We wake up at a Conoco parking lot for truckers in Valentine, Nebraska, to the sound of one rig idling. Last night, the lot was partially filled with about a dozen semi-trailers. Shouts of Cornhusker football fans on game night rang from a bar next door. We’re here for a second time to enjoy the Niobrara, a National Scenic River. In 2013, Judy, Nate and I rented a Roadtrek for the first time. I was skeptical about living full-time in a 21-foot vehicle and wanted a trial run. Our float down the lazy river on a hot July afternoon near Smith Falls State Park was one of the highlights of our 10-day vacation. After that, I began to serious consider the possibilities of wandering full time. Our plan today is to hike on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, which stretches 189 miles from Valentine to Norfolk along an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line. Our segment begins several miles east of Valentine at a signed turnout on U.S. 20. We double back toward Valentine, enjoying a view of the Niobrara from a trestle 150 feet above. The river, originating in Wyoming and fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, drains a region where the Rocky Mountain forest we’ve traveled for weeks gives way to box elder and bur oak, and where western short grass, the mixed-grass prairie of the Sandhills and eastern tall grass intersect. We travel in afternoon sun in northern Nebraska, crossing the 100th meridian and moving into greener ranch country above the river. An hour of solitude on the plains on Nebraska 12, at last interrupted by a passing vehicle.
Leaving Ponca State Park in Nebraska, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, we pass a flooded riverfront campground and boat launch. Late-summer runoff, unusually heavy, is pouring in this unchannelized stretch of the Missouri River. As we enter Iowa at Sioux City, hay fields are out and corn and soybeans are in. I follow the lead of William Least Heat Moon. Our “blue highway” through western Iowa is Iowa 3, a more intimate alternative to four lanes on U.S. 20. I stop at a roadside stand near Cherokee to buy sweet corn and tomatoes, summer staples of my boyhood in central Illinois. I ask the seller about yellowing leaves in soybean fields. Was it because of heavy spring rains? No, the bean fields always turn yellow at the end of growing season. I was red with embarrassment. I left soybean country for Arizona 40 years ago, returned to Illinois many times, but never in September. I’d lost touch with the harvest cycle.
Sadly, there’s no time for rail trails in Iowa. We blow past the Hawkeye state. Judy and I gather groceries in Dubuque for a family reunion dinner in Freeport, Illinois. The Epic Van stammers a bit going up a hill in Dubuque on the way to the Mississippi River bridge. East of Galena, birthplace of Ulysses Grant, a bit of stammering turns into a whole lot of bucking and wheezing as we travel through steeper and steeper hills along U.S. 20, a route used by truckers. Near the top of hills, I edge onto the road shoulder as we slow under 30 mph with the pedal to the metal. Something’s not right, either with the transmission, or fuel system. (We filled up on biofuel about 50 miles ago.) We’re only 40 miles from Freeport. Surely we can limp in. Twenty-three miles from town, defeated, we turn off on a gravel road across from a herd of cattle and dial for a tow truck. It’s 3 p.m. Just before sundown at 7 p.m., the flatbed hauling vehicle we requested arrives. My cousin Jeanne and her husband, Dick, come from Freeport to rescue us. We load clothes and perishable food into their vehicle, and head back to pared-down dinner and lots of catching up on family comings and goings.
Hard rain and winds whip The Epic Van at Walmart in Spearfish, South Dakota, and the forecast calls for no letup all day. We’re reduced to our least favorite option for getting in 10,000 steps a day, the Walmart walk. Raincoats will be cumbersome indoors, so we dash to the entrance. Under fluorescent sky, we begin our walk through blue and yellow signage with constant reminders of Everyday Low Price! (The tariff war with China must be making a lot of this stuff more expensive.) We’ve tried spicing up the walking routine, which we’ve done several dozen times over the years, by going Pac-Man, gobbling every aisle in a store. It’s dizzying. Gets old fast. The Spearfish store has an unobstructed perimeter walk around the box, old-school Walmart design. Updated stores are partitioned to funnel shoppers into the maw. We take a drive in the rain, scouting a section of the Michelson rail trail near Lead, South Dakota, and seek wi-fi at a Pilot truck stop in Rapid City to watch the Democratic presidential debate and camp.
As we cruise toward a rail trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sun shines brightly for the first time since Idaho, eight days ago. Judy and I are doing our first shuttle hike, on the Mickelson Trail, a 108-mile biking and hiking route between Edgemont and Deadwood. If you are looking for ease of travel through steep terrain, nothing beats the gradual up-and-down gradient of a rail line. (This rail trail features smooth, fine gravel, though not all do.)
