In the midst of the central Nebraska Sandhills is the largest hand-planted national forest in the United States. The Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands Bessey District encompasses more than 90,000 acres, of which 20,000 acres were individually planted Ponderosa pine.
Zonna and Bob Petersen of Dannebrog, Neb., are drawn to this oasis and for 40 years have camped, in one RV or another, at the Bessey Recreation Complex Campground near Halsey.
“Our first visit was in 1974 in a 13-foot Dell travel trailer and required a potty chair for our youngest, then two years old,” recalls Bob Petersen, former owner of Petersen Lumber in Burwell, Neb.
These days they travel in a 2015 28-foot Durango 1500 5th wheel trailer with three slides. “We’ve always enjoyed the forest for hiking, the river for swimming, a great pond for fishing, and for the last 15 years, fantastic ATV trail riding.”
According to the manager of the Charles E. Bessey Nursery: “Fall is a great time to camp with the cooler weather and wonderful colors of the trees. What most folks forget is the grassland prairie has wonderful fall color and the end-of-year flowers.”
If camping in early autumn, says the public affairs officer for the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands, “the Middle Loup River may still be warm enough for tubing or canoeing.” Other favorite activities include wildlife viewing, picnicking, and hiking or bicycling to the ranger lookout tower for a panoramic view of the Sandhills.
If you go
Bessey Recreation Complex Campground
– Facilities: Year-round 34 sites, 22 with electricity. Picnic tables. Vault toilets.
– Cost: $8 a night for nonelectricity sites; $11 with electricity.
– Open: Year round. About half the sites are first-come, first-served and the remainder may be reserved at www.recreation.gov.
– Best time for color: October for yellows and golds.
Photo: Zonna and Bob Petersen have camped in the Nebraska National Forest for 40 years. (Julianne G. Crane). Bottom: Cottonwoods changing color in the Nebraska National Forest. (Courtesy of Nebraska National Forest)