Hollingsworth Family at Carhenge by Ben Hollingsworth

Family Vacation to
Western Nebraska
19-25 July 2009

Our family vacation this year took us to northwestern Nebraska, the far corner of our home state. Our primary destination was Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford. We lived out of our pop-up camper and made several stops along the way to see everything from distant stars to fossilized mammoths.

Sunday, 19 July

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Sandhills by Noelle Hollingsworth It took some time for us to finish packing the trailer, so we got a late start. We left our driveway around 1:30pm, stopped for lunch, and left Lincoln around 2:00. The first leg of our trip to the Snake Campground at Merritt Reservoir southwest of Valentine was relatively uneventful and took about 5 hours. The Nebraska countryside is very boring from Lincoln to Grand Island, and only moderately better until you hit Broken Bow. The sandhills really begin at Broken Bow, and the rolling hills surrounding the Middle Loup River are quite pretty. Unprompted by me, Noelle requested the camera and took a number of photos out the window while we were driving. The drive north from Mullen to Merritt along Hwy 97 was the prettiest of all. The road is very windy and hilly, providing some amazing vistas as you crest the highest hills. As we approached Merritt, we started seeing wildlife on and around the road. I rear ended a small bird with our headlight. We passed (but didn't hit) several small turtles on the the road. Several mule deer were on and near the road.

Sunset at Merritt Reservoir by Noelle Hollingsworth We hooked up with my friend Brian Sivill at the Nebraska Star Party, a gathering of astronomers from around the country who meet in the middle of nowhere at new moon every summer to watch the heavens through their giant telescopes. They're a friendly bunch, and we easily made friends with a number of the other astronomers. Unfortunately, cloudy skies and threatening rain forced them to pack up their scopes that night, so we didn't get any good views. We did have fun talking, playing with lasers, and listening to Brian play guitar that night. We did get some pretty strong wind and light rain that night. As luck would have it, this turned out to be the only cloudy night on our entire trip. In retrospect, we should have stopped at the NSP Friday night on our way home instead of on the way out.

Monday, 20 July

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The beautiful lake provided some good photos the next morning. Between rain storms, we got to wander around and look at some of the larger scopes that were still set up, including two home-made "Yolo" scopes worth about $20K.

Rain kept us at Merritt until after lunch Monday. It finally stopped around noon, and we rolled out of the campground around 1:30pm MDT after watching a bald eagle circle the campground for a few minutes. That was a little later than I wanted, given our itinerary for the day.

Micah Behind Snake River Falls by Ben Hollingsworth We drove just a few miles up the road to our first stop, Snake River Falls. It's the largest volume waterfall in the state. It sits on private property, so you have to pay a dollar per person to gain access. Simon was sleeping, so Stacy stayed up in the truck with him. It's just as well, because it would have been a difficult hike for him. From the parking lot, there's a short, but steep and difficult, trail that drops maybe 100 vertical feet to the level of the river in the bottom of the gorge. The trail is comprised largely of badly rutted steps cut into the sandy soil. Micah (9) and I had no trouble navigating them, but Noelle (7) needed a hand at times. It's worth the trip, though. The river gorge is beautiful, and it's quite a rush to be able to walk along a narrow, slippery ledge right behind the falls. Niagara it's not, but it's still a cool place to spend a few minutes. I don't think it'd be worth the drive down from Valentine, but it's well worth stopping if you're staying at Merritt Reservoir or passing by on Hwy 97. There are no public buildings (including restrooms) at Snake River Falls, BTW. We spent about 30-45 minutes on the trail & at the falls.

We continued on to Valentine, where we stopped to buy ice for the coolers and a small table lamp for our camper. From there, it was another 20 or so miles east on Hwy 12 to Smith Falls State Park. Smith Falls is the tallest waterfall in the state at 70 feet. It sits on a small, spring-fed creek that drains into the Niobrara River just a couple hundred yards after the falls. There's a small campground on the north side of the Niobrara River, and an approximately quarter mile foot path (including a lengthy boardwalk through the woods) from there over a bridge to the falls. The campground is pretty, and would make a great weekend outing if you lived nearby. We pulled into the parking lot around 4:30pm MDT.

