Vacation at Toadstool Geologic Park

One of the best tourist stops in Nebraska gets very few visitors (which doesn’t hurt its value as a site I like to visit).  Toadstool Geologic Park is in the northern panhandle of Nebraska, north of the town of Crawford.  We stopped there on a short family vacation trip this week and enjoyed hiking and camping in relative solitude.  The landscape is otherworldly and beautiful, and full of interesting plants and rock formations.  The geology and paleontology of the park are legendary, but I spent most of my time (of course) looking at bugs and flowers.  The boys and Kim, however, hadn’t been to the park before and really liked the self-guided tour that showcases rock formations, volcanic ash deposits, ancient rhino footprints, and much more.

After leaving Toadstool this morning, we cut north for a brief stop at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.  Caves and I don’t get along well (I’m an open skies person, myself), so while the rest of the family is down in a dark closed-in space, I figured I’d knock out a quick blog post.  Apologies for not including more detail, but I didn’t have a lot of time!

The landscape of Toadstool Geologic Park is rugged and gorgeous.

Wildflowers were putting on a real show while we were there, including white beardtongue (Penstemon albidus).

White penstemon was pretty, but crested beardtongue (Penstemon eriantherus) was even more spectacular.

This is, I think, leafy musineon (Musineon divaricatum), growing on rocky flats, surrounded by rock formations.

Large rocks suspended on eroding soils were common across the park.

Alkali milkvetch (Astragalus racemosus) was growing all over the place, and seemed to be particularly attractive to bumble bees.

The mud at the bottom of the ephemeral stream courses was drying out after recent rains, and there were some fascinating reticulated patterns here and there.

The landscape was no less impressive after dark, especially when illuminated by a crescent moon.

We saw a lot of these evening primroses (I think they are gumbo-lily – Oenothera caespitosa) seemed to be able to grow in almost no soil, along with many other plants in the park.

Photo of the Week – October 10, 2014

For the second time in two weeks, I got to travel west into drier, shorter prairie.  This week, our crew attended the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference in Gering, Nebraska – at the far western end of the state.  While there, we explored both Scotts Bluff National Monument and the other parts of the Wildcat Hills.  A significant portion of this beautiful rocky landscape has been conserved and opened to public access by a partnership called Wildcat Hills Wildlands, a partnership between Platte River Basin Environment, The Nature Conservancy, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  It is a spectactular and under-visited part of the world.

I caught the sunrise at Scotts Bluff National Monument yesterday, and then joined a tour of the Bead Mountain Ranch in the afternoon.  Here are some photos from those two places.

As the sun turned the sky pink to the east, the moon was dropping in the west.  Scotts Bluff National Monument.

As the sun turned the sky pink in the east, the moon was dropping in the west. Scotts Bluff National Monument.

A closer look at the moon just before it dropped behind the bluffs.

A closer look at the moon just before it dropped behind the bluffs.

After the sun finally rose, it mostly stayed behind filmy clouds, providing beautifully warm and soft light on the rocky landscape.  Scotts Bluff National Monument.

After the sun finally rose, it mostly stayed behind filmy clouds, providing beautifully warm and soft light on the rocky landscape. Scotts Bluff National Monument.

A hiker enjoys the paved trail and gorgeous weather at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

A hiker enjoys the paved trail and gorgeous weather at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

More from Scotts Bluff National Monument.

More from Scotts Bluff National Monument.

When I photographed this, I thought it might be a prickly poppy (Argemone sp.) but now I don't think so.  Anyone know it?  It was pretty common, and I should know it...

Ten-petal mentzelia (Mentzelia decapetala) on a dry slope.

A multi-image panorama at Scotts Bluff National Monument.  The famous Mitchell Pass is on the far left.

A multi-image panorama at Scotts Bluff National Monument. The noted landmark Mitchell Pass is on the far left.

A large group from the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference tours Bead Mountain Ranch - part of the lands owned and managed by the Wildcat Hills Wildlands.

A large group from the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference tours Bead Mountain Ranch – part of the lands owned and managed by Wildcat Hills Wildlands.

This little jumping spider was hunting on the sandstone face of the rocky bluffs.

This little jumping spider was hunting on the sandstone face of the rocky bluffs.

The European mantis (Mantis religiosa).  We saw several of these at Bead Mountain, along with other fun critters including a bull snake, glass lizard (I didn't get to see either of those), a rock wren nest, and lots of black beetles.

The European mantis (Mantis religiosa). We saw several of these at Bead Mountain, along with other fun critters including a bull snake, glass lizard (I didn’t get to see either of those), a rock wren nest, and lots of black beetles.

The red fall foliage of skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata) provided bright highlights across the Wildcat Hills this week.

The red fall foliage of skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata) provided bright highlights across the Wildcat Hills this week.

More of Bead Mountain Ranch.

More of Bead Mountain Ranch, showing the ponderosa pines on the high rocky slopes.  Much of the dominant vegetation at the site is blackroot sedge, aka threadleaf sedge (Carex filifolia).

The Wildcat Hills features an incredible diversity of life because of the wide range of habitats from high rocky outcrops to flowing springs.  The prairies are dominated by short and mid-height grasses and sedges such as blackroot sedge, needle-and-thread, western wheatgrass, blue grama, and side-oats grama, but also include taller species such as prairie sandreed and sand bluestem – along with many many wildflowers.  Ponderosa pine and rocky mountain juniper trees are native to the bluffs, and are now joined by eastern redcedar, which is not considered native to the landscape, but is now hybridizing with rocky mountain juniper.  Cheatgrass has invaded most prairies to one extent or another, but many still maintain very high plant diversity.

Wildlife is abundant in the landscape, including myriad bird species as well as some larger animals such as mountain lions and bighorn sheep.  The only thing that keeps the landscape from being overrun with hikers and nature enthusiasts is its distance from large population centers.  That’s not such a bad thing – especially for those hardy souls who do make the trip to visit.