Getting Outdoors and Away from It AllApr 29, 2021 03:54PM ● By Mike Whye
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Summer in Nebraska beckons everyone to enjoy the outdoors in many ways. Hikers pass through shadowed woods and cross sun-drenched prairies. Bicyclists pedal on more than 500 miles of trails, including one that spans 195 miles of northern Nebraska. Backpackers seek perfect places to set up camp in rugged lands that are nearly a mile high into the sky. Tents open like colorful mushrooms on a campground near one of the country’s best rivers for canoeing, kayaking, and floating in converted livestock cattle tanks. Visitors to the outdoors toast marshmallows over evening fires to create ooey-gooey s’mores with graham crackers and chocolate bars.
Every spring, Jayne and Joe O’Connell of Bellevue prepare to have a summer outdoors with sons Dawson, 12, and Lucas, 10. While their parents pack tents, cooking gear, and food into their RV, the boys pack what they want to take with them into their backpacks. “We started them camping right away,” said Jayne, noting that even though they have an RV, they sometimes sleep in a tent. “Dawson went camping when he was three months old. We have good times, hiking, camping, and anything to do with the outdoors.”
Years ago, Jayne and Joe started a tradition of making the family’s first trip of the summer to Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, about 35 miles south of their home. “The boys love the paddleboats,” Jayne said. She added that the family enjoyed visiting the park in the past during a star party, where amateur and professional astronomers set up their telescopes. “They had these huge telescopes and invited everyone to look through them. It was wonderful,” she said.
Jayne began appreciating the outdoors as she grew up when her father took the family to a cabin on the Missouri River. “It wasn’t much. It had a well and an outhouse, but we spent our summers there fishing and swimming,” she recalled. Her husband also grew up in the outdoors, spending summers boating on the Missouri. Now, when they commence each summer’s trips at Mahoney, they’re usually in the company of friends and their families who park their RVs nearby. The kids explore the park, sneaking up on turtles in paddleboats and climbing the 70-foot-high observation tower that looks over the Platte River Valley.
After kicking off their summers at Mahoney, the O’Connells make seven to eight trips across the state each season. Ponca is their favorite state park because of the swimming and fishing there, and the boys love the water. “I just get lost hiking in those woods,” Jayne said. Next on their lists of favorites is Fort Robinson State Park. “Its history is amazing,” Jayne said. “The boys love the wagon rides.”
At Louisville State Recreation Area, the family rents paddleboards and kayaks on one of the park’s four lakes. They like climbing up, down, and across a water playground of inflatable towers, slides, domes, and rafts.
The O’Connells pitch their tent and park their RV in places other than state parks and recreation areas. When camping near Neligh one time, they rode their bikes into town and later watched a movie at the Starlite Drive-In Theater, a rare find nowadays. “The people there are so friendly,” Jayne said of those she and her family met in town on that trip. “That’s true of anywhere we have gone.”
When COVID-19 arrived in spring 2020, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission closed its lodges, cabins, activity centers, and park events—because people could cluster in those. That’s not what Game and Parks wanted to do since it would be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021, but it had little choice. Still, the commission kept open its eight state parks, nine state historical parks, and 57 state recreation areas—just the thing needed by people wanting to get away from being cooped up. “People were clamoring to get outside. COVID-19 was a silver lining for us,” explained Greg Wagner, public information officer for Game and Parks. “Attendance went up. So did the sales of park permits. People were wanting to hike, picnic, and fish. I’ve never seen so many [people] wanting to buy fish permits in my 42 years with the commission.”
Attendance was also higher at state recreation areas, which are usually smaller than state parks. As reactions to the disease changed, the commission opened some cabins Thursdays through Sundays, enabling staff time to deep-clean those quarters during the week. The commission hopes this summer the cabins will be open seven days a week. However, Wagner said many things are in a holding pattern. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”
Mike Ford, a retiree in Lincoln, is an avid camper who likes to car camp and backpack. Sometimes he’s alone, sometimes his wife, Kathy, is with him and, in the past, their son and two daughters came on campouts. His earliest recollections of camping are of when he was about 9 years old. “I’d go with my parents and my younger brother,” he said. “Dad had the old heavy canvas tent, the type that would leak if you touched a part of it when it was raining.”
