Prairie Chickens, Wolves & Warblers. Oh, My!

April 22

After visiting with Alan’s mom for a few days, we got an early start at 7:30AM to begin the first leg of this trip. We followed tradition and stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast before striking out on the turnpike toward Akron, OH. 

Throughout the entire drive Alan fought strong gusty winds, and in western Pennsylvania we ran into some light snow flurries. 

The address I had for our campground was wrong and we chased around a one mile area before we finally found the correct location and our campsite. 

Campground: Stow Silver Springs Campground is a pretty city park campground costing just $15 a night. Electric is provided, but water is not. The sites each have picnic tables and are not level. There are no showers, and toilets are a few scattered porta-potties. Except for the electric, it’s almost like wilderness boondocking.

April 23

The first thing we did this morning was check the tire pressure on that inside dually tire. We found it very low at 19 psi when it should have been 57 psi. We suspected we knew what was causing the problem but unfortunately it’s not something that we could have easily fixed ourselves. We re-inflated the tire and decided to check it at our next stop for gas. If it was doing OK, then we’d try to find someplace that could help us with it.

After a simple breakfast of fruit and muffins, and an egg for Alan, we broke down camp and headed out toward our next destination in Illinois. 

Later in the day we check the tire again and it had deflated down to 42psi. We re-inflated it and I found Pomp’s Tire Service on Garner Street in Joliet which was our next destination. Fortunately for us the garage that serviced the RV was able to help and they (hopefully) have fixed the tire issue on a more permanent basis. We will know more in the morning when we check the tire’s pressure.

Campground: Hollywood Casino & Hotel has a small campground at the fringe of the parking lot. We’ve stayed here before and thought it was good for a quick overnight again. Level parking, water and electric. $40/night.

April 24

The tire pressure looked good, so we will be checking it periodically for the next few days.

After dumping our tanks we drove to Iowa and the World’s Largest Truck Stop located on highway 80. This massive place is acres huge! There is even a semi truck with a trailer set up inside. It also has eight restaurants, a convenience store, gift store, Super Truck Showroom, barber shop, chiropractor, dentist, movie theater, workout room, laundry facilities, gas islands, diesel fuel center, truck service center, Truckomat truck wash, Dogomat pet wash, CAT Scale, 24- private showers, trucking museum and more! Even with all this, we still like Buc-ees a little bit better.

Our second stop was the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. I have to admit, I didn’t really know much about this president, but what I learned today thoroughly impressed me. He was a Quaker, humble, came from meager beginnings, and believed in a strong work ethic.

Lunch was at Shakespeare’s Pub & Grill on the edge of Iowa City where I had a very good tuna melt and Alan had a burger.

Our next stop was to see the American Gothic Barn north of Iowa City. Some artist did a great job of recreating the classic painting, “American Gothic” on the side of a barn. Prior to that painting, a mural of a Buffalo was painted on an adjacent side. This site does not have anyplace to park as it is along a busy highway. There is a dirt u-turn right out in front of it though, making for a quick stop to take a photo if you are so inclined.

Next we nerded out by visiting the “Future Birthplace of Captain James T Kirk” in Riverside, IA. We stopped and saw the bronze statue of Kirk, then walked across the street to the visitor center and museum which had all kinds of odds-n-ends related to the TV show and movies. 

For dinner we walked a block across the street from our hotel to Casa Azul on 1st Avenue. It was very busy, so we seated at the bar. The food was great, but the service was a little slow because of a big party outside on the patio.

We overnighted (I couldn’t find a place to camp) at the Drury Inn in Iowa City, IA. The city is a college town, so there are a number of hotels huddled together on 1st Avenue just off of Hwy 80. We’ve become big fans of the Drury chain and make an effort to stay at one if it’s available. 

April 25

For breakfast we decided to go to IHOP on the west side of town. After arriving, and finally getting seated, it was abundantly clear that there was only one unenthusiastic waitress and far too many full tables. Before we even ordered drinks we left, feeling kinda sorry for her because there were two large parties waiting to be seated.

Changing tactic, we made a quick stop at Walmart for a few items, then hit McDonald’s up for breakfast sandwiches. We decided to have brunch at Cracker Barrel on the west side if Des Moines. There we had to wait just 20 minutes to get a table – on a Sunday, no less! Service and the meal were perfect. We skipped lunch and just snacked on granola bars and fruit later in the afternoon.

DeSoto NWR, located on the north end of Omaha was our destination for the day. We walked a one-mile trail and drove the wildlife drive. At an observation area we chatted about travel for quite a while with a couple from Pennsylvania.

Dinner was raman noodles and a salad, with an orange split between us for dessert.

Campground: The West Omaha / NE Lincoln KOA Holiday is where we stayed for the next two nights. It is a very clean, well run, KOA. Hwy 80 runs nearby, so there was lots of highway noise, but we slept well despite it.

April 26

Having already purchased tickets online to visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, we got a nice early start at 9:00AM. We walked about five miles of the visitor pathways and saw all there was to see. A few of the exhibits were closed for reconstruction and maintenance, but that didn’t detract from the zoo’s atmosphere. This is one of the top zoos in the country, and with good reason. It is a well considered layout, everything seemed spotless, and a majority of the animals were visible, in the morning at least. The exhibits we saw were the aquarium, lemur island, African and Asian areas, and the desert dome, which had a wide variety of creatures from around the world. I highly recommend visiting this wonderful zoo.

