Earlier on this trip:
It was a long day in the Badlands. We woke up early in the morning and, still in dark, headed to observe the sunrise at one of the scenic overlooks. After breakfast, we spent approximately four hours driving through all the overlooks and admiring the amazing diversity and overwhelming magnitude of this impressive place.
We stopped at the Cedar Pass Lodge for an early farewell lunch, we headed to what was planned to be our last stop of the trip – Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area not far from Valentine, NE. My initial plan, as of late January, was to drive to the Niobrara State Park farther east – but the March catastrophic flooding took its toll in that area as well, and the park only offered limited services, with a few roads leading to the park still closed, by the time I made reservations. Thus, the plan was altered, and we decided to make a stop at Merritt Reservoir SRA.
We were not able to take the road through the McKelvie National Forest, as it was still flooded – thus we had to go to Valentine and then head south to the campground. We arrived later than planned – I made a mistake with timing for that day by forgetting to account on the time zone change. This omission added to another caveat: this was the only overnight stop of our trip for which we did not have a reserved campsite. The reason is that apparently the reservation system for Nebraska parks requires two-nights reservation minimum for weekend nights, and we started our drive back home on Friday. We did not need a second night, and calling the park directly did not help either. Thus, we had to rely on our luck.
There are several campgrounds around the reservoir. I mostly heard about this place from my fellow amateur astronomers from OAS – the reservoir’s Snake River Campground is home for the Nebraska Star Party for many years. However, at this time we decided to find a spot at or close to the Cedar Bay Campground that has modern facilities. Unfortunately for us, the campground was full – but we were able to find one vacant site at the nearby Beeds Landing Campground.
Of course, we could continue driving around and look at other campgrounds, but it was already early evening, we were tired, and the storms were looming: one could see lightning every once in a while, and the rumbles of thunder were getting closer. At some point during our camp setup, I was able to take the above picture with my phone – a well-formed cell with the rain shaft on the right, and the rain-free base with possible rotation in the middle of the frame. There was no cell service, so the only resource I had was my amateur radio. I fired up my HT and tuned in to one of the NOAA All Hazards Weather Radio channels. Not surprisingly, they were broadcasting a severe thunderstorm warning including the Merritt Reservoir SRA.
Long story short – it turned out not too bad, and severe weather missed us. However, we did have some decent downpour with a fairly strong thunderstorm. Nevertheless, we were ready: we strengthened the tent by guying it to nearby trees, and got everything that we might need for the night inside the tent ahead of time. We actually ended up cooking our dinner in the tent – thankfully, we had a reserve of dehydrated meals that very well served their purpose!
Next morning was slow and moderately relaxed: we started our last campfire of the trip with the firewood left unused from last night, made some hotdogs, and somewhat dried our gear before packing the camp and hitting the road. We had a 6+ hour-long drive ahead, but the final destination was home – so we weren’t worried at all.
Our last stop of the trip was at Smith Falls State Park. It is located not far from Valentine, along the banks of the Niobrara National Scenic River. At 63 feet, the waterfall that gave name to the park is the highest in Nebraska. Given the specific of our State’s topography, needless to say that we were intrigued to see it.
The park turned out to be quite nice – a relatively small but nice space along the picturesque Niobrara River is available for primitive camping, and currently undergoes some renovation. I may consider spending a few nights here sometime in the future! The lady in the visitor center was nice and friendly, and told us that Nebraska actually has more than 250 waterfalls, most of which are located on the stretch of the Niobrara River not far around the park. Many of those smaller waterfalls are only accessible from water.
The Smith Falls itself is located in the woods across the river. To get there, we had to cross the pedestrian bridge that opens very nice views of the scenic Niobrara. Must be so fun to hop on a raft and float downstream doing some sightseeing!
We could hear the waterfall before we were able to see it from behind the trees. With the wettest 12 months that Nebraska had in the whole history of meteorological observations, the waterfall was impressively full of power, and I have to admit that it exceeded very well my expectations! We spent some time soaking up the pleasantly cool mist coming from the stream, and then headed back to the car to continue the final leg of our 8-day journey.
The rest of our drive was uneventful, and we successfully arrived back to Omaha after 6 PM that day. Conclusion of such an eventful trip is always a bittersweet feeling: the avalanche of impressions from visiting new places wants to be fed with more adventures, but at the same time you are getting saturated and ready to sit back and think through everything that you saw, everything you learned, everything you wandered about. It was a good trip and a great time with friends, and I definitely felt inspired to plan the next adventure sometime in the near future!
Later on this trip: