Camping at Niobrara State Park

It’s summertime once again, and that means going camping — an annual tradition for Jenny and our bunch of mutual friends. This year, we decided to go up to Niobrara State Park, which was fortunately still up and running despite the flood happening pretty much all around it. (Two of the three roads into town were closed.)

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Vivian and I decided to take the picturesque Old Lincoln Highway north to get to I-29, avoiding the flooded (and closed) portions of the Interstate. We got to see the swollen Missouri River and some of its subsequent flooding up close and personal, including the small town of Missouri Valley, which is all but preparing for Flood Armageddon with the amount of sandbags they’ve put out protecting their picturesque buildings downtown. Travel was fairly swift north of Missouri Valley, though we got to see some more of the flood up by Sioux City and along the Interstate (some of it dangerously close to the roadside).

The first stop of our camping trip, of course, was to check out the root cause of all this mes — Gavin’s Point Dam. Extra snow and rainwater from Lewis and Clark Lake was being expelled into the river at the rate of a million gallons every few seconds. Eric and Anne joined us along with dozens of people to watch the raging waters and get splashed by random twelve-foot high waves every few seconds. It was a surprisingly festive atmosphere considering the same waters that were soaking us like a wave pool at Oceans of Fun were responsible for destroying countless farms, towns, and homes just downstream.

(We also took a brief trip to Gayville, because I have too much of my seventh-grade humor left not to visit a town called Gayville.)

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Vivian and I stopped for ice cream at the (wonderfully retro) Tastee Treet in Yankton and enjoyed the flora and fauna at a scenic overlook across the river before heading on to our campsite at Niobara State Park. We were the first campers to arrive for the weekend and got to pick a lovely spot right down by the river with both a double-sized pavilion and a bathroom right next door. I drove around the park at least once to soak up the beautiful scenery (and take plenty of pictures). We set up our tents and had some burgers for dinner while the sun went down. Our food was ready just as a passing storm doused our campsite, but it didn’t last long. Before you knew it, the deer were out, and we were roasting marshmallows before bedtime.

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The next day, we all headed to the stables to do a little horseback riding. I’d never been on a horse before, but it was a much tamer experience that I expected. We all had very well-behaved horses, and Eric compared our experience to those automated cars at amusement parks that five year olds can pretend to drive around a race track. My horse, Sox, was pretty much on autopilot the entire time, though I had to pull the reins every now and then to keep him from eating grass and sniffing the butt of the horse in front of me. (I also wound up passing Eric’s horse when he stopped to take a whiz.)

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We did a little exploring afterward, walking up to the Interpretive (dance) Shelter where Lewis and Clark were rumored to have met with the Ponca tribe a couple hundred years ago. We headed down a nature trail to a large, old train bridge by the river that has since been converted into a walking bridge (stubbornly ignoring all the signs that told us both the bridge and the trail were closed due to flooding). We got a beautiful view of the river, the bluffs, and the various bluebirds and redwing blackbirds that called the riverfront home. We even got a glimpse of our own campsite half a mile away. (Jon and Rachel were off visiting their uncle, who happens to be a park ranger, but Vivian left a sign for them to follow.)

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We had a little lunch back at the campsite and then went to the park’s pool for a little swimming. The water was predictably brisk, but I dove right in just to get the initial shock over with. We spent a few hours throwing water balls at each other and taking turns diving off the diving board. I got to experiment with my camera’s underwater capabilities, and we basked in the sun afterward when the mandatory three o’clock pool break came around.

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We spent more time in the afternoon exploring the park, and Vivian and I took a trip down the closed portion of Highway 12 to see what the flooded river looked like. It was quite amazing to see what was once a perfectly dry highway turned into a giant swamp, complete with weeds and reeds growing right on top of the asphalt. (Check out this exact spot on Google Maps for a street view of what the scene above looked like before the flood.)

Vivian and I watched the sun set from the top of the tallest hill in the park before joining the rest of our friends back at the campsite. We roasted some hot dogs for dinner over the open fire and then passed around Vivian’s electronic game of Catchphrase as the rest of the day wound down.

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We wrapped up our camping trip the next day with bagels for breakfast and a big group picture by our campsite before heading home. We did stop by the picturesque down of Verdigre along the way to grab some kolaches from the cute small town bakery they had there. Vivian had somehow never had a kolache before, so I had to get a couple just for us to munch before starting on the long trip home.

It was a fun trip, and it felt great to break away from “big city” and enjoy getting a little closer to nature. Of course, the best part was having the chance to do almost nothing for a couple days, which is always something I should have on my to-do list.


Video from our trip

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