Throughout this trip we have experienced daytime temperatures in 50° to 65° range. Today the temperature reach 92°. Seems like summer is fighting it’s way in.

Once we’d rested in the RV for a few minutes we headed north to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge is a modern marvel that spans the Missouri River, connecting Iowa and Nebraska. The bridge is 3,000 feet long with parks at both ends. We parked at the National Parks Service building and walked to the base of the bridge. Tired from all the walking at the zoo, we looked up and over the bridge and decided to at least go as far as the middle of it. To our pleasant surprise it was an easy walk and we ended up crossing over to the Iowa side’s park. After resting a bit we headed back over, all the while I was sizing things up for a possible night shoot.

After finishing up at the bridge we headed south toward our campground, but made a stop at the Holy Family Shrine first. I had ideas of possibly using the building as a backdrop for the full moon rising this night, but dropped it after logistics proved that would be impossible. 

The shrine is a church that Frank Lloyd Wright would have stood in awe. It is an architectural masterpiece, a jewel set atop a high hill overlooking much of the countryside south of Omaha. It is an operating catholic church with offices and a small gift shop set in the hillside nearby. There are paths along a little creek upon which to walk, and sit, and commune with God. There is a large steel crucifix out back of the church where you can sit in its shadow too. We were both so very glad we visited the shrine, it was a good way to end the afternoon.

We rested and napped until it was time to head back into the city for my evening shoot of the bridge. We had a quick dinner of salads then broke camp and struck out for downtown. 

On the way into the city I suggested, since we had some time, that we stop by an ice cream shop in town. But when we got there it was closed. Not to be deterred, I located a different place a few blocks away. We parked down the sidewalk from Mixins Rolled Ice Cream, walked in and placed an order, then stood there as we realized that there were more than a dozen orders ahead of ours and it was taking at least 10 minutes to fill each order. After 20 minutes we left. I was frustrated that the girl who took our order hadn’t had the courtesy to inform us of the wait, and that I didn’t “call it” (scuba term for canceling a dive for good reasons) before the 20 minutes were up. We walked out, got in the RV, and headed to the bridge.

The bridge and the park were filled with people. Much more so than when we’d been there earlier in the day. They were almost all young twenty and thirty-somethings, singles and families, out to enjoy the warm spring evening. 

I set up my gear on the hill inside the whorl of the sidewalk making up the beginnings of the bridge, and realized I’d left a critical piece of equipment back in the RV. Alan, my knight in shining armor, offered to retrieve it for me.

The shoot went long, but it went well, as far as the image on the back of my camera proved anyway, so we headed back to camp, but not before stopping at a Wendy’s and picking up some frosties. A solace to missing out on ice cream treats earlier. 

April 27

Back on the road for the long flat drive to Valentine, Nebraska where we will be staying for the next 3 nights.

When we arrived at the campground it was empty. Nobody was there – anywhere. We got out and read some flyers on the side of the main building and found a “map” to the correct campground. Getting there however, was dicey at best, dangerous at worst. The roads were just barely wide enough, and there were sharp drops off to either side. Alan worried about going on this road in the dark. After a little discussion, we decided to take a hotel in town, closer to our early morning (4:00AM) destination.

Once we’d checked into the hotel, we drove out to the location to park the RV and hike out to the photo blind positioned at the lek in daylight. It will be very dark when we hike out there in the morning and we were cautioned to locate it during the day first. The hike was .7 miles, and mostly up hills, but was mercifully dry. The photo blind is a tiny, well constructed box, barely big enough for 3 people. There are folding chairs inside, and blankets and cushions are provided by a ‘friends’ group. We hung out for a little bit, then headed back to the RV.

Back in town we took a quick nap, then had dinner at a locally owned restaurant, The Peppermill. Yummy food, great service, good atmosphere. We recommend this place!

April 28

We were up at 4:30AM and on the road in twenty minutes. It was so dark and lonely out on the 24 mile stretch of road – we only came across three vehicles.

Just like yesterday, we parked at the gate, put on a little more warmth, slung our packs and cameras on (15-20 pounds for each of us), and struck out for the photo blind. I wore a headlamp over my knit hat and Alan carried a flashlight. The three-quarter mile hike seemed longer in the dark, but we made it and settled inside the blind to wait.

The refuge staff had sent me instructions on how to get to each lek’s photo blind, and when. “An hour before sunrise” read the instructions, so that we would not disturb the natural behavior of the birds. Made sense.

Just before the first hour had passed, and while it was still dark, we heard them. We grinned at each other and waited, straining our eyes to see them in the still-dark. As the overcast skies started to lighten up we saw a few. In time we saw more and more and watched them perform their bizarre ritual courtship dance.

