I often get asked from people not from Nebraska why I always brag on my state so much. So, I love giving them quirky facts about Nebraska that makes us so dang awesome.
- Warren Buffett’s Home (enough said)
- Where the Reubin Sandwich first started (You’re welcome, world!)
- Where Kool-Aid began!
- Has the United State’s Largest Man-Made Forest!
So, when I found out that Nebraska had that kind of accolade, I knew we needed to take a trip to the Halsey Nebraska National Forest for a weekend of Nebraska hiking and nature!
[H2] Taking Root In An Unlikely Place
Even as a native Nebraskan myself, I’m guilty of describing Nebraska as a bunch of Cornfields. But, the reality is that get off of I-80 and you’ll see a different side of the Cornhusker State and the Nebraska Sandhills are a perfect example of this.
In the early 1900’s Botanist Charles Bessey thought that the Sandhills weren’t just great for the Sandhill Crane Migration (a total NE Bucketlist item, if you haven’t done it yet!) but that it would be able to flourish as a forest with some TLC. So, tens of thousands of trees were painstakingly planted in hopes of creating a timber reserve in a state that had very little wood to offer initially. Today, the Bessey Ranger District is growing at 90,000 acres and the Pine Ridge Ranger District (also apart of the Nebraska Forest) is over 50,000 acres!
^Looking For Things To Do in Nebraska? Pin It To Your #NEBucketlist Board!^
[H2] Things To Do In Halsey National Forest
I must actually be in the minority but I was truthfully a bit underwhelmed with the Halsey State Park (you can read my candid and honest thoughts about it here). However, when you talk to other travelers and visitors, that doesn’t seem to be the consensus. So, what can you do there?
[H3] Hiking in Halsey
I talk in-depth about this in my “Why Was Halsey National Forest Disappointing and How It’s Reflective of Nebraska Tourism As A Whole” but there is literally only one hike in all of the Halsey National Forest….and it’s 6 miles round trip!!!
Scott Tower Trail
If you want to make this trek, you’ll find the well-marked sign near the Ranger Station and be on your merry way.
It’s not that incredibly hard of a hike, but I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily easy, either.
Granted, we both were wearing our kiddos, so that significantly slowed us down but it took us upwards of 2.5 hours to get to the lookout tower.
We went hiking in Halsey in the summer of 2019, a few months after the devastating Nebraska spring floods. If you had the pleasure of being outside ANYWHERE in the state this summer, you’ll sympathize with my mosquito covered body.
The thick forested areas were like a mosquito’s paradise. There were literally sections where you could physically see (and consequently had to walk through) swarms of mosquitoes. And yes, this was with a profuse amount of DEET spray!!!
Nonetheless, we were happy to have a forested path to hike on in Nebraska, so we kept on trailblazing.
After traversing through the forest as well as some really gorgeous open Sandhill areas, you’ll eventually pop out at an unsuspecting area where the lookout tower is.
Expert Tip: It’s not called “The Sandhills” for nothing! If you plan on doing this 3 mile one way hike to the tower, I recommend decent shoes to help tread through the sand and possibly mud (pending recent weather).
The Main Road
If you are not wanting to hike through the woods (and mosquitoes), I suppose you could also just walk the main road all the way to the Scott Tower. In fact, that’s what we decided to do on our way back (so that our boys weren’t constantly being made out to be a buffet for the skeeters), but then we were mostly in sun and it’s just not nearly as relaxing as walking through the forest. (And truth be told, about halfway, we finally just hitch hiked the rest of our way back! Guess that’s a benefit of walking along the road!)
The ATV Paths
When I asked the Ranger what other hiking paths there were, he said that we could technically hike the ATV trails, which are actually decently maintained. However, knowing that it wasn’t an impossibility that some of those people hadn’t been drinking, combined with the speeds of the ATVS, we just weren’t comfortable doing that (especially with the kids!)
