With Wyoming and Colorado as neighbors, it’s no wonder Nebraska gets overlooked. But the northern panhandle has a pocket of rugged hills with tricky routefinding and a genuine feel of wilderness exploration. And because the crowds will be a state away, you can have it all to yourself on this 11-mile figure-eight loop. From the parking area at the North and Middle Fork trailheads (1), walk 500 feet northwest to the Trooper Trail (2). Go through the gate (close it behind you), cross Soldier Creek, and hike to a pine grove where you’ll cross the Boots and Saddle Trail (BST) (3). (Several game trails intersect the path in the first three miles; when in doubt, maintain a northwest course.)
Go straight into a vast shortgrass prairie, and soon reach another grove. The Trooper Trail cuts south here, but two use trails continue east. Take the trail on the right (4), to begin a 2.2-mile off-trail loop to access seldom-tramped grasslands with great camping. In .6 mile, pitch camp (5) in an open field near a trickling stream. The next day, hike cross-country northwest and cross a dry riverbed (6), then make your way toward the slope straight ahead (it’ll be covered with sunflowers in July). Gain the top and continue south-southeast until you crest a third hill (7), where you’ll encounter a barbed-wire fence; follow the ridge east and close the loop by rejoining the Trooper Trail (8).
Now, backtrack southeast .7 mile to the BST (9) to start a second loop. From here, you’ll roll along gentle hills with side-cut ravines (and little shade) to a creek crossing (10). The trail turns left here, forks at mile 8.1 (11), and traces its way around the fingers of a ravine system. Gain one last highpoint at mile nine (12), then enjoy a long descent through wild plum and grape (blooming in June) to the trailhead.
Driving From Crawford, take US 20 three miles west to Fort Robinson State Park. Turn right onto Soldier Creek Rd., the first right after entering the park. Drive seven miles to the trailhead (4WD recommended).
Map USGS quad Smiley Canyon ($8, store.usgs.gov)
Gear Up Herren Brothers True Value Hardware on 2nd St. in Crawford has white gas and duct tape. (308) 665-1600
Contact Fort Robinson State Park: (308) 665-2900, ngpc.state.ne.us/parks
Map Plus Send a topo, photos, and route info to your cell by texting “imap 490445” to 32075. Or find the trip on download the trip at backpacker.com/hikes/490445.