Photo by Barbara Johnson

East of Harrison, Highway 20 crosses High Plains country before the White River Valley appears, revealing the scenic Pine Ridge.

Located in the heart of Pine Ridge Country, Crawford bills itself as the “Big Game Capital of Nebraska.”

Legend Buttes Golf Course was named Nebraska’s top nine-hole course by Nebraska Golfer magazine.

History abounds at Crawford. The Army scout known as Little Bat was killed on Main Street. Not far away, MJ’s Ranch House is said to be haunted.
Crawford’s post office has a mural commissioned by the government during the Great Depression. The Crawford Historical Museum chronicles this history and more at 341 Second St.

Fort Robinson State Park is three miles west of Crawford on Highway 20. It began in 1874 as a military camp at the Red Cloud Indian Agency. Now, the park is one of Nebraska’s most popular attractions and is the state’s largest state park.

Lakota warrior Crazy Horse surrendered here in 1877. Two years later, the fort was involved with the Cheyenne Outbreak. Northern Cheyenne fled their Oklahoma reservation for their homeland, but were caught and imprisoned at Fort Robinson. One night in January 1879, under fire from troops, 130 Northern Cheyenne escaped. Sixty-four Cheyenne and 11 soldiers died in the fighting. The new Northern Cheyenne Breakout Monument stands west of Fort Robinson along Highway 20 near the Cheyenne Buttes.
“Fort Rob” was home to African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” in the segregated military of the day. In the 20th century, the fort was the world’s largest military remount depot, and in World War II included a K-9 corps training center and a German POW camp.

In addition to original buildings, some barracks have been reconstructed, including those of the Cheyenne and the Buffalo Soldiers. Visitors can enjoy cookouts, trail rides, hiking, and a summer repertory theater at the Post Playhouse. There’s lodging in officers’ houses and camping at 100 sites with electricity and 25 non-electrical pads.
Fort Robinson is open mid-April through mid-November. A state park permit is required to explore the park. (308) 665-2900.

Through artifacts and informative displays, the Fort Robinson Museum traces fort history from the Indian Wars through the 1940s. (308) 665-2919. The Trailside Museum of Natural History explores the area’s geology and natural history. Don’t miss the “Clash of the Mammoths.” A pair of bull mammoths locked tusks more than 10,000 years ago and died together. Their fossilized skeletons lie in display at the museum. (308) 665-2929.

Soldier Creek Wilderness was once part of the fort. Today, the 7,794-acre area has 15 miles of twisting trails. Follow Soldier Creek Road from the entrance to Fort Robinson State Park. Peterson State Wildlife Management Area is nearby, south of Highway 20.

From Red Cloud Buttes, you see Crawford to the east, Fort Robinson to the south, and the Red Cloud Agency site to the southeast. Half a mile northwest is the site of the Treaty Tree, where in 1875 the U.S. government tried to buy the Black Hills from the Lakota.

Crow Butte is the site of an 1849 battle between Sioux and Crow Indians. For the best view, travel 2 ½ miles south of Crawford, down Highways 2 and 71, then four miles east to Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area. Songbirds, falcons, mule deer, turkeys, bald eagles and golden eagles are often seen in this scenic area.

Highway 2 leads north to Oglala National Grassland, home of pronghorn, turkey, mule deer, songbirds, porcupine and burrowing owls.

Toadstool Geologic Park is regarded as a strange landscape within the grassland. Sediment layers deposited by ancient volcanoes have eroded at different rates, leaving sandstone formations perched on clay stems. Early residents referred to the formations as toadstools. The park has a trail, picnic and camping areas and a reconstructed sod house. Go five miles north from Crawford on Highway 2, then 10 miles northwest on Toadstool Road. Take it slow, these non-hardsurfaced roads can be challenging – especially after a rain.

There’s more mystery here. People thought rancher Albert Meng had found thousands of sheep bones. He and friend Bill Hudson had scientists take a look. It turned out the bones were the remains of more than 600 ancient bison.

Nearly 50 years later the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center is open to the public, and the 10,000-year-old bones are still being studied by researchers.

Because of stone tools discovered here, many scientists believe Paleo-Indians ambushed and then killed the bison. Some of the bones seem to show signs of cuts from stone blades. Other experts disagree. Further excavations may reveal answers or more questions. The Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center is south of Toadstool Park. On Toadstool Road, turn on Sand Creek Road and go six miles. Open mid-May through September. Please allow meandering cattle and rattlesnakes the right of way.

On the way, the High Plains Homestead/Drifter Cookshack features “cowboy-sized” meals. Not sure what a Coffee Burger is? It is tradition in these parts. It has nothing to do with caffeinated beverages. Lodging is available, and there’s a blacksmith shop, antique store and Dirty Creek Saloon. (308) 665-2592. The High Plains Homestead is one of many businesses of the Northwest Nebraska High Country group promoting local lodging, cattle ranch vacations, “horse motels,” hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and fossil hunting. All members are located in and near the timbered Pine Ridge.

The 750-foot-long Belmont Tunnel is no longer used by trains. Railroad enthusiasts watch trains climbing the 10-mile-long Crawford-to-Belmont grade. Look for the Belmont sign nine miles south of Crawford on Highway 2.

Travelers seeking a pioneer experience will find it at Aunt Myrna’s Cabin. This early settlers’ cabin on East Ash Creek has modern amenities including plenty of beds, a shower, full kitchen and even a popcorn popper. The cabin is nine miles northeast of Crawford. (308) 665-2343.

For more info contact the Crawford Chamber of Commerce at (866) 665-1817.