The Great Plains – It’s a National Treasure

Capulin Volcano National Monument - one of many nationally significant sites along the Great Plains Trail

Capulin Volcano National Monument – one of many nationally significant sites along the Great Plains Trail

The subject came up recently about how many sites of national significance the Great Plains Trail will pass through (in its currently envisioned state, which is subject to variations).  For the sake of this blog post, I will consider only National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, and National Grasslands.  This leaves many other  important places off the list such as National Wildlife Refuges, State Parks, and other significant areas of interest, but I will return to those at a later time and we will be able to get a final tally for the Great Plains Trail.

The short answer for the four entities mentioned earlier is a whopping 16!

I will list them below and provide a link for each of them, but it should be mentioned that this total beats the Appalachian Trail’s total of 12 (and for that, I included its one National Historic Park, and one National Recreation Area).

It also beats the Florida National Scenic Trail which has a total of 5 (and for that, I included Everglades National Park, which it doesn’t really quite go through).

It beats the North Country National Scenic Trail which has a total of 7 (In fairness, the NCNST does go through a multitude of state parks and state forests to be sure).

It beats the Arizona National Scenic Trail’s total of 6 (In fairness, the National Forests it goes through are pretty big).

In fact, the proposed Great Plains National Scenic Trail beats all other National Scenic Trails in this category except the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.  Wow!  Who would’ve thought the Great Plains had so much to offer? . . . we did.

Here is a list (with links) to the 16 nationally significant areas on the GPT:

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wind Cave National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Scottsbluff National Monument

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Custer National Forest

Black Hills National Forest

Nebraska National Forest

Lincoln National Forest

Little Missouri National Grassland

Buffalo Gap National Grassland

Oglala National Grassland

Pawnee National Grassland

Comanche National Grassland

Kiowa National Grassland



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Zen of the Plains

UnknownBack to books briefly . . . a new book recently caught my attention at the bookstore.  Yes, I live in a place where there is still a bookstore.  It’s called Zen of the Plains - Experiencing Wild Western Places by Tyra Olstad.  The book is about one woman’s travels and adventures in the open spaces of the West.  She recalls her first sense of this when she was just a youngster traveling with her dad in Nebraska:

“No, what I remember best is the feel of space in Scottsbluff – the simple sweep of the horizon; the rich color of the air.  My first glimpse of Zen out on the plains.”

Despite being an easterner by birth, Olstad spent many years in various places around the West following that initial trip to Nebraska.  She is a good writer with an enthusiasm as boundless as the plains she writes about.  It seems as if she wants to jump off the page, grab you by the face, and make you see what she sees.  She wants people to stop and appreciate the plains for their own vastness and beauty – for their own sake, and not as something to pass through on your way to someplace else.

Come to think of it, I can relate.  Well done Tyra!


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The Grasslands – The Most American Landscape

Grasslands!  There are no major grasslands in Europe.

Grasslands! There are no major grasslands in Europe.

I’m posting this again this year because, well, I think this is a point I want to make. . . .

Happy 4th of July from the Great Plains Trail!  On this most American of holidays, it’s time to recognize (and brag just a bit) that the most American of landscapes is indeed the Great Plains.  I will expand on this idea briefly so you can get back to grillin’ and chillin’ in your neighbor’s backyard.

In the varied and intricate history of the country we call America, with its many cultural influences and stories, it can be argued that the dominant cultural thread is a European one.  From the time of Columbus onward, the creation of what was to become America was, by and large, a grand European project.  Yes, I know, there are countless other influences, and yes, I know, we signed the Declaration of Independence and then overthrew our European oppressors in the Revolutionary War, but that was hardly the end of European influence.

Evidence that Europeans have had trouble adapting to the grasslands

Evidence that Europeans have had difficulty adapting to the grasslands

One of the reasons why Europeans took to the place so readily was that it reminded them of Europe.  The coasts, the forests, the mountains, the lakes – they all reminded Europeans of some place they had left behind in “the old country.”  All of them except the Great Plains – there is simply no equivalent landscape in Europe to compare with the Great Plains.  Europe has mountains, hills, valleys, coasts, forests, and even deserts, but there are no major grasslands in Europe.  It is most likely this fact that leaves the Great Plains relatively empty even today despite a nation of over 300,000,000 people.  The Europeans that “settled” the nation stuck to what they knew, and they knew nothing of the grasslands, and so they were generally avoided, or passed through as quickly as possible.  They remain, if not unspoiled, at least unpopulated today.

The Windmill - another American icon from the Great Plains

The Windmill – another American icon from the Great Plains

The Great Plains, as the only truly American landscape, gave rise to such true American icons as “the cowboy,” “the buffalo,” “the teepee,” “the covered wagon,” and “the ranch.”  The Great Plains also created the unique American value of self reliance and independence.  These things were not seen as virtues until Americans ventured beyond the well watered landscapes of the east.

