Finally the BIG trip!
We finally decided to take a bigger trip than a lot of our single day or overnight trips. We took 4 days over memorial day weekend to see Northwestern Nebraska, enjoying parts of our state we hadn’t seen before and to go into South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. We traveled with friends who also enjoy “off the beaten bath” trips. Our conclusion: Anyone who says Nebraska is boring is nuts! (At least if you are a nature/geologic beauty lover).
A few fun things along the way
The Nebraska passport program inspired a couple little stops – figuring we might as well when they were handy (after all, bathroom and snack breaks are necessary traveling with children). We stopped at Rustic & Red in Cozad. It was fun – lots of neat home decorating items. We also stopped in Oshkosh, Nebraska and Mark Ferrari Specialty Coffees. They roast their own beans (grown in Hawaii). Although the coffee is great (I bought a bag for the hubs) and the shop is small but cute (they have lots of souvenir items) they have NO public restroom. Since they also serve beverages, I think that’s a mistake. There also wasn’t really much for seating. So if you go to buy a bag, don’t expect to linger. Again – I think that is a poor marketing decision. There aren’t many pictures from this stretch of the journey. Unfortunately, I was a single parent due to a sick kid that we wanted to make sure was fit to travel, so daddy stayed home an extra half a day and caught up to us toward the end of day one.
Sadly, even at 41 years of age, I had never seen this major Nebraska landmark (it adorned our license plates for a while!) known as Chimney Rock. There are many theories on how Chimney Rock was formed – mostly through erosion and other geologic processes. Many think that volcanic ash settled and the harder layers at the top survived erosion more easily than the bottom layers, creating the shape.
We stopped at the visitor center and found some benches outside. We enjoyed our picnic lunch we had brought along in view of “the chimney”. We were also grateful the bathrooms were handy inside the visitor center!
Since rain was threatening, we first drove out to the viewing point. There was a sweet little cemetery out there with stones (mostly unmarked) noting the places where pioneers, in search of a better life, has passed away along trails west. This is significant because Chimney Rock was used as a major landmark for pioneers. One family had bought a fairly grand marker for their ancestor who originated in Scotland! However, it appeared that it was an open cemetery for use by families in the area in recent times.
The Chimney was fun to photograph from a bit closer distance. It would have been nice to be able to get even closer, but I imagine they are trying to protect it. In pioneer times, people carved their names on the rock. There is also concern that the chimney is getting shorter – possibly through people removing parts in the early 1900’s (taking souvenirs) or natural causes such as lightning strikes or continued erosion.
Then it was back to the visitor center. The visitor center was a single story building that included artifacts, information on both Chimney Rock and the Oregon trail, and a play area for the kids (they could decide how much stuff they wanted to put in their “wagon” for the pioneer journey.) There was a 20 minute video that was factual but not especially dynamic. It was neat to see but certainly a half hour was plenty of time in the visitor center. Chimney Rock made a nice stop on our way to other things and, of course, I am glad we got to see this major landmark! We didn’t have time to see Jail Rock or Courthouse Rock which are also in the area.
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area would not have been a place I would have known to desire to visit, but it was listed in information about the “Fossil Freeway”. I picked up a flier for the Fossil Freeway on some other trip and it looked interesting. The Fossil Freeway included areas with fossil digs or things related to fossils along the western side of the state, up into South Dakota. We used the Fossil Freeway as sort of a loose basis for the trip. I am not sure what Fossils were related to Wildcat Hills, but it was the starting point of the bottom end of the “Freeway”. It was worth the trip. It was just a really beautiful area. They have primitive camping there and if you love hiking – it would be a great place to do so.
The visitor center closed a few minutes after we arrived (why close at 4 pm in May?) They had a tree growing through the building, a few exhibits and, of course, a gift shop. There were several different trails though and great picnic areas (many nicely covered) all over the extensive area. We took about a half hour to hike through parts of the recreation area, but could have spent more time hiking. The rock formations were stunning (my pictures don’t do it justice) and the vegetation really added to the ambience. Our kids loved exploring! When they call them hills – they really are hills! I’d recommend having more energy and being in better shape than the adults in our party had! 🙂
No “Bluffing” – it’s a Unique Experience!
