Sowbelly Ranch @ Sowbelly Canyon

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Sowbelly Rd, Harrison, NE, USA

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SOWBELLY RANCH

A Pine Ridge jewel where beauty is more than skin deep


About Us

In 1983, the late Fred Thomas wrote a popular, well-informed column for the Omaha World-Herald titled “Your Environment.”  On one occasion, he “asked a few veteran Nebraska travelers to select the prettiest places in Nebraska.”  According to Fred, “Sowbelly Canyon drew more mention for No. 1 than anyplace else.”

Sowbelly Canyon creases the north slope of the Pine Ridge in the northwest corner of Nebraska.  With weather-sculpted sandstone buttes, prairie, pine forest and a trout stream, it is easy to envision as the prettiest place in the state.  All of these resources are found on the 1,304-acre Sowbelly Ranch north of Harrison in the heart of the canyon.  Last December, its owners Jim and Chris Voeller, permanently conserved the land through a conservation easement with the Nebraska Land Trust.

Jim and Chris were especially keen on conserving the unfragmented habitat their ranch provides for elk and bighorn sheep.  In 2012, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission gained permission to use their ranch as a reintroduction site for bighorns. Usually, release sites are on public land owned by the agency.  The Voellers provided a rare opportunity to release bighorns in ideal habitat on private land.  The land is also home to other creatures great and small, as the Pine Ridge is a biologically unique landscape where eastern and western species mingle at the edge of their range.

It always takes willing landowners to permanently conserve private land, but in this case one could add the term “generous.”  With limited funds to purchase the easement, the Voellers offered to donate more than half of the easement’s value to the NLT through a bargain sale at less than appraised value.  The Nebraska Environmental Trust, which receives 44.5% of state lottery proceeds,  provided most of the balance through a grant for conservation of bighorn habitat.  Other funding partners included the Nebraska Big Game Society, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wild Sheep Foundation, and the Iowa chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep.  The diversity of partners speaks to the land’s value for wildlife.  The Sowbelly Ranch is truly a place where beauty is more than skin deep.


The Mission of the Nebraska Land Trust

To foster the protection of agricultural, historical and natural resources on land in Nebraska, through education, partnering, and permanent conservation.

The Nebraska Land Trust was founded in 2001 as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, dedicated to the mission of protecting agricultural, historical, and natural resources on land in Nebraska through education, partnering and permanent conservation. From hardwood forests on our eastern bluffs to pine covered buttes in the Panhandle, Nebraska is a land of contrast and beauty. A diverse array of life is tied to the land and the rivers that cross it, including people who have called this land home. In many cases, we owe a debt of gratitude to agricultural landowners who have preserved these resources for generations, but the past does not predict the future when it comes to land use, as farms are sold for subdivisions and ranches are turned into ranchettes for second homes.

The Nebraska Land Trust uses voluntary land preservation agreements known as conservation easements which enable landowners to leave a permanent legacy of protected wildlife habitat, scenic views, clean water, historic sites, and working agriculture on their land. Easements legally protect these resources while being flexible enough to allow for other activities that are compatible with private land stewardship and conservation. In a sense, conservation easements represent the most basic of property rights – the right to determine the future of one’s land.

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You can help save, protect and preserve wildlife habitat and show your support by donating today!


Sowbelly Canyon

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Explore this relatively unknown treasure called Sowbelly Canyon, also known as Nebraska’s Pine Ridge paradise.


Sowbelly Ranch is located on private property nestled in Sowbelly Canyon in the northwestern corner of Nebraska. It is 2.7 miles (4.3 km) northeast of Harrison and is part of the Pine Ridge region. Sowbelly Canyon is a little-known portion of the Pine Ridge. The canyon can be viewed on a scenic driving route north of Harrison; the drive is approximately 11 miles (18 km) long.

Sowbelly Canyon is a scenic wonderland even through it’s experienced a trio of natural disasters in recent years. Explore this little known treasure and meet the people who are working to preserve this oasis for all to enjoy.

Several amenities for the outdoor enthusiast can be found on the ranch such as excellent fishing opportunities and abundant wildlife. Sowbelly Creek is the only cold-water creek in Nebraska with brown trout and there are several trout ponds as well. The ranch offers excellent habitat for several species of wildlife including big horn sheep, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and antelope.


EXPLORING NEBRASKA Sowbelly Canyon

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Sowbelly Canyon

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Why was sowbelly canyon named sowbelly canyon?

Sowbelly Canyonwas named when hungry soldiers who had been fleeing Indians were offered sowbelly (bacon) by the rescue party.

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Sowbelly Bighorns

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When was the last time you saw bighorn sheep in the wild in Nebraska?

Wildlife experts work to bolster the Bighorn Sheep population in Sowbelly Canyon located in the Pine Ridge. Take a trek into Pine Ridge Country with Todd Nordeen of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to learn how wildlife experts are working to bolster the Bighorn sheep population in Sowbelly Canyon.

