Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip 2021 | Toadstool Geological Park | Fort Robinson State Park
On day 3 of our Northwestern Nebraska road trip, we set off bright and early driving from our campsite to Toadstool Geological Park, about an hour Northwest of where we were. We had planned our trip so that we were spending two nights camping in the same spot in Nebraska National Forest near Chadron so that we could have plenty of time to explore the parks we wanted to see without worrying about where we would be sleeping. As we drove on the empty highways, we noticed dark ominous clouds hovering to the South of US-20, but to the North where we were heading it was much lighter. We hoped that was a good sign, but were also thankful for the overcast skies since we knew the trails we’d be hiking would have very little shade.
We drove US-385 North to Chadron, US-20 West to Crawford, and NE-71 North into the Oglala National Grasslands. Badland-esque formations started to appear on the sides of the highway which made us excited. We eventually turned off the highway, following signs to Toadstool Geological Park. We crossed some railroad tracks and drove on a gravel road for a few more miles. Along the way we saw signs for the Hudson -Meng Bison Kill Bed — unfortunately this attraction was closed, but from what we could gather about it, it’s similar to Ashfall Fossil Beds, except instead of rhinos it has prehistoric bison fossils.
Finally we arrived at Toadstool, and found the entire park to be completely empty! This surprised us because, besides hiking trails, there are also campsites and a picnic area here which we expected to at least have some people with it being a holiday weekend. We started on the trail, and took note of a trail sign with 3 different options: the first was a one mile loop on the Discovery Trail, then a 5 mile loop, and finally a 3 mile one-way trail that goes to the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Bed. We thought the 5 mile loop would be the best pick for us, but didn’t want to miss out on the actual toadstool formations, so we decided to start with the Discovery Trail and continue hiking if we felt like it after that.
I’m so glad we decided to hike the Discovery Trail, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Charlotte enjoy a trail as much as she did this one! She was constantly on the move hopping and sniffing around the rocks, stopping here and there to take in the views. It was like the park was a giant jungle gym for her! I had trouble keeping up with Curtis and Char because I was trying to get pictures, but Char was always on the move. Curtis and I recounted the different Badland-type scenery that we’ve experienced around the US: Arizona, Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Oregon, but right now we were positive that this spot in Nebraska topped all of those, simply because Charlotte was able to hike everywhere with us and she loved it so much! Toadstool also had the added benefits of the weather being perfect for hiking and the park being nearly empty (others had started to show up after us, but we didn’t come across any other hikers while on the Discovery Trail).
Because the Discovery Trail was such a success, we decided to continue hiking on the 5 mile loop. We started out strong, but Charlotte seemed distracted by something and less interested in hiking. She started to stop and sniff things more, and whenever we came to a vista of any sort she would sit down and stare contemplatively out into the distance. We took advantage of her being still and distracted by taking pictures with and of her.
This continued throughout the first mile. We walked through a brief prairie section with many blooming wildflowers to reach further away Badland formations, then made our way around them and through a fence into an open cattle area. By this point, Char was constantly stopping and looking back as if we were being followed. We followed a wash and walked up to a plateau where we could now see a herd of cattle grazing in the distance. This was where Charlotte decided we would be done hiking. I don’t think she noticed the cattle ahead of us, she was so focused on what was behind us — whatever that was. After trying to persuade her to go further, we decided to face the facts that if it had taken us this long to go one mile, it wasn’t worth trying to drag her along for 4 more when she clearly wanted to go back. Plus, as far as we could see the trail seemed to go right through the herd and we knew Char would not enjoy that. So we finally gave in and let her lead us back the way we came. Once we were going that way, she seemed to go back to how she was while hiking the Discovery Trail, interested more in the rocks and scenery and less worried about something following us.
When we made it back to the car, we found the parking lot now full with people and were thankful we had started as early as we did. We decided we wanted to take the scenic route before driving back to Crawford, so we continued North driving on the gravel roads through Oglala National Grassland.