I start at Dumont trailhead at 9:30 a.m. and head north toward Lead, South Dakota, while Judy parks at the Sugarloaf Trailhead and hikes south toward Englewood to meet me. I stroll in a sweatshirt at 5,000 feet, climbing gently through Ponderosa pine, aspen and birch, dotted with slopes of knee-high emerald grass. I pass through open valley at Englewood, a railroad ghost town once named Ten Mile. In 1890, the town was a bustling junction for three lines: the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, Black Hills & Ft. Pierre Railroad, and the Spearfish line, popular with tourists.
I meet Judy on mile seven, just before noon as temperatures warm up in the valley. In a half-mile or so we’re back under cover of the Black Hills forest for our return to The Epic Van. Our half-day shuttle hike worked perfectly. We’ll do it again.
We begin our morning in Wall, South Dakota, parked on motel row on Main Street. Our plan was to camp last night in Badlands National Park at Sage Campground, but it was full. At least we drove out of the park under the glow of the harvest moon. After laundering and shopping (fixings for buffalo stew), we roll back to Badlands park. On the way, we stop at Prairie Homestead, one of the best-preserved sod houses in the United States. You can walk inside to examine earthen walls, cottonwood beams and a precious few milled planks used to build it in 1909. This was one of the last stretches of the Great Plains opened to the plow. Homesteaders, relying on about 13 inches of rain a year, said: “The government bet you 160 acres of land against $18.00 that you will starve to death before you live on the land five years.” The signs for hundreds of miles along South Dakota highways should lead to Prairie Homestead, instead of the drug store back in Wall. Later, we take a short, steep hike up to Saddle Pass, on the Badlands Wall, a 50-mile barrier that separates upper mixed-grass prairie from lower prairie to the southwest. I looked toward the White River bluffs in the distance, thinking about how grasshoppers, prairie fire, hail, sub-zero temperatures, blizzards and social isolation crushed homesteaders, forcing 80 to 90 percent of them to abandon their dreams in the Badlands.
We peek at steam rising from Kirkham Hot Springs before leaving for Stanley, Idaho, a likely spot for an RV dump and groceries. At noon, we rush to fill our water tanks at Redfish Lake under a sprinkle and depart as thunderstorm clouds bulge. Pounding rain and hail strike as we travel north on Idaho 75. Wind gusts of 40-50 mph tug at the Epic Van as two Lodgepole pines, about 30 feet tall, snap and fall in front of our vehicle. We skirt them and decide to wait out the storm in Stanley. There’s a flash flood warning and red flag (high-wind warning) until 6 p.m. on the road to Salmon, according to Judy’s weather app. We decide to stay at the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness tonight. We tour the visitor center at Redfish Lake, site of the world’s longest, 900 miles, and highest, 7,200 feet, spawning route to the Pacific for Chinook salmon. Less than 100 natural Chinook, and a few hundred hatchery Chinook, made it back to Redfish Lake last month. Once, thousands of spawning Chinook gave the lake its name. On an interpretive nature walk, we walk along a terminal moraine, an indicator of glaciers that formed the lake. A boardwalk leads over marshy terrain, flush with willows and beaver dams. In the distance, 57 peaks in the Sawtooth Mountains rise over 10,000 feet. We end our afternoon with a short hike along Fishhook Creek trail, amid Rocky Mountain fir, lodgepole pine and sagebrush. A couple from Idaho Falls leads us to a pocket of calm water on roaring Fishhook Creek, pointing to native fish idling. At 6 p.m., we find a spot at nearby Sunny Gulch Campground. Overnight low is forecast at 37. The furnace is set for the first time this summer, 55 degrees, our sleep comfort number.
Today we’ll be tracing the first 100 miles or so of the Chinook migration route north to Salmon, Idaho, on pavement. At 8 a.m., Judy and I begin a gentle descent in morning fog along the Salmon River. Judy reads the first chapter of The Enchanted Hour, the Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. We see a man with coffee mug lounging in a hot spring. We agree that this stretch of Idaho 75 is among the most scenic we’ve wandered in five years. We stop at Sunbeam Dam, the only one ever built on the Salmon. It was partially demolished in the 1930s to reopen salmon travel. We leave conifers, dipping under the cloud layer to a soft brown contours and green fields, then stop at a buffalo jump, a ledge used by Shoshone hunters. (Bighorn sheep also live here on rocky cliffs.) There’s a sign for a farmers’ market in Challis. We grab squash, green beans and fresh eggs. We leave Idaho 75 in Salmon for the road through the Bitterroot Mountains and Lost Pass. At 4 p.m., we arrive at Indian Trees campground, near Sula, Mont., for chair time. On a tall, tilted Ponderosa pine at site 10, there’s evidence of Bitterroot Salish. In spring, as pine sap flows, they stripped away portions of bark, using the tree’s cambium layer for food. Many wide Ponderosa pines in the campground were peeled from 1835 to 1890.
