Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip 2021 | Chadron to Pawnee Bluffs National Grassland to Omaha | Agate Fossil Beds National Monument | Scottsbluff | Wildcat Hills | Panorama Point
On Sunday morning, we packed up our things and began driving North on US-385. We had a bit of driving to do today, as well as several stops we wanted to make, so we got an early start. We started by driving through downtown Chadron to take a picture of the Dawes County courthouse, then went on our way West on the scenic US-20 into Sioux County and grabbed a picture of the county courthouse in Harrison. From here we drove South on NE-29 through the lonely and rolling high plains.
Our first major destination for the day was Agate Fossil Beds National Monument along the Niobrara River. One of the more remote National Park Sites, there were still several people visiting today. Curtis went into the visitor center to get our cancellation stamps, talk to the rangers, and get a lay of the land. Similar to the Ashfall Fossil Beds over on the east side of the state, Agate is home to a large collection of fully intact Miocene mammals – or at least it was until archaeologists excavated them. We did a short hike up to the original excavation sites thinking that some of the fossils would be visible from the trail, similar to the Rhino Barn at Ashfall. But, either we are bad at finding fossils, or (as we found out from the signs) the philosophy of archaeology has changed. Back in the 1920’s-30’s when Agate was an active dig site, scientists had more of an Indiana Jones, ‘This Belongs in a Museum!’ mentality, and cut out much of the fossil bearing rocks to be shipped to universities out East (some can be seen locally at the University of Nebraska Museum of Natural History though). This is as compared to the modern mentality of leaving as much of archaeology ‘in situ’ demonstrated by the present day digs at Ashfall.
Regardless of not seeing any fossils outside, we did enjoy the hike, wildflowers, and views of the Niobrara Valley and the surrounding high plains. The visitor center did have some casts of fossils on display, but Curtis was more interested in the Cook Collection. The pioneer who originally settled the valley (and later helped make the original fossil discoveries) was a friend of chief Red Cloud of the Lakota, as well as many other Lakota and Cheyenne leaders from the end of the plains wars into the 20th century. These natives would often visit and stay on the land and trade their wares and gifts with the pioneer and his family. Now, the collection is likely one of the most complete of Red Cloud’s life, if not of the 19th century plains wars.
Once we were finished here, we continued down NE-29 to Mitchell, then into Scottsbluff. We grabbed some Culvers for lunch and then decided to take it to the top of Scottsbluff National Monument to enjoy. Both of these brought back good memories of our first 24 hours in Nebraska last August. We drove up to the top of Scottsbluff, ate, and wandered around the paved path at the top. Even though it was busier than last time we visited, we still enjoyed the views here.
Next, we drove to Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. Our main goal was to just check off the visitor’s center on our Nebraska Passport apps, but we decided to get out and go for a short walk. We started on the lookout trail that began behind the visitor’s center, but after walking a quarter mile we decided it was longer than we had time for so we walked back to our car and continued heading South.
After that came two more county courthouses: First we drove about 4 miles off NE-71 to the small town of Harrisburg, the county seat of Banner County (and seemingly the only town in the entire county). Then further down NE-71 we stopped again in Kimball for the Kimball County Courthouse.
Finally, it was time for the main highlight of today, our long and rugged ascent of Panorama Point, the highest point in Nebraska! The only red tape is that because it’s in an open bison area and privately owned, they don’t allow hiking in the area, so our car did the majority of the climbing. After determining that the Nebraska county roads were too slick and muddy to safely drive, we drove a little further South into Colorado to attempt a Southern approach. Thankfully the roads in Pawnee National Grassland are better maintained so we were able to make a successful summit! We took some time to enjoy the view, take pictures, and sign the logbook. They say that on a clear day you can see Canada from here, but unfortunately this was not that clear day. Make all the flat Nebraska jokes that you want, but Panorama Point tops out at 5426 feet above sea level, and is the 20th highest state high point in the US. It was funny to think that this elevation was about the highest that we got on the entire Centennial Trail last month. I guess you could say that we did that whole trip in preparation for reaching this altitude. Panorama Point is Curtis and my 18th state high point, and Charlotte’s 12th.
Once we had bagged the summit and were satisfied with our time here, we continued driving through Pawnee National Grassland in search of a place to camp for the night. There were no facilities out here, but also no other cars, and we were able to camp for free that night. The forecast was calling for thunderstorms that night so we were a little nervous about being in the open, and perhaps gave up a scenic night overlooking Pawnee Buttes, but in the end I don’t think we even got any rain.
We awoke the next morning to a beautiful sunrise. We took down our tent one last time and began our long drive back home. We started out driving CO-14 into Sterling where we got a picture of the Logan County Courthouse, then took US-6 east through several new counties and courthouses: Phillips County, CO in Holyoke; Chase County, NE in Imperial, Hitchcock County, NE in Trenton and Red Willow, NE in McCook.
Along the way we stopped at a roadside monument just off of US-34 for Massacre Canyon. This monument, erected in 1930, is to commemorate one of the last inter-tribal battles between the plains natives. After Red Cloud won his war in Wyoming, the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 granted the Lakota the right to hunt buffalo along the Republican River. However, this hunting land was also granted to the Pawnee tribe then living in a reservation along the Platte River. Historically enemies, two hunting parties encountered each other near this point in July of 1873. The Lakota attacked and routed the Pawnee camp until a nearby regiment of Cavalry intervened. Minor in nature, the battle had lasting consequences for both tribes. The Pawnees ultimately relinquished their reservation in Nebraska for one in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) while government officials called for more sanctions restricting tribes to within their reservation boundaries. Sanctions that would ultimately aid in the precipitation of war against the Lakota in 1878.
Once in Arapahoe, we drove North on US-283, stopping to see the Gosper County Courthouse in Elwood. Following that, we drove to Lexington in order to hop on I-80 for the remainder of the drive — but not before getting a picture of the Dawson County Courthouse! Finally we got on 80 and drove the remainder of the way home. Clearly a lot of driving — and not at all interesting to read about — but this trip took care of a lot of counties and courthouses, and our map is really filling out! We have seen almost ⅔ of the courthouses in Nebraska, which isn’t bad at all for our first 9 months here. Most of all, this weekend trip gave us a bigger appreciation for the history and land of the state we call home.