Montana Trip 2021 | Hiking in Strawberry Hill Recreation Area | Driving through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska | October 2021
We started off this morning with a 3 mile loop hike around Strawberry Hill Recreation Area, where we had camped the night before. The air was brisk, but we warmed up quickly thanks to the fast pace Charlotte set for us. We went about the loop counter-clockwise, which made for a gradual climb up and a steeper descent — which wasn’t exactly the easiest with the loose rocks and dirt. It would have been fine had I not been holding Charlotte’s leash when she decided to start running…I might have ended up falling, but hey, at least I didn’t end up with a scar on my face like the last time I fell while hiking the Centennial Trail. Besides that, this hike had some lovely views and was a great way to get some exercise before our long drive.
Today’s drive started with filling in a hole in our county map (O’Fallon County) that was between two other routes that we’ve driven (I-94 in 2017 and US-212 last July). After seeing the county courthouse in Baker, we said goodbye to Montana and entered North Dakota. Some of this route was crossing our drive in 2017, and we looked across the horizon hoping to see White Butte (the state high point) but I don’t think we were close enough. After another courthouse stop, we entered South Dakota and took SD-73 South.
While we were excited to claim a few new counties in Northwestern South Dakota, we knew this drive was going to be long and uneventful. We did manage to find one stop along the way to make it interesting: the Hugh Glass Memorial along the Grand River and Shadehill Reservoir. More widely known because of the marginally fictionalized book and Oscar winning film adaption ‘The Revenant’, the monument marks the location where Mountain Man/Fur Trapper Hugh Glass was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his fellow trappers only to arrive six weeks later and over 200 miles down the Missouri at Fort Kiowa. He then continued back up the Missouri to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in pursuit of his would be betrayers.
Back on the road, we ran into some road construction that slowed us down — we think the crew was coming back from lunch which made the whole situation even slower and more confusing. We took SD-73 all the way to US-18 where we were able to claim a few counties South of I-90 that we had attempted unsuccessfully earlier this year. It was after 5 PM at this point though, and we were starting to feel hungry and anxious about finding a campsite. We were hoping to camp at Smith Falls State Park in Nebraska, which we didn’t expect to be too busy as it’s a 6 hour drive from Omaha, but were still anxious as we didn’t really have a back-up plan.
We entered Nebraska and got a picture of the Cherry county courthouse on our way through Valentine, then started heading East on NE-12 towards Smith Falls State Park. It was about a 20 minute drive past Valentine, then a ways off the highway on a dirt road that was well saturated and a little slick from a recent rain. We finally arrived at the park, which was closed after 5 aside from campers. We held our breaths as we entered the campsite…and found it completely empty. For a second we were shocked and excited, until we saw the sign: “Closed for the season: October 1” — which was today. We were so disappointed, and a little confused why they’d close so early — the weather was still gorgeous, the leaves had barely even begun to change here, and the following weekend would be a holiday weekend. I guess that’s the price we pay for traveling and attempting to camp in the shoulder season though.
We wondered for a minute if we could get away with camping here anyway, but decided against it. There was a piece of land nearby that appeared to be for camping, and had a few RVs scattered around, but we had no way of figuring out who the owner was or how to get permission to camp here. It was right on the bank of the Niobrara River, which is a national scenic river, but as the saying here goes, “public river, private land.”
Neither of us had cell service around this area, so we drove back towards the highway until we found signal. Curtis tried calling a number for the possible campground next to the Niobrara while I checked online for other campsites nearby. Curtis was unsuccessful at getting ahold of anyone, but I found a state recreation area 20 minutes away that was supposedly free. The sun was setting and it was growing dark, so we just decided to go with my option and continued driving East. We were super disappointed to be so close to Smith Falls and the Niobrara but not be able to see or experience either — guess we’ll have to come back next year. We’ve been wanting to do a multi-day kayaking trip on the river anyway.
We arrived at Cub Creek State Recreation Area and set up our tent in the dark. Across the lake we could see lights from a fisherman, but he left soon after and we were all alone here. It wasn’t where we wanted to end up, but we were thankful to just have a quiet and free spot.
The next morning was overcast and chilly, so we opted to not kayak and got back on the road. Our goal for today was simply to enter Boone county for the first time, and see the courthouses in Keya Paha, Antelope, Boone, and Merrick counties. We drove NE-12 to Springville for the Keya Paha courthouse, then took US-183 South to US-20. We stopped in Bassett to take a picture with Charlotte in front of the “Welcome to Bassett” sign — we were disappointed that the town and local businesses don’t use any basset hound images or anything, and that the high school mascot wasn’t even a basset hound. Lots of missed opportunities here. We took US-20 East to US-275, then went South on NE-14 and finally East on NE-92 to Omaha. It rained off and on throughout our drive, usually at inopportune times like when we arrived at courthouses or the one historic site along our drive, Neligh Mill State Historic Site. It turned out to be a long and uneventful 6 hour drive, but we were successful at our goals and are now only missing counties in Southwest Nebraska, and have 3 courthouses left between US-30 and NE-92 that we plan to knock out on some weekend this winter. We made it home in the early afternoon and were thankful for yet another safe return from a fun road trip!