Our trip to collect the final seven parks in Nebraska’s Great Park Pursuit took us to the panhandle on the three-day odyssey of fun and misadventure. We left midday from Lincoln headed to Kelley Park in McCook.
After a 6-hour drive, we arrived at a pleasant park with some vintage and modern playground equipment that the kids explored after a fast-food dinner. An hour or so later, we were at remote Rock Creek Lake State Recreation Area. We spied more than half a dozen wild turkeys, pheasant and numerous red-tailed hawks on the final stretch through dirt roads in an unincorporated town.
We circled the 50-acre lake to find a pretty campsite nestled in trees near the water and a vault toilet. We set up our new tent and a hammock on sloped terrain full of ants. I walked through the gloaming to water pumps near the entrance and spied a barred owl perched near a private cabin along the road. Luke slept in the tent with Mandy, while Sylvia snuggled in the hammock with me.
The next morning after breakfast, we tried our hands at fishing with no luck before packing up and heading to Oliver Reservoir. Our GPS would not connect and the maps I’d printed had our location wrong, so we took a slight detour into Colorado before arriving at our destination, where we had a picnic lunch here and it was fine, but Mandy didn’t really like it. The GPP kiosk was easy to find and we were on our way to the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area on the Fossil Freeway.
It was brutally hot by the time we arrived. Too hot to leave the dog unattended in the car, even in the shade. He and I explored the surrounding trail, while the kids went inside to look for the 25 million-year-old fossil of a pair of sabertooth cats intertwined in death. Though Mandy asked to see the fossils, there was only a small dig area for kids and they never found the advertised main attraction. The lady at the desk didn’t know what I was talking about when I went in to ask and get water as Mandy loaded up the kid and dogs. Anyway, though Sylvia had fun exploring, there wasn’t much for them to see, so my hike was truncated.
Next up was Bridgeport State Recreation Area. Lots of little lakes with areas for boating, camping, swimming and picnicking. We guessed wrong and ended up driving around quite a bit before finding the kiosk just a few hundred yards from the entrance in the other direction from the way we chose. We stopped only to use the restrooms before heading to the next stop: Chimney Rock.
We didn’t want to pay the fee to visit the nature center (this is a national park, not a state park, so our pass was no good), so we took a slight detour to get a better photo opportunity from the county road, got some ice cream at a nearby shop and headed to Lake Minatare State Recreation Area.
This was by far our favorite park to date: gorgeous lake with plenty of forest and camping spots. We picked on right on the beach near the lighthouse. You can drive right onto the sand. We set up the tent and hammock again after exploring the lighthouse, then grilled hotdogs on our camp stove at a table near the lighthouse overlooking the lake.
The 55-foot lighthouse was built in 1937-39 by the Veterans Conservation Corps out of natural stone as a shelter and observation tower. It offers a good view of the lake. The kids and I took a sunset hike along the beach while Mandy rested before we all snuggled into the tent on the soft sand. Thunderclouds flickered on the horizon and I had neglected to set up the rainfly on the hammock.
After an oatmeal breakfast at the picnic table, we headed to Fort Robinson State Park. Here are quite a few opportunities and Mandy remembered visiting with her grandparents as a child. The kids were most interested in the Trailside Museum — part of the Fossil Freeway — that features a pair of dueling mammoths fossilized with tusks entangled. Mandy’s membership in affiliated Morrill Hall museum gained us free entry. We visited the playground near the place where Crazy Horse was killed and toured some of the outpost recreation buildings before heading to Chadron State Park.
The kids fell asleep and we didn’t stop but to capture the kiosk near the pollinator garden, but did drive along the scenic road winding through the mountain-like and pine clad hills of the park, stopping at a magnificent viewpoint shelter for a picnic lunch. Next was a 3-4 hour drive to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
I took a slight wrong turn and we had to backtrack slightly. The park office was closed when we arrived and the kids were asleep, so we just captured the kiosk and decided to head home. Initially we were going to camp one more night, but threatening storm clouds and Mandy’s migraine made us decide to push onward. We’d arrive home around midnight and could sleep in the next day and relax.
We stopped at Big Alkali Lake State Wildlife Management Area for a picnic dinner. Wind whipped the wide, shallow lake into a frothy gray. Foam gathered in the reeds along shore. It was a surprisingly scenic area. I had no idea at the number of lakes in the Sandhills. This particular lake was further off the highway than we anticipated, but was worth the stop. Other lakes would likely have been equally scenic picnic points closer to the road, but we had no idea they existed at the time.
The return drive was uneventful until around 8 p.m. near Halsey, Nebraska, when the front left tire blew. I pulled into a paved area that extended a short distance beyond the shoulder on the opposite side of the road, unloaded the dog and all the gear in the back of the station wagon and commenced changing the tire. The jack was preposterously small and collapsed as I attempted to put the spare in place, getting pinned beneath the unbolted tire that rested precariously on the wheel hub. We called Volkswagen Roadside Assistance. After about 45 minutes, they told us a tow truck would be there in an hour. The truck never showed. Several farmers stopped to check on us, but the jacks in their jacked up trucks were too large for our small Jetta. Eventually, a different truck was dispatched. More hours after our ordeal began, we were on the road again.
We could have stopped at a hotel in Broken Bow, but were uncertain of the quality and cost and were just about out of money. We had used the last of our funds putting fuel in the car and were just barely likely to make it home on fumes. I decided to push through. We attempted to nap in a parking lot, but 45 minutes of the kids caterwauling as we uncomfortably closed our eyes in the front seats had us back on our way. By the time we reached Grand Island, it was practically morning and my road-bleary hallucinations had stopped. A couple hours down the interstate and we were home with the sunrise.