I spent the better part of my weekend romping around National Forest land, but this time I headed up to Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, which lies north and west of the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey. McKelvie NF is situated between the Niobrara and Snake rivers, just before their confluence. More sparsely forested than its southern counterpart, McKelvie has 116,000 acres of rolling sandhills, only 2,300 of which are forested. Just like Halsey, there are windmills pumping water all over the forest, so water availability isn’t an issue, and the windmills also provide necessary landmarks when trying to navigate the area. I definitely relied heavily on the windmills and my forest service map to help me navigate, it’s really easy to get turned around and confused when your surroundings all look the same.
Instead of doing an overnight trip like I usually do in places like this, I opted for setting up a base camp at the Steer Creek campground in the southwest corner of the forest, and doing a long day ride from there. Steer Creek is an awesome campground, nice pine forest, tons of firewood, and beautiful views of the surrounding hills. Saturday night I was the only camper, and there was a motorcycle tourist there on Sunday night. Kind of unbelievable for such a rad spot!
I had a really positive experience, despite spending a really long day in the saddle, and doing a bit of hike-a-bike and backtracking. The Steer Creek valley towards the eastern edge of the forest was really beautiful, and took me by surprise when I stumbled into it. I came across what I can only assume is labelled as “Arnold Camp” in my Gazetteer, a group of abandoned buildings and a trailer down at the intersection of a few 4wd trails. Miles in on sand roads! Some google searching turned up another traveller’s similar discovery here. I wonder how long it’s been abandoned…
After a day exploring the forest in a big clockwise loop, I rolled back into the Steer Creek campground at sunset. Twelve hours in the saddle had me beat down, and I barely finished my dinner before passing out next to the fire. Terrific weather over the weekend for sleeping under the stars!
I got rolling early on Monday morning, made a stop to check out a couple bridges by Valentine, as well as a couple of spots in the Valentine National Wildlife Reserve. I also got a chance to stop at the Bessey Ranger Station and chat with a few of the forest rangers. Stoked to have so many rad people working for the Forest Service! They are an invaluable resource, and have all sorts of knowledge that I sure appreciate them sharing with me.
Early morning light on the valley from Steer Creek Campground
Finally, for anyone who is interested:
We (all three of us monkeys here at the shop) will be heading back out to the McKelvie National Forest for Labor Day weekend (9/5-9/7). We’ll be staying at the Steer Creek campground, and you are welcome to show up! This isn’t really an event, it is NOT supported, and a lot of us will probably end up doing different things and rides, just think of it as an open-ended invite to go hang out with some like minded bicycle folks in the Sandhills for a couple days. Basically if this type of tomfoolery seems like the type of tomfoolery that is up your particular alley, we’re going to be out there doing it, and you might as well be too! Some of us will be there the entire weekend, and folks will probably be doing day rides, overnights, swimming down at the Merritt Reservoir. If you’re curious about bike/gear setup, or what all this weekend might entail, feel free to ask for me at the shop or shoot me an email at email@example.com!
Every time I leave the Sandhills region, I’m confounded about how I got lucky enough to have experienced such a wonderful wild open place. It’s a stranger, more fascinated feellng than I have really felt in any other space. It makes me proud to live in Nebraska, and lucky to boot. Being from the pervasively agricultural eastern part of the state, we don’t often get to experience the wildness and openness that is central and western Nebraska. Of course, the Sandhills region has changed over time and looks different now than it did a hundred fifty years ago before white folks started ranching it. But still it offers a truly rare glimpse into the feeling of existence on the grasslands of the Great Plains. Its a pretty rad feeling to be alone in the openness of the plains. It makes you feel small.
Plans fell through with a couple people, so I ended up riding out at the Nebraska National Forest by my lonesome this past weekend. As much fun as camping with a group can be, I certainly welcome the solo time when it happens, especially in more remote places. I got a bunch of exploring done, and look forward to many more trips back for further investigation. Next time I’ll give a bit more advanced notice so that folks can fit it into their schedule if they want to come!
