Anyone can appreciate the mountains but it takes a true outdoors person to appreciate the Sandhills. They are as beautiful as they are rugged. Inviting yet unforgiving. Gentle to the eye yet harsh to all who inhabit this rugged and scenic landscape. Filled with incredible flora and fauna along with some of the coolest people Nebraska has to offer. Each year I have the good fortune of heading out into the Sandhills, shotgun in hand, to chase sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens. I look forward to this.
Around August I begin hearing the Sandhills calling to me. Just ask my wife, I start to get edgy about this time and need to make a trip out west. Our trip takes us to a place with rich history and views to die for. Near a little known town called Rose, Nebraska, 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. Nearby, an abandoned ranch house, bowing to 100 years of Nebraska weather, tells the story of a young ranch family that set out to try and tame this rugged country. It could not be tamed. From camp, we head out to various areas to chase grouse. You are often reminded about the rich diversity of this landscape as each hill offers something new. Stabilized sand dunes, sub-irrigated meadows where the Ogallala aquifer peaks out 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 grouse hunting trips taken with my father-in-law annually are just plain enjoyable to me and my dog. 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 they 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 actually work to your advantage. Grouse do not like cold winds and will often hold up on the downwind side of hills, making a close encounter for the hunter very likely. They are also a fairly easy bird to take down. This is great country for my favorite shotgun, a trusty 20 gauge over/under. This is also great country for your hunting dog as they can see and wander for miles. Finding downed birds, either in the field or fowl on the pond is often a simple task.
Night time finds us finishing up a meal of grouse, venison steaks and potatoes with onions and green peppers under the brilliant lights of no less than one million bright stars reflecting a night only found in story books. A large and roaring camp fire warms our aching legs and backs. The crackle of the wood, that was hand planted by adventurous souls trying to make this land home 100 years ago, gently lulls you into a most relaxed state of mind while shooting stars (over a dozen counted this night) 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 for you and your family to enjoy the beautiful Nebraska Sandhills. In fact, some of my favorite places are where the Sandhills and Pine Ridge country meet at Chadron and Fort Robinson State Parks. Don’t overlook Smith Falls, Calamus and Sherman reservoirs, Niobrara State Park, Valentine Fish Hatchery and lakes. For more information visit our Parks Guide at www.outdoornebraska.org under Parks. Time spent wander the Nebraska Sandhills is truly time well spent!