Driving down desolate highways, surrounded on both side by rolling hills carpeted with yellow from the wild sunflowers that grow there. Northwest Nebraska has a sort of surreal loneliness about it. You have simultaneous feelings of being nowhere and being somewhere at the same time. It’s beautiful.
The first night of our trip found us in Valentine, Nebraska. We expected it would be a great starting point for our Western Nebraska road trip due to its geographical location to what we had planned to see. What we didn’t expect, was that we’d find an oasis in the Sand hills. In most towns with a population less than 3,000 people, you wouldn’t find a thriving craft brewery. Mostly because the bars and restaurants found there get their beer from those big named, super bowl commercial spending, manufacturers of piss in a can or bottle if you prefer. And that’s all they offer, since that is what their demographic likes. Bolo Beer Company, beer born and brewed on the American frontier, is a refreshing sight for sore eyes looking for good beer in desolate places. It’s a great place to hang out. The building itself looks like a giant shed meant for fixing farm equipment, but upon entering find a large open space with comfortable chairs and nice people. Their astro-turf covered backyard was an added bonus. The area is surrounded by a high fence and has multiple yard games, a fire pit and picnic tables.
Our first official stop on our Nebraska road trip felt like we stumbled upon a hidden treasure. Smith Falls, the tallest waterfall in the State of Nebraska at 63 feet, is a hidden gem found not far from the Niobrara River. Smith Falls State Park is located about 12 miles outside of Valentine, Nebraska. Getting to the falls requires a minimal amount of hiking that most of the general public should have no problem with. A quick climb down some stairs, a walk across an open field, take the bridge over the Niobrara River, walk across another open area and up onto a wooden pathway and you’re there! The walk was actually very beautiful, especially at 8:00 in the morning. The campers were all still in their tents, so we had the place to ourselves. Walking across the bridge over the Niobrara was magical. On one side, the sun was rising over the river and on the other a deer was crossing the river. Breathtaking. Smith Falls is spring fed and the water is cool, crystal clear and very beautiful. We ended up spending more time there than we had originally planned.
Our next stop on our trip across the prairie was a kooky little place called Carhenge. An exact replica of that stone circle across the pond, Carhenge is made of, you guessed it, cars. Jim Reinders and a number of family members built Carhenge in 1987 as a memorial to his late father. The structure is not something you would expect to see driving through this part of Nebraska, but it is a fun and crazy little pit stop. There are picnic tables and a small visitor center/gift shop as well. Although we were unable to summon the alien architects from the center of the circle, we were still grateful for the experience.
After leaving Carhenge, we traveled even further south and down into the sand hills where we found Chimney Rock. “You have died of Dysentery,” unless you were born in the 1980’s, you’ve probably never played the original Oregon Trail computer game. In the game, you play the part of a settler in charge of a wagon full of people that are trying to make it to Oregon in the 1800’s. Chimney Rock was one of the most recognizable landmarks on the early pioneer’s journey west on the Oregon Trail as it is in the computer game. In fact, it is because of this computer game that I learned about Chimney Rock in the first place. Does anyone remember when computer games were educational?
From Chimney Rock we decided to start heading north and found ourselves in Scott’s Bluff at an authentic Mexican taco shop called Antonio’s Taco Shop. It’s a small family owned restaurant and the food is amazing. We decided to sample a few items and so chose to do the mini tacos. We ordered marinated pork, beef and lengua, which is Spanish for tongue. Yep, we ate tongue tacos. They actually weren’t bad. They were tender and still tasted like beef, although there was that organ after taste to it. Now, I know what you’re thinking.’ I could never eat anything like that!’ Well, yes you can and yes you should. If you’re taking time out of your life to travel someplace you’ve never been to see things you’ve never seen, then you should also try foods you’ve never even dreamed of trying. It’s that simple.
Driving even further north, we eventually found ourselves in the Nebraska Badlands in a little area called the Toadstool Geological Park. The toadstool structures exist because the layers of clay and ash have been warped over time by wind and rain. These formations are amazing and there’s nothing like them anywhere. There are a few campsites available in the park and a couple primitive toilets. A couple was just leaving when we arrived, so we had the entire park to ourselves. The formations are amazing. It’s like looking into our geological past. The park also contains numerous fossils and animal tracks. Because of the fossilized animal tracks, scientists have been able to study animal migration patterns in this area.
The last leg of our trip brought up back into South Dakota at the all new glamping site near Keystone. But that will have to be a post all on its own.