LIT­TLE TRAIL ON THE PRAIRIE

SOL­DIER CREEK WILDER­NESS, NE­BRASKA

Backpacker - - Play List Weekends - By Marie Van­der­pool

The low-hang­ing au­tumn sun splits through the clouds, glint­ing off the still blade of a wind­mill. It’s a piece of hu­man pres­ence in a place that’s oth­er­wise empty: I haven’t crossed paths with any­one on this 12.3-mile loop through a Ne­braska prairie. I’ve walked be­neath pon­derosas and through val­leys where streams run even this late in the year, and I’ve been com­pletely alone. I pull my eyes away from the wind­mill and scan to the hori­zon, where I spy blades of a dif­fer­ent sort: a sea of golden, knee-high grasses ebbing in the af­ter­noon light, wild as ever.

TURN-BY-TURN FROM THE NORTH FORK TRAIL­HEAD

1)

Pick up the Trooper Trail, head­ing 4.4 miles west across grassy hills to a horse trough and a 30-foot wind­mill.

2) Con­tinue north on the His­toric Mil­i­tary Route, fol­low­ing over­grown dou­ble­track 1.5 miles to camp in a grove of pon­derosa pines.

3) Next morn­ing, pro­ceed .7 mile east on the main path to a junc­tion.

4) Veer north onto the Boots and Sad­dle Trail, which twists past an old wind­mill, to a sign point­ing to­ward a dou­ble wind­mill, near mile 10.3.

5) You could con­tinue on-trail the rest of the way, but con­fi­dent nav­i­ga­tors can leave the trail here to see sand­stone for­ma­tions: Veer west across the grassy slope and then south down a small hill, beel­in­ing to the eas­ily vis­i­ble, 20-foot-tall buttes.

6) From there, set a south­east bear­ing to re­con­nect with the Boots and Sad­dle Trail near mile 11.2 at 42.7109, -103.5719.

7) Hike 1.1 miles south to close the loop at the North Fork trail­head.

CAMP­SITE PON­DEROSA GROVE (MILE 5.9)

Spend the night in this rare, can’tmiss treed area, pitch­ing your tent in the shade of the 40-foot-tall pines. Mid­dle Fork Sol­dier Creek snakes by

for easy wa­ter, but it’s the last re­li­able source, so top off be­fore leav­ing.

WILDLIFE

If you’re lucky, see Rocky Moun­tain bighorns hang­ing near the sand­stone buttes at mile 10.8. At night, lis­ten for the dis­tinct scream of moun­tain lions; an es­ti­mated 59 live in the Pine Ridge area. (Make plenty of noise when you round blind bends.)

HIS­TORY

The wilder­ness gets its name from the mil­i­tary per­son­nel who fre­quented the area from the 1870s through 1946, pa­trolling the prairie on horse­back. Near mile 9, head west up­hill to see three old wind­mills that the sol­diers used to draw wa­ter.

DO IT TRAIL­HEAD 42.6993, -103.5731; 10 miles west of Craw­ford on Sol­dier Creek Rd. SEA­SON Year­round; wear blaze orange in fall. PER­MIT None CUS­TOM MAP bit .do/BPmapSol­drCrk ($15) CONTACT www.fs.usda.gov/ne­braska

Mid­dle Fork Sol­dier Creek

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