“I went through pants butte and I’d have to say that being my first time ever seeing the bighorn sheep was just awesome. It’s truly the most beautiful country I have ever seen. I truly hope that they will last a long time there. Thank you to the village of Harrison Nebraska and the Nebraska wildlife preserve for bringing informative information to the public.” – Ernest Christensen


Sowbelly Creek project will restore trout habitat

A crew from Fuller Construction of Chadron digs storm debris from the bed of Sowbelly Creek northeast of Harrison. The project is part of an effort to repair damage at nearby Coffee Park and restore trout habitat after damaging floods earlier this spring.

HARRISON – An isolated stretch of trout stream in northwest Nebraska is getting a makeover this week after some rough treatment by Mother Nature.

Heavy equipment has been busy pulling a logjam as long as a city block from Sowbelly Creek. The work is part of an effort to repair flood-damaged Coffee Park, owned by the nearby Village of Harrison, and renovate trout habitat along a half-mile of public water.

Sowbelly Canyon, part of the Pine Ridge country in Sioux County, has been hit by two major forest fires since 2006. Flooding earlier this year washed dead trees down gullies and into the creek. The debris roared through the popular park, flattening picnic tables and a foot bridge, gouging the stream bed and leaving behind a massive pile of debris. Although the creek has been able to find a way through it, there was concern that the resident brown trout couldn’t, as well as concern that another deluge might turn the debris into an unstable dam that could threaten nearby roads, livestock and homes if it burst.

Coffee Park is unusual in being a village-owned property that’s several miles outside city limits. Village Clerk Zanya Faint said there’s a small park in town, but residents have a special relationship with Coffee Park.

“It was pretty devastating,” she said of the spring flooding. “That’s the only other park the village owns where people can go for a picnic or to fish. There have been weddings and reunions and family gatherings out there. It’s very important for us to bring it back.”

Jim Voeller, a retired rancher who lives in the canyon, worried about the future of the park and the creek after a storm in June dropped 8 inches of rain, blocked the county road and left the debris pile just upstream from his property. Voeller began contacting state and federal emergency management agencies to see if they’d help with cleaning up the mess.

“The village didn’t have the money to do it. They have limited funds,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was willing to help restore the park, but balked at clearing the stream debris along an adjacent village-owned pasture. That’s when Matt Steffl stepped in. Steffl, a northwest district wildlife manager working out of Alliance, made a pitch to the agency about the value of scarce public access to trout water. FEMA agreed to help with cleaning up the creek.

“Nebraska Game and Parks came to the rescue,” Voeller said. “There’s less than 16 miles of cold water trout streams in Nebraska, and there’s a half mile of it here.”

The cleanup became a team effort. FEMA agreed to fund 75 percent of the cost. The state’s Emergency Management Agency agreed to pick up 12.5 percent. Voeller helped the village to file the federal paperwork, and Game and Parks agreed to pick up the village’s share of the cost for the in-stream work.

Without the help from other agencies, especially Game and Parks, the village would have a hard time paying for the project, Faint said.

“It’s been a real group effort, and we’re thankful to all of them for their help,” she said. “Matt has been a godsend. I don’t think we could have got it done without him.”

By Friday afternoon, heavy equipment operated by Fuller Construction of Chadron was clearing broken timber from the stream bed. Steffl, who is overseeing the stream restoration, said it would take about two weeks to restore the stream’s original contours and pull out the debris, which will be burned sometime this winter.

More than 170,000 acres in the northwestern corner of Nebraska are managed for public use by the U.S. Forest Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, most of it grassland or national forest. Sowbelly Creek flows through an area of remote ranches rich in Nebraska history and natural beauty. Bighorn sheep, elk and deer wander meadows and once-scorched ridges that are slowly regaining vegetation in the wake of the wildfires.

Steffl said the project was an easy sell to Director Jim Douglas and the state Game and Parks Commission, which has placed higher emphasis in recent years on the value of Nebraska’s natural trout waters. By applying for help, the village helped to clear federal red tape and get the project in motion.

“The city has been tremendous in working to get this fixed up,” Steffl said. “We have a stretch of stream here that’s a beautiful trout fishery. It’s unique stuff that you don’t find anywhere else in Nebraska.”


G.H. COFFE PARK

Midway through the canyon and next to the Sowbelly Ranch you’ll come across G.H. Coffee Park which was donated to the town of Harrison in 1976 by Guy and Ila Coffee, members of the Coffee family, prominent pioneers of Northwest Nebraska. 


