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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin OLD WEST TRAIL

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

September 1, 1965 -- Go get yourself a ten-gallon hat, stop the missus and the young’uns into the covered wagon (I mean car), treat yourself to two weeks of solid vacation time, and join us this summer for a fantastic trek along the exciting and fabulous Old West Trail.

Pardon those superlatives, pardner, but you’ll find them more than justified when you hit this scenic and historic trail which winds through Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Just the names of these great frontier states conjure up exciting visions of adventure and romance in a setting of panoramic plains, towering mountains, thundering waterfalls, brilliant canyons and America’s most magnificent parks and wild-life sanctuaries. This is not only the country of Yellowstone National park and Glacier National Park, Mount Rushmore and Chimney Rock, Indian reservations and rodeos, but also of such famous names as Buffalo Bill Cody, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Will Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, General Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph and an assorted array of horse thieves, cattle rustlers, gunslingers and outlaws, which provides endless material for today’s television fare.

The Old West Trail is also a natural for the camera contingent, with bubbling mud pots, geysers and the sweeping, sometimes stark, but always majestic landscape. There’s plenty of fishing in the big lakes and the hunting is excellent. We can’t invite you to hunt those legendary herds of galloping buffalo, but the look of the land and the warmth of western hospitality are unchanged from frontier days. However, you can try for pheasant, duck, geese, antelope, deep, elk, wildcat and bear to mention just some of the game available. In the lakes and streams, you can pursue rainbow, cutthroat, brown, brook, California and Mackinaw trout, as well as grayling, whitefish, black bass, crappie, bluegill and pike perch. Wyoming is exceptionally fine fishing country; the season, depending on the area, stretches as long as from May first to October thirty-first. License laws for fish and game vary.

State recreation parks, where you can relax, swim, do a little boating camp if you like or tie up your trailer, are plentiful, and easy on the cash outflow. In Wyoming, for example, the state parks include the Alcova, Boysen, Glendo, Hot Springs and Saratoga Hot Springs. Montana has Bitterroot Lake, Canyon Ferry, Deadman’s Basin, Flathead Lake, Hell Creek and Hooper. All these places, incidentally, are ideal for picnic of just plain lazing in the sun. Nebraska has too many parks to list –approximately fifty –but they runt he alphabetical gamut from Alexandria Lakes, to Lewis and Clark Lake Recreation Are, and Wildcat Hills. Once you’re in North Dakota, you can stay over at Beaver Lake, Garrison Reservoir, Lake Metigoshe and Turtle River. South Dakota has nearly thirty-five visitor parks, from Amsden Dam and Bear Butte to Union County. Custer State Park in the scenic Black Hills spreads over 72,000 acres and has everything from one of the world’s largest bison herds to a fine zoo, fishing in hundreds of miles of trout streams, horseback riding, etc. Camping permits run five dollars a week.

Besides the camp and trailer sites, you’ll find an ample supply of motels and hotels, cottages and cabins. You’ll discover attractive motels for as low as six dollars a night for two, although the average is around eight to ten. The eating is generous and varied, with chuckwagon fare and stakes and even fancy restaurants.

Before we actually begin to meander along that Old West Trail, which gets underway in Omaha, let’s take a bird-s-eye character profile of each of the states. Also knows as the Cornhusker State, Nebraska is corn country and cattle country, bounded on the east by the Missouri River. There’s speculation that the first tourist was Coronado in 1541, but there was little exploration until Lewis and Clark came along in 1804. An estimated 2,500,000 pioneers crossed the territory in the middle of the nineteenth century on their way to seek gold in California. Around that time, the U.S. cavalry had some significant clashes with the Indians, which eventually led to peace and statehood in 1867.

South Dakota may be called the Sunshine State or the Coyote State, but its most distinctive feature is the handiwork of nature which has created many-colored rock and clay formations of the Badlands, the scenic Black Hills and the handsome lakes of the east. The Missouri flows south through the heart of the state, then turns to form the southeastern boundary.