My pugsley doesn’t have a generator, and I didn’t have enough battery to record my route, so I tried tracing my route on transparency film. The brown ink covers my ride on Sunday, and the black ink on Monday.
I left the directly from the shop after we closed on Saturday to make it in late to camp, but be fresh early on Sunday morning. The drive took just under 4 hours, and that was with a gas stop. I headed straight for site 38, where Vince and I have stayed before, and lucky for me no one was there! I was in bed by 11, and ready to go the next morning at 630. Daylight made me realize that the whole Bessey campground was full of OHV users, and I hoped that there wouldnt be too much traffic on the trails. I had planned on parking at the Dismal Trailhead and leaving my car there till the following day. The trailhead was empty and I was on the bike by 8 am.
The Dismal Trail is a developed OHV trail that runs from the trailhead, just a few miles from the Bessey Campground on the north side of the forest all the way down to Whitetail Campground on the southern border along the DIsmal River. It was a blast! While there is a lot of climbing you lose quite a bit of net elevation over the course of 12 miles. There were definitely some steep pitches, and there was actually some plastic netting staked into some of the steeper grades, which made for great traction climbing. I didn’t encounter these nets anywhere else in the forest, but this was also the most cross-cut trail with the steepest grades. Lots of really fun, steep, bermy descents- I don’t think I have ever hit some of the speeds that I did on my pugsley before! I definitely had to get off the bike a couple times and finish a few climbs, but I’m pretty sure tha with either a) a lower gearing than my 1×9 drivetrain provides b) a more aggressive tire like the Surly Nate or c) any 4.8-5″ tire things would have been a little different. That being said, the 3.8″ Surly Knards worked great, and if you aren’t hiking at least a little bit, you’re probably missing out on some of the experience anyway…
A guy and his son passed me on four wheelers just past this turn, and said something about me having made it pretty far. I told him I hoped to get a lot further! I was having a blast bombing down some of these descents. It’s for sure a unique kind of riding, and can be as fast or as slow as you want, but everything feels kind of flowy in a soft, drifty sort of way. The Dismal Trail is definitely an ATV trail- a lot of the other stuff that I rode was more along the lines of a sand road or doubletrack, but this one was definitely designed with speed and fun in mind. If you make it out with a fatbike I hightly recommend it!
I had initally been thinking about staying at the Whitetail campground, but when I made it there by 11 in the morning, I certainly thought that making it to the Natick camp on the western side would be feasible, but I stopped to take a break anyway. I explored a bit around the campground and filtered some water for myself out of the camp pump, and parked it in the little OHV area along the river. This little designated several acres is full blown out sand- no grass whatsoever. It’s fun, but a lot of work in dry, blown sand! I sat and had a sandwhich and took a swim in the Dismal before heading out again.
Everything I had ridden so far was forested, but as I made my way west along 203 Road, it was fairly flat and out in the open. 203 follows the river valley for a bit before it starts jogging more north and into the hills. A lot of slow climbing eventually got me into the western part of the forest that is completely open and extremely sparingly forested. I was wanting to check out “Signal Hill” which is marked as a point of interest on the map, but I must have missed the turnoff for it. Next time! Regardless, with just a little elevation and no trees, you can see for miles and miles and miles and miles. Green sandhills as far as the eye can see.
I followed 203 Road as it wound its way north and turned back east towards 212 Road and Natick campground. What a wonderful winding ribbon of sand! While 203 is labelled as “maintained gravel road”, the sand content is still extremely high. It also seemed to me to have been really recently graded, on account of the gravel being real soft and having a lot of green plant bits mixed in, and it seems I was actually just trailing the grader for most of the day, as I passed him just a few miles from the end!
Just as I was pulling into Natick it started to sprinkle, so I set my tarp up in some haste and prepared to hunker down. After a cup of coffee and a second late afternoon lunch, the rain let up and I went out for a couple hour hike. Natick is situated on the westernmost stand of trees, and also has quite a bit of elevation, so if you venture out just a little bit west you are rewarded by some pretty incredible vistas.