We depart camp near U.S. 93 on the sanitized thoroughfare to Lost Pass, but seek hiking and history on the ancestral route of Nez Perce. I rely on Forest Service ranger stations for local maps, but none were available. We look for road signs on U.S. 93 for the Nez Perce or Lewis and Clark hiking trails. At a trailhead, a map shows where the Nez Perce trail overlaps with a parking spot. We begin our hike at Chief Joseph Pass campground, at 7,200 feet. It’s cloudy and about 60 degrees. We hike on the Continental Divide Trail in Rocky Mountain firs and lodge pole pines, past a network of cross-country ski trails. We reach Gibbon Pass Road, one of the most historic paths in Montana, tread by animals, aboriginals, explorers, fur trappers and pioneers. At an overlook, we gaze toward Indian Trees camp and the road to Sula below. Back at the trailhead, we say hello to Terry, a hunter in camouflage from nearby Darby, Montana. I ask if anyone hunts around the ski area. He nods yes. Judy and I will be buying something bright orange to hike during hunting season. We spend an hour or so at Big Hole National Battlefield, which honors between 60 and 90 Nez Perce killed in 1877, many of them children and women, in an attack by U.S. soldiers and volunteers led by Col. John Gibbon. Thirty-one soldiers and volunteers died in two days of fighting. We travel east on Montana 43 along the Big Hole River toward Butte. Our day ends under steady rain just off Interstate 90, at Headwaters State Park, near Three Forks, Montana.
Sedona has an embarrassment of rich hiking trails. Earlier this spring, we took three:
Distance: Two miles (You can go farther if you like.)
Time: About 1 hour, longer if you meander, take photos or play in the water.
Elevation gain/loss: 100 feet
We’ve been on this trail before, and it never disappoints. It’s an easy trail along the Coconino sandstone cliffs that crosses back and forth over Oak Creek. You can tiptoe over boulders, downed trees, or splash right through. Much of the trail is shaded by Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, box elders, cottonwoods, walnuts, maple and oaks. And wildflowers grow in abundance. There are lots of other hikers here, but it’s cool, relaxing, with the constant sound of running water. In the book, 100 Classic Hikes: Arizona, author Scott Warren says the trail extends up to 6 miles, becoming overgrown and eventually just following the creek bed, with an elevation gain of 200 feet. We’ve never ventured that far.
Distance: Six miles round trip
Time: About 3 hours
Elevation gain/loss: 350 feet
The Boynton Canyon hike snakes up the side of a canyon overlooking a resort then follows a drainage through sandstone walls. The trail meanders through manzanita, oaks, pines, and cypress and, when we visited, lots of wildflowers. We got caught in a brief rain shower that left everything sparkling with drops of water.
Distance: 4 ¼ mile loop
Time: About 3 hours
Elevation gain/loss: 250 feet
The Courthouse Butte Loop circles the large formation and provides amazing views of the red-rock country. You climb along slick rock and through rocky washes on the mostly exposed sides of the formation. Even though we were there in early spring, it was warm, so be sure to bring plenty of water. And your camera, because you won’t believe the panoramas from every side.
Note: Remember to take plenty of water, snacks and proper clothing. Even in Spring, it can get very hot.
The Oregon Dunes, the largest expanses of temperate coastal sand dunes in the world, stretch 40 miles along the Oregon coast between Florence and Coos Bay. They rise nearly 500 feet above the ocean and were designated a National Recreation Area in 1972.
Imported European beachgrass has created a foredune along the ocean. Behind it, winds create a deflation plain, scouring sand down to the water table and providing tiny oases for plants and animals. Transverse dunes, or ripples on the dune surfaces, are created by shifting summer winds. The largest dunes, called oblique dunes, can be as tall as 180 feet and move inland three to 16 feet each year. Parabola dunes interact with the surrounding forest, sometimes losing ground to the trees, sometimes smothering them, and sometimes leaving pockets of forest called tree islands.
We headed toward the dunes on the John Dellenback Dunes Trail near Eel Creek Campground. The trail meanders about one half-mile through lush rhododendrons, madrone and pines before opening onto the oblique dunes.
A brief rain the night before stabilized the sand and gave us good footing as we climbed to the ridge of the highest dune. We wandered along its curving edge about a mile toward a tree island. If you continue another couple of miles, you can hike all the way to the beach.
We saw shorebirds wading and feeding in pockets of water in the deflation plain, as fog rolled in over the trees at the edges of the dunes.
On our way back, we saw red fescue, described as “globally significant” and in need of protection. Signage notes that, although individual red fescue plants are common, “95 percent of red fescue communities are gone,” lost to competition from invading plants, like European beachgrass.
On Father’s Day, instead of waffles and eggs, we opted for a hike through the tallgrass prairie preserve in Tom’s native Illinois, one of his longtime dreams.