When American schoolchildren study Nebraska, the impression is of an undulating region of plains, with a few trees dotted here and there, interrupting rows upon rows of corn; it is unimaginable Nebraska has a forest. So, why does the 141,864-acre Nebraska National Forest exist? The answer lies in the designation of two areas, 200 miles apart, as forest lands that combined and became the national forest in 1907. Pine Ridge Ranger District, which occupies 89,864 acres in northwest Nebraska near Chadron, includes a natural forest dominated by native ponderosa trees. In Nebraska's center is the Bessey Ranger District, the brainchild of Dr. Charles E. Bessey, who petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 to create a forest in Nebraska near Halsey to develop a supply of wood, stabilize the land, and provide a sanctuary for wildlife. The result of his petition is the largest human-planted forest in the United States, where ponderosa pine, red cedar, and jack pine compete for space in a 20,000-acre area with the rest of the 52,000 acres dedicated to the preservation of wildlife.
When a family explores Nebraska's wide-open spaces and the Nebraska National Forest, the ideal choice for camping is in an RV that is easy to move from one place to another. An RV is particularly helpful when traveling long distances between camps like you do when traveling from one section of the Nebraska National Forest to another. To find an RV to rent close to the Nebraska National Forest, check out one of the RVshare sites above.
Chadron State Park Campground is part of Nebraska’s first state park. The campground opened over a century ago with a few sites available for wayward travelers. Today, the campground provides 88 RV campsites, all of which are back-ins. The campground offers 6 miles of hiking trails and 4 miles of mountain bike trails. There is a large swimming pool with a beautiful view of the surrounding hills and the Nebraska National Forest. Anglers find trout in Chadron creek and in the lagoon located inside the park. Visitors enjoy a wide array of activities, including paddle boating, a sand volleyball court, a winter sledding hill, a disc golf course, and several playgrounds. Water Hookup: Yes Electric Hookup: 20/30/50 amps Sewer Hookup: No Wi-Fi Available: No Pet-friendly: Yes Other Amenities: Picnic tables, fire rings, restrooms with flush toilets, warm showers, laundry facilities, dump station Fee: $25 to $35 per night
Red Cloud Campground is a bare-bones United States Forest Service site. If you love primitive campgrounds and want to visit the Nebraska National Forest, this is the place for you. The campground offers 13 back-in sites without any of the amenities you expect to find in a more organized setting. Situated inside the forest, this campground is adjacent to many of the trails that run the woods' full length and breadth and that lead to some majestic views of the surrounding hills. Water Hookup: No Electric Hookup: No Sewer Hookup: No Wi-Fi Available: No Pet-friendly: Yes Other Amenities: Fire rings, one vault toilet Fee: $10 per night
Bessey Recreation Complex Campground offers 36 RV back-in campsites. Visitors to this site find themselves in the middle of the largest planted forest in the United States. The complex supports hiking, biking, horseback riding, and ATV trails that run throughout the forest. Both swimming and fishing are available in sections of the Middle Loup River, or, if you prefer, you can fish in the Bessey fishpond, which is kept fully stocked, so no angler is disappointed. Water Hookup: No Electric Hookup: 30 amps Sewer Hookup: No Wi-Fi Available: No Pet-friendly: Yes Other Amenities: Vault toilets, some restrooms with flush toilets, fire rings, picnic tables, warm showers, dump station Fee: $15 to $20 per night
The Outrider trail leads to the Black Hills Overlook, an amazing pinnacle that provides an astounding view of the sacred land once occupied by the Sioux. This is an out-and-back hike that connects with the Pine Ridge Trail.
Length: 1.8 miles
The Roberts Loop Trail is a multipurpose path that accommodates hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. The trail undulates with the hills, which could be difficult for some hikers. It begins at the Roberts Tract Campground and loops along one ridge to intersect with the 80-mile Pine Ridge Trail before returning on a neighboring ridge.
Length: 4.0 miles
The East Ash Trail is an out-and-back pathway that intersects with the Coffee Hill Trail and the Pine Ridge Trail. One of the destinations for this day-long trip is the West Ash Picnic Area, where hikers enjoy an expansive view of surrounding hills that is spectacular when in springtime bloom.
Length: 11.4 miles
Soldier Creek Loop does not see much use. It changes in elevation by 1,115 feet over 10.5 miles, which is unusual in Nebraska. During the spring, this trail provides vivid views of hillsides and valleys filled with wildflowers.
Length: 10.5 miles
This trail is a loop that takes hikers, horseback riders, and bikers past some interesting rock formations. The loop involves an elevation change of only 393 feet over a 1.7-mile distance. Wildflowers greet hikers at every turn.
Length: 1.7 miles
Nebraska National Forest is a laboratory for classes from local high schools, colleges, and universities that use it as a plant and animal identification facility. The plethora of wildlife and plant varieties draws visitors curious about the wild habitat. Bird watching comes a close second to those who enjoy watching the game of life as it plays out on the plains.
Angling, most often for the elusive trout, is one of the favorite activities that guests enjoy in the forest. At times, enterprising visitors backpack deep into the woods to find seldom touched streams and ponds filled with fish.
Nebraska National Forest allows visitors to hike freely throughout its borders. This policy lends itself well to the game of geocaching. Visitors should be aware, however, that the policy includes leaving no trace behind of their visits.
Stargazing is somewhat obscured in this forest. The plains allow light to travel long distances, even from the smallest communities. Though the sight of the night sky is more exposed than in towns or cities, it is not as glorious as the views from mountainous areas.
Address: 125 North Main Street, Chadron, NE 69337
Fee: Entry fee $0
Spending a family vacation at the Nebraska National Forest exposes you and the family to the vast expanses of the Great Plains. Visiting the two ranger districts gives you a complete perspective of this environment's beauty and complexity. A vacation here in an RV brings memories that will last a lifetime.