Famous Western Nebraska landmarks – Platte River Valley

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One of the perks of this rolling lifestyle is learning history while at the same time enjoying the scenery.  Most of our 2013 stops along the “history belt” back east served well in educating and enriching us.  Our current stop at the Platte River Valley in western Nebraska did the same.

Although our stay and hikes would have been further enhanced had we been able to catch up with friends John and Pam, it didn’t quite work out as they had to move on from the same campground we were entering – and on the same day!  They have a great 2-part blog about this area, so check them out as well.

Platte River Valley

A long train filled with coal from Wyoming looks tiny when viewed from the top of Scotts Bluff

The Platte River Valley has many historical places to explore.  This area was a focal point more than a century ago, during the height of the greatest voluntary migrations in U.S. history.  The Platte River was a reference point that led travelers west as they pushed through the prairie grass.  Although the overland trails to Oregon, California and Utah had different beginning and end points, they all followed the Platte and North Platte Rivers. The waters of those rivers sustained the pioneers and the oxen that pulled their heavily-laden wagons through the area.

North Platte River

The Mormon emigrants stayed on the north side of the river to avoid conflicts with emigrants going to Oregon and California on the southern trails

Stories of the monuments…

Two towering landmarks showed those pioneers the way.  Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock stand silent guard over the Westward Migration Trails, just as they did those many years ago.

The most notable landmark along the Oregon Trail was Chimney Rock.  The sentinel was visible from several days away and gave the emigrants a good spot to rest and ponder their situation.

Chimney Rock

Can you see the pointed Chimney Rock in the distance?  This is how it looks 22 miles away from the top of Scotts Bluff

For emigrants to Oregon and California, Chimney Rock meant completion of their travel across the plains and approximately one-third of their journey west.  It also meant the beginning of the rugged mountain portion of their trek.

For the Mormon pioneers, the sentinel was the halfway point to their destination in the Salt Lake City area of Utah.

Chimney Rock

Rising 470 feet above the plains, Chimney Rock served as a beacon for early travelers

The Oregon Trail stretches 2,000 miles, and most of the pioneers walked it!

Oregon Trail

The emigrants pushing on for a better life out west

A few miles further along the emigrants were confronted by a massive promontory rising some 800 ft. above the valley floor, now known as Scotts Bluff National Monument. During that time folks didn’t have the luxury of exploring the bluff, for they had to keep moving in order to get over the Rocky Mountains before winter storms hit.

Scotts Bluff

A replica of a wagon train is located where the pioneers pushed on here at Mitchell Pass, between Eagle Rock and Sentinel Rock

We hiked several trails during our stay.  The Saddle Rock Trail took us to the summit of Scotts Bluff and passed through a very active rock fall area.  We learned how active, as a large boulder broke off the rim above and rolled over the trail about 30 ft. behind me!  Of course, I immediately checked to make sure Steve wasn’t anywhere up there 😉

Saddle Rock Trail

An area with active rock falls – that dust shows the path of a rock fall that just happened

On another day we followed the Prairie View Trail, which took us through the area of the Five Rocks of Scotts Bluff.  From the lowlands we could take in the enormity of the bluff, and see why it gave the pioneers lasting memories.

Mitchell Pass, Scotts Bluff National Monument

Mitchell Pass between Sentinel Rock and Eagle Rock, where emigrants pressed on westward

Scotts Bluff

The view of Scotts Bluff the Mormons would see as they followed the trail north of the river

Carhenge…

While here we also drove to a man-made landmark, a full-scale replica of England’s famous Stonehenge using antique cars instead of stones.  Built using 38 cars painted gray and with some half buried, it was designed by Jim Reinders as a memorial to his father. Other vehicles are welded on top, and some jut out of the ground at odd angles.  A bit strange, but it’s the closest thing to Stonehenge we’ll see until we make it to England!

Carhenge

Carhenge in Alliance, NE

Carhenge

Steve’s figuring out which ones are Fords, GM’s and Chryslers

The Fourd Seasons

The “Fourd Seasons” (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) represents the four stages of wheat grown in the area

…and a balloon festival!