Back in camp I was already starving again, so I made some tuna and couscous, had another cup of coffee and fifteen other things, and called it a night. It had started drizzling again, but the rain never really took off in earnest, and I was cozy under my giant tarp in either case. It definitely felt weird to be sleeping outside in 60 degrees after sweating it out in the 80’s recently!
Natick may be my favorite of the campgrounds at Halsey. While it doesn’t have the proximity to water that Whitetail does, it’s a bit more remote, has little attraction to OHV users, and has some really wonderful hiking around it. All of the campgrounds have extremely well maintained vault toilets, and water pumps. I wasn’t sure if the water was potable or not, so I filtered just in case, but it sure tasted great!
I woke to a misting rain the next morning and packed everything up pretty quickly after some breakfast and a double helping of coffee. I had scoped out a route that would hopefully take me on some more minor 4wd trails back to Scott lookout tower, and to the Dismal Trailhead from there. The trail I was really counting on was 201, which picks up acoss 212 from Natick next to the windmill. Windmills are really the best way for locating yourself- they are all numbered, are everywhere, and you can pretty easily find which one you are at by looking at the windmill numbers on the map. Pretty convenient when you are disoriented in the middle of miles of dunes in every direction. Anyways, 201 looked like it cut across to the eastern part ot the 203 loop which would connect me back to the north part of the forest.
At the start 201 was at best a doubletrack, and pretty soon became barely legible. If I hadn’t already been on it, I think I would have been hard pressed to point to where the trail was! The grass was mostly above waist high, and was covered with water, so naturally I was pretty soaked and picking up tons of sand. Fortunately my drivetrain hummed right along, and other than stopping occasioinally to pick some grass stalks out of my cassette I had zero mechanical issues! After miles of grasslands, I began weaving in and out of stands of Ponderosa pines, and eventually back on to 203.
I would like to go back and ride more of the 4wd tracks like 201 on a drier day. The water definitely slowed me down, and because I was so wet and sandy I was afraid to take the camera out and only got a few pictures, but it was really incredible just riding along on barely-a-trail in the middle of nowhere. I’m pretty sure that these tracks would be great without the wet grass, they’re well tamped down due to lack of OHV use and you can really cook on them! I should also mention that none of this would be possible without tubeless. The goatheads are incredibly thick out there, and I was riding over whole bushes of them the entire time. Not a single flat, and I never even had to add any air.
Once I was back on the main drag (203) heading north, it was pretty easy, dry going. I wound my way up to Scott Fire Tower and had some lunch there. The view from the top of the fire tower isn’t to be missed! Hands down my favorite in Nebraska. There is a National Recreation trail from the firetower three miles back to Bessey campground that I wanted to check out, and it actually was the only time I rode a trail that wasn’t a double track. It was fun, but for sure designed with hikers in mind, and didn’t flow quite as well as the OHV trails in the same area.
It was a pretty short trip all things considered, but I feel like I got to explore some new areas, and learn a bit more about my gear, riding conditions, and planning some future routes. I can’t wait to get back out here, the place is truly a gem, and I’m pretty convinced that a fatbike is the best way to see it. Hopefully we’ll be planning some sort of similar venture out to to the Samuel McKelvie National Forest which is just north of Halsey near Valentine, Nebraska over Labor Day weekend. The riding should be similar, though we may base camp in one spot and just do some day rides from there instead of overnighting it. If you’re interested… let us know!