We haven’t been able to figure out why they nicknamed South Dakota the Flickertail State, but there’s no mystery about the other title, the Sioux State. Indians roamed the dramatic countryside long before the fur trappers came. The first permanent community was not set up until 1812 at Pembina. Development was spotty until the Northern Pacific Railroad came into the Picture, precipitating a flow of settlers.

The Treasure State of Montana is large and roomy, and there seem to be only five people for every square mile. Dude ranches are a big business here, and there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of space for riding. The millions of beautiful acres of forests and mountains provide the nation with one of its greatest wild-life sanctuaries, including elk and moose, mountain sheep and goats, mountain grouse, prairie chickens and sage hens. The Rocky Mountains cut the state in half.

Wyoming was under the rule of Spain, Britain, Mexico and France, before it was ceded to the United States. After more than half a century of trappers, traders and pioneers, the coming of the Union Pacific Railroad brought settlers in 1867-68, then in the seventies, Texas cattlemen on search of grazing land. Discovery of gold and coal also attracted residents. Statehood came in 1890. Nature has given Wyoming an extra helping of splendor in those areas that man has wisely set aside for his enjoyment, such as Yellowstone, Devils Tower National Monument, Grand Teton Spring and the Wind River glaciers.

A sprinkling of history and a word or two about the topography of each state is important to set the stage for your two-week trip along the Old West Trail. It’s then that the saga of the West and the region’s great scenic splendor will come to life before your eyes. The five states which have extended this warm invitation put it this way:

“This is America’s last frontier, where the history of the winning of the West was etched on the face of this big land by the moccasins of Indians and fur hunters by the wheels of covered wagons and the hooves of horses ridden by cowboys, adventurers, miners and soldiers.”

Approximately 100 attractions, twenty in each state, comprise the landmarks along the Old West Trail. All you need to follow the route that has been stake out is a handy folder, with map, which has been prepared by the five states. (We’ll give you details later on how to get a copy.) The map is keyed by numbers and accompanied by descriptive text for each stop. This vacation plan is simplicity itself.

Omaha, on the eastern border of Nebraska, is the most logical gateway for your invasion of the West, and after you’ve come full circle, you’re back in the same place. Of course, you can join the trail and leave it wherever it’s most convenient. Often called the “crossroads of the nation,” Omaha is a city with seventy parks, the Joslyn Memorial Art Museum, with excellent Indian exhibits, the Mormon Cemetery and the world-famous Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town. Driving north on U.S. 83, and generally following thought the Omaha and Winnebago Indian reservations, a state park and an impressive dam, before crossing into South Dakota. First stop is Yankton, oldest city in the state and the territorial capital in 1861. Striking out the northwest, there’s the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, then the capital city of Pierre, where you can visit the State Capitol, an Indian school, and the Oahe Dam and Reservoir.

Up to this point, we’ve been following (on modern highways) the route which Lewis and Clark pioneered in opening up the Northwest. Now, we detour to the south, the Mandan, named for an Indian tribe, where you can take a free tour of an oil refinery, or enjoy the outdoor Custer Drama, which re-creates the events leading up to the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Moving into the northern section of the state, there are several Indian reservations and game preserves, as well as Devil’s Lake, a popular duck- and goose- hunting region. The scenic highway along the lake shore is worth the ride. Next is Rugby, the geographical center of the North American continent; the International Peace Garden, which extends into Canada, built as a token of good will between the two countries; Old Fort Buford; and as we’ve moved west to the edge of the Montana border, the renowned Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial park. This huge park in the Badlands country, divided into three sections, was one of “Teddy” Roosevelt’s favorite places, and he built a ranch here.

Crossing into Montana on U.S. 94 (west, then Miles City, which has a livestock experimental station and U.S. fish hatchery (open daily, free). Moving into the state, we arrive at the Crow Indian Agency, where visitors may attend the Sun Dances during the summer. Nearby, a national monument and white headstones mark the lonely hillside where the Sioux wiped out Custer and his men. The Custer Battlefield National Monument is open daily (free). Moving west on U.S. 90, past Billings, the next stop is at Bozeman, where there’s a scenic pass. Bozeman can also be used as the entrance to Gallatin National Forest, a large wilderness are with the emphasis on sights, hunting and fishing.

