We crossed three ecological zones, hiked over sweeping grasslands, descended deep canyons and went back in time millions of years – all in the course of under four miles. When it was all over, I turned to one of my hiking partners and said, “that was great,” and she responded, “one of the best trails I’ve ever hiked.”
My hiking partner was not just any weekend hiker. Mary Berger, a long-distance backpacker, has about 17,000 hiking miles under her walking shoes including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest trail from Canada to Mexico, so when she says the trail was one of the best she had ever hiked in the United States I listened closely.
Where is this fantastic short trail? In the Rocky Mountains? Around Lake Tahoe? Near Moab, Utah? No, not even close. It’s in the panhandle of Nebraska near the small town of Crawford.
If you’re thinking Nebraska, one long flat land mass with endless wheat fields, you haven’t really been there, at least not in the western panhandle where the Great Plains begins to break up and huge bluffs, massive rock monuments and canyons formed by ancient rivers scatter across the landscape. When you are in the Nebraska panhandle, you know the Rocky Mountains are not far away.
This was Indian country, buffalo lands, where Dull Knife’s Sioux warriors escaped captivity and the place where famed warrior Crazy Horse died with a bayonet in his back while in the hands of treacherous American soldiers.
Even before all this, actually thousands and thousands of years before all that happened, ancient, migratory peoples lived across these rugged lands and once a year about 11,000 years ago they gathered to slaughter bison at a deep spring now called Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Bed.
It’s estimated as many as 15 million bison roamed North America about 10,000 years ago and those that came to the Hudson-Meng spring were met by ancient hunters. We know this because archaeologists and paleontologists have unearthed the largest extinct bison bone-bed in the world, which you can visit at the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center. The bit that is exposed shows a bone-bed of 20 feet by 20 feet, however, the bone-bed that isn’t exposed would probably be the size of a football field.
The director of the Hudson-Meng center is a short, dark-haired and extremely loquacious fellow by the name of Dennis Kuhnel, an archeologist by trade. When I arrived at the center with my group of 10 hikers, Kuhnel had arranged to guide our group for the simple reasons, as he said, “because I like to get outdoors.”
Well, this was a gorgeous first of summer day with the temperature in the 80s, the sky blue and only a moderate breeze ruffling the high grass. Kuhnel gladly put together this hike, adding two other workers from the center, including a young lady named Joanne I took to be an intern.
Since Hudson-Meng can be found in the Oglala National Grasslands, the hike started out from the center and then across the rolling hills of the grasslands. The hikers were a little confused at first because it seemed as if we were blazing a new path through the calf-high grasses, but Kuhnel assured us we were on an established trail.
The winter here had been snowy, the spring rainy and the grasslands were verdant, a vast ocean of green dotted by the occasional flower, a cactus blossom, lupine or periwinkle.
When the first pioneers came here walking across Nebraska territory heading west, this was easiest part of the journey and it was no different for us hikers. The land rolled with moderate rises and falls and all the time in the ocean of grass.
At one point we climbed a large hill, stopping at the apex to look around. To say we could see for miles and miles would be an understatement. On our clear, beautiful day when we turned to look north we could see Harney Peak in South Dakota, the tallest mountain in North America between the Pyrenees of Europe and the Rocky Mountains. The 7,244-foot Harney Peak was 125 miles away.
When we looked in other directions we could see high bluffs, a few rock monuments and the light brown color of sand, indicators of where the land would fall away. Indeed, the grasslands were often cut by canyons, where ancient rushing waters eroded earth’s crust.
This was the second part of the hike, descents into the canyons, lateral along the canyon floor then a steep ascent to level ground, then more hiking before encountering another canyon.
Eventually, we descended into the broken ground of dry, sandy earth, much like the kind of ground I cover in my home state of Arizona. The trail was along the bottom of what looked to be a dry wash, but Kuhnel explained to us this was once a large river when the earth above was a tropical paradise. Millions of years ago, dinosaurs of great size wandered here when this part of the world was wet and deeply wooded. And we know that now because paleontologists are always finding the bones of dinosaurs in this dry area.
Indeed, at one point I was staring at slice of white in the desert wall, pretty sure it wasn’t a rock. Kuhnel turned to where I was gazing and said casually, “oh that’s the mandible of a daeodon,” as if it was a magazine on a news rack. Once you knew what you were looking for, bits of dinosaur bones littered the trail. We even came across the fossilized shell of an ancient turtle.
Joanne, our intern, once found a whole skeleton of a dinosaur, covered it up so no one would loot it and then forgot where she found it, much to the consternation of the folks at Hudson-Meng.
You might say, wow, that has to have been unforgettable, and it was, but I haven’t even gotten to the highlight of the walk, for it ended at Toadstool Geological Park, a landscape of rock monuments and formations, many of which do look like toadstools.