Smith Falls From Below by Ben Hollingsworth While the quantity of water made the Snake River Falls impressive and the trail behind the falls was briefly entertaining, Smith Falls is truly beautiful and would offer plenty of entertainment for kids of all ages on a warm day. When we arrived, we found a group of young folks who had been tubing down the Niobrara and stopped to see the falls. They were mostly gathered at the base of the falls while the water landed directly on them after the 50 foot drop. There's a small, shallow pool at the bottom before the creek eventually flows down to the river.

Simon at Smith Falls by Ben Hollingsworth It was cloudy with occasional sprinkles when we arrived, so Micah just waded into the 6" deep pool, shivered, and spent the rest of our stay up on the boardwalk. Simon and Noelle had a good time splashing in the water. I decided to test the weather sealing on my DSLR camera, and spent over an hour wiping it dry with a sock while taking photos from all angles around the base of the falls and in the pool. If you had a truly waterproof camera, it would be a great spot for a tripod and small apertures. With only a non-stabilized lens and a consumer-grade body, I had to resort to short exposures at high ISO. I got some great compositions, but I won't know about their image quality until I can view them on a good computer.

From Smith Falls, we headed back to Valentine for food and fuel. We ate at the Frosty Drive-In, a local joint similar to Sonic, but less polished. Their signature desert is the "Sandstorm," which is a knock-off of the DQ Blizzard. It's not exactly health food.

Sunset on Hwy 20 by Ben Hollingsworth We didn't roll out of Valentine until nearly 7:30pm MDT, with a 3-hour commute ahead of us to Fort Robinson State Park, three hours west of Crawford. Shortly after leaving Valentine, we passed (going the opposite directly) a good friend of a good friend of mine who lives way down in Holdrege. He drives a trail-built Suzuki Samurai painted John Deere green and yellow, so I'm sure it was him. What he was doing that far from home, I have no idea. The rest of the drive was uneventful. The sunset was gorgeous, but was directly in my eyes, which frustrated both my driving and Noelle's back seat photography attempts. The final hour or so of the trip was reportedly along a very scenic section of Hwy 20, but it was pitch black by the time we hit it. Oh well.

Night Sky by Ben Hollingsworth Once at Ft. Rob, we checked in, setup the camper and put the family to bed. I was wired on caffeine, so I stayed up to experiment with astrophotography. Unlike the night we spent surrounded by multi-thousand dollar telescopes, our first night at Ft. Rob was crystal clear and afforded some incredible views of the heavens. I've never seen so many stars before, even though there's a fair bit of light pollution at this park. I got some interesting shots, but ran out of battery 15.5 minutes into a 16-minute exposure, which was frustrating enough to send me to bed around 1:00am. Serves me right for trying to squeak by without replacing batteries.

Tuesday, 21 July

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Noelle Swinging by Ben Hollingsworth Our camper beds aren't as comfortable as our home bed, so neither Stacy nor I slept well. We got moving slowly, while the kids biked around the campground. The camper across the road housed grandparents with a few grandkids, including a girl Noelle's age who also had her bike here. Our family eventually all toured the entire campground on our bikes, stopped for a while at the playground, and then headed across the highway to explore a bit of the fort. Most of the buildings here are either original or reproductions of the ones used during the fort's military usage from 1874-1948.

Noelle's Dragonfly by Ben Hollingsworth Over lunch time, Noelle found a large and extremely friendly dragonfly around our camper that let her pet it and let me take several close up photos.

Horseback Riding by X While Simon and Stacy were napping that afternoon, Noelle, Micah, and I went on a 45-minute horseback ride through the hills. The entire group consisted of us and our trail leader, "X" (Xavier). My horse was named Pedro, Micah rode Astro, and Noelle rode Smurf. Although it was easily the least scenic of the rides we've been on over the last few years, the kids both enjoyed it. Noelle was one year too young to be allowed on the longer trail ride, which covered much more entertaining terrain through the bluffs. Ice cream sandwiches celebrated our safe return.

