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U.S. Forest Service

Rocky Mountain Region Viewing Area


Bird’s egg milkvetch Bird’s egg milkvetch with its painted seedpod, a common plant in blowouts. Photo by Richard Gilbert, U.S. Forest Service.

A Sandhills blowout A Sandhills blowout, home to an unusual community of plants. Photo by Richard Gilbert, U.S. Forest Service.

Typical Sandhills scene with planted ponderosa pine forest at McKelvie National Forest. Typical Sandhills scene with planted ponderosa pine forest at McKelvie National Forest. Photo by Jessica Warner, U.S. Forest Service.

McKelvie National Forest

Forest: McKelvie National Forest

District: Bessey Ranger District

Description: Large vegetated sand dunes, some rising to more than 400 feet and as long as 20 miles, characterizes the McKelvie National Forest. The sandy soil is prone to wind erosion, resulting in blowouts. These blowouts have plant communities of blowout grass, sand muhly, and various wildflowers, such as birds egg (painted) milkvetch (Astragalus ceramicus), scurfpeas (Pediomelum spp. and Psoralidium spp.), and beardtongues (Penstemon spp.). Groundwater from the High Plains Aquifer seeps into the rivers and streams. Wetlands and marshes abound, with ducks, geese, swans, great blue herons, smaller wetland birds, and a rich wetland plant community. About 2000 acres of the McKelvie National Forest is an historic, hand-planted ponderosa pine forest with a healthy shrub understory of plum, chokecherry, and buckbrush. The whole forest is rich also in upland wildlife, such as deer, pronghorn, sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chickens, and smaller prairie birds.

Viewing Information: Maps of the McKelvie National Forest are available at the district office in Halsey. Here you can also get directions and learn about any hazards or seasonal wildflower viewing opportunities.

The best way to view wildflowers is to drive through the National Forest on the paved road. The sandy side roads are often impassable except by 4-wheel drive vehicles. Depending on the season of the year and precipitation, travelers are likely to see spiderworts (Tradescantia spp.), wallflower (Erysimum asperum), puccoons (Lithospermum spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), milkvetches (Astragalus spp.), evening primroses (Oenothera spp.), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus spp.), and leadplant (Amorpha spp.).

There is a campground on highway 16F further south from the turnoff to Merritt Reservoir. Steer Creek Campground has 23 units, a hand water pump, fire rings, tables, and modern vault toilets.

Safety First: Roads in the McKelvie National Forest vary from paved highways to four-wheel drive roads. It is best to stay on paved roads unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. In that case, please stay on marked routes.

Directions: The best way to get to the forest is to travel west of Valentine, NE for 30 miles to Nenzel and turn south on highway 16F. Drive south over the Niobrara River. Within a few miles, you will be within the National Forest boundary. Travel south for about 5 ½ miles to road 5, which goes east toward Merritt Reservoir, a state-managed Wildlife Management Area. Within 3 miles, you will pass through the Lord Lake area. This area has numerous lakes, ponds, wetlands, and streams. The route continues to Merritt Reservoir, about 10 miles further.

Ownership and Management: U.S. Forest Service, McKelvie National Forest, Bessey Ranger District (308) 533-2257.

Closest Town: Nenzel, Nebraska.

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