So there you have it, and you are welcome to disagree, but I declare that as far as landscapes are concerned, the most American is the vast open country of the Great Plains!  Not only is it the largest single landscape we have (covering at least 1/4 of the country, depending on how you define it), but it also gave rise to who we are, and how we define ourselves as a people and a nation.

Happy Independence Day!

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1,700 Miles – One Step at a Time

pipe dreamsIn late September 2012, way up in Alberta near the huge tar sands pits that have expanded greatly there in recent years, Ken Ilgunas started walking south.  He kept walking for the next 1,700 miles until he reached Port Arthur, Texas in February of 2013.  He had walked the entire length of the infamous Keystone XL Pipeline.  His journey was part grand adventure and part environmental awareness campaign.  He also wanted to learn as much as he could about the pipeline, get to know some of the people who live along the way, and find out their thoughts on it.  It’s an impressive journey and a major accomplishment. 

The proposed route for the pipeline parallels the proposed route for the GPT pretty well in many areas.  It’s not until Kansas and Oklahoma that the pipeline route gets too far east to be on what most people define as the Great Plains.  So, given where he was, it not surprising that he developed a fondness for this amazing place, and the scenery that greeted him each day as he worked his way south, staying just a few steps ahead of winter.  In fact, while on his journey, Ken had a strong sense that some sort of long distance trail should exist here, so that more people could experience the joys of walking the plains.  I couldn’t agree more.

Ken is currently working on a book about his trek, which will actually be his second book.  He is also the author of Walden on Wheels, which is about how he tackled massive student loans by living in a van at Duke University.  Ken also has a blog called Pipe Dreams.  You can click the following link to learn more about his epic trek, as well as read his other writings, which are all very good:

Pipe Dreams


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The GPT – New Section of Trail – “Oglala Gap”

Logo_AloneHappy Trails!:  Great Plains Trail Alliance is proud to announce the next  section of what will become the GPT.  Our goal is to roll out as many of these sections as we can until the entire length of the GPT is complete.  This will take some time, and the process will likely start slowly and then build steam and go more quickly as resources and interest continues to grow.

A Note on Routing:  It is also our goal to have as much of the GPT as possible routed on actual trails.  That said, reality will dictate that a significant percentage of the route will need to be on roads.  Working with this fact, we will strive to route the GPT on roads that are 1) the most scenic  2) the least traveled and  3) the most expedient for any given area.  In most cases, this will mean county dirt roads.  In some cases, it may be that there are no dirt roads available, or there may be a short section routed on a paved road in order to enter a town that may serve as an endpoint for a particular section.  As the process continues, routing will be continually revised and improved by either adding more trail, or by choosing the best road in an area.  As with any long distance trail, this will be a dynamic process.  Even long established National Scenic Trails such as the Appalachian Trail, The Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail are still involved in this process.

Safety:  Hiking, Biking, and Horseback Riding involve inherent risks.  On any trail, you are always responsible for your own safety.  We at GPTA want you to have fun and enjoy the beauty and the adventure of the Great Plains Trail, but we also want you to exercise caution and be smart about the hazards that exist on the Great Plains which include, but are not limited to: weather, wildlife, and water scarcity.   Plan ahead and be prepared!

Section (North to South):  Edgemont, South Dakota to Toadstool Geologic Park, Nebraska (53 miles – 0% Trail, 100% Road)

There are some possibilities to create some trail in this section, but for now, it is routed exclusively on roads.  However, most of these roads are very lightly traveled, and at times feel more like wide trails.

Name: “Oglala Gap” – The vast majority of the trail runs through either Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota or Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska.

Open to:  Hiking, Biking, Horses  (A hiker would not be able to complete this in one day.   See Trail Description for potential camping areas).

Elevation Gain/Loss:  The lowest point is at Edgemont, SD (3,460 feet).  The highest point is along the trail at approximately 3,920 feet.  The terrain is rolling with numerous ups and downs, but most of them are less than 100 vertical feet.

Difficulty:  Moderate, but the overall length could make it Strenuous.


Toadstool Geologic Park - Amazing eroded formations and badlands.

Warbonnet/Yellowhair Memorials – A short spur hike to a hilltop with the 1876 battle memorial.

Wildlife – Look for pronghorn as they are numerous in this area.

Black Hills – Look for them to the north on clear days, rising from the plains like a vast dome.

Mickelson Trail Connector – The north end of this section (Edgemont) connects directly to the Mickelson Trail, a 111 mile rail trail through the Black Hills.

GPS Map Link:  “Oglala Gap”

This is an overview of the GPS file.  We hope to improve it soon . . .