Campfire Songs by Stacy Hollingsworth Once Simon awoke, we all headed back over to the activity center, where the kids painted ceramic animals. Dinner that evening was a trailer ride into a back pasture for buffalo stew and songs around a campfire. We ate across the table from a family from Beatrice, two of whose kids were the same ages as ours.

After returning to the camper, I attempted to patch a flat on Micah's bike tire (there are lots of sticky things in the grass around here) while Stacy built our own fire in our fire pit. The next day, we noticed that same tire of Micah's, one of Stacy's, and both of Simon's tires were flat, so we abandoned biking for the remainder of the trip. If you visit this area, stay on the paved roads.

Jupiter's Journey by Ben Hollingsworth After the rest of my family went to bed, I stayed up to photograph the stars some more -- this time with fresh batteries. I got a few 20 minute exposures, including a good one of Jupiter tracking across the sky.

It was a good day.

Wednesday, 22 July

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Simon's Fish by Ben Hollingsworth We spent the morning fishing at two of the ponds southeast of the campground. All three kids and I took our turns with our three rods. The ponds were well stocked, and the kids were reeling in fish so fast, it was all I could do to keep up with unhooking fish and baiting hooks. Most of the fish were bluegills and sunfish in the 3-5" range. I think we got a few crappies. Our two largest catches were Micah's 9" largemouth bass and my 10" trout (the last catch of the morning). Stacy helped Simon with his rod. He actually reeled most of his 6 fish in himself, although he didn't know how to set the hook, so most of his catches had swallowed it by the time they reached the shore. Micah outpaced us all with 11 catches. All told, I think the four of us caught about three dozen fish during our 2.5 hours at the ponds. Nothing we caught was really large enough to keep, but the frequency of the bits kept us busy, which made the outing fun.

After lunch, we returned to the activity center so Noelle could finish painting her ceramic cougars from yesterday.

Micah and Fossils by Ben Hollingsworth We spent the afternoon driving 45 minutes southwest of the campground to Agate Fossil Bed National Monument. This remote outpost on the Niobrara River near the Wyoming border displays a highly concentrated mass of fossils (early camels, rhinos, dogs, etc) as well as artifacts from the native chief Red Cloud. The owner of the ranch where these fossils were discovered in the 1880's was a good personal friend of Red Cloud, hence the unlikely combination at this national monument. As they had done at Rocky Mountain National Park a couple years ago, the older kids did their homework for nearly an hour to earn their Junior Ranger badges. One of the senior rangers saw me taking photos of the kids doing this, and asked if I'd be willing to send some of those photos to the Parks Service. The head office had requested that all the fossil-related parks gather photos of kids doing the junior ranger program for use on the NPS web site & promo material. My kids might become famous!

Courthouse and Jailhouse Rocks by Gary Alan Nelson We had originally hoped to visit Agate on a day trip that also included a trip further south to see the geologic formations of Scotts Bluff, Chimney Rock, and Courthouse/Jail Rocks along Hwy 26, all of which were famous landmarks along the Oregon Trail. We decided to nix that, though, since the kids wouldn't appreciate it enough to make it worth the extended drive.

We hurried back to Ft. Rob by 7pm so Stacy could do laundry and the kids and I could go swimming before they closed at 8:30pm. Laundry was at a separate location, of course. Both the massive indoor pool and the small, outdoor kiddie pool were heated, and we had lots of fun. The kiddie pool was 16" deep, which was perfect for Simon to play in during the 10-minute break time when they kicked everybody out of the big pool.

We finished the day with a late dinner and a viewing of the International Space Station passing through the western sky around 10:30pm.

