Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sandhills Nebraska - Day 27 and 28

I left the Black Hills and proceeded south to the western panhandle of Nebraska.  Before I left South Dakota, I stopped in Hot Springs to see the Mammoth Site.  In 1980’s, a developer who was putting in a housing project unearthed some large bones.  He got some scientists involved and determined they were mammoth skeleton bones.  They proceeded to do an archaeological dig and discovered numerous mammoth skeletons. 

They’ve determined that over 12,000 years ago, a sink hole had developed and later filled up with warm water.  The water site attracted wildlife.  The sides of the sink hole were very slippery when wet.  They theorized that the mammoths and other wild life slipped into the water, which was deep, and drowned. This kept happening for almost 700 years.  Over the course of several thousand years, the sink hole slowly filled up with sediment from surrounding run off.  Eventually the sink hole filled entombing the mammoth skeletons. 

The site, which is the size of a basketball court, is still an active archaeological dig (their keep finding stuff) and so far they have uncovered over 60 mammoths skeletons!  Most of them are pre-Colombian mammoths, which are the size of a large elephant.  Only a few woolly mammoths have been discovered at the site.  It was interesting to see an active dig site with most of the skeletons in place where they found them.

As I left, South Dakota, the terrain started to smooth out into some rolling grassland.  As I got to Chadron, I turned east onto Rt 20.  This road is the main if not only road  that runs east/west in northern Nebraska.  As I got east of Chadron, it became increasingly sparse and the terrain changed to undulating grass covered sand dunes.  I was in the Sand hills.  The map below highlights my route. 

View Sandhills Route 2013 in a larger map
The Sand hills encompassed a large portion of the north west part of Nebraska.  This land is unsuited for cultivation.  When it was first settled in the 1870’s, people tried to farm it but gave up because of the poor soil.  It was barren and considered inhospitable until, by accident, some early ranchers determined that cattle could do well on the scrub grass that grew on the sand.  Cattle ranching took over in the 1890’s and today it is one of the most productive areas for cattle ranching.

Ranch off the road
The area consists of small treeless hills with marshy meadows in some of the low laying areas. (it has a high water table)  Copses of trees are seen every few miles.  The ranches are large (usually several thousand acres) and hidden off the road usually where there are some trees and marshy land for water.  Every few miles you will see one in the distance with it’s name by the side of the road - The Bar 99, the Rocking Bar, The Black Fork, The Double TT’s.  It’s a very remote area with sometimes 20-30 miles between towns and the towns are tiny with populations less than 100.  A popular sight are the small  windmills you see every few miles that pump water for the cattle from shallow wells.  In this area, it takes close to 20 acres to support one head of cattle.

Common Sight on the Sandhills

Marshy Meadow
Black Angus

I stopped at the Arthur Bowring Ranch Site Historical Park just outside of Merriman.  It’s a little off the beaten path, being about 2 miles north of town and then another 2 miles down a dirt road in the middle of no where.  This ranch was left to the state in 1985 by Arthur Bowring’s widow, Eve, to help preserve and demonstrate cattle ranching in the Sand hills.  The Bowring’s started the ranch in 1894 and at its peak, the ranch encompassed over 10,000 acres.  They raised white faced Herefords on the ranch.  The ranch site has a visitor center, which houses a museum, and the original barns and the Bowring house.  The volunteers give a very informative tour of the house and grounds.   The house is decorated just the way Eve left in when she died in 1985.  It was nice to be able to see what one of these ranches looks like and to hear what ranching is like in this area.

Bowring Ranch Main House

Reproduction of Original Bowring Sod House
I spent the night in Valentine, The “heart city”.  Valentine is small with a population of around 2,700. I spent the night in the parking lot of the Comfort Inn, which has 4 spots with electrical hook ups for RV’s and truckers.  That night we had a severe thunderstorm warning with “tennis ball” size hail.  My neighbor for the night was a trucker who had just driven thru it and said it was very scary.  Luckily, the storm went north of town.

Sand Hill
The next day I drove south on Rt 83.  This area was even more remote than Rt 20.  It was 60 miles to the next town with nothing but rolling hills, some windmills, and some small cattle herds along the way.  At the town of Thetford, I drove southeast on Rt 2.  This is the Sand hills Scenic Byway, but I found this route more developed and the Sand hills gave way to flat grass and corn fields as I came to Broken Bow. I’m glad I took the route I did and got to see the large expanses of undeveloped land that we have in the country . Its so different from the east coast, where there’s a town center every 2-3 miles.

I ended up in Kearney for the night at the Fort Kearney State Recreation Area campground.  For the first time in almost 3 weeks I was out of the mountains and off the high plains at an elevation under 5,000 ft .
I have a couple more sites to visit in Nebraska and then I make a bee line for home.

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