While there are many steep buttes, rocks, and small peaks – public and private, in western Nebraska, Lovers Leap Butte has the distinction of being first in average steepness, according to the National Elevation Dataset. There are a handful of other Nebraska summits that have steepness ratings not much less, but Scotts Bluff is the only other publicly accessible summit that could possibly contend for any of the other top honors in individual categories of steepness.
However, unlike the paved and graded trail to the summit of Scotts Bluff, the route to the summit of Lovers Leap is a more rugged adventure, with some careful scrambling required to reach the top. The summit area of Lovers Leap is somewhat flat, which is rewarding to the climber that has struggled up the only route to the top.
1800's summit view from Lover's Leap
Summits with the name Lovers Leap are common around the USA. There is even another Lovers Leap at the opposite side of this same county! The local legend behind the name of this butte is similar to many of the others behind their place names. A young Native American lady was in love with a brave from her own tribe. However, her father had made arrangements for her to marry a brave from another tribe, who promised a significant dowry. The young lady and her true love attempted to escape, but her father killed him. Distraught over his death, she sang the Death Song, then plunged over the edge of Lovers Leap to her own death.
Lovers Leap is situated on the eastern edge of Fort Robinson State Park, in Dawes County. The history of the area was written in the lives of the Native American tribes that migrated through the region, then later by the trappers, ranchers, and soldiers that made the area their home. A visit to the museums at Fort Robinson will offer an in-depth look at this history.
Getting There & Route
This shows the route to the summit.
From Crawford, Nebraska, go west on Highway 20. About ½ mile past the White River Bridge next to the Legend Golf Course, you will see a small parking area on the right. Find a place to park, then climb over the fence (gate is almost always locked). Look for the trail markers, which are posts with small diamond shaped signs. Following them, you will head in a north-northeast direction on what is designated online as the Wagon Wheel Trail. The highpoint on this section of the trail is a saddle, called McKenzie Pass, between Red Cloud Buttes to the west and Saddle Rock to the southeast. Here, you can turn right and follow the trail (not an official park trail) out to Saddle Rock, or go just a bit further to another fork. Take the left fork, on the Mule Trail, a branch off the Red Cloud Buttes Trail, which will take you into a heavily forested canyon. The trail has a steady ascent, and in less than a mile, you will arrive at another fork. Take the right fork, which is the actual Red Cloud Buttes Trail. This will lead you back in an east-northeast direction, past the north sides of some small buttes. Eventually, the trail crosses a saddle out to Lovers Leap Butte. Once you are there, you will see that the rock faces of Lovers Leap are sheer all the way around, except for what is sort of like a crevice on the south side, initially hidden from view by a rock slab in front. Careful scrambling will allow the final ascent to the summit. Be prepared for spectacular views in all directions. This is an out-and-back, so please do not make the mistake we made of trying some of the local game trails for an attempt to make it a loop.
Note: Viewing the Nebraska Trails Interactive Map, there is a "Lovers Leap Trail" also shown. However, unless this has actually finally been developed, it could prove to be a source of frustration. I could not find any trail in the area shown the last time I was out there. Fort Robinson State Park officials are usually not very knowledgeable about their park's trails, so make your plans being aware of that.
This is state land at Fort Robinson State Park. There are many horseback riders on the trails at some times during the year. Hikers need to give right-of-way to the horse traffic. Please check at the park office before you attempt to plan any campfires. Fires have devastated thousands of acres of forests in the Pine Ridge in recent decades. There is great camping and lodging at Fort Robinson State Park, Soldier Creek Wilderness, and the town of Crawford.
As always in this region, ticks are an ever-present nuisance and risk from March through August. Rattlesnakes are occasionally seen. The mountain lion population continues to grow, so between these risks and the risks that climbing on soft rock poses, solo hiking is not a good idea.