Thursday, 23 July

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We began the day with a leisurely ride down the White River on inner tubes from 10:30 till noon. I'm sure the first image to pop into your mind when you read that resembles the promotional shots of dozens of people floating near the wide mouth of the Niobrara. A more accurate image would be five tubes floating single file down Beals Slough -- with oars in hand to push off when we got high centered. The White River is South Dakota's answer to Nebraska's Niobrara, and like the Niobrara, it's very small up here at its head waters. This stretch is bordered by high banks covered with weeds and tree roots. All you can see through the duration of the ride is dirty water, weeds, and sky.

Simon's tube was tied to mine, and he fell asleep before we were done. Micah sped on ahead and Stacy lagged far behind (the adults scraped bottom more than the kids did), so we didn't get to spend much of the time together. Fifteen minutes separated Micah and Stacy at the end of the ride. We generally enjoyed ourselves, though, as it was a relaxing way to spend the morning.

Toadstool Sunset by Benjamin Tillotson After a lunch of polish dogs from the park's general store, we headed north to explore Toadstool Geologic Park for the afternoon. This turned out to be poor timing, as this was the hottest afternoon of our trip thus far, and Toadstool Park is essentially a desert. We took lots of fluids, but found that one 20 ounce bottle per person is not enough for a 90 minute hike down the one mile circular trail in 95F heat. The terrain was very interesting, though, and the older kids entertained themselves by climbing the rock formations and collecting bits if agate. It's amazing the difference in terrain in just the short 22 mile drive from Ft. Rob. I took lots of photos, of course. Despite the harsh, mid-afternoon sun, there's still plenty of texture in those formations to provide some interesting shots.

Micah in Shade by Ben Hollingsworth Unfortunately, the park isn't as interesting as it once was, because in the last few decades, many of the toadstool formations have fallen. Some were helped along by mischievous teenagers, a local rancher told me. A few are still left along the trail, but they're few and far between. Due to the heat, we didn't do any exploring beyond the shortest trail, so it's quite possible that there are other, more interesting areas still remaining. Had I been with a group of athletic adults in cooler weather, I would have covered more ground and taken more photos.

After returning to camp shortly after 4pm, we grabbed a bite and then headed up to the swimming pool again at 6pm. That seems to be one of the kids' favorite places at the park. Stacy joined us as a dry spectator this time.

Calf Roping by Ben Hollingsworth From 8-9pm, we took in the free rodeo put on by the park's wranglers. It's more of a show than a competition, and included calf roping, saddle bronc riding, and a handful of fun, cowboy games. We sat with the family who camped across the road from us so that Noelle could spend the evening with her new friend Cecilia from North Platte. It was a very enjoyable evening. We decided to let this night give the kids their rodeo fix, and opted to stay at Ft. Rob another day and bypass the Burwell Rodeo that we had originally planned to visit on the way home.

Friday, 24 July

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Noelle's Caterpillar by Ben Hollingsworth We started the day with an exploratory drive up Soldier Creek Road, which exits through the northwest end of the main fort complex. It leads to a fishing pond, the superintendent's house, and eventually to a federal wilderness camping area and trails. The kids didn't feel like hiking, so we drove back and tried fishing at the lake for a while. We discovered that our worms had died, so we had to fish with corn. Nothing bit. The fact that fish were constantly jumping up out of the water just added insult. While the rest of us fished, Simon thoroughly enjoyed himself watching a tractor do some maintenance work around the parking area. We eventually gave up and drove back to our campground.

Noelle found a wooly caterpillar at the campground on our way out that morning, and held it in the truck with us through the entire morning. She set it free before we started fishing, but then found it again when we were done and brought it back to the campground again.

After lunch, Stacy and Simon napped while I took the big kids swimming for a couple hours. On our way to the pool, we stopped at the Trailside Museum of Natural History on park grounds, which primarily displays the fossils of two mammoths found nearby that died with their tusks interlocked in combat. Apparently, they got tangled during battle, and unable to separate themselves, they eventually fell down and starved to death. The kids were only mildly interested in the mammoths, but enjoyed seeing all the polished agate (a pretty rock native to the area).