Depending if anyone is with him when he camps now, Ford takes a two-person, four-person, or six-person tent. The smallest weighs four pounds, which is easy to carry with one of his two backpacks.
A lot of his early adventures came when he and a friend explored the wooded bluffs close to where the Missouri and Platte rivers meet near Plattsmouth. “That type of terrain is near and dear to my heart,” he said, noting that is why he also likes the rugged area near Gavins Point Dam. Cooking out has come quite a ways from when his father cooked over a camping stove. “Some of my favorite memories are of Mom cooking on a Coleman stove,” said Ford, who has always camped in tents. “There’s just something about bacon, eggs, and potatoes cooked in a skillet. These are good memories.”
Ford uses a two-burner, propane stove when car camping, and he loves using cast-iron skillets.
When alone, he carries a tiny stove. “That’s for when I’m backpacking or kayaking,” he said. “I make cowboy coffee—throw some grounds in water and just boil them up, let them settle. That’s kind of a camping favorite.”
Ford has visited every state park in Nebraska bar one—Chadron, which he hopes to check off this summer. Although he has yet to visit there, he has camped further west, in Fort Robinson State Park and Toadstool Geologic Park, where strange rock formations resemble a moonscape rather than a part of Nebraska.
Despite Ford’s travels across Nebraska, his preferred state park is almost out his back door—Platte River State Park, the first state park he remembers visiting. Other favorites are Indian Cave State Park where he likes to go on his own into its forest to find a good campsite. Fort Robinson State Park is Nebraska’s only other park to offer backpack camping. He also loves to camp at Smith Falls State Park where only tent camping is permitted. A short walk leads across a bridge over the Niobrara River to the state’s highest waterfall, where waters tumble over the edge of a cliff to splash on rocks 70 feet below.
Although Ford doesn’t set out to view wildlife, he sees plenty. While walking through woods at Indian Cave State Park, he and a friend heard a loud rustling in the trees overhead and when they looked up, they realized they had accidentally spooked a pair of bald eagles. “All wildlife is fun to see,” he said, noting that he has seen a fox on every trip, along wth other mammals and numerous birds. One time he watched a large groundhog duck into a hole in the bottom of a big tree and then stuck its head out to watch Ford.
Ford said he has not camped in the winter. About the closest he has come to that was when he camped at Ponca State Park one unseasonably warm mid November day. He went to one of the park’s three campgrounds, which was on a hill overlooking the Missouri, and he had no trouble finding a place to pitch his tent. It was all empty. The same happened when he went to a lower campground the next day. No one was there either. “Wow, I had the whole place to myself,” Ford exclaimed.
Ford has done more than camp his way across Nebraska. Sometimes he carries his bicycle with him and pedals various trails, including the Cowboy Trail. At present, it stretches from Norfolk to Valentine, 175 miles away. When complete, its western terminus will be Chadron, making the crushed limestone-surface trail 321 miles long. Along the way, bicyclists cross 221 bridges, including the 595-foot-long bridge over Long Pine Creek, and the 148-foot-high bridge over the Niobrara River. Also near the trail are private and municipal campgrounds, and Long Pine and Atkinson State recreation areas, that bicyclists use.
Nebraska’s state recreation areas have fewer amenities than those offered at the state parks. “I think of them as gems,” Wagner said. Numbering nearly 60, they range from the very basic, like North Loup SRA—with 13 acres, seven water acres, picnic tables, grills, and a pit toilet, but no pad campsites, water, or river access—to the loaded Branched Oak Lake SRA with 5,595 acres that includes a 1,800-acre lake; 338 pad sites; primitive camping; equestrian camping; modern restrooms and showers; drinking water; dump stations; hiking, biking, and horse trails; boat ramps; fish cleaning stations; a horse corral; rentable pontoons, kayaks, and paddleboats; two swimming beaches; and a private concession and marina.