Getting There:  Toadstool Geologic Park is 17 miles north of Crawford, Nebraska.  From Crawford, take Hwy 71 five miles to Toadstool Road.  Take Toadstool Road the remaining 12 miles.  

Edgemont, South Dakota is in the southwest corner of the state along Highway 18, about 12 miles from the Wyoming border.  Edgemont has all necessary services.

Trail Description: (Direction: Edgemont to Toadstool)

Note:  Although we will do our best to provide the most reliable and current information, we cannot guarantee conditions as described here.  The following information was last updated on 6/11/14

Start at the city park at the south end of town.  From the Mickelson Trail mile marker “0.0″ sign, head south on paved road 471.  Once out of town, this road begins to climb significantly and gains more than 200 feet.  This is the only major elevation gain in this section.  Follow this lightly used highway about 8 miles to the town of Provo.  At Provo, the road bends east, continue to follow for another 0.5 miles.

Leave Hwy 471, and follow the dirt road to the south (Edgemont Road).  Continue south for about 11 miles.  When road splits, go west for about 3 miles.  When road splits again, go south.  After about 1.5 miles you will enter Nebraska, but there are no signs to let you know.

Hikers – This area is near the halfway mark of this section.  There are public lands in this area, but there are also private lands.  Never camp on private land without the owner’s permission.  We recommend obtaining a good map of Oglala National Grassland that shows parcel ownership to help you plan for this section.  

Ranch roads will appear occasionally heading to the west, but stay south on this road for another 6 miles (it still should be occasionally signed as Edgemont Road).  This section is very lightly traveled and the scenery is wide open with many rolling hills.

Edgemont Road continues south, but go east on Montrose Road.   After 4 miles, the road splits and Pants Butte Road goes south, but stay east on Montrose Road.  After another 4 miles, a small church should appear.   This is Montrose and the Warbonnet Memorial is just to the north.  From the Montrose intersection, head south on Hat Creek Road.  After 3.5 miles, go east on Orella Road.  After 10 miles, go south on Toadstool Road for 1 mile.  Go west for 1 mile into Toadstool Geologic Park.  There is a campground (no running water) at Toadstool.


The Mickelson Trail marker in Edgemont.

The Mickelson Trail marker in Edgemont.








This is what much of the area south of Edgemont looks like.

This is what much of the area south of Edgemont looks like.








Rolling hills in Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska

Rolling hills in Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska








The Warbonnet Memorial sits alone atop a windswept hill.

The Warbonnet Memorial sits alone atop a windswept hill.








A short spur hike gives you a close up of the monument .

A short spur hike gives you a close up of the monument .








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Bikes are a great way to travel this longer section.

Bikes are a great way to travel this longer section.



















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New Trail Section – Coming Soon!

Rolling hills in Oglala National Grassland

Rolling hills in Oglala National Grassland

There’s a place in western Nebraska that I have come to love.  It’s in Oglala National Grassland and it’s simply beautiful.  Great Plains Trail Alliance will be making a return visit to this area next week to route our next section of trail that will connect our existing (and our first) section of trail named, “Fort Toad.”  This next section will link Toadstool Geologic Park to Edgemont, SD, which is the southern terminus of the 111 mile Mickelson Trail that runs north/south through the Black Hills.  I anticipate a length of approximately 45 miles, but stay tuned for final mileage which will depend on what “shortcuts” might be available.  Enjoy these photos from the area and look for a future post on the section which I intend to name, “Oglala.”

Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska

Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska








The Warbonnet Memorial sits alone atop a windswept hill.

The Warbonnet Memorial sits alone atop a windswept hill.








The GPT will connect to the 100+ mile Mickelson Trail at its southern terminus - shown here

The GPT will connect to the 100+ mile Mickelson Trail at its southern terminus – shown here.








Sugar Loaf Butte - photo Michael Forsberg

Sugar Loaf Butte, Oglala NG – photo Michael Forsberg







Toadstool Geologic Park

Toadstool Geologic Park


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Photo of the Week – May 22, 2014


Beautiful photos!

Originally posted on The Prairie Ecologist:

Last weekend, I took advantage of a beautiful evening and went for a hike at Griffith Prairie, a site north of town owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  It was mostly cloudy, but I was banking on the clouds thinning before the sun went down.  They did.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) at Griffith Prairie, near Marquette, Nebraska.

Prairie ragwort ( Packera plattensis ) at Griffith Prairie, near Marquette, Nebraska.

Griffith Prairie has been managed with patchy fire and relatively intensive grazing during the last couple of years, and experienced a severe drought in 2012.  As a result, the perennial grasses are pretty weak, opening up lots of space for wildflowers – both short-lived and long-lived ones.  Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), prairie clovers (Dalea sp.), prairie violets (Viola pedata) and other long-lived forbs are thriving, but are joined by a throng of more opportunistic species such as shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus), false dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata), windflower (Anemone…

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