The pool was far busier during the afternoon than it had been during our evening visits. They had fun, though, and Noelle got up the nerve to jump (or rather, step) off the diving board into the 12' end without any flotation device.

Bighorn Sheep by Ben Hollingsworth At 5pm, we had reservations for a Jeep ride up into the buttes. The thunder clouds had rolled in and it sprinkled on us some, but never anything too hard. The cool, cloudy weather was a welcome change. The park has two red Jeep Scramblers (CJ-8's) that they use for tours. They have jump seats along the back and a forward-facing seat hanging out the tailgate. Ours was an '81 model with a 258, 4-speed tranny, and Tera-low t-case. The other Jeep has an auto tranny, but the driver (Jim) said most of the guides prefer the manual tranny. The trail would have been a great ride in dry weather. We ran across two separate groups of bighorn sheep: one with three females with a brand new baby, and another with three males. Alas, we encountered the males while on a steep incline, and were therefore unable to stop the Jeep for decent, shake-free photos.

The ride stopped half way through to get out and survey the countryside from the top of Cheyenne Butte. The view is amazing. Jim was very friendly and knowledgeable, and gave us lots of information about the plants and history of the area. After the break, the rain pretty much stopped and the clouds started to break for our trip home. On the way back to camp, we drove by the park's herds of bison and long-horn cattle, and had to wait for a small herd of burrows to cross the road. This was the only time on our trip that we actually made it up into the buttes.

Noelle Fishing by Ben Hollingsworth After dinner, Stacy, Micah and Simon stayed at camp and played Yahtzee while Noelle and I returned to Wednesday's fishing pond for an hour before sunset. Noelle caught two fish and I caught one, all small. As on Wednesday, there were many bites that didn't quite make it to shore. It was a fun father-daughter outing.

We finished the day at the camper with hot chocolate, finger bowling, and what little cleaning & packing we could before we head home on Saturday.

Saturday, 25 July

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Carhenge by Ben Hollingsworth We packed up the camper and finally left the campground around 10:30am MDT. We ate lunch in Alliance and then stopped for the obligatory pilgrimage to Carhenge just northeast of town on Hwy 87. Carhenge has really developed commercially since our last visit in 2005. In early 2007, they paved the highway (it was gravel in 2005) and built the "Carhenge Pit Stop," a souvenir shop, on site. The number of people visiting the monument was unbelievable. In 2005, I think there was only one other visitor during our stay. This time, there were at least a dozen vehicles filling the parking lot. The shop attendant told me this was pretty typical traffic. I hope they don't start charging admission any time soon. Between lunch (McD's to go) and Carhenge, we spent about an hour in Alliance.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. As expected, Hwy 2 between Alliance and Broken Bow was beautiful, following a valley filled with wetlands and river beds through rolling sandhills. It also follows some major rail lines, so Simon was delighted to continually see all the orangy trains (BNSF engines). Much to Stacy's chagrin, I started a sing-along near Halsey, and for the next 15-20 minutes we enjoyed a complete, unabridged rendition of "99 Bottles of Pop on the Wall," courtesy mostly of Micah. We never did stop for dinner, instead grazing on snacks until we got home around 8:30pm CDT. We spent about 7 hours on the road, not including the time change and about two hours worth of various stops. Simon was glad to be back, as he'd been asking for several hours for us to take him home.

The kids seemed to enjoy the trip. Simon loved seeing all the trains and going fishing and swimming. Noelle's favorite parts were the horseback ride and the Jeep ride because they both took us up high on a bluff where we could overlook the entire valley. Micah most enjoyed walking behind the waterfall at Snake River Falls, the rodeo, and swimming.

Noelle wrote this letter about our trip to her grandparents:

"We had so much fun on our trip there was a desert and we had to walk through it. My face was as red as red. We also went horseback-riding. And a couple days after that we went on a jeep ride. We did lots of things. We had the best time. I missed you while we were gone."
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last updated 28 Jul 2009
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