck.There are several options for overnight lodging from mid-April until September; from the original 1909 enlisted men’s quarters repurposed as cabins, the Officer’s Barracks halls and there’s even a modernized campground available complete with modern restrooms, showers, running water and picnic tables.