The Legend of Sowbelly Canyon

It was winter—the time of little sunlight, much snow, and scarce food. Winter on the prairie would not be as pleasant as summer had been. When the snows and the winds came, it would be a fury on the prairie that no individual could live through. Running Deer’s band was moving before it grew too late to move to the winter camp. On the day that clouds began building in the northern sky, the chief gave the order to move the camp. The women began taking down the teepees—15 buffalo hides for each teepee—the women were used to the work and it was accomplished in short order. They trailed a large herd of their horses behind as they headed north across the rolling land. Although the land appeared to be only rolling hills, to the north it dropped down sharply in a series of rocky cliffs, buttes and ravines. Down in the canyon created by the rocky buttes, the wind would not be so fierce and the winter would be easier than on the prairie. The buffalo were being killed in large numbers by both whites and Indians so the band had not killed many buffalo this season. Food going into the winter was more scarce than usual. The chief, Running Deer, hoped that game would be plentiful in the sheltered canyon. The trek from the River of Green Grass to the canyon took nearly three days. The winds became stronger and the air colder. On the morning of the third day the small band reached the beginning of the canyon where the prairie fell away and the deep ravines and tall, green pine trees appeared. The party slowed now as the terrain became harder to traverse. In most places, all went single file through the quiet mossy evergreens with only the sounds of the small rushing creek or an occasional pebble loosened by a careless step. There was no apparent reason for silence except that the Oglalas were used to traveling quietly to read the sounds and sights of nature. A deer, a buck with a large rack of antlers, disturbed by the travelers, sprang out of the trees onto the trail and was downed with one arrow, well placed, from a ready bow. The chief, seeing this, was hopeful that the canyon would provide abundant game and give the tribe enough food for the winter. A small party stayed to dress the deer as the others continued down the trail. They reached a large, open meadow surrounded by trees on all sides, a creek on the north and west and tall, rocky buttes on the north, west and east. This meadow gave the tribe enough space for the camp, fresh running water all winter, good game (rabbits, deer, ducks, beaver), protection from the elements and from raiding parties—either other Indians or fort soldiers. As it became dark, the glow of campfires could be seen flickering through the meadow. Inside the teepees, a glow showed warmly, although faintly, through the rawhide. So went the winter. They began to notice the days getting longer. The horses had been moved to meadows farther north from the camp. Since the band was careful of raiding parties, they kept a watch up on the rocky buttes. It was a cold job and the braves changed the watch frequently. Red Fox, a brave of many years, was on his way to the look-out point. He rode past the long, open meadow at the far northern end of the canyon and in the distance he could see the Paha Sapa–Black Hills. He was eager to get to the point so he could get out of the wind. He gave the call of the crow as he rode through a small stand of pines so that Many Bears would know he was nearby. Shortly, a paint pony edged into the pines and the two braves spoke quietly. Many Bears headed down the canyon to the south and Red Fox rode out to the point. This vantage point looked out to the east for miles bordered by hills on the south but open to the north for miles as well. Times passed slowly as the brave kept the watch. As he kept alert checking the eastern view point, he chipped small, almost thumb-sized arrowheads from the flint he carried in a leather pouch. These arrowheads were useless for large game, but perfect for birds, rabbits and the occasional squirrel. He looked up and saw small puffs of dust in the far distance to the east. Was it dust or smoke? He couldn’t tell. He rode up a slope to see the sight from a different angle. From the hill, he could see the columns of riders. From this distance they looked like two trails puffing dust behind, but, Red Fox had seen this before and knew—it was the fort soldiers. He knew he would warn the camp immediately. Luckily the canyon was so well placed. They could see to the Black Hills on the north and so far to the east where the soldiers lived that there had always been plenty of warning for the band camped in the winter meadow. Red Fox turned his horse and lay down along his horse’s neck. The horse knew this signal and broke into a ground-eating run. It was the run of battle and horse wondered where the fighting was, but, as he was well trained, he did as his master signaled. Red Fox reached the north end of the camp. Two war whoop cries leaped from his throat—the warning! Everyone ran from the tents and creek sides to gather about Chief Running Deer. Chief Running Deer’s mind was made up quickly. Although this boxed-in canyon gave excellent winter shelter, to fight the soldiers here would be folly. He devised a plan to spread out into the hills surrounding the canyon. There was no way the soldiers would split up and look for them scattered through the hills. He told them to prepare for battle. Quickly they gave themselves courage by speaking of the brave deeds they would do on this day. They covered themselves with the war paint signs that were each ones’ distinctive mark in battle. Running Deer ordered his warriors to station themselves in pairs around the close rim of the canyon. It was three hours before the soldiers came up the northern end of the canyon. The fort soldiers were not like the Sioux Indians. They made loud noises with talking and the horses crashed through the bushes so the tribe hidden in the surrounding hills could hear them easily for miles before they rode into the meadow of the tribe’s winter camp. The Fort Robinson soldiers had not sent a scout ahead because a trapper had told them earlier this year that a band of Sioux Indians were wintering here and seemed friendly enough. They were not surprised when there were the