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Trails, Rails and Cowboys

Published in the Summer 2013 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Michael Morcos

Some of us travellers grumble having to ensure a flight for a few hours. Back in frontier times, pioneering individuals would walk and ride hundreds of miles to make new lives for themselves under difficult conditions. During my experience in Western Nebraska, I was able to step back in time and understand how and why these people endured challenges to make it through the Oregon Trail. Alongside the history, this region of Nebraska offers visitors a chance to immerse in some wonderful and hearty dining adventures plus gain a deep appreciation for diverse natural wonders.

A walk through a fascinating museum 

To get a great overall idea of the history Western Nebraska has, it can be worth a stop at the Lincoln Country Historical Museum First. It is full of cabins, homes, a barbershop, a general store and even an old fashioned jail. I loved looked at photos from way back when, depicted young things at the North Platte Canteen having a soda and some gossip.

Breakfast at Baily Yard

Train fanatics are in heaven when they step into Bailey yard. Known as the world’s largest train repair and classification center, countless locomotives run through there every year from all over the continent. It handles roughly 14,000 rail cars every day. I admired an overview of the whole complex as well from the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center.

A morning at Buffalo Bill Ranch

A starkly contrasted home of white and emerald green is set behind a big blue sky at Buffalo Bill’s Ranch. It sits at a crossroads near many integral routes that played significant roles in expanding the country, including the Lincoln Highway, Pony Express and the first Transcontinental Railroad. This house is surrounded by pretty state park land as well, ideal for hiking and exploring on a sunny day.

Movie nostalgia in Ogallala

Have you seen the classic flick “Lonesome Dove” or read the novel? If so, you’ll be just as excited as I was to visit this town, which was the location of the end of the Texan cattle drive. Classic streets and architecture are the draw to a simpler, wilder time.

Learning about the Oregon Trail

It is one thing to hear about the struggles and triumphs of the Oregon Trail, but it was something else to actually see wagon ruts left behind at Windlass Hill. The landscapes may have changed but the stories stay strong in how this region played an integral role in the growth of the U.S. out West.

Filling up ranch-style

I could not get enough of the culinary delights found throughout Western Nebraska, especially the massive dinner served up at MJ Ranch House. Huge slabs of roast beef, fresh salads and everything in between is on the menu. While dining, I spied some fun 1900s memorabilia that lines the walls of this old farmhouse too.

Natural beauty at Fort Robinson State Park

Ready to see where the buffalo roam? There are plenty of herds living in this scenic park, also boasting longhorn cattle and plenty of amazing views. They also have cabins and camping for accommodation, so travellers can be close to the wide range of activities, including fishing, swimming, hunting, hiking and biking.

A journey on a trusty steed

I could not wait to check out the scenery by horseback. Given the opportunity, all visitors in Nebraska should take a horseback riding lesson or trail excursion to any one of the landmarks and parks in the region. I choose a simple ride from the Fort Robinson State Park Equestrian Center to Soldier Creek and back. My horse was gentle and guide me through the pathways that snakes around prairie grass and along gurgling waterways.

Cheering on rodeo talent

While I can balance fairly well on a horse, the skills presented at the Fort Robinson rodeo. On Thursday and Sunday night the park hosts this free event, showing cowboys atop bucking broncos and roping cattle. Horse also raced against each other and the clock. It seemed to be something the whole family could enjoy.

Amazing outdoors in the Badlands

Instead of merely driving to Toadstool Park, I decided to hike instead to continue my time out in the fresh air. It also gave me the chance to see the badlands – which draw up images of old Westerns and shoot ‘em up cowboy movies. Actually, the terrain is named more so for its clay-rich soil and soft, rocky floor that is prevalent in Nebraska and throughout Utah, Wyoming, Canada and more. The geological Park there is known for its amazing examples of badlands terrain – including its famous mushroom-shaped rocks formed by rushing waters in ancient past. If hiking through, look down periodically to spy some fossils of large prehistoric animals.

Warm welcome from local farmers

An authentic vacation is always best, and Nebraska is no stranger to letting its guests get a real lay of the land. Travelers hoping to truly escape the daily grind can be hosted by one of the ranchers of the Northwest Nebraska High Country organization, who offer rugged and relaxed getaways to all. I was able to meet with some of these entrepreneurial farmers as they presented a fantastic breakfast at Toadstool Park.

Deep history in Pine Ridge

Native Americans once ruled this part of the country and left behind many signs of their legacy. Seeing active dig sites that go even farther back to prehistoric times is also a thrill. I went to the Hudson Meng Education and Research Center to witness a live archaeological site along the interesting “fossil freeway”. Travelers can go inside a climate-controlled building that holds a stockpile of old bison bones, dating back more than 10,000 years. Archaeologists say they were hunted by some of the first humans, with their remains left behind after the kill. More than 600 animals have been identified in this space, leaving evidence of how people in this part of the world may have lived after the Ice Age.

The unusual Carhenge 

It is always great to add a little whimsy to any journey. My curiosity was fully satisfied with a venture to Cathenge, home of 38 automobiles painted gray in honor of the UK’s famous landmark. Guests can visit any time of year and have a look around the property to snap some great vacation photos among the upright cars. All of this work is done by artist Jim Reinders, who then donated the ten acres of land to a local group that now preserves the art and space. There are a few other colorful and fascinating installations to see on the property too, also huge and made of out beat up old cars.

Touring Chimney Rock

If you were in school twenty years ago or have grown children, you might remember the Oregon Trail video game played in school. All settlers had to make it to Chimney Rock as a checkpoint, almost half way to California. I saw this iconic landmark towering above the hills in person along the trail that was followed by early pioneers centuries ago.

The breathtaking Wildcat Hills 

While the hundreds of acres at the Wildcat Hills State center were lush, green and scenic, the real highlight of heading to this area was lunch. For the past 30 years, owners Rock and Judy Keller have had a regional catering business that highlights food created locally and deliciously. They crafted a memorable meal right at the nature center, allowing me to enjoy a dramatic backdrop while I ate a meal pioneer-style in the outdoors.

Picking up gems at the Robidoux Trading Post

I wasn’t able to pick up souvenirs at this trading post, but I was able to get a look into the bartering systems used by those who traversed . Sometimes pioneers would go weeks without seeing other people along the Oregon Trail, so a small post like this would be very welcome, even if it only offered things like furs sold by Native Americans. 

A farewell dining experience

Sourcing from some of the best suppliers with the freshest ingredients around, the Coffee Emporium in Scottsbluff is perfect for a lazy lunch or elegant dinner. The menu does not follow a specific style, but rather offers a little bit of everything to suit its eclectic clientele. I dived into some tangy bruschetta, finished with some Colorado lamb in a mushroom marsala cream sauce.

It is easy to spend weeks in Western Nebraska without running out of things to do and see. Anyone can head to New York or California for a cookie-cutter excursion, but roaming through the wild hills of this gorgeous and thought-provoking state is a must for real travelers out to appreciate the gems of the United States.