The scenery alone is worth a trip to this spot in the Pine Ridge. Don’t forget the fishing rod, though.
Story and photos by Justin Haag
Without knowing better, the name might lead some to assume Sowbelly Creek is a stream of manure oozing from a pig farm. Far from it.
The clear, babbling brook between rugged sandstone buttes in Sioux County represents the best attributes of northwestern Nebraska’s Pine Ridge. If it were not located in one of the state’s most sparsely populated regions, visitors would surely overrun it. As it is, though, the locals and few others who venture to this spot 3½ miles northeast of Harrison bask in the quiet serenity of a site rich with aesthetics and history.
Sowbelly creek, canyon and road were named for a supposed incident involving Fort Robinson back when it was an important base for the U.S. cavalry and not the bustling state park of today. Legend has it that Fort Robinson military scouts of the late 1800s hid for days in the creek’s vicinity while being pursued by Native Americans. When united with a rescue party, the hungry scouts were provided salty bacon, often referred to then as “sowbelly.” Quality aside, a meal is surely notable if a creek is later named for it.
Visitors can access about a half-mile of the creek at the 160-acre Coffee Park. Contrary to any insinuations of the name, a barista is not serving up hot drinks there. Coffee Park is named for a prominent ranch family instrumental in settling the region: specifically Guy H. “Chick” and Ila Coffee, the property’s previous owners. Ila donated the property to the village of Harrison in 1972, the year Chick died. The property was developed in the next four years with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and donations. The village owns and maintains the park, which features playground equipment, vault toilets and picnic shelters accented with stone harvested nearby.
The clear, spring-fed coldwater stream has naturally reproducing brown trout and is occasionally stocked with other species. It has long been attractive to anglers, but even more so since the Game and Parks Commission completed a $40,000 aquatic habitat project there in 2022 with a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
Where before the stream flowed just a few inches deep, it now moves over rock riffles and into pools up to 5 feet deep. At bends in the stream, anglers now find logs, rocks and other structures that not only prevent erosion but also attract fish.
Three new walk-through Y-gates allow anglers access to the entire public portion of stream without having to cross the barbed-wire fence. Signage has been added at the property boundaries to deter park visitors from trespassing on adjacent private land.
After the creek descends through the Pine Ridge, it flows into the grasslands to the north before eventually joining Warbonnet Creek — another northwestern Nebraska attraction with rich history and a distinctive name. That’s a whole other story.
People can access Coffee Park by turning east onto Sowbelly Road from Monroe Canyon Road one-half mile north of Harrison. Another scenic way, there is Pants Butte Road that intersects U.S. Highway 20 4 miles east of Harrison. The route provides incredible views as it winds down the ridge and intersects with Sowbelly Road to the left at the bottom.
The roads are dirt and people are wise to visit when they are dry. No one wants to be stuck in this country, with or without an ample supply of sowbelly and coffee.
To learn more about Sowbelly Creek and Coffee Park, visit OutdoorNebraska.gov.