When you think of “adventure”, you probably don’t think “Nebraska.” Flat. Flyover. Corn. Long. Straight. These are all the words that might come to mind when you think of 8 hours on I-80 across the entire state of Nebraska. But what if I told you are missing ALL of the state, despite driving across it? From western Nebraska’s mountainous foothills to badlandic (yes, I said “badlandic”) geological features to the nation’s largest human-planted national forest to beautiful rolling sandhills to aquifer-fed waterfalls pouring into the Niobrara river, you’re missing out by not taking the “slow roads”.
THIS MUST BE WHAT THEY MEAN BY THE GOOD LIFE!
Only once I moved away from my home state, did I become aware of the fascinating terrain and sights that resided in the state I thought I knew so well. My goal on this past visit home in October/November was to see as many of these as possible. This week-long drive across the Cornhusker State proved to be a rewarding adventure and certainly didn’t disappoint.
DAY 1: THE LONGEST DRIVE
Because of weather and a late start, other plans and routes didn’t quite work out for this day, but it was probably better that I just get the bulk of the driving out of the way. I decided to head straight towards Snake River Falls and Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest to camp. But “Plan C” fell through as well when I decided to meet my friend’s parents for supper in Valentine that evening.
SIDE NOTE: If you haven’t already, you’ll realize that I only make plans to have some kind of plan. They’re never concrete. I also travel to see places along my route, not just get to the destination. And if I can see or meet people and have fellowship, even better! I will go out of my way to stay at someone’s house, though camping always has precedence.
I was still planning to camp in McKelvie National Forest, but they kindly insisted I stay at their place that night. This worked out nicely, as I wanted to explore Valentine the next day. Though I’d been there before, I hadn’t appreciated the area enough.
DAY 2: EXPLORING THE SMALL TOWN OF BIG ADVENTURE
Valentine Nebraska: Small town, big adventure. This town lives up to its slogan. The trailhead of the nation’s 3rd longest rail trail, the Cowboy Trail at 195 miles long (will be the nation’s longest rail trail at 321 miles when completed), the Niobrara River, featuring many waterfalls pouring into it, fed from the Ogallala Aquifer and rolling hills of sand and red cedar trees broken up by the occasional canyon.
Tuesday morning I set out to explore Valentine, Nebraska by bike. The Cowboy trail ran almost in front of the house I was staying at, which took me through town, across a trestle bridge and along some neat geography and features.
I then meandered through some in-town “singletrack” along a stream and through the woods of Valentine City Park.
At this point, I wasn’t too far from Government Canyon, which had also been recommended to me. It was deer hunting season, so I pulled out my orange vest.
Motor vehicles, including ATVs, are restricted in this area, so my bike tire tracks weren’t the only ones. Hunters use bikes to quietly and quickly get back into the woods—awesome! [insert pro bicycle propaganda]
After my out-and-back in Government Canyon, I headed back into town and east on Highway 12, the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway to the refuge with one destination in mind: Fort Falls. I found some seldom-used two-track, which took me through a prairie dog colony… where I saw a badger running from one hole to the next in search of dinner.
After enjoying the trails to Fort Falls along the Niobrara, crossing little streams dumping into the river along the way, I headed back for the night. The plan was to leave and head to Chadron for the night.
It was around 5 o’clock when I got back to the house, and I was cold and hungry. They invited me to stay for chili and another night, which I happily took them up on. This worked out wonderfully as there were still some sights I wanted to see in Valentine.
DAY 3: MORE WATERFALLS AND MORE DRIVING
The next morning was peaceful and relaxing. I hung out and waited for Ken to get back from work, then we headed out to see some waterfalls late morning. First stop was Berry Falls — one of the waterfalls I never appreciated enough despite the numerous times I’ve kayaked down the river.
Berry Falls is made up of intricate rock formations which water tumbles graciously over on all sides.
After Berry Falls, we went to Smith Falls State Park. Smith Falls, also fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, is the tallest waterfall in Nebraska at 63 feet and drains into the Niobrara.
I packed my stuff, bought groceries for the week and headed to Snake River Falls and McKelvie National Forest, 23 miles south of Valentine.
After running around the falls like a kid, I continued towards the Merritt Reservoir and through Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest. It was at this time that I realized my plan to camp somewhere off this road one of the previous nights would have been quickly altered by the discovery of barbed wire along both sides of the road. No place to park and nowhere to hike in to camp.
This national forest is a little different than I’m used to. There is the Steelhead Campground that I probably would have ended up in, but at $8/night to hang my hammock in a couple trees, it’s hard to justify.
