Nebraska & Samuel R. McKelvie National Forests Overview

Whitetail campground

In seeming defiance of the muted tones of central Nebraska's Sandhills rises a lush, green Ponderosa pine forest. And while its presence in this arid landscape is unexpected, it is the forest's century-old roots that make it truly unique.

In 1902, University of Nebraska botanist Charles Bessey, believing the Native American legend that the Sandhills were once covered in trees, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside two treeless tracts of land as forest reserves, and then set about the laborious task of planting pine seedlings.

The pines thrived in the dry, sandy environment, eventually encompassing more than 20,000 acres in the largest man-made forest in the world. Today the forest, which is part of the 90,444-acre Bessey Division of the Nebraska National Forest, consists of prairie grassland and gently rolling hills. Nearby, the 115,000-acre Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest is home to hand-planted Ponderosa pine, Eastern red cedar, jack pine and Scotch pine in living legacy to Charles Bessey.

In the 1950s the native Ponderosa pine forest of Pine Ridge in the northwest corner of Nebraska's panhandle became a part of the Nebraska National Forest. The Pine Ridge Ranger Division encompasses 52,000 acres of naturally occurring pine trees and mixed grass prairie. Within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Division, visitors will find the northern Great Plains ecosystems, unique geological formations, and the diversity of a multi-species conifer forest.

Hike a Little Patch of Colorado
To experience a little of Colorado right in Cornhusker country, hike the Scott Lookout National Recreation Trail, which dissects the 20,000-acre, hand-planted Bessey forest. Open only to foot traffic, the 3-mile trail winds between Ponderosa pines and red cedars to its high point, literally, at Scott Lookout Hill. There you'll find a 65-foot watchtower that offers sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Hikers often see white-tailed deer, mule deer and wild turkeys. Less frequent are sightings of porcupines and prairie rattlesnakes.

Discover Knobby Nebraska
In the northwest corner of the state, by the border with South Dakota, a different Nebraska comes into focus, one of rimrock, Ponderosa pine forests, deep canyons and open grasslands. Mountain bikers fortunate enough to come here—and many have yet to find it—will find more than 100 miles of unspoiled singletrack and dirt roads winding through the hills. Fort Robinson and Chadron State Parks, in a coordinated effort with Nebraska National Forest, have marked trails and make the Pine Ridge area more accessible to visitors. A topographic map of the Pine Ridge, which lays claim to 170,000 acres of public land, is available and includes suggested routes complete with difficulty ratings. Copies are available from the Chadron/Dawes County Area Chamber of Commerce.

Ride the Ridge on Horse
At both the Bessey Ranger District and the Pine Ridge Ranger District, more visitors than ever before are inquiring about horseback riding opportunities. Some of the best trails in Nebraska are along the 27-mile Pine Ridge Trail, a multiple use trail designed to eventually extend 52 miles connecting Chadron and Crawford. Another Pine Ridge adventure, for those who love being in the saddle, is an annual event known as Ride the Ridge, a two-day ride steeped in Native American history and lore. For more information call Dawes County Extension Office at (308) 432-3373, or Pine Ridge Ranger District at (308) 432-4475.

Paddle a Wild Nebraska River
The Dismal River is Nebraska's wildest river, and it poses a challenge to anyone wishing to tame it. A great two-day excursion on this 80-mile National Wild and Scenic River begins at Seneca Bridge and runs nearly 42 river miles to Whitetail Campground. The Dismal is not a river for the novice canoeist. The current flows at 6 to 8 miles per hour, swirling springs—some as much as 100 feet deep—abound, and heavy dead fall (trees and large branches have fallen into the river) clog certain stretches. Keep your eyes out for deer, beavers, coyotes, prairie rattlesnakes, and wild turkey along the way. Seneca Bridge campground is on the north side of the river about 3 miles east of U.S. 83 bridge.

Ski Nebraska
If you find yourself in central Nebraska during the colder months, try skiing through the first hand-planted pine forest in the country. This area is recommended for the ski-backpacker or the physically fit experienced skier. One popular campsite for overnight trips is the hardwood forest along the Dismal River in the southeast corner of the forest. In the west, the Pine Ridge Region and nearby Chadron and Fort Robinson State Parks afford unlimited ski touring for skiers of all abilities. This section of the panhandle offers the most consistent snowcover in the state and is excellent for day-use ski touring. The best skiing in the area is at Fort Robinson, which has 28 miles of marked trails and unlimited backcountry opportunities. Current snow conditions are available from the park office, (308) 665-2660. A weekly snow conditions report is available from Game and Parks Commission headquarters in Lincoln. Ask for the snowline report at (402) 464-0641.

Wildlife Watching in Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest
Located about 20 miles south of the South Dakota border in central Nebraska, the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest is a treat for those who delight in non-human contact. More than 150 species of birds have been identified in the forest, including sharptail grouse and wild turkey. American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles can be seen riding thermals high in the sky. Antelope and mule deer bound through the 115,000 acres of land administered by the Nebraska National Forest Supervisor. Keep a keen eye out for some of the smaller mammals that call these parts home as well. Cottontail, fox, badger, porcupine, and even bobcat are known inhabitants.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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