A visit to Nebraska's Fort Robinson State Park and the surrounding area offers a good opportuinity to get off the beaten path. Located near Crawford in the far northwestern part of the state, 530 mi/855 km northwest of Omaha, Fort Robinson is a 24,000-acre/9,700-hectare park—Nebraska's largest—on the site of an old U.S. cavalry post.
In the 1870s, Fort Robinson was a key site in the bloody Plains Indian wars—it's where a U.S. Army private bayoneted legendary warrior Crazy Horse in 1877. The African-American cavalry troops known as the buffalo soldiers also were posted at Fort Robinson.
The officers' quarters, guardhouse, veterinary hospital and other buildings have been restored or reconstructed and are stocked with historical exhibits. Even the barracks have been redone and are now available for lodging. The Trailside Museum is devoted to the area's paleontological riches (don't miss the reconstructed mammoth).
Although Fort Robinson has the demonstrations and interpretive exhibits you'd expect from a historical park, it also has become a popular recreation area: You can camp, hike, fish, cross-country ski or take trail rides by horseback or Jeep. The adjacent Trooper Trail is an 8-mi/13-km walk along a trail once used by Native Americans and pioneers.
No matter what activity you choose, you won't have any trouble spotting herds of buffalo or longhorn cattle, but for more thorough coverage of the plains' ecosystem, take one of the wildlife tours. On summer evenings, join a buffalo-stew cookout or see one of the theatrical performances at the Post Playhouse.
Fort Robinson is a great base from which to explore some of northwestern Nebraska's other attractions. At Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, 25 mi/40 km to the south, you can examine fossil beds that date to 20 million years ago. The remnants of many prehistoric creatures have been found there, including beavers and a two-horned rhinoceros. Stop at the visitors center for information on the self-guided tour of the fossil hills and to see many items once owned by Chief Red Cloud of the Sioux. (Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes while viewing the fossils.)
To the north is Oglala National Grasslands, which includes Toadstool Park, an eerie landscape of eroded limestone (it looks positively extraterrestrial). To the east is Chadron State Park, near Chadron, which is located at the edge of the High Plains on the Pine Ridge. It's an impressive landscape of buttes and ponderosa-covered ridges—not at all the flat tabletop you expect in the Plains states.
The nearby Museum of the Fur Trade (open Memorial Day-September) includes a replica of the old Bordeaux Trading Post, from the time when a one-man post represented an economic crossroads for a huge territory. It has interesting displays of beaver, wolf, mink and other furs, as well as tomahawks, blankets, beads and other trade goods. In summer, you can see botanical exhibits of authentic crops grown by Native Americans. Fur Trade Days takes place in Chadron in July.
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