The Journey – Part Five

Sure, he looks cute now . . .

Sure, he looks cute now . . .

A fine day for a long walk

A fine day for a long walk

The campsite

The campsite

The big star sets, revealing all the little stars

The big star sets, revealing all the little stars

 

Cows.  I can’t say I have a lot of experience with them.  I grew up in the suburbs, but I did spend a few weeks working on various farms in New Zealand, and I managed to learn at least one thing:  Be careful around the bulls, they can be unpredictable.

So it was with some apprehension that we approached a large bull alongside the road in an unfenced area of the nearby ranch.  We made plans if he charged.  Ken’s involved doing a Superman dive over the fence on the other side of the road, mine involved vaulting the fence with one hand on top of a post.  At this point, one of my board members, Bob, was also hiking with us.  I’m not really clear what his plan was.  As we drew alongside of him, it became clear that there was no hope for any of our plans.  The other side of the road was low and was filled with a deep, wet muck – not exactly a good launching pad, and even my post idea was useless because right in that area (and only in the area), the strand of barbed wire ran directly over the  top of the post, as opposed to six inches below it.  We passed a few nervous moments, casting cautious glances and ready for anything.  Luckily, he was only very curious.  He kept his eyes on us at all times, but stayed more or less where he was.

The rest of the day was less eventful as we crossed the Nebraska/South Dakota border, and headed north toward Edgemont.  We saw few cars, and returned to camp at a wide open stretch of public land on Oglala National Grassland.  It was one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever seen.  It was exposed, but the weather was quiet, and we had a 360 degree view of rolling grasslands with the Black Hills rising to our north, and the Pine Ridge hooking around to our west and south.

I awoke in the middle of the night, exited the tent, and spend a few blissful moments, before I got cold, staring at the full show of stars, a show I hadn’t seen in a long time.  This will be one of the best places to camp on the Great Plains Trail.

 

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The Journey – Part Four

The dry cracked earth just west of Toadstool.

The dry cracked earth just west of Toadstool.

Near the end of the day

Near the end of the day

The Mini Mountains

The Mini Mountains

Pronghorn on the move.

Pronghorn on the move.

What part of the Toadstool badlands look like - This is NOT the route we chose!

What part of the Toadstool badlands look like – This is NOT the route we chose!

The new route was a success!

The new route was a success!

Toadstool is an amazing place.  I’ve now been there enough times in the last few years that I’m starting to get to know it pretty well, I think.  To the north of the campground, there are a series of imposing badlands, and then it starts to peter out and becomes just rolling grasslands about a mile further north.  In my initial routing plans from my first few visits, I knew of no other way than to backtrack to the road, but as I grew more familiar with Toadstool, I began to think that routing a section of new trail north of the campground might just be possible.

Note:  All apologies for the order of these photos.  WordPress is just putting them wherever it wants, and I seem to have no control over it, so they’re out of sequence.

We met briefly with Mike Watts, who is in charge of the recreation department for Oglala National Grassland, and he confirmed that most of the way north of the campground was still on public land.  He also gave us the go ahead to find our way through, and seemed excited about the trail in general.  So with that, we started out on a true route finding mission!

The badlands just to the north of the campground were indeed steep and tricky, but we did manage to find a more or less feasible way up an over and between them.  In wetter times, it may not be ideal, but in reasonably dry weather, the way was pretty easy.  Beyond that, the way was not too tricky, and there were no other major obstacles.  You can more or less just head WNW until you meet up with a little used forest service two track road that then takes you out to the main road about a mile further on.

The day was young, and we had many miles yet to cover, but the success of actually routing new trail put a smile on my face for the rest of the day!

Overall, we covered about 18 miles that day and although most of it was on roads, we saw zero cars.

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The Journey – Part Three

Some of the scenery along the road north of Crawford

Some of the scenery along the road north of Crawford

A well deserved break in one of the public sections of Oglala National Grassland

A well deserved break in one of the public sections of Oglala National Grassland

In the canyons of Toadstool

In the canyons of Toadstool

The Bison Trail to Toadstool

The Bison Trail to Toadstool

From Fort Robinson we were faced with a 26 mile trek all the way to Toadstool Geologic Park, which is part of Oglala National Grassland.  So on the day before, we took a “day off” to do some things in town, and also shortened our trek about three miles by taking the very pleasant White River Trail from Fort Robinson into the fine town of Crawford, Nebraska.  That left us with 23 miles to go . . .

We started early headed north from Crawford through open croplands with nice views of the bluffs.  Although we were hiking a road for 20 of the 23 miles, we saw very little traffic, and only had one short conversation with a Nebraska game warden.  We weren’t sure if he randomly found us, or if someone had called him, perhaps a bit suspicious of two guys walking along and maybe hunting out of season.  It’s possible because later we saw a number of “No Hunting” signs posted along fences and gates.  We explained that we were just walking a portion of the Great Plains Trail, to which he seemed mostly indifferent.  He bid us a “Good day” and we carried on through some really nice scenery.  Dry hills with the steepness of mountains rose to the south, while to the west and north, the “Pine Ridge,” Nebraska’s answer to the Black Hills, awaited in friendly repose.