I’m going to be heading out to the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey this weekend for some fat bike camping fun. I will be driving out and camping in the Bessey Campground on the north side of the Forest just off of Highway 2 on Saturday night. Sunday morning I’ll head out for an overnighter in the forest on my fatbike. I’ll be getting back to the car by late afternoon in order to make it back to Lincoln on Monday night. I’d love to open up an invitation for anyone to come along if they’d like! Here’s the deal:
This is not a supported trip IN ANY WAY. I’m happy to answer any questions and offer any advice about gear leading up to and during the trip, but ultimately YOU WILL BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOURSELF. Here are some things that you will absolutely want to have:
1) A fatbike with at least 4″ tires, set up tubeless. Tubeless is necessary, as the thorns in the sandhills are not a joke. A narrower tire than 4″ will sink through the sand, you will need a tire to float on top of the sand roads that we will ride.
2) Your own shelter, gear, and food. I called the forest service and some of the windmills around the forest are pumping, but only a few. Bring a lot of water capacity, and a water filter. I will have my water filter, but it’s best to be prepared for the worst. Usually I bring an extra water bladder to fill up if I have the opportunity.
Beyond that, it should be an awesome time! Looks like there are cooler temps and some rain forecasted. The moisture will actually make the sand easier to float on top of. If you are interested in coming along, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, call the shop, or just stop by! I’d be happy to answer any questions or set you up with any gear you need. Hope to hear from some of you!
Perhaps against my best judgment I made a last minute decision to do an overnighter this past Sunday and Monday. I have wanted to head north to check out some camping on the Platte for a while, and other than the heat things looked pretty good for that weekend. The winds looked favorable to head northwest towards Schuyler, Nebraska- I knew that Monday had a WNW in the forecast, so I would get a little help coming back. I had my eye on the Whitetail WMA just south of town along the Platte River, and everything lined up to take the Oak Creek bike trail for part of the way, so I went for it. All of this despite knowing that I was getting a late start and that the high temp for both days was 99 degrees Fahrenheit.
New panniers from Porcelain Rocket are awesome! While we don’t have any in stock at the store, we are happy to order them for you.
I left the shop at 1 pm, my first mistake, temps in the upper nineties, and headed out through the highlands past Kawasaki and north on NW 27th Street towards Raymond. From there I zig-zagged over Highway 79 up to Valparaiso where I ate some food and had a nice soft serve ice cream cone. I’ve never ridden the Oak Creek Trail in its completion between Valparaiso and Brainard, and was looking forward some flat, shaded riding as the temperature was sitting at 100 at that point. The trail is really great- gentle grade, but not totally flat, and a bit more turns and scenic views than we get on the Jamaica North or the MoPac trails. I would say that it’s my favorite out of all the rail-to-trails that we have in the area.
I stopped in Loma, about halfway to Brainard, as I was running low on water and thought I would try the bar there to see if I could fill up. I was a little apprehensive, as the bar owner has a reputation for being rude to cyclists, but I poked my head in anyway. I was pleasantly surprised by an older couple and several young folks in the bar. Apparently the bar has changed hands, and this couple is reopening it. They said that they are just waiting on a fire marshall’s inspection to open up next month. They were super nice, gave me some cold bottled water, and insisted that I sign the guest book. So, for all you boozers out there, the Loma bar along the Oak Creek trail might be a good summer beer drinking expedition. Loma is barely a town, but has a weathered looking main street, and I always like passing through. Good to have some really welcoming folks operating the bar!
I had recalled Craig Schmidt talking about the Brainard Auto Show that previous week, but for some reason I had it in my head that it had taken place on Saturday, so I was pleasantly surprised when I rolled into town and it was buzzing with vintage cars and trucks. I headed straight to Raskey Motor to look for Don Raskey, a longtime customer of the shop. The Raskeys owned and operated their shop in Brainard up until 1992 when they sold the remainder of their current inventory back to Honda, and sealed the place up with all of the old Honda stock and Studebaker autos. Ever since then they open the doors and roll everything out once a year for the auto show. The place is really amazing, a true time capsule. I’ve wanted to stop by for years and never have had the chance, so I was stoked for Don to show me around and let me snap some photos. Definitely a major highlight of the weekend.
This sweet 1966 Econoline van was the team vehicle that they took to motocross events. It’s no secret that the Monkey Wrench has a thing for old American vans. So rad!