Scottsbluff National Monument actually has a Gering, Nebraska address, instead of Scottsbluff, which is north of both. The monument was part of the Nebraska passport program, we discovered specifically, because it’s their centennial celebration year. The visitor center was closed but the ranger very kindly opened it up so we could get our passports stamped. They are renovating their actual visitor center, so we visited a trailer that had a small gift shop inside.
Unfortunately, the driving trail wasn’t open until after Memorial day. (I don’t understand this – I would think opening it for the long weekend would make sense!) We starting hiking. We didn’t plan on going very far, but at each bend, we wanted to see just a little bit more!
It was a fairly easy hike, even with kids. (My legs talked to me about it the next day though!) Although I didn’t want to get too close to the trail’s edge, or look down, really the trail was fairly wide and blacktopped. Each turn brought on more cool views.
From below, we could see a couple caves in the bluff that we assumed were accessible. They looked very high up from where we started. However, as we turned a corner in the inner part of the bluff and started up what looked like a very steep incline, we realized we would reach the cave! The trail was actually not as steep as we realized as it really was more gradual. The cave entrance we reached was really a neat place and we could see south of the bluff and north of the bluff from the cave. I have to wonder if it was a natural cave, a man-made cave, or perhaps a natural cave that was “enhanced”. There was one more leg of the journey that would have taken us to the top of the bluff. The entire trip is just over a mile and a half long, the monument is 800 feet high and that last third just looked like more than we wanted to tackle with young children and a couple of us getting over chest colds. However, I think our views from all parts of the bluff made the trip very well worth it.
There was also a trail heading away from the visitor center exploring Oregon trail history. We decided we had had enough hiking for one day. Our friend who was traveling with us reported that when he was a teenager, he had hiked the whole thing with family members and they saw 4 rattlesnakes on the way! Lucky for us, it was a nice cool day and we think any snakes were in their burrows. I would definitely recommend finding a nice cooler day to make this hike — not just to avoid snakes, but because the walk was much more pleasant!
Although there wasn’t a lot of extra experiences and things to do, we would still highly recommend Scottsbluff as a very unique and beautiful hike! The concept of hiking a bluff is very different than just tackling hills, or even mountains.
Continuing on the “Freeway”
We traveled north after our Scottsbluff climb to continue on the Fossil Freeway. Next in our path was Agate Fossil Beds. Unfortunately for us, this was also closed (also at 4 pm), The visitor center was large, and looked nice…from what we could see from the window. (It was also a passport stop).
There was a trail that led away from the visitor center – I didn’t go far down it as it appeared mostly to just discuss the habitat and marshlands that the Niobrara river fed into. Interesting – but not a high priority for kids! As we drove out, there was another trail we could have taken and look at the layers where the fossils had been uncovered. Again, though, it was late, and there didn’t appear to be a whole lot to see.
There truly was nothing else in the area. In fact, information warned to fill up with gas around the time we left the Scottsbluff area since there is a stretch of a couple hours’ drive with no option to do so. We drove for miles and miles without seeing any vehicles. It may have been over an hour before we saw a vehicle.
Agate Fossil beds is not an active dig site, but is described to be very well preserved. We can’t make a full recommendation, having not seen the visitor center, but from what we could see – we would recommend this as an “if it’s on the way” to somewhere stop.
And it’s a Loooong Way There…
After Agate Fossil Beds (and because it was getting later into the night), the drive in the sandhills seemed very long and tedious. It would have been much prettier in the daylight. I think ranchers are about the only people living in the area. Harrison, NE was pretty much a bump in the road, so there really was nothing until we made it to Crawford. Crawford had a cute little Drive In restaurant – Staab’s Drive Inn – also a passport stop where we enjoyed some ice cream to tide us over. We had planned to grill at our destination for the night, but that ended up being quite late. The service was super friendly, but pretty slow. We have been told that is just the western Nebraska way.
After more driving and some rough dirt roads, we finally made it to our destination – High Plains Homestead. The very kind owner just let us know the lights were on and that we would check in completely in the morning.
More on High Plains in day 2….we did manage to unpack and cook some dinner, but sleep was the priority at the end of this long day! We planned distances appropriately – but not the time it took to do things!