The male sharptail grouse will spread their wings out in a threatening posture then rapidly stamp their feet, moving about strategically and in concert with each other. Then suddenly, they all freeze, barely any movement, for 15-60 seconds. At some unseen signal they all then resume the dance. It’s the oddest thing we’ve ever seen. At one point one of these crazy birds flew to the top of the blind. The females will simply hang around preening and trying to decide who to favor.

Wait for it…

We stayed there for two hours enjoying the show while taking videos and photos. Sometime after the two-hour mark the remaining birds flew away together. That was our cue to hike on back to the RV. What a morning!

After a quick breakfast at McDonald’s, we returned to the hotel and off-loaded our memory cards, happy with the results. 

To be ready for tomorrow’s shoot we drove out to the viewing spot for the Prairie chicken lek. We could tell that we should be able to see the birds, but our photography would be limited. From there drove back into town and had lunch at Old Mill Bulk Foods and Deli, a family owned deli which also sells eclectic spices, candies, snacks and more. We ordered the wood fired Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza. Oh my goodness! To die for! We decided we would go back tomorrow for lunch.

After stuffing our faces we drove to the Niobrara National Scenic River visitors center for a map, stamp in our book, and a souvenir pin. The ranger behind the counter suggested a few nice stops in the park before we left.

We drove to Fort Niobrara NWR, a part of the Scenic River, and slowly drove the wildlife auto route, learning about the refuge as we went. 

Fort Falls was along this route and had been recommended by the ranger, so we stopped and hiked down to the top of the falls and stayed a little while to enjoy it and relax.

By the time we finished the route it was late afternoon. We went back to the hotel to rest, eat a simple dinner, and get ready for tomorrow morning’s adventure. 

April 29

Once again we were up before 4:30AM to head out to a lek. This one did not offer a photo blind, so we would not be hiking out anywhere, we would have to observe from the RV. 

Along the way we watched a large owl pass over the road in front of us, then came upon a racoon, and after that, a porcupine, both in the middle of the road.

At 5:45 we heard them. A loud, low, and strange booming sound came at us from across the field. Excited, all we could do was wait until there was sufficient light by which to see the greater prairie chickens. In time we were rewarded. We could not see them without the binoculars or our long lenses, and getting a good picture was out of the question, but eventually we got something

Happy with our experience we drove northward to the auto tour of Valentine NWR, a 9.6 mile unpaved (but smooth) road. Afterward we stopped in at the hotel for an extended nap.

With happy bellies, we’d stopped by Old Mill again, we left for Smith Falls State Park to see about hiking out to the falls. However, when we got there we could find no good information about how to get to any sort of a trailhead. It seemed that the trails were accessible only from the campgrounds, which were currently closed. Disappointed, we headed back out the way we came, and then got the bright idea to do the short hike to the bottom of Fort Falls back in Niobrara NWR. 

Fort Falls trail is a one-mile loop hike with an elevation gain of about 600+ feet. Going down to the bottom of the falls is done on a metal staircase. Once down to the base the trail narrows considerably. There are several small ravines with rivulets that feed into the Niobrara River. Crossing most of them was easy, but one was more of a challenge because the footbridge had been flooded up the ravine several feet. Having not hiked much since catching Covid at the first of the year, the elevation gain was a bit of a challenge, but although winded, we made it in one piece. 

April 30

After fueling up we drove towards Scotts Bluff, Nebraska. Along the way however, we just had to stop by a strange  bit of Americana, Carhenge.

Carhenge was built in one week by creator Jim Reinders back in 1987 with the help of his family. It is to-scale with England’s Stonehenge. There are other car part sculptures on the grounds, as well as a time capsule to be opened sometime in the 2050’s. It’s definitely worth a visit, kids will love it. There is a picnic table and a souvenir shop on the grounds too.

From Carhenge we stopped by Scott’s Bluff National Monument. The original Oregon Trail passes through here. The visitor center has some fascinating historic information, and outside you will find a few picnic benches. The monument also has a five mile trail that traverses nearly all the way around the huge bluff, and a driving route up, around and through a couple of tunnels. Larger vehicles like camper vans, and RVs like ours, cannot pass through the smallish tunnels. The large bluffs are a sight to behold in the middle if the Nebraska flatlands, with the Platte River winding down near the foot of the bluffs, affording nature lovers some nice opportunities.

Not far from Scotts Bluff, and fairly close to our campground, was Chimney Rock National Historic Site. The museum was closed, so we just puttered around nearby.

After checking out the bluffs we drove north to North Platte NWR. This lake area provides excellent wildlife viewing and fishing opportunities. Just down the road we checked out Lake Minatare State Recreational Area. This is part of the Nebraska State Parks system but you need to google it as a recreation area. There are plenty of both first-come and reservation sites, bath houses and even a laundry house. A small lighthouse sits on a peninsula on the lake. I have my eye on that for visiting this area again in the future.

I have to admit, photographically, I was a little bit disappointed about our visit to Scotts Bluff. I’d had hoped to do some north facing star trail photography, but the skies weren’t cooperating and were cloudy all night long.

Campground: We stayed at Robidoux RV Park not far from the monument and the city of Scotts Bluff. It had clean, level, nicely spaced sites (no shade). The price we paid with our Good Sam’s membership was just $25 for the night. Check-in is currently at a window at the office.