The last twenty miles from Brainard to Schuyler were really, really hard. I was starting to really suffer from the heat, and there was not a bit of shade to ride through. It seemed like every tree was on the east side of the road. I stopped frequently to stand behind a barn or shrub, but the sun was just brutal on the road. It took me a few minutes at the gas station in Schuyler to regain my composure, but once I did I stopped at Tortilleria Y Taqueria Bianca downtown and had the most amazing papusas and yuca fritas.
I headed down to the Whitetail WMA and was feeling pretty good. There’s a doubletrack that runs from the parking lot out to the Platte River that I mostly rode, though there were some pretty big mud holes that I had to maneuver around. I got out to the banks of the river and realized that the really devastating mistake that I had made was just packing an ENO hammock instead of my tent. The mosquitos were thick and vicious, and bug spray did seemingly little to discourage them. I had probably one of the worst night of sleep outside that I’ve ever had, and woke abruptly at 5:45 AM to raindrops. I was pretty much over it at that point and quickly repacked my bike whilst swatting frantically at my little biting friends. Once I made it out of the WMA I realized that I was just in front of a crazy looking, fast moving thunderhead, but I stopped to snap a photo before I beelined it to a picnic shelter in Schuyler to make coffee, eat some breakfast, and wait out the showers. My outlook was a bit sunnier with some food and coffee in my belly, and I was feeling good from some mosquito-free rest.
Leaving Schuyler at around 7 AM, I knew that if I kept a good pace I’d be back in Lincoln before the really nasty heat started. I took a little bit of a different route on the way back to Brainard, paralleling the previous day’s route a little further west, as I wanted to pass through the tiny town of Octavia. Once I made it to Brainard I mainly retraced my tracks from Sunday.
All in all, I really liked the route, and I will most likely do it again, but I will most definitely do it on a cooler day, and take some more mosquito protection. Those two things made a really awesome ride a bit hard at times. The rad thing is that the Oak Creek Trail is awesome, and there are some truly stunning roads up near the Platte River Valley. Definitely excited to go back and explore some more in that area.
If anyone is interested, I signed up for Strava so that I could record the route and share it. You can link to it here. I’ve hesitated to try and record routes via GPS in the past because it drains my phone battery, but I was able to keep everything charged with my dynamo hub powered USB charger. More on those later…
David Wilcox of the Rapha Mobile Cycle Club stopped through last Wednesday for the evening to hang out, make some coffee, and check out some of the riding that Lincoln has to offer. David set up shop in the parking lot and was pouring espressos for folks while we finished closing up for the day. It was a good time to catch up with a lot of old and new faces, some of which we hadn’t seen in a while. Weather was absolutely perfect, and totally uncharacteristic for Lincoln, so we took full advantage.
After heading out the Jamaica North for a bit we headed west on Bennet and then Wittstruck roads, a couple of our favorite dirt MMRs. Eventually we made it out to Kildeer WMA, a favorite winter camp spot that is currently overrun by mosquitos. Beverages were had while everyone hopped around and swatted at themselves, and we turned north and headed back to Lincoln.
Big thank you to everyone that came out, we truly had a blast, and hope you did too! We don’t often have too much time leftover from our long hours at the shop to head up group rides like this, but whenever we get around to it, it’s always a surprise and a pleasure to see how much fun it is!
A couple of us also met up for an impromptu coffee the next morning, bushwhacking down the Rock Island Cutoff bridge for a lovely cup above Salt Creek.
Hey folks! David Wilcox will be stopping through this coming Wednesday with the Rapha Cycle Club. He’ll be showing up a bit before we close so that he can make some espressos and chat for a bit. We close at 6, and will roll out promptly at 6:30. Plan on a couple hours on gravel and dirt roads. Ride what you are comfortable with, cross bikes or road bikes with fat tires should be fine, or what ever you are comfortable with riding on gravel roads. Route is to be determined, but will most likely be an out and back to some sort of lake or other. Hope to see you then!