These roads eventually led us to a monument to the Battle of Warbonnet Creek from the last Sioux War in 1876. After Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, many of the plains tribes decided to throw their lot in with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the Lakota. Included in this number was a band of Cheyenne who were living near the Red Cloud & Spotted Tail Agencies near Fort Robinson and Chadron. As these warriors traversed the plains of Northwest Nebraska, they encountered a 5th Cavalry who were likewise on their way to reinforce the main armies in the West. The details of the engagement have been muddled by time: whether the engagement was a planned ambush, whether the Cheyenne knew it was an ambush, etc. But what is known is that the Cheyenne and US Cavalry both sent out small bands of skirmishers who engaged in fighting. The only death was that of Yellow Hair, a Cheyenne, who was killed by legendary plainsman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody who was guiding the Cavalry. Cody scalped the Cheyenne warrior, claiming it as ‘the First Scalp for Custer’ and featured the scalp as well as re-enactment of the ‘duel’ prominently in his later career as a showman.
The battlefield today is likely much as it was in 1876 save for two monuments: one for the skirmish at large, and one for Cody’s ‘heroics’. As we arrived, a second vehicle was driving out and made sure we knew of both monuments. While we could have also driven on the plains, we opted to walk instead.
We then continued down more deserted roads, past the occasional ranch, but mostly just empty range land. We do not know what to do about historic appropriation (the act of making atonement for things that occurred generations ago), but it is sobering to think that entire groups of people were forced off this land, only to let the land be used as it had been.
Eventually, the back roads led back to NE-71 right on the SD/NE border. We took advantage of the quiet highway to FINALLY take a picture of us in front of a ‘Welcome to Nebraska’ sign. We then drove back down NE-71 to Crawford where we stopped for lunch at a local ice-cream/bbq/diner that was part of the Nebraska Passport stops this year. Charlie especially appreciated getting some bar-be-que.
We then drove a bit further West on US-20 to Fort Robinson State Park. Located near the headwaters of White River, Fort Robinson was the military attaché to the Red Cloud Agency which was established (somewhat against the treaty that Red Cloud signed) for the Sioux and Cheyenne following Red Cloud’s war in 1868. The fort served as a forward operating base for Cavalry during the Sioux Wars of the 1870’s and is the location of the surrender and later murder/death of Crazy Horse in 1876 as well as other atrocities. After the Red Cloud Agency moved to its present location in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the Fort served a variety of roles: a training ground and cavalry horse supply, K-9 unit training, and even a German POW camp during the second World War.
Eventually, the fort ended up in the hands of the park service and is, without a doubt, the Crown Jewel of Nebraska State Parks. Many of the remaining buildings host museums and monuments to the post’s history, and most of the houses were refurbished and outfitted as cabin rentals. You can even shell out $290 a night to live in the Commander’s Home.
Since we had Charlotte with us, we saw none of the insides of the buildings, but did walk around the parade ground and read the informational signs, but not before doing one last hike for the day. We drove up to Mexican Canyon and started to follow the trail there. AllTrails had the trail listed as a loop, and when we reached the turnaround point we stopped to admire the scenery. We enjoyed views of the cliffs on either side, across the valley and canyon alike. Charlotte was especially mesmerized by the view here! From our vantage we could see some trail posts across the way, and we opted to explore a distance past the end of the loop to see if we could make it over there. When it became clear that the trail wouldn’t make a long loop around, we turned back and proceeded down the other branch of the loop.
Oh how we wish we had gone straight back to the car. Up until this point, the trail had been wide, well marked, and passed through high plains prairie, but as we followed the trail, it went steeply down into the canyon, and the undergrowth quickly moved in close to the sides of the trail. We never lost the trail, but when we got back to the car we found ourselves covered in ticks. Close to 40 ticks between the three of us. We at first started to pull them off and kill them one by one, but ultimately opted to take care of them in the most inhumane way we could, by putting them in a metal dish and burning them with alcohol in one fell swoop. We stopped briefly at the Fort to walk around, but decided it was time to get back to the tent and change clothing.
We took a back road along the Pine Ridge and through the National Forest, but we kept finding ticks the whole way back (especially in Charlie’s fur) so it wasn’t as fun as maybe it could have been. We finally made it back to camp, changed clothes, and settled in for another night.