By volume, the Wildcat Hills of the Nebraska Panhandle region make up a miniscule portion of our state’s total acreage.
But when measured in terms of sheer cliffs and sheer beauty, these silent, stoic, jagged escarpments more commonly attributed to rockier locales such as the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains or the Badlands of South Dakota, scream out louder than the night calls of the predatory bobcats that these hills are named after.
South of Gering, Highway 71 bisects the scenic area into east and west. With a fresh layer of wet snow clinging to the pines and a sheet of ice covering the road, the morning rush north toward Scottsbluff is a slow and hazardous commute for work-bound motorists. But in the nearly 1,100 acres that make up Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, everything has frozen to a complete halt, crystallized in the calm, silently and scenically in winter’s first tenuous grasp of the season.
It is only after the morning’s first rays silhouette nearby Chimney Rock and paint Scotts Bluff National Monument’s rocky ledges in shades of purple and pink that life begins to stir in the Wildcat Hills.
Before retreating to their burrows for the day, a chorus of coyotes call out to one another, their actual locations obscured by the echoes. Turkeys fly to the ground after a night spent roosting in the relative safety of the trees. Bull elk, using their massive antlers as shovels, brush aside the snow to reveal the grasses underneath. The cow elk use their muzzles for the same as red-tailed hawks soar high above, watching the ground for the small rodents that will have to seek food, eventually.
Leaving their snowshoe-like tracks in the otherwise unblemished powder, eastern cottontail rabbits bound from thicket to bush and back again. Moisture is always at a premium here on Nebraska’s western edge, where an average of only 14 inches is delivered in a “normal” year. The Wildcat Hills plant community takes full advantage of the moisture that does rain down from the clouds and runs off overhanging ledges. Incredibly, more than 450 varieties of plants exist here in this Great American Desert – a unique garden salad tossed with greenery from both the western mountains and the short-grass prairies.
In spring, showy wild roses bloom in pinks from rock fissures and on trail sides, and prairie goldenpea shoots its golden flowers skyward from grassy knolls between the rocks. Dotted gayfeather, as if raising a flag, adorns its stalk with purple flowers; and the thistle-like prickly poppy – as if trying to improve its thorny image – displays the most fragile of blooms in yellow and white.
The Wildcat Hills State Recreation area is one of several publicly accessible properties in the Nebraska Panhandle where adventurous outdoor enthusiasts can hike through these wild and rocky islands at any time of the year. While the much better-adapted wildlife of the Wildcat Hills are taking advantage of the human pathways, this morning the trails, with the exception of an ill-prepared team of frostbitten photographers, are void of human activity. But if bold adventurers were to pull on their winter boots and then push through the snow in this frigid vault, with each step they could travel back through time to a hidden frontier of breathtakingly scenic vistas.