Getting Up Close and Personal with BNSF's Famed Crawford Hill- Thanks to the Ponderosa Ranch!

Summary of BNSF trains for Thursday, Oct 7th, 2004. All pictures shot with a Canon Rebel Digital Camera (EOS 300 D) by Dave Franklin.

Total Time on Horseshoe Curve & Train Watching:
10:40 AM - 8:00 PM

Total Eastbounds: 12
Total Westbounds: 14
Total Helper-only moves: 8
Phil Franklin, the author's brother, shoots video of another freight battling over Crawford Hill.
Extra BNSF 8945 East at 11:06 AM (Coal), at the private road crossing the BNSF line.
Extra BNSF 9627 East at 11:43 AM (Coal), just east of the private crossing.
Extra BNSF 4388 East at 1:10 PM (Stack), further east along the private road inside the ranch.
Extra BNSF 8268 West at 1:12 PM (Mixed Freight) inside of the Horseshoe Curve.
Helpers pushing east on the rear of Extra BNSF 9206 East at 3:36 PM (Coal), on the opposite side of the curve.

Article and photos by Dave Franklin.
Originally published March 2005

Crawford Hill is located on the busy BNSF transcontinental mainline, in the northwestern part of Nebraska. My first trip to the Crawford Hill region was in 1992, as part of a two week trip with three of my friends as we were driving across the US. Crawford was one stop on that trip and we were there approximately a day and a half. Photographing most of the trains from Belmont Hill to the horseshoe curve near the town of Crawford is relatively impossible due to the lack of ready access to the railroad. This is what makes access to the Ponderosa Ranch property so valuable! Crawford Hill is located on a very busy mainline with all but a few trains being coal drags. The low-sulphur coal originates from the Powder River Basin area and is headed for power plants in the Midwest and to the East. On my first visit, I was drawn to the unique horseshoe curve, which, in my opinion, is located in one of the most scenic places in America!

Having been to Crawford Hill once before I was anxious for a return trip. Traveling with my brother, we arrived in Crawford on the evening of Oct 6, 2004, around 7:00 PM. We stayed at a nearby motel for the night. Early on the morning of October 7, we ate breakfast in Crawford and began our journey up to Crawford Hill. We followed Ash Creek Rd. and arrived at the tracks at Crow Butte Road North, then followed US 709/Saw Log Road until we arrived at the Junction. A private road was indicated here but we followed it until we arrived at Jeff and Kim Lund's place, which was at the end. Fortunately for us, Jeff and Kim were outside and met us at the gate. We introduced ourselves and right away made friends. We announced that we were looking for the horseshoe curve and they stated that we would find it if we drove and hiked through their property. They informed us that they had moved here recently and were interested in setting up a log cabin were rail fans could camp out while visiting their property. We immediately asked to see it and they offered it to us for the night. We quickly accepted!

The cabin was very cozy and offered all the amenities for a comfortable sleep and evening relaxation. Since there were no lights for miles and miles this allowed us to experience a peaceful, starry night.

We set off for the horseshoe curve the next morning (Thursday), following Jeff who had generously offered to show us the way through his property. Without his help we would have wasted hours trying to find the entrance to the curve. He rode on a 4-wheeler and we followed in our Nissan Pathfinder. He took us as far as he could before the road sloped down towards the tracks. Believe me when I say that you had better start walking at this point as the road became extremely rough. After walking a half-mile to the tracks we came across the BNSF gate. Here we were asked to take the lock off the gate and relock it once passing through. At this point the Lund's private road crosses the tracks. This crossing is not signaled so we had to be careful, however you can usually hear the eastbound trains coming up the hill for at least 35-45 minutes before they actually arrive at the horseshoe curve. From here we followed the tracks along their property, moved slowly along the curve as the sun did, photographing each train that went by.

Around 8:00 PM we started back from Breezy Point to their gate. At this point twilight was well underway. Having opened and closed the gate again, we walked up the steep hill back to where we left our Pathfinder. We arrived back at the cabin around 9:00 PM and had a quick dinner. We then went up to visit with the Lunds until 10:30 PM and returned to the cabin for the night. Phil and I had suggested that the Lunds should pursue advertising and setting up their cabin for the railfans that would like an opportunity to come and visit Crawford Hill first hand. The luxury of staying right at the curve gives you a better opportunity to maximize your day at the crack of dawn. The Lunds' property completely surrounds the horseshoe curve and gives you every possible angle, both high and low. It also provides the opportunity to take all your pictures with the sun at your back-the perfect photography training experience! With the trains traveling slow and approximately 26 per day, make sure you have lots of film!

One other point, and probably the most important, I would like to acknowledge is that because the Lund's property surrounds the entire curve, there is absolutely no need for trespassing and the experience is completely safe. I'm sure that BNSF and their train crews do not want you to be walking their tracks so please respect this and respect the Lunds' decision to give us railfans such an amazing opportunity. I hope to return again to watch the trains and catch up with my new friends! Thanks again for enabling us to experience the beauty of horseshoe curve, offering your hospitality, and giving us lots of memories.

About The Ponderosa Ranch
The Ponderosa Ranch is a working guest cattle ranch located in the northwest part of the Nebraska panhandle. The ranch is approximately 30 miles east of the Wyoming border, and 30 miles south of the South Dakota border and the Black Hills, and 9 miles south of Crawford. Several airports are within relatively close proximity to the ranch. Chadron Airport is 30 miles, Alliance Airport is 60 miles, and Scottsbluff Airport is 75 miles. A rental car is recommended. For more information, please visit their website.

About the Author
Dave Franklin, 52, spent most of his life in Toronto, Ontario, and currently resides in Bolton. Over the years he has made many railfan trips to the United States, taking pictures since 1974. This is his first RAILROAD.NET byline.