After our encounter with the warden, we saw no one else for the rest of the day, but walked the remaining 16 or 17 miles in relaxed conversation, all the while, the road dropping into wooded hollows, and then rising into breezy pine covered hill tops.  The final three miles were all on what is known as the Bison Trail, a spectacular badlands and open prairie trail that connects the aforementioned Toadstool Geologic Park to Hudson-Meng Bison Bonened.  The bonebed is the site of a 10,000 year old bison kill site by early humans in the area.  It was not open when we passed through there, but it is a unique spot and well worth the visit.

We dropped into Toadstool exhausted, but really, it was one of the best days of hiking I’ve ever had, and is right now my favorite section on the Great Plains Trail!

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The Journey – Part Two

Scott and Nancy Kile

Scott and Nancy Kile in Glen, Nebraska

The bluffs near Fort Robinson State Park

The bluffs near Fort Robinson State Park

This is the second installment in a series detailing (sort of) the 106 mile hike recently undertaken from Agate Fossil Beds National Monument to Edgemont, South Dakota.  Once again all photos are courtesy of Ken Ilgunas.

We awoke in the cold, windy dawn at our campsite at Fort Robinson State Park, which is a gem of a place and highly underrated.  Kevin dropped us off at our finishing point from the day before (Yes, we did use some support vehicles for our trip in order to accomplish all of the things we needed to accomplish).  We hiked north and soon were amongst a sparse forest of Ponderosa pines.  The road wound down for several miles until it came to a “T” at White River Road.  From there we proceeded east discussing the possibilities of the Great Plains Trail when we came across a woman working the brush near the road.

“Hey, are you that guy working on the Great Plains Trail?!”

“Yeah!  That’s me!”

“Well, we think it’s a wonderful idea!”

Scott and Nancy Kile, also known as the Millennium Pioneers live in the “town” of Glen, Nebraska, which is really just a loose configuration of houses, but beautifully tucked in a tight valley and nestled along the banks of the White River.  They’ve chosen this place because of its beauty, and are happy to share their knowledge and love of the area.

Wow, what a change from our first encounter the day before.  It turns out they had just found us on Facebook a few weeks earlier.  We talked for a while about how important it was to share the beauty of this place with something as adventurous as a long distance trail.  They even suggested that they could convert one of their buildings into a hostel for thru hikers!

This is the kind of support I always thought was possible, but I didn’t expect to meet it so quickly on the trail.  Hostels and other possibilities will take a long time to develop, but it’s awesome to know there is solid support out there for those kinds of things.

For the rest of the way back to Fort Robinson, we were met by a few curious stares, but mostly a lot of friendly waves.  I can imagine this area anchoring a lot of support and enthusiasm, and maybe serving as a catalyst for other areas to get involved as well.  All of that is in the future, but the future of the Great Plains Trail never looked brighter!

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The Journey – Part One

The journey begins

The journey begins

Cows in their winter pens.

Cows in their winter pens.

The Pink School House - technically not one room, but pretty small

The Pink School House – technically not one room, but pretty small

The hills above the school house

The hills above the school house

Classic windmill scenery

Classic windmill scenery

It's a long lonely road.

It’s a long lonely road.

This is the first in a series of posts about the 106 mile journey I completed two weeks ago with Ken Ilgunas, Kevin Purdy, and Robert Pahre.  It was a test drive of the first few sections of the GPT, and it was also the backdrop for an upcoming Backpacker Magazine article to be published later this year (stay tuned as to when exactly).  These posts will be light on the prose, and heavy on the photos, which is a break from my usual style, but Ken came up with some excellent photos and I want to let them them tell most of the story.

We started on an unseasonably warm March day in Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.  After meeting with the rangers there and taking a tour of their excellent (and I do mean excellent) collection of historical artifacts (including Red Cloud’s shirt, and American Horse’s war club) we started down the road, heading east toward the Pink School House.  We met some ranchers on the way who were, in addition to being surprised at seeing people walking, a little disconcerted that we were riling up the cows who were still in their winter pens.  I explained what we were doing and that this area might one day be part of the Great Plains Trail, to which he responded, “God, I hope not!”

It turns out, however, that he was a hiker too, and was planning on scaling Laramie Peak the next day.  We also shared a common bond over education.  I mentioned I was a teacher on spring break, which was true, and he said his mother was a teacher, and that he attended elementary school at the little Pink School House just up the road where we were headed.  We both lamented the disappearance of one room school houses, and we parted on amiable terms.  From there, we hiked a mostly uneventful 12-14 miles, turned north at the Pink School House, and on toward the Pine Ridge of western Nebraska.

All photos by Ken Ilgunas

 

 

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High Plains Hiker

Author amidst the plains of southwest South Dakota

Author amidst the plains of southwest South Dakota

Here’s a link to the article about the Great Plains Trail that appeared in a recent edition of the Rapid City Journal:

Rapid City Journal Article

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Carhenge!

Is this the biggest henge in the world?

Is this the biggest henge in the world?

OK, this one’s just for fun.  Sitting on the western edge of the Sandhills, near the town of Alliance, Nebraska is Carhenge.  Admittedly, Carhenge is not the typical fare that I usually promote on this blog.  It will not entice you with scenery, there are no natural features to contemplate, but it will impress nonetheless.  I guarantee it.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, and you can arrive at your own interpretation of the permanent art installation, but you tell me:  How DO you stack cars on one another?  It’s an enduring mystery of the druids . . .

Prairie Schooner?

Prairie Schooner or Grocery Getter?

Yup.

Yup.

What was the rule about quicksand again?

What was the rule about quicksand again?

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