Our next major call is at Glacier National Park, in the northwest corner of the state, where the mountains, more than 200 lakes and fifty glaciers combine to give you the scenic thrill of a lifetime. One of the most spectacular drives, east and west across the park, is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,664 feet). Animal life and floral life is abundant, varied and colorful. There are more than 1,000 miles of horse and foot trails, and there’s a hiking map available in the park for fifty cents. The streams and lakes are filled with trout; no fishing license is needed for the park.

Now we’re motoring south again, bound for Helena, Montana’s capital, where they once found gold on what is now the main street. You can visit the impressive State Capitol, the Montana State Historical Museum, or Frontier Town, fifteen miles to the west, a re-creation of a pioneer community. Admission is fifty cents, children free. You’ll also get a kick out of the Last Chance Gulch Tour, a ninety-minute circuit of Helena by automotive train. Fare is a dollar for adults, fifty cents for children from five to twelve. Virginia City, among several restored ghost towns on our Old West Trail is next, one of the state’s oldest cities and once its capital. There are daily coach rides, gold-panning and horseback rides. While there are portions of Yellowstone National Park in Montana (and Idaho), the greatest chunk of this gorgeous park likes in Wyoming, and that’s where we’re headed.

Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park, established in 1872, is also the largest and most famous. Probably the greatest drawing card is with Old Faithful, the geyser which erupts every sixty-five minutes. In all, there are some 3,000 geysers and hot springs within Yellowstone’s magnificent boundaries. Other highlights include the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Paintpots, Yellowstone Lake and the Wildlife Sanctuary. Trails for hiking and horseback riding are plentiful. You can rent boats and fishing tackle, and the accommodations are reasonable at all three hotels and cottage colonies, as well as at cabins and campgrounds. Yellowstone is open from May to October thirty-first.

You may find it hard to leave, but now we’ll motor south to Teton National Forest and grand Teton National Park, another superb scenic confection of high peaks (eleven over 11,000 feet), twelve glaciers, snowfields and huge forests of pine, fir and spruce. Especially renowned is the high mountain valley of Jackson Hole. Your three-dollar Yellowstone permit is good at Grand Teton. A special feature is a float trip down the Snake River.

Driving southeast on U.S. 26 and 287, we drop in at a Uranium Mill, two ghost towns, the world’s largest hot springs, then over the Big Horn Mountains to Devil’s Tower, an outstanding landmark which looks like a huge stone stump, rising nearly, 1,000 feet into the sky. There’s also a prairie-dog colony and a campground. The auto fee is fifty cents.

Next, we cross back into South Dakota to the Black Hills, which are not hills at all, but the highest mountains east of the Rockies, and a veritable Disneyland of national monuments, parks, gold mines, ghost towns, caves and wildlife. Here is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, with the stone-carved heads of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the awesome Needle formations and the world’s largest buffalo herds. There’s also the Crazy Horse Monument and the Rosebud Reservation Sioux Village.

The briefly back into Wyoming to Cheyenne, the capital, where the Wild West truly comes to life with the Frontier Days celebration in late July, distinguished by one of the country’s finest rodeos. You might also like to visit the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, ten miles east of Cheyenne.

Now we’re back in Nebraska, heading east on U.S. 26, 30, 34 and 136. We’ll pass the Sandhills, and endless sea of grass which was the ancestral home of the Sioux and the buffalo; and Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff, landmarks for pioneers heading west on the old Oregon Trail. Along the way are many museums which memorialize the era of the wagon train, overland stage and pony express. These are the Trailside Museum at Fort Robinson State park, the Overland Trail Museum at Scotts Bluff, Minden’s Pioneer Village, Beatrice’s Homestead National Museum and Nebraska City’s Arbor Lodge. Then we’re back in Omaha, winding up our tour.

So let’s hit the trail, pardner, the Old West Trail this summer!

This column originally appeared in Argosy magazine.

Copyright © 1962-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.