Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip 2021 | Driving from Halsey to Chadron | Carhenge | Chadron State Park
From Halsey, we continued heading West on NE-2 generally following the Loup River. The roads were empty again this morning, which we hoped was a good sign that we wouldn’t have trouble finding a campsite that night. We enjoyed the views of the rolling Sandhills for miles and miles, as far as we could see. Along the way, we stopped to see the courthouse buildings in Thomas, Hooker, Grant, and Box Butte Counties. We also started working on our Nebraska Passport for the year, checking off stops on our passport app whenever we came near enough.
After seeing the courthouse in Alliance, we drove North on NE-87 to our next attraction of the day: Carhenge! A very realistic to-scale replica of Stonehenge…made of cars. At first we maybe thought of it as a joke, but we actually enjoyed our brief time here. We walked around the cars and other sculptures, found a letterbox, played PokemonGo, and took pictures. When we first came to Omaha, we overheard a conversation in which the speaker described Carhenge as a ‘Spiritual Experience’. We wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but it is a free and unique stop in the heart of Nebraska. This is also where we probably saw the most people on our entire trip, though that isn’t saying much because overall we didn’t see many people.
Next, we made our way over to US-385 and continued driving North. We started to see more hills and ponderosa pines as we drove, making us excited about being able to explore this region. Our first stop though was to secure a campsite. We found a spot at a first come-first served site in Red Cloud campground in Nebraska National Forest south of Chadron and right off US-385. So far, it wasn’t as busy as we expected, and we hoped that it would be a relatively quiet spot over the holiday weekend. (I should note that the reason we were concerned about finding a spot was that we hadn’t made any prior reservations, and last summer one of our first camping experiences in Eastern Nebraska involved searching all over for a site that wasn’t reserved, 2-3 days before leaving for a trip on just a regular weekend. I assumed that such a scenic area would be even more busy on a holiday weekend, but somehow that ended up not to be the case. Guess we’re still figuring this out!)
We got our tent set up, ate some peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, then decided to take it easy for a couple hours and wait for the afternoon sun to go down a bit. Later, we decided we were ready to check out the closest park, so we hopped back in the car and drove down the road a little to Chadron State Park.
Chadron State Park started out the same way most Nebraska state parks do: lots of cars in the initial parking lot, and signs for all sorts of activities such as a pool, golf course, picnic areas, pond, cabins, campsites with hookups — signs for everything except hiking trails, as far as we could see. We could’ve stopped at the visitor’s center to learn more, but were turned off by the amount of people around, and figured that we could find our way.
We drove through the park, heading gradually uphill. We spotted some unmarked trails along the side of the road, but decided to wait until we came across something more established. After one strike out we found the Steamboat Loop Trail (with a little help from the AllTrails app). There wasn’t a sign at the parking area, it just had a short row of spots near a picnic area and outhouse. We got out and began heading counter-clockwise around the loop.
The trail began as a wide, grassy mown path through wildflowers and trees, then began heading steeply uphill. It became very narrow for a brief stretch, and turned into a dirt path. Before long we were on a ridge heading uphill some more, the trail a bit wider, with more exposed views on both sides. Out of the shade from the trees, Charlie stopped whenever we came to a patch of shade cast by the exposed Chadron rock formations, and we happily obliged. Thankfully it was only in the 60s with a pleasant breeze blowing through so it wasn’t too hot for Charlotte. I think she liked to stop to take in the view just as much as she enjoyed the shady spots.
The whole region we were hiking in is called the ‘Pine Ridge’ and extends from Fort Robinson in Nebraska, North westerly to Pine Ridge, SD. Similar to the Badlands of South Dakota, the Pine Ridge is formed from erosion of the surrounding tableland into the White River (which is also the erosive force for the SD Badlands), though because of moisture and elevation, Pine Ridge is able to support a greener ecology. The final result is an escarpment that steeply gives way to the White River Valley below, but with many sheer rock faces and formations created by the varying layers of rock.
The Steamboat Loop Trail was about 1.4 miles long. Curtis kept looking at AllTrails hoping we could add on and make it longer, but I said we should just stick to the loop and keep driving up the park road when we were done. We enjoyed the views of this trail, but we kept looking out at further ridges and wondering how we could hike over there, and see even more. We noticed the park road continued uphill, continuing outside the state park and into the National Forest to a point that was called “Black Hills Overlook.” That seemed promising, so we headed in that direction. As the road left the park, it went over a cattle guard and turned to gravel, but it was still well maintained. We followed it all the way to the end, where we found a small empty lot and trailhead. Since we had done all the elevation climbing by car, we decided to go for a short and easy hike here just to enjoy the views some more.
I remember several years ago when we were road tripping around national parks in Utah, how it seemed like all our favorite trails were just outside of the national or state parks, and that ended up to be the case here as well. There were beautiful views in every direction, and the trail was easy to follow with little elevation change. It was too hazy to make out the Black Hills (if you can actually see them from here, as the name suggests) but we enjoyed seeing more of the Chadron rock formations, scattered ponderosa pines, and rolling hills and buttes as far as the eye could see. It was especially windy up here, but not dangerously so. We walked for about a half mile, until the trail seemed to start going downhill, then returned to our car. If you’re interested, you can see our short AllTrails recording here.
After that, we returned to our campsite for the evening. We made mac & cheese on our soda can stove, played a game and read before settling in for the night. The campground had a few other occupants, but remained quiet — the only noise came from the nearby highway, and the thunderstorm that passed over through the night.