Since we know we’ll miss the Albuqueque Balloon Festival this year, we were excited to learn that the (much smaller) Old West Balloon Festival…Re-inflated was happening in the Scottsbluff-Gering area during our stay.  Getting up at 4:00am wasn’t much fun, but it’s how we avoided a multi-hour traffic jam at the event’s single entry road (it was not at all well organized).

The balloons were scheduled to launch around 7am, but it was delayed due to high winds aloft.  Waiting out the delay was worth it, as the sights and sounds of the colorful hot air balloons being inflated and taking off one by one was very exciting.

Old West Balloon Fest

I couldn’t resist, I was in the perfect spot to be goofy!

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Getting the hot air in there…

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Fortunately, this Humpty Dumpty didn’t have a great fall!

Old West Balloon Fest

Scotts Bluff in the background

Old West Balloon Fest

Old West Balloon Fest

The balloons rise into a cool Nebraska morning sky

Seeing the historical landmarks in western Nebraska put us about halfway through our southward migration, so onward we go to avoid the Rocky Mountain winter ourselves!

 

Next Up:  Rocky Mountain National Park



 

Looking for fun in Omaha, Nebraska

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Rain began to fall midway into our short drive from Lincoln to Omaha.  We were reminded of our friends John and Pam who don’t drive their RV in the rain, and for good reasons – one being that it just isn’t fun!  We also try to avoid it, but sometimes it’s darn near impossible. Fortunately we made it to our scheduled stopover at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Nebraska just as the wet stuff started coming down.

Any kind of air or space museum is still a draw for Steve, even though we’ve been to several during our travels.  Since he had planned this stop he knew Betsy would be able to fit into and exit the huge parking lot there.  She got a good shower while we ran inside to check out the museum.

SAC

It started raining hard just as we reached the parking lot

Steve enjoyed the SR-71 Blackbird prominently displayed in the lobby.  It’s still considered to be the world’s fastest aircraft, holding several speed and altitude records.

SR-71A “Blackbird”

SR-71A “Blackbird”

Within the museum were two large hangars housing dozens of vintage military airplanes. Included was the B-36 Peacemaker, the largest production bomber ever built.  Pilots referred to it as the “Magnesium Monster”.

Convair B-36J Peacemaker

Just a part of the massive B-36

As Steve checked out each flying machine, I was drawn to a display hanging from the ceiling.  It was two “towers” of neckties hung from a steel wire frame, with the ties representing the lives lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.  It’s quite an ingenious tribute to the victims.

The Towers by Greg Laakso

The Towers – by Greg Laakso

We took our time going through the museum and watching several of the movies they offered, as the hard rain continued outside.

The rain finally let up, so we made our way back onto the freeway to complete the short drive to Omaha.  Once we were settled at Haworth City Park just outside of the city (Steve’s review here), we started looking for things to do in Nebraska’s largest city.  In the process we learned that the Omaha area — or more accurately, what became the Omaha area — was a rest stop for early explorers and others on their way west, including Lewis and Clark.

At our campground on the banks of the Missouri River was a Children’s Lewis & Clark Interpretive Art Wall.  It commemorated the 200th year of the Corps of Discovery’s historic journey, as seen through children’s eyes.

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This art wall contained individual tiles created by children and arranged into the seven geographical regions crossed by Lewis and Clark between Illinois and Oregon

With the campground located next to an old bridge that crossed over the “Mighty Missouri” from Nebraska to Iowa, it was a no-brainer to drive across one day to visit the Lewis and Clark Monument at Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Lewis and Clark monument

Lewis and Clark monument at Council Bluffs, Iowa

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We arrived on this high bluff the evening of July 4th, and stayed to watch hundreds of fireworks shows below.  You see, fireworks are legal in Nebraska, and these folks take it seriously!

Omaha across the river

The Missouri River, downtown Omaha and the edge of the Omaha airport to the right

On another hot and humid day we drove to into Omaha, the home of legendary billionaire Warren Buffet.  We were hoping to meet up with him for lunch and some financial advice, but somehow it just didn’t work out 🙂

After recovering from that letdown, we headed out to the riverfront at Lewis & Clark Landing. This is an open space park along the Missouri River named after the famous 1804 expedition.  It provides easy access to walking trails connecting the Landing to the Heartland of America Park and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.  We racked up over four miles while walking in heat and humidity that reminded me a lot of my recent stay in the Philippines.

