| NEBRASKA |
If you want to understand what it was like to travel on foot or wagons along the emigrant trails, the best view is from the top of a butte in west Nebraska, but not this one.
| A HIKING ADVENTURE?
Bead Mountain lies between Chimney Rock and the Scotts Bluff National Monument, providing a breathtaking and scenic view of the North Platte Valley below. It is the prominent butte on Bead Mountain Ranch’s property, which lies north of the Wildcat Hills escarpments, and a favorite of hikers who like to ascend buttes where there are no defined trails.
The site is open year-round, but I typically hike from late fall to early spring when I can be reasonably sure there are no rattlesnakes who might join me on my journey. Hiking to the base of Bead Mountain requires a short walk through the tall prairie grass, and when one doesn’t need to worry about snakes, paying attention to the uneven ground, ice, and beauty before you is more effortless.
Bead Mountain is a saddle-backed peak about 10 miles southeast of Gering, Nebraska. It’s more of a butte or a bluff than a mountain, but its name has held for nearly a century. Listed at 4,610 feet, Bead mountain is the 15th highest point in Nebraska.
The 3,100-acre Bead Mountain Ranch, in which the peak is its centerpiece, borders three other hiking areas. The Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area lies to its southwest, the Murphy Ranch Nature Conservancy is to the south, and the Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area, is to the southeast. They join together, providing the public with more than 10,000 acres of land the hike, bird-watch, and explore.
However, the top of Bead Mountain is the desired destination for most hikers. The lure of making your path is attractive because each trip is different. The more often you climb the peak, the more you refine your trek and the more extended time you can spend breathing in the crisp autumn air atop as you imagine the history that has walked through here.
According to local legend, the Northern Cheyenne and Brule Sioux used Bead Mountain as a burial site before the pioneers arrived and settled the area. The Native Americans conducted the funerals on the side of the mountain. Many years later, settlers found a variety of artifacts, including beads used in funerary clothing, lying on the ground atop and around the area as well as stories of ants carrying the beads away, thus giving the mountain its name.
Because there is no trail to the top, all hiking in the Bead Mountain Ranch area is considered off-trail, so feel free to blaze your path to the summit. On my first hike to the top, in late winter, it was tempting and easy to follow the cow trail for part of the way, but, as cows tend to be smarter than humans, the track only goes so far. After that, you’re on your own to figure out how to get above steep steps, especially for a short person like me, and uneven ground with loose gravel.
Much of the topography of western Nebraska includes sandstone, and Bead Mountain is no different. As I traveled closer to the central summit, the ground turned from icy snow to hard sandstone, which crumbled under the weight of my feet. I made sure several times to have a firm footing and stability before trying to climb up to the next portion of the mountain lest I tumble back down.
The hike to the top is not too difficult provided you take the necessary precautions and pay attention to where you are climbing. Although the ground is uneven along the top, it is flat and wide enough that you do not need to worry about falling over the edge.
Once on top, the panoramic views are breathtaking and worth any pain it took to get there. Chimney Rock, a landmark for those crossing the Oregon Trail, lies to the East. To the West, the Scotts Bluff National Monument looms in the distance, still beckoning travelers who travel through the North Platte Valley. In 2022, the 23-mile journey between the two will take 28 minutes. Pioneers who walked the distance would spend about eight hours traversing the distance.
If you look around the ground occasionally, you can see remnants of other animals, including turtle shells, likely dropped by a raptor. At least in the cooler months, human footprints are rare. While the peak can be climbed, it is still mostly unspoiled by man’s hand.
As you stand and marvel at the magnificent and dazzling view below, take the time to close your eyes and listen. You might hear one of the more than 120 species of birds who either nest in or visit the Bead Mountain area, including mountain bluebirds, bald eagles, and hawks. The mountain bluebirds are highly visible from early spring to late fall. Deer, turkey, rabbits, and antelope have also been spotted year-round wandering through the lush canyon area, making Bead Mountain Ranch a rich opportunity for photographers.
The climb back down is more accessible, but if you go in winter and there is snow on the ground, take your time or else you’ll fall flat on your butt. If you go with friends, make sure you’re at the back of the pack, so when you fall, and you will, no one will notice if you get back up quickly.
Don’t walk back to the parking area when you return to the ground. Take some time and walk further into Bead Mountain Ranch, which includes approximately 40 miles of canyons, three natural springs, and several riparian watering holes.
According to the Platte River Basin Environments (PRBE) website, “Clumps of skunkbush sumac, golden current, and choke cherries can be found in abundance in the canyons and approaches to the escarpments. Wild grapes climb century-old cottonwood and pine trees in the canyon spring areas.”
Walk along the two-track road and venture deeper into the surrounding canyons. After a short, 2-mile trek on the two-track road, hikers will pass an old windmill. Once past this point, you will be blazing your trail again through the forested canyon. In the winter months, I often follow a roughly half-mile game trail, visible through the snow tracks, down into the canyon where grand cottonwoods provide me a comforting canopy to take a break, write, and think, or you can make your own way through the lush area.
It doesn’t matter if you choose to visit when the ground is covered in snow, or the lush green prairie grass is as tall as you. Nature will provide you with astonishing views, a quiet calm, and the occasional rabbit running across the ground, to which you’ll explain, “look, a bunny.”
Hikers like me, who are also photographers, have access to more than 10,000 acres of PRBE land with buttes, canyons, forests, a variety of rock formations unique to the area, small springs, and the chance at wildlife, who enjoy staring at you, only to run away before you can focus your zoom lens.
A short, six- to seven-mile hike is easily attained at Bead Mountain without exhausting yourself. The comfort and serenity found here are worth every step you take.
No matter what time of year you visit, bring plenty of water. There are no amenities in the area. Remember, if you take it in, get it back out to leave the land as you found it.
Although it is PRBE land, Bead Mountain Ranch is open to hunting, providing it occurs more than 200 yards from an occupied dwelling or feedlot. Camping, open fires, paintball, and target shooting are prohibited here.
Cattle can also be found grazing here, so it’s important to remember to close the gate behind you once you enter. The only way to reach the base of Bead Mountain is through the tall prairie grass.
| FINDING BEAD MOUNTAIN
First off, good luck! For those of you that want to visit this remote butte, to reach the Bead Mountain parking area, travel south on Highway 71 to County Road W. Turn East (left) and travel along the dirt road for approximately three miles until you reach a bend in the road. Instead of turning left on the bend, enter the parking area. Bead Mountain is slightly southeast of the parking lot and across a field of cow patties and native grasses.
Story by: Irene North
Photography by: Hawk Buckman