Through the Sand Hills

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Fort Robinson State Park
Crawford, NE

On Tuesday we made the enjoyable drive from Valentine to Fort Robinson State Park. Once again, US-20 didn't disappoint. There was amazingly little traffic and the road was in good condition -- and we savored the views of these ancient sand dunes -- the Sand Hills -- that have been stabilized by layers of soil and prairie plant growth. The Nebraska Sand Hills cover an area about 20,000 square miles... about a quarter of the State of Nebraska. Much of the area has never been plowed and, as such, is mostly intact natural habitat. As you drive along lonely US-20, as you look to the left or right, you're seeing what early pioneers saw well over a hundred years ago.

Beneath the Sand Hills is one of the largest aquifers in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer. Most of the water in this underground reservoir is from the last ice age. Since it recharges very slowly and discharges are increasing, mostly for irrigated agriculture, it's a resource that's depleting... that's slowly going away. How about a little balance? Huh?

Many of the schools in Nebraska are back in session. As a result, the parks and campgrounds are nearly empty. We pulled into Fort Robinson and had our pick of almost any site we'd like. And as we explored the park today, it felt like we're almost the only ones here. There are three separate camping areas. One is an RV Park-like area with no shade trees, closely spaced sites, but with full hookups. It's perfect for most motorhomers, but not for us. We chose a secluded site in the older traditional campground with big shade trees, more widely spaced sites, and electric-only hookup. Sure, we had to top off our fresh water tank but it feels like we're camping. The third area is for horse-people and is up by the stables.

Today we biked over to the Trailside Museum of Natural History. This is a facility operated by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and is dedicated to the paleontology of the local area. The main exhibit is the skeletal remains of two ancient mammoths, each larger than an elephant, that died with their tusks locked together... in all likely hood the result of a battle over some female. Hmmm. It was found back in the 50's just a few miles north of here. Other displays discussed the geologic history of the area that fit together to explain some of the natural history. It was time well spent for a couple explorers trying to learn more about what we were seeing around here.

We biked around the rest of the Fort to see what's here and found an impressive mix of original and reconstructed buildings. Established in 1874, the Fort was a critical presence of authority in protecting early settlers and maintaining order. Things didn't go well for Native Americans and often, they drew the short straw. Crazy Horse, the famouse Ogallala Chief, was killed here in 1877 in an unfortunate incident.

There's more exploring tomorrow.



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