A pine cone hangs on the branch of a ponderosa pine in the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.
This National Forest is Right in the Sandhills
The Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands, Bessey Ranger District, offers the opportunity to marvel at stars in a clear nighttime sky and breathe deeply the smell of ponderosa pine.
Situated in the Nebraska Sandhills is a natural manmade evergreen forest in the middle of a vast grassland that is testament to what people can do when determined. The largest hand-planted forest in the northern hemisphere, the National Forest near Halsey covers 20,000 acres.
Why plant a forest in the Sandhills?
At the time, the consumption of trees for lumber in the United States was huge as cities were being built and the population grew. There was concern this precious natural resource would be depleted, so the forest was planted for future timber needs. It ended up being something much better.
To create something on such a massive scale would require abundant labor. The CCC (Civil Conservation Corps) provided the majority of manpower in the 1930s.
“The first year they planted trees in 1902, they had a 90 percent kill rate. There was some trial and error in the beginning,” explained Laria Lovec, a rangeland management specialist for the National Forest System.
The determination not to give up resulted in something special to appreciate today.
Driving into the National Forest feels like being transported to Colorado. The smell of ponderosa pine and other evergreens fills the air.
The Scott Fire Watchtower stands above the tree tops in the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.
For anyone who owns an OHV (off highway vehicle) or a horse, likes to ride and explore open terrain, this is heaven. There are numerous trails, making it easy to have several fun-filled days.
Even without an OHV or a horse, you can still hike in the forest, climb to the top of the fire watchtower or float down the Middle Loup River that borders the forest on the north side.
The Scott Hiking Trail and Scott Lookout Tower are named for Charles A. Scott, who was originally charged with creating the forest.
In the middle of the afternoon, I climbed the several stories of stairs to the top platform of the 65-foot tower where the rangers work when fire danger is high. The vista offered views for miles in every direction. There was never any doubt where they stopped planting trees. The border between sandhill grasslands and dark evergreen trees was stark.
A gentle breeze blew across the top of the canopy.
Lulled by the quietness of the forest, I laid on the floor of the watchtower and took a nap. There is just something sacred about being in expansive places and resting.
Don Kirschbaum of Omaha prepares his dinner at the campground in the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.
After my midday snooze, I went down to the campground and set up my tent. Camping here is a good value at $8 a day for tenting or $11 a day for a site with an electrical hookup. Additionally, the main campground has free hot showers.
In the campground, I ran into Don Kirschbaum of Omaha. Kirschbaum has been camping here since 1996. He always stays at the same campsite, number 37.
“This is the best camping in the state,” Kirschbaum explained. “You can imagine you are in the Colorado Rockies without going all the way there.”
Kirschbaum stood bent over his campfire while he cooked his food and talked about being in the forest and getting away from work.
“I bring limited food, so I fish every day in the pond for bass. This is my dinner plan. And if fishing is bad, I just go to the bar at Halsey and have dinner,” Kirschbaum said with a smile.
After I watched the sun set over the forest and Sandhills, I had a dinner of peanut butter on bagels. I climbed into my tent and fell asleep to the sound of trains going east or west on the tracks north of the campground.
The next morning, Kirschbaum was kind enough to give me a ride to the top of the Scott Hiking Trail, a 3-mile hike through the forest.
Walking the trail gave me a chance to get close to wildflowers, birds and the solitude that often escapes a busy life.
The solitude of a hike in the Nebraska National Forest is worthy of anyone’s bucket list.
A Yellow-billed Cuckoo looks down at the campsites in the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.
A tiny wildflower adds color to the Scott hiking trail in the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.