LITTLE TRAIL ON THE PRAIRIE
SOLDIER CREEK WILDERNESS, NEBRASKA
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
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.
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.)
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