I made my way to Chadron where I planned to get gas and WiFi, driving through a gorgeous sunset peering across the tops of the next sandhill on the horizon along the way. After a quick stop, I headed north towards Ogallala National Grassland and Toadstool Geologic Park for the night. Only then did I remember my intention of filling up. It was too late. I committed to getting there and going to sleep. I’ll deal with not having any fuel the next day — I was just hoping that I would actually make it there. After a dead end and a couple wrong terms (wasting even more gas), I made it.
It was a clear night and I could see what I can only describe as “mini mountains” surrounding the parking lot. I couldn’t wait until morning.
DAY 4: TOADSTOOLS BY BIKE
I woke up to a cold 16-degree morning. Really not all that cold compared to temperatures now in Jackson Hole, but I was still adapting. Numb feet. Numb hands. I had the place to myself, though. After some deliciously hot coffee and warm oatmeal, I took off on my bike exploring the area. Some places were definitely not rideable, but a bike was a quick way to see it all.
I rode, explored and played.
Then I headed towards the Bison Boneyard, 3 miles away. The trail started out fantastic, but got muddy fast as it was a dried up riverbed and drainage.
Eventually, I climbed out of the canyon and onto the flat plains, that overlooked more canyons ahead, some that I rode into. I only wished for more of this epic riding, but what I experienced was fantastic.This geography was incredible and right in Nebraska! Who would have thought?!
If I could do it all over though, I’d walk and maybe even carry my bike. This wasn’t just mud… this was gumbo.
TIP: If you plan on biking out here, going tubeless is not an option. It’s a necessity. Goatheads, cactus needles and sandburs will line your tire walls and tread by the hundreds.
I got back to the car, cleaned my bike and myself the best I could and hoped I could make it into town to get gas. I did!
The plan was to camp in Nebraska National Forest in the Pine Ridge Ranger District. This area has over 80 miles of trails and tons of primitive camping sites. I got a tip from a helpful forest ranger at Toadstool about an accessible campsite that even has vault toilets — score! It’s the little things.
I found a great spot to hang my hammock and made some supper. But there was something else… it was going to dump snow overnight. I wasn’t worried about sleeping… I was worried about driving back out and up the sketchy road I had come down to get where I was.
DAY 5: WINTER IS HERE!
Morning came, and I woke up to snow on the base of my tarp. I stayed warm and dry all night though! After breakfast, I had planned to explore some of these trails despite the six inches or more of fresh snow on them. Unfortunately, my bike was still too gummed up from all the mud of the previous day’s ride and I couldn’t do it. I only hoped to find a bike shop that would generously let me clean it off.
I made it out and headed to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. I stopped at Carhinge along the way to stretch my legs.
I was so concerned about getting to Scottsbluff in time to find a bike shop that I completely spaced off Chimney Rock — I’ll just have to come back (and I intend to!)
I got lucky and found Sonny’s Bike Shop, the only one in a 200-mile radius. They were quite helpful too and I paid for some tools and services, as well as cleaned my bike off. More snow was due tonight and I planned to camp in the Wildcat Hills Recreation Area and bike there the next day. Remember that extra day in Valentine I hadn’t planned on? Yeah… that saved my butt from driving through some nasty blizzards and hazardous road conditions.
DAY 6: FATBIKING THE WILDCATS
What incredible geography! This is big horn sheep country! Yes, big horn sheep live in Nebraska. I even followed some tracks for a while, but never saw any — my squeaky brakes made sure of that. I got in 8 miles of great exploring and snow biking. Who would have thought my first snow ride on my Surly Pugsley would be in some pretty rough terrain in Nebraska?!
After a great and exhausting morning of riding, I felt that I made up for my lack of biking in Nebraska National Forest the day prior. Really… I wouldn’t have had much time to do so anyway and was very content with how the past week had gone.
Today I’d leave Nebraska for Casper, Wyoming, but I wasn’t done yet. I had one last stop: Scottsbluff National Monument. I had hoped to bike here and do some hiking, but given that the sun was setting and I had a very successful day on the bike already, driving to the top was more than sufficient.
I walked around, took some photos and enjoyed the unique rock formations and geography looking out across the valley and into the Wildcat Hills to the east.
I left Nebraska, crossing the Wyoming border with the sun in my eyes and the monument in my mirror.
I’d arrive in Idaho late the next evening, driving on some slick and icy roads, and stopping for coffee and naps along the way before driving through elk herds and over two mountain passes.
What’s my route for my next visit home? I don’t even know when my next visit home will be, but I do have some ideas and destinations in western Nebraska. I can assure you, though, I won’t be driving I-80.
Feature Image: On the road to Snake River Falls, Nebraska