Top Ten U.S. Campgrounds

Whitetail Campground: Nebraska
By Suzanne Dow

Imagine sitting behind a half-dozen broad-backed oxen on a hard wooden plank high above a sea of golden grass, tall enough to rub the underside of your wagon, rippling in a gentle breeze. The summer sun shines down, warming the earth, when suddenly a meadowlark fills the quiet with its song. Such an image isn't hard to conjure up on the road to Whitetail campground in the Nebraska National Forest.

Yes, there is a national forest in Nebraska. No one expects this land of rolling hills crowned by rippling waves of belly-high grass to be known for trees, but it has some of the most fascinating forest lands in the Forest Service. The Nebraska National Forest is composed of four widely separated units. From the high plains of the Missouri Plateau, dotted by ponderosa pines and spiral buttes, in the west to the remarkable sandhills of the central part of the state, Nebraska National Forest offers many places to explore.

The view over the prairie is limitless and appears empty. Don't be deceived. The prairie is filled with life. Not one but many types of grass wave in the gentle winds: Sand lovegrass, prairie sandreed, porcupine grass, switchgrass, and bluestem grass are common. You'll find prairie coneflowers, sunflowers, scurf-peas and spiderwort wild flowers providing sudden splashes of color. Sharptail grouses, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, box turtles, prairie earless lizards, pronghorn antelopes, whitetail deer, and mule deer, just a few of the prairie's residents, are occasionally spotted. The grasses and hand-planted forest of the Nebraska National Forest provide excellent habitat for a wide variety of birds.

Along the Dismal River

The roadway leads on and on with nothing to block the view. Just grass, rolling hills, windmills, and cattle scattered here and there. Near the end, a ribbon of brown dotted by clumps of green appears, and there's the delightful little Whitetail campground.

Whitetail campground is located next to what is possibly the most accurately named waterway in the country: the Dismal River. Broad and very shallow, the Dismal River flows past the campground like a stream of cooling cocoa. The flat brown color contrasts with the bordering cottonwoods' lush green leaves and the pale gold of the knee-high native grass. Whitetail campground was envisioned as a horse camp. The clusters of corrals plus a windmill and stock-water tank attest to this original intent. But for those who are looking for rustic solitude and are willing to carry in their water, this is the place.

There is only one trail, the multi-use Dismal Trail, adjacent to the Whitetail campground. But, in general, there are few trails in the Nebraska National Forest. This is open land—much like it was when the pioneers were moving west. Orientating skills are a must for anyone interested in extensively exploring the area, for landmarks are few and far between.

Whitetail's campsites are located among native cottonwoods that provide delightful cool shade during the day. The sound of the wind tickling the grass and the cottonwoods fills the air. The sound is distinctive and soothing. The scent of hot dirt and sweet grass rides on that wind like an exclusive perfume. Above, a Swainson's hawk glides effortlessly across the cloudless sky while below, riders wander in with taste of sweat and dust on their lips after a day's exploration.

After the sun sets and the sky's watercolor pastels fade into the black velvet of night, a zillion stars pop out. Seemingly close enough to touch, they twinkle like a movie star's sequined dress at the Academy Awards. With nightfall, a quiet settles over the campground. But it isn't a complete silence. The ever present breeze tickles the cottonwoods' leaves and ruffles the grass. The lingering aroma of grilled hamburgers and spicy chili hangs in the air. Glowing embers pop the last bits of sap in the firepit, and a horse chews quietly on some sweet-smelling grass. A camper softly moans as pleasantly sore muscles relax.


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