[H4] Tips for Hiking in Halsey
- As mentioned….BUG SPRAY! I can’t stress this enough
- There are a lot of unshaded areas, be sure you are wearing plenty of sunscreen
- If you plan on doing the roundtrip trek, that’s 6 miles. Make sure you have more than enough water and snacks are always a plus!
- If you find that the hike to the tower was more than you expected (as we did), know that MOST Nebraskans are really nice! We asked for a nice guy to give us a lift back to the campground and he was happy to oblige.
Discovery Loup Arboretum
If you don’t want to do the full blown hike, there is a walk right around the ranger station (maybe 20-30 minutes) that follows the sidewalk. Along the way, there will be placards showcasing a different tree. It’s nothing magnificant, but could be nice for inquiring little minds or tree lovers alike.
Scott Tower Lookout
One of the main things to do in Halsey is head to the Halsey Lookout Tower. As mentioned previously, you can take a 3 mile (one way) hike to the tower or just drive. If I have an opportunity for a gorgeous hike, I’ll almost always take that, but I have a confession to make. The drive up to the tower is actually really beautiful and you’ll get some great scenery that way as well. In fact, we actually went back up the next day just to do the drive.
Peering out from the lookout tower, it’s almost hard to remember you are in Nebraska. The forest below stretches on for miles and the rolling Sandhills remind you just how beautiful this “flat” state really can be (and not all that flat….as you’ll find out if you do the hike!)
At the bottom of the tower, you’ll find a few picnic benches, which is a fantastic place to grab a bite if you did your hike (so bring your sandwiches!)
ATV and 4 Wheelers
One of the main draws to Halsey is to go on the ATV trails, which some say are some of the best they’ve been on. But it’s not just limited to 4 wheelers. You can also take:
- Dune Buggies
On certain trails, horseback riding (your own- there is not a service there) and cross country skiing are allowed as well.
You can’t rent the OHVs at Bessey, but just in town, you won’t be lacking in options for rentals!
I have to admit, if we didn’t have two small boys, I could see how fun that would be for a group of friends, for a bachelor party, or just as an outdoor adventure getaway.
Nebraska National Forest Camping
It’s probably pretty obvious on this blog that we love camping in Nebraska. So much so, that we got a Pop Up camper to tour the state with.
And I’m pretty convinced we got the perfect pad in the campsite! It was tucked right into the trees (aaaah, I love waking up looking right into the forest!) and we had a huge campfire area that was completely secluded and blocked off from everyone else. It was like a little private oasis (minus the mosquitoes…..those damn mosquitoes!!!)
Overall, the campsites were well maintained. There is a main shower house with hot water and flushable toilets, but those are only convenient depending on the location of your campsite.
Otherwise, there are several vault toilets (which were decently clean for a vault toilet!) that were easy to access as well.
There were plenty of electric hookups for RVs as well as a ton of tent sites as well.
The campgrounds were some of my favorite in all of Nebraska for scenery. HOWEVER, there is a big catch. If you are in a tent, prepare to learn real quickly the different train signal whistles, as you will be hearing them ALL.NIGHT.LONG. And I don’t mean the faint sounds of trains in the distance.
No, I mean loud, blasting horns every 30-45 minutes maybe (MAYBE!) 1000 feet from you.
On the flip side, camping fees at Halsey are WAY cheaper than state parks, so that’s a plus!
Nonelectric Sites: $8/night
Electric Sites: $11/night
Middle Loup River Activities
The Middle Loup River is a local favorite throughout the Sandhills and is a great river to enjoy. Some people will bring a kayak, others a tube to float in, while many just hop in and swim since it’s not a raging waterway. And of course, are you REALLY a Nebraskan if you haven’t gone Tanking!?
Should You Go To The Halsey National Forest
If you are a Nebraskan looking for things to do in Nebraska, then yes! I think it is a worthwhile road trip to make. However (and this makes me really frustrated and sad to say) I’m not sure I would recommend it for people that it’s not already on their way to something.
What do you think? Am I off base? Should The Nebraska National Forest Stay on our #NEBucketList?