Anyone can appreciate the mountains, but it takes a true outdoors person to appreciate Nebraska’s Sandhills. They are as beautiful as they are rugged. Inviting, yet unforgiving. Filled with incredible flora and fauna, along with some of the coolest people in Nebraska.
Each year I head out into the Sandhills, shotgun in hand, to chase sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens. I look forward to this.
This year’s trip takes us to a place with rich history and incredible views. Near a little-known town called Rose, we set out into the hills to a large cottonwood grove that was hand-planted some 100 years ago. This grove, weathered and majestic, is the perfect backdrop for our campsite. A nearby abandoned ranch house, bowing to 100 years of weather, tells the story of a young ranch family that set out to tame a rugged country that could not be tamed.
From camp, we head out to various areas to chase grouse. We often are reminded about the rich diversity of this landscape as each hill offers something new. Stabilized sand dunes, sub-irrigated meadows where the Ogallala aquifer peeks out of the surface of the ground and pushes life-giving waters to flora and fauna. Small wetlands dot the landscape, providing even more diversity for waterfowl, frogs, snakes and most mammals of the region. Cactus on the ground reminds us how harsh this land can be, along with winds that sweep over each hill, chilling you to the bone if not prepared.
The annual grouse hunting trips taken with my father-in-law are always enjoyable. Grouse can be a very unforgiving bird. The first time you hunt them will be for sport, but each hunt after will be for revenge.
This time of year the birds bunch up into large coveys and can be very skittish, often busting to the sky long before the hunter arrives to the site for a shot. This is where cold windy days can work to your advantage. Grouse do not like cold winds. They often will hold up on the downwind side of hills, making a close encounter for the hunter very likely. They are also quite an easy bird to take down.
Nighttime finds us finishing a meal of grouse, venison steaks and potatoes with onions and green peppers under the brilliant lights of a million stars. A large and roaring campfire warms our aching legs and backs. The crackle of wood that was planted by adventurous souls trying to make this land home 100 years ago gently lulls you into a relaxed state of mind while shooting stars provide for the most incredible night light.
When we retire to the sleeping bag, the breeze swaying through the cottonwood leaves will gently sing us to sleep. Tomorrow morning will find us once again traversing hill upon hill chasing grouse, exploring and living like people should live. Rugged, wild and free.
There are many places where you and your family can enjoy the Sandhills. In fact, some of my favorite places are where the Sandhills and Pine Ridge country meet at Chadron and Fort Robinson state parks. Do not overlook Smith Falls, Calamus and Sherman reservoirs, Niobrara State Park and the Valentine Fish Hatchery.
For more information, visit our Parks Guide at OutdoorNebraska.org. Time spent wandering the Nebraska Sandhills is truly time well-spent.