Omaha filmmaker Michael Hennings is another cyclist who’s been on the Cowboy Trail. “It’s best to use tubeless tires there,” he advised. “Lots of sand burs.” While not an avid camper, he occasionally likes to pedal to a campsite with friends for an overnight stay. “I like Steamboat Trace, which runs from Nebraska City to Indian Cave State Park,” he said. Sometimes he rides his bicycle while people in vehicles carry his gear to his destinations. He also bikes carrying his own gear. “It’s lightweight,” he said. “A tent, sleeping pad, sheet and, if it’s a multi-day trip, a change of clothing. Food, I buy along the way.”
Hennings has visited Toadstool Park, too, and the Nebraska National Forest, Bessey Unit, at Halsey, both operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Located between the Middle Loup and Dismal rivers, the Bessey Unit is unique in that, although it’s in the middle of the Sandhills, it contains the world’s largest hand-planted forest. Consisting mostly of evergreens, it’s an oasis in the middle of the prairie. Its main campsite is at the main entrance, which is about 1 and 1/2 miles west of Halsey on Nebraska Highway 2. Pads for tents and RVs lie among the pines are available, along with picnic tables, drinking water, showers, and flush toilets that are open seasonally. While some visitors snag fish in a small pond stocked with bluegill, catfish, trout, and bass, others wade in the shallow Middle Loup River. They can also hike, bike, or drive to Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska’s only fire tower. The 50-foot-high structure looks across the forest and adjacent parts of the Sandhills. The tower’s interior is no longer in use and can be toured by checking with the main office near the entrance.
Two other campgrounds in the Bessey Unit have fewer amenities, but both have potable water and can be used by equestrians. The Forest Service also hosts what is called dispersed camping, meaning campers can walk, bike, or ride horses into these areas that have no designated campgrounds. People can go camping where they want. These areas have no amenities, and whatever campers carry in, they must carry out. One area is about 30 miles southwest of Valentine. Two more are located near Chadron.
More than 200 camping spots spread across Nebraska cater to the RV crowd. Like the range of amenities at the state recreation areas, these RV parks have a spread of features. North of Henderson at Exit 342 on I-80, Prairie Oasis Campground and Cabins is an RV park with space for 31 RVs and seven tents, and it offers furnished cabins. Its services include electrical hookups and a dump station for the RVs. On the grounds are a laundry room, paddleboat, recreation hall, storm shelter, and outdoor games.
Near Waco, about 45 miles west of Lincoln, Double Nickel Campground and Resort offers full hookup sites with water, sewer, and electricity. The 47 pull-through sites accommodate rigs up to 120 feet long. Each space includes a porch swing, fire ring, and picnic table, and the whole resort has something that virtually everyone wants—Wi-Fi. Double Nickel has modern restrooms, a sandlot playground, recreation room, storm shelter, offers movies on Saturday nights, and sells ice and firewood. If its miniature golf course isn’t challenging enough, the nine-hole par-36 Sandy Meadows Golf Course is across the property line.
Adriane and Stephen Matthews of Bennington are among those who camp in RVs. They started their camping experiences when they received a tent as a wedding gift. Then, they acquired a pop-up camper. Now, they ride in a 32-foot-long RV when they head out to camp somewhere. “We have camped in Louisville, Platte River, and Mahoney,” Adriane said. They and daughters Ericka, 13, and Clara, 7, have enjoyed going on hikes and walks at Mahoney and taking in one of its major attractions for them, its water park. The park has offered summer melodramas in its park theater for years and it may again, depending on COVID-19.
The Matthews family also favors camping in Indian Cave State Park in October when the various trees decorate the park with their fall colors. “We love cooking hot dogs over a fire,” said Adriane. “And s’mores.”
This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.