Hiking the Sandhills of Nebraska in America’s Largest ‘Man-Made’ Forest

Context can make a hike. While the trek to Scott Lookout Tower in the Nebraska National Forest is rather ordinary, the concept of walking through a 20,000-acre forest engineered in the middle of the Great Plains makes it special.

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The Geek and MontaraManDan at Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska National Forest. CoastsideSlacking

We penciled in the 6-mile round trip hike as a leg-stretcher on the drive west from Omaha to Alliance, NE. We weren’t sure what to expect. Information on the hike was spotty on the USDA Forest Service site. The Geek, who found nothing online at AllTrails, was dubious. MontaraManDan worked hard to remain hopeful, because he’s a “glass is half full” kind of guy.

The scenery along Nebraska Highways 91 and 2 did not inspire confidence. Driving west from Omaha, we watched the landscape transform from cornfields to grazing lands to the rolling Sandhills of Nebraska. The rolling hills would be dunes if not for a thin layer of sandy top soil covered in grassy scrub and the occasional pond and stunted fir tree.

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Nebraska National Forest, Halsey, NE. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

And yet, shortly after passing through the tiny town of Halsey, we indeed found a forest. Wedged between the banks of the Middle Loup and Dismal rivers, just south of the BNSF Railway, the woodland is managed by the Bessey Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forest.

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Nebraska National Forest, Halsey, NE. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The human-planted forest was engineered at the beginning of the 20th century by Charles E. Bessey, a University of Nebraska botany and horticulture professor looking to address rampant deforestation in the United States.  One hundred years later, not only is there indeed an unlikely forest rooted in the middle of the Great Plains, but the Bessey Tree Nursery continues to harvest and store seeds as a hedge against disease and fire in public lands. It also produces about 2 million fir and hardwood seedlings a year for conservation and reforestation projects in the region.

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Nebraska National Forest, Halsey, NE. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The sandy and occasionally rocky 3-mile trail from the visitor center to the 50-foot fire lookout tower rises gradually through stands of mostly juniper, pine and fir varieties, separated by scrubby and occasionally boggy clearings. The Bessey OHV Trail cuts across the walking trail in several places. The hike is easy and pleasant.

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View from Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska National Forest. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The view from the tower, which was restored in 2011, takes in most of the forest and stretches beyond into the otherwise pristine Sandhills region, much of which has never been cultivated. It was early October and visitors were sparse.

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Nebraska National Forest, Halsey, NE. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The hike offered no snow-capped peaks or glacial lakes. No canyons, bluffs or fantastical rock formations. No shaded trails beneath old-growth forest canopies. But hiking through an engineered oasis of trees amid 20,000 square miles of grass-stabilized dunes is kind of cool.

The glass was indeed half full. This time.

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Sunset reflected on the hood of the car driving Nebraska 2, east of Alliance. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking.

This post is the ninth in a series about our adventures on a 6,000-mile road trip across the American West in Fall 2019.

Part 1: Getting our Kicks in Route 50 in Nevada – ‘The Loneliest Road in America”

Part 2: Strolling among Nevada’s Bristlecone Ancients at Great Basin National Park

Part 3: Finding Pando: Utah’s 80,000-year-old Aspen Grove Hides in Plain Site 

Part 4: That Time We Lost the Trail High on a Ledge at Capitol Reef National Park

Part 5: Weary of Iconic Vistas at Canyonlands National Park? Hike to Upheaval Dome

Part 6: Scrambling Beyond the Bus Tours in the Devil’s Garden at Arches National Park

Part 7: Night Sky Brightens a Visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Part 8: ‘Ode to Autumn at Crested Butte’ – A Fall Hiking Adventure in Verse and Pictures

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