Why share America's Wild West with the kids simply by watching western movies when you can experience the real deal together in western Nebraska?
Following the paths of pioneers doesn't require arduous treks or campfire cooking; drive right up to stunning natural monuments frontier western settlers noted over and over again in their diaries. Hike in the wilderness adjacent to land where soldiers and Indians struggled to define new relationships. Ride your bike on the Oregon Trail. Or the Pony Express. Or the California Gold Rush Trail and Mormon Pioneer route.
For an even more historic experience, you can walk in riverbeds 24 million years old and admire the sandhills formed 8,000 years ago. Seems western Nebraska and Mongolia are the only places in the world to see this geologic formation.
Unlike Mongolia, western Nebraska is an easy road trip from Chicago.
Western Nebraska is rich with carefully designated scenic, historic places with grand views. National designations that lured me for their beauty include:
• Natural landmarks.
• Scenic rivers.
• Historic trails.
Most have a story to match the view.
I visited as a guest of the Nebraska Tourism Commission and found the pioneer spirit still alive and well in 2014 in the form of descendants of original homesteaders who welcome guests and tell the stories of their families learning to live on the plains.
There's Becci Thomas in Alliance, the great-granddaughter of a widowed woman with four children who claimed a Homestead Act plot of land and built a life in Alliance. Thomas manages the very modern and well-financed Knight Museum and Sandhills Center, filled with sophisticated exhibits, personal stories and extensive genealogical records.
You'll also find two bed and breakfast inns in Alliance, population 8,700, plus a farm B & B. The north-south road from Sidney to Alliance is US 385, also known as the Gold Rush Byway.
Allan and Cher Maybee fill their four-bedroom inn named Barn Anew in Mitchell with 1880s furnishings and original Arapaho, Sioux and Cheyenne art. Stay here with views of the Wildcat Hills, pine-covered bluffs rising suddenly from the vast plains, and you're close to Scotts Bluff National Monument.
He's a skilled storyteller, perhaps from years teaching in Wyoming near the Wind River Reservation, perhaps from trail scout experiences on horseback following the 2,200-mile Oregon Trail. He delivers his stories with energy to engage kids and the adults traveling with them.
If you're visiting with kids, they will want to be more western than sleeping with antiques in a converted barn. Book the tiny gypsy wagon -- $75 a night -- or the equally cozy sheep wagon. Cozy, in the midst of lovely gardens, with outhouse nearby. This won't work if the children need supervision.
Or rent a bit of Western history at High Plains Homestead with its six themed rooms: cowboy, homesteader, saloon girl, warrior, hunter or caballero.
Mike and Linda Kesselring rehabilitated historic buildings to create this lodging and dining property. It's a living history museum, too, with furnished buildings typical of an Old West community.
It makes a good home base from which to launch regional tours for birding, fishing, hunting and fossil seeking. Mount Rushmore is one hour away.
It's also a good place to meet folks knowledgeable about America's several Homestead Acts starting in 1862, including the 1904 amendment for western Nebraska tracts of 640 acres and up to 1916 -- and their impact on western Nebraska and the families who tried to meet the obligations.
While you're learning that history, the kids can play with the High Plains Homestead cats.
Toadstool Road is one of the landmarks to find High Plains Homestead and that's important because Toadstool Geological Park offers the most remarkable one-mile walk you might ever take.
To pinpoint this route on a map, look for Highway 2 heading north of Crawford in northwest Nebraska.
Start in the bone beds of Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center on Pine Ridge for an up-close look at bison bones 11,000 years old.
Then walk through the Ogallala National Grasslands just beyond the bones, and imagine yourself as one of those traipsing here 13,000 years ago.
Ease into Toadstool and suddenly it's 24 million years ago, or before. Animal tracks, fossils and sometimes bones are easy to see, travelers themselves along an ancient stream.
The toadstools are pale, sand sediments, a clay pillar with a sandstone slab on top, occurring naturally over the eons of time.
Expect to keep pointing to yet another pillar and another, each more interesting than the last. Hushed tones seemed appropriate to my little band of walkers.
If three miles from the bone beds to Toadstool to walk yet another mile is too much, just visit the research center building with exhibits and bones, then drive to the geological park for a short walk in from the parking lot.
Strollers will not work on either walk and the long grasses on the route from the Hudson-Meng Center would trouble little children.
Explore Fort Robinson
Western Nebraska comes with many groupings of experiences and Fort Robinson, just south of the bones and toadstools, offers a multi-day-and-night anchor.
Stay in former officer quarters or enlisted men barracks dating from 1874, 1887 and 1909, updated with the water and electricity you'd want.
This is where Crazy Horse died in 1877 and where soldiers trained horses and dogs for defense and protected the Red Cloud Agency which was charged with distributing food and annuities to as many as 13,000 Indians.
That's one of the reasons why Fort Robinson is a good place to stay: Stand and contemplate in the exact windy place, surrounded by the imposing pine ridge and impossibly blue skies, where frontier America tried to figure out how to share Longhorn cattle with original residents camping in teepees for 2.5 miles.
If that gets a little introspective for your kids, take advantage of Fort Robinson's horse rides, wilderness hikes, wagon tours, history museums, repertory theater, enormous blacksmith and harness repair shops and restaurant.
This is full-service for a family. Buffalo stew cookout anyone? Western craft classes, age appropriate? And everything's in walking distance.
"Journey to Western Nebraska: Weekends Out West" is a clear, simple road map pinpointing prehistoric wonders, settling the west, great outdoors, pioneer trails, one-of-a-kinds, unique geology and scenic byways. Order from www.westnebraska.com or by calling (866) 684-4066