States of Interest

Fort Robinson State Park in Nebraska is one of three amazing state parks that the GPT will cross.

Fort Robinson State Park in Nebraska is one of three amazing state parks that the GPT will cross.

In the previous two blogs, we have looked at all the various places of national interest that the Great Plains Trail will cross.  I believe we’re currently at a hefty 29 places of significant interest.  In this post, we will look at some areas of significant state interest that the GPT will connect with, namely state parks and state high points.

The GPT will cross three state parks:

Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota – This gem is on the northern fringes of the Black Hills and the main highlight is its namesake butte – sacred to the Lakota Sioux and more of a mountain than a butte, it rises approximately 1400 feet above the surrounding plains.  The park includes a trail to the top of the butte, a campground, and visitor center.  On a personal note, Bear Butte State Park has become one of my absolute favorite places to visit when I’m anywhere near.  I have climbed the butte several times, and would do so again in a heartbeat.

Custer State Park, South Dakota – This state park is perhaps one of the best state parks in the U.S. for wildlife.  It’s more like a mini version of Yellowstone than a typical state park.  There are elk, coyote, bison, hawks, eagles, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and even mountain lions!  Custer State Park is big at over 70,000 acres, and it made Adventure Journal’s list of the 20 best state parks in the U.S.

Fort Robinson State Park, Nebraska – This is another outstanding state park that amazes on two distinct levels.  First there is the historical aspect of the park with its military fort buildings and accounts of life in the army in the late 1800s.  This is also the place where Crazy Horse was killed.  Then there is the natural piece of the park, which is an incredible mix of open plains and high cliff landforms that ring the interior valley.  There are endless possibilities for exploration, and Fort Robinson State Park also borders Nebraska’s only wilderness area, Soldier Creek Wilderness.

The GPT will also connect with four (and possibly five) State High Points:

This was discussed at length in earlier blog posts (search the blog to find the full entries), so I’ll be brief.  The list of state high points is as follows:

White Butte, North Dakota (3,506 feet)

Harney Peak, South Dakota (7, 242 feet)

Panorama Point, Nebraska (5,426 feet)

Black Mesa, Oklahoma (4,973 feet) – This one is a maybe, but the chances are looking good!

Guadalupe Peak, Texas (8, 749 feet)

OK, so let’s add these eight items to our previous total of 29, and we now have 37 places of amazingness along the Great Plains Trail – WOW!!!



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The Great Plains Trail – A Few More Areas of National Interest

The author, in about 2005, at the Black Elk Wilderness sign.

The author, in about 2005, at the Black Elk Wilderness sign.

Last week, we listed all of the National Historic Trails that the GPT will cross and added them to the list of National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, and National Grasslands that will also be crossed by the trail as it is currently envisioned.  This week, we’re going to add a few more places of national interest that the trail will connect with.


The GPT will pass through four National Wildlife Refuges:  

The National Wildlife Refuge System is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and exists to protect and restore critical habitat for a variety of plant and animal species.  Many of the refuges offer recreational opportunities as well.  Currently, the refuge system manages over 150,000,000 acres.  In Montana, the GPT will cross two small NWRs (Bowdoin NWR and Hewit Lake NWR, which is managed by Bowdoin NWR) and one huge NWR (Charles M. Russell NWR).  At almost 1,000,000 ares, the Charles M. Russell NWR is the second largest NWR in the lower 48 states!

In New Mexico, it is likely (though not certain) that the GPT will also connect with Bitter Lake NWR near the city of Roswell.

The GPT will pass through one Wilderness Area:

Unlike the Rockies to the west, the Great Plains does not have many officially designated Wilderness Areas.  The following definition is taken from Wikipedia:

The term wilderness is defined as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”[1] There are currently 757 designated wilderness areas, totaling 109,511,966 acres (44,317,920 ha), or about 4.5% of the area of the United States.

The GPT will cross Black Elk Wilderness in the Black Hills National Forest.

(I will mention this in a later blog post, but it is likely that one day there will be one more wilderness area that the GPT will cross – Soldier Creek Wilderness in Nebraska.)

The American Prairie Reserve:

The GPT will run through the huge (and getting ever huger) American Prairie Reserve in eastern Montana.  APR is not a national park, but it will one day be bigger than most national parks, and its principles for conservation and recreation are similar to the national park system.  American Prairie Reserve is kind of like a de facto national park.

Grasslands National Park (Canada):

In fairness, I did say areas of national interest.  I did not specify which nation  ;-)  . . . The northern terminus of the GPT is the southern border of Grasslands National Park in Canada.  It is possible that one day, the GPT could be an international trail and continue into Canada, but that remains to be seen . . .

If we add these seven areas to the previous total of 22, that gives us a current tally of 29 places with national prestige, and the list continues to grow!




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The Great Plains – A National Historic Treasure

Scottsbluff National Monument is home to four of the six National Historic Trails that the Great Plains Trail will cross.

Scottsbluff National Monument is home to four of the six National Historic Trails that the Great Plains Trail will cross.

The previous post was all about the various National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, and National Grasslands that the Great Plains Trail (GPT) will pass through.  In addition to those area of national interest, the GPT will also cross no fewer than six National Historic Trails.  These “trails” are usually not really trails at all (except in some places), but they are there to mark the path where a significant journey (or journeys) in the nation’s history took place.  See the links below for more information on them.

In the north, along the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, the GPT will cross the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Further south, at Scottsbluff, Nebraska, the GPT crosses no fewer than four National Historic Trails:  the Oregon National Historic Trail, the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, the California National Historic Trail, and the Pony Express National Historic Trail.

In southern Colorado as well as New Mexico, the GPT will also cross the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.

If you’re keeping track, we can add these six National Historic Trails to the 16 National Parks and National Monuments etc. mentioned earlier for a current total (there will be more . . . ) of 22 places of national interest that the GPT will directly connect with.  It’s starting to look like a pretty impressive list!


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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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