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Wildcat Hills SRA hike

March 13, 2012

It’s sad. I’ve lived in Scottsbluff more than two years now, and Saturday was only the third time I’ve hit the trails in the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area.

The first time I hiked the SRA was back in January 2010, which resulted in this early blog post. The second time I hit the trails was during the May 2011 Wildlands Day event, when I ran an 8K race and took pictures for a newspaper story.

I think I’ve avoided going to the SRA until now for two reasons.

One, the nature center and administrative office is closed on weekends during the winter (when the rattlesnakes are sleeping and I feel most confident about tromping about in the grasslands). I can’t just pop in and buy the $25 state park vehicle sticker. Since I can’t seem to think far enough ahead to order the sticker by mail, I have to pay the $5 daily rate.

And, two, I am unfamiliar with the trails and found myself unable to navigate via the trail map I had. I am not the only one who’s had this problem. I found this blog post from a Cheyenne resident who was also confused by the trails in the Wildcat Hills SRA.

I decided to spend this 75-degree March Saturday getting a little exercise and exploring the trails with Bugman (coming soon: a post on the day’s “bug” finds) so I could write a blog post and help other people get out there and enjoy the scenery and the early-spring aroma of a Ponderosa pine forest.

Here’s the route we hiked (screen capture from the USA Track & Field map site), which covered 6 miles of trails and service roads. Our path included a couple of visits to the vending machine on the back deck of the nature center (we forgot to bring water).

First things first: a link to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission webpage on the Wildcat Hills SRA that contains a little bit of useful information. The webpage contains old information (the Nature Center closes at 4 instead of 4:30 now, and there is no longer a game reserve with bison and elk) and some broken links, but at least the page includes a link to a page where you can find an “aerial map” with a semi-decent trails depiction, if you can figure out how to work the controls.

If you have this brochure:

Don’t bother using the map. It’s outdated and unhelpful.

I got around quite nicely by consulting my camera after I took a picture of a hand-done map posted near the entrance to the nature center:

The trails are, for the most part, dirt paths that can be quite mucky in places, especially where the snow is still melting in the shade. Other trail hazards include prickly pear and yucca. Not the best place to hike in shorts and sandals.

Bugman and I started out on the Northlook trail. It’s a little over a half-mile long and is a pretty easy hike with a decent view out towards Scotts Bluff. Oddly, it’s also the most poop-bedecked trail in the park. Not sure if it’s dogs or coyotes or foxes or wildcats or what, but watch your step.

To pick up the Northlook trail, go behind the nature center and look for the trail sign:

You’ll cross a service road and pick up the trail again. (The service road also has a sign that dubs it a “nature trail.” I don’t quite understand that.)

The Northlook trail is then simply a matter of following the path until it ends at a barbed-wire fence.

We tried to hike the Bobcat trail, but I couldn’t find most of it, and the parts I could find weren’t all that pretty. There have been some tree thinning projects to reduce fire danger around the nature center, and most of the trees are still sitting in big heaps.

The rest of the trails we followed – Whitetail, Turkey Run, Pine Top, Monument View – I would wholeheartedly recommend.

To start out, head to the southeast corner of the nature center parking lot and find the trailhead.

Where the trail splits, take White Tail to the right (the steps to the left lead towards Bobcat Trail brushpiles). The sign from this direction only says “nature trail.” If you were coming back from from the Bobcat Trail, you could see the other side of the sign, which says White Tail.

Soon, you will come to the intersection with Turkey Run Trail. The sign appears to say that the trail leads in both directions. Go left. If you go right, you’ll wind up in the campground parking lot where the Turkey Run Trail begins.

There will be another Turkey Run sign indicating a side path to that campground parking lot. The Turkey Run Trail takes a 90-degree turn north at this point, but the sign indicates that the trail is east-west. Ignore the sign. Follow the well-worn path as it curves left.

The Cedar Ridge Trail intersects the Turkey Run Trail eventually. Bugman and I skipped that trail this time. Not too far past the Cedar Ridge intersection is a lovely, weathered old snag that’s perfect for sitting against.

The Turkey Run trail squiggles across the landscape for awhile, then splits at an unmarked intersection. If you go right, you’ll wind up back out on the park road. Go left to continue hiking. I think the trail is called Pine Top at this point.

Further down the Pine Top Trail, you’ll come to a bridge that has seen better days. The remnant is a good and sturdy plank – perfectly serviceable if you’ve got good balance. (Maybe it will be repaired before the high tourist season?) Bugman and I found it to be a lovely spot to sit and listen to the cracklings and twittery murmurings of nuthatches and chickadees rummaging in the surrounding Ponderosa pines.

Bugman and I skipped the opportunity to take a connecting path up to the Monument View Trail when we came across it, instead choosing to continue along Pine Top. I was hoping for a nice view when we got to a ridge top on Pine Top trail, but the view is blocked. At that ridge, we followed an unofficial trail upslope to the Monument View Trail and turned left, towards the scenic overlook. Three cyclists passed us and got there first.

At this point, Bugman and I were pretty tired and thirsty and hungry, so we followed the Monument View Trail back to a parking lot and hiked about a mile and a half on park roads back to the nature center parking lot.

It was a lovely day.

Copyright 2012 by Katie Bradshaw

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