teepees filling the meadows. The troopers rode in boldly—intending to round up the small band and take them to the fort and then to the reservations. The soldiers were under orders from the government that felt that Indians were creating terrible problems for men bound for the Black Hills and for families hoping to settle in the wild arid land. The Sioux and other tribes however, used this land for life, food and shelter and had lived here for as long as they could recall. They saw the men and soldiers as intruders, bound on ruining and disturbing what was precious to them. The land was cherished because it was their life. The soldiers, not expecting much but token objections from the small band of Sioux and bent on giving short shrift to any such resistance, called out, “Chief Running Deer. Bring out your people.” The words echoed against the sides of the rocky buttes, but no one appeared. The soldier in charge ordered two soldiers to look inside the nearest teepee. The men looked in and turned to the captain shaking their heads. The Captain shifted on his horse and looked back to where they had ridden into camp. Then his gaze rose to the heavily wooded hills surrounding them. He realized at that moment the mistake he had made. He signaled his men to turn and begin riding back out of the canyon, but now he heard the shouts and war whoops and the moment of escape in that direction was gone. The Captain whirled his horse and rode south, through the huddled teepees, knocking them aside. His men followed, scattering teepee poles and campfires everywhere. The soldiers panicked as they saw the grotesquely painted braves riding down on them. The warriors and their horses were as one and the steepest hillsides posed no problem. Some horses slid down the incline, dodging the trees and rocks and landing on their hooves at a run at the bottom. The soldiers lay scattered throughout the camp; some dead of gunshots and others from arrows. The surviving soldiers were heading into a narrow ravine-like part of the canyon, where the creek ran at the bottom and steep hills and cliffs edged both sides of the ravine. It was a simple matter to trap the soldiers in this narrow ravine. Only a few braves were necessary to ensure the perimeter of the prison that the soldiers had ridden into of their own volition. Running Deer called his warriors and said, “The soldier has made his own grave. We will wait until he dies in it”. Campfires were again seen that night on the winter meadow, glowing in the teepees that had been reassembled. One would hardly know that less than a mile up the canyon were the blue-coated soldiers, shivering in their rock-walled prison. The chief designated a changing guard of braves to keep watch over the narrow ravine and keep the soldiers from escaping. The soldiers heard the spine tingling cries of the warriors at night but they were powerless to escape their captors. The Captain had ordered a small group of men to attempt to sneak out on the hillside under cover of night. But the next morning a ghastly sight awaited. A noise was heard on the hillside. Fearful that the band of warriors were attacking, the soldiers looked up to where the brush crackled. No one came down so they finally went up to investigate. The soldiers who had tried to escape were killed, scalped and rolled down the hillside and lay there—mute testimony to the tragedy of their situation. As the days went by, the Captain faced the growing seriousness of their situation. Lack of food, below zero temperatures, and fear were contributing to the rapid deterioration of the soldiers. The small band of soldiers had only a few pieces of pork belly left to chew on called “sowbelly” by the soldiers. The Captain chose a bold plan—a rouse that had a very slim chance of working, but the alternative was a sure and certain death. The Captain addressed the men that night in hushed tones around the campfire. They were skeptical but they were used to following orders and determined, to a man, that they would carry out the Captain’s order to their best ability. Toward the early hours of morning in the semi-darkness of dawn, the sound of thundering hooves split the silence of the canyon. The Indians realized the soldiers were escaping and riding through the camp. The warriors on the hillsides, guarding the soldiers in their prison, rode down the steep sides and gave chase to the escaping soldiers. Quickly it became apparent that the horses the Indians were chasing were rider less. They realized how they had been tricked in the dawn’s low light. They wheeled their horses and returned to the camp. Chief Running Deer ordered the braves to search for the soldiers in the canyon. It was rough country and the soldiers would be easy prey on foot as they were. They were foolish in the ways of the prairie and even if the braves didn’t find them, they would surely die. The braves did find two of the soldiers who had the misfortune of becoming mixed up in direction and wandered back toward the Oglala band’s winter camp. They were treated to a less than hospitable welcome by the tribe and did not survive the night. The rest of the soldiers continued to walk toward Fort Robinson. Hungry, sick, and barely alive, they climbed through the rugged pine trees and rock bluffs until they reached the prairie, Shortly after reaching the plains, a homesteader saw them, took them in and soon they returned to Fort Robinson. The canyon the soldiers escaped from was called Sowbelly Canyon by the fort soldiers. It remains with that name to this day.

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Nearby Fort Robinson

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This historic outpost served from the days of the Indian Wars until after World War II. This was the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the death of famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse.


Fort Robinson State Park

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This is from my long weekend at Fort Robinson with a group of friends this past summer. I shot hours of video and time lapse photos of the area. It was not easy choosing what footage I would use to make this video because most of what I shot was worthy of publishing. – Long Face Media


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