Lewis and Clark Landing

An overview of features at Lewis and Clark Landing

A monument by the river called “Labor” is quite imposing, and purported to be the second-largest labor monument in the U.S.  The bronze figures are 8 feet tall and weigh 800 pounds each, the three bottom ladles weight 6,000 pounds apiece, and the top one 4,000 pounds.  The monument salutes the dedication and hard work of those who built this city.

The peach arrow in the picture indicates the high-water mark of the 1952 flood, which crested at 40.20 ft.  The yellow arrow points to the level of the more recent 2011 flood, and it crested at 36.39 ft.

Labor Monument in Omaha

Labor Monument

Next we crossed the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which connects Nebraska and Iowa here. It’s 2,300 feet long in a unique S-shape which reflects the grace and power of the Missouri River flowing beneath it.

Bob Kerrey Bridge

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge in two states

I’m in two states at the same time!

Finally, at the Heartland of America Park we walked around the lake and watched the fountain shoot water up to 300 feet in the air.  At night a light show is added while the water spouts “dance”.

Heartland of America park

Waiting for the fountain to blast water skyward at Heartland of America park

During our walk I spotted this mama duck guarding her eggs in a little corner among the reeds. She looks a little camera shy, doesn’t she?

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A visit to the zoo is rarely on our list of things to do. But thanks to Beverly and Denise, who had highly recommended the Henry Doorly Zoo (Trip Advisor’s best zoo of 2014), we got up early one morning and gave it a try.  The imposing Desert Dome near the entrance displays the worlds largest indoor desert.  Here we saw geologic features from deserts around the world, along with many animals from each environment.

Henry Doorly Zoo

Good thing there’s a dome over that desert on this morning, or it would have gotten soaked!

The rest of the zoo contained thousands of animals from around the world, and the stellar natural habitat re-creations were spread over 130 acres.  The highlight for Steve was at the Kingdom of the Night where all of the nocturnal animals were, while of course I enjoyed the aviary with the many vibrant exotic birds.  We spent several hours gawking at the impressive displays, as we dashed between the buildings in yet another torrential and long-lasting downpour.

Henry Doorly Zoo

I wished this rain over to California!

Who would guess one of the best zoos in the world is in Omaha?

Orange Bishop Weaver

Orange Bishop Weaver seen in the Saharan Desert natural display – isn’t he a beauty?

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Now, that’s a handsome Ibis!

Rain, humidity and hot sunny days were all in the mix as we enjoyed our time in Omaha. We even had fog one morning, and it gave the sun and our campground a surreal look as the day began.

Bellevue City Park

A morning fog and smoke from fires in Canada gave the rising sun a peachy glow

 

Next up:  Steve visits his mom’s hometown.



 

 

 

Rambling around Lincoln, Nebraska

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Wapati

We are now pacing our movement to attend a big event that we signed up for several months ago, the Grand National Rally in Forest City, Iowa.  It will happen during the last week of July, so we have plenty of time to meander through two more states on our way.  Nebraska, the Cornhusker State, is our 42nd, and we had two planned stops – Lincoln and Omaha.  Being in the midwestern states in July, heat and humidity are obviously the order of the day.  Outdoor activities have been shortened and started very early, and air conditioning has become our friend.

The state capitol in Lincoln

When we learned that Lincoln, named after Abraham Lincoln, is the state capital of Nebraska, we made a visit to the capitol a priority.  Hey, we knew it would be air conditioned!  Besides, we’re beginning to appreciate state capitol buildings after experiencing the beautiful Kansas statehouse in Topeka.

Nebraska State Capitol

The Nebraska State Capitol – aka the Tower of the Plains

Nebraska’s story begins on the themed limestone exterior.  Carved across its four sides is a sculpture gallery of Nebraska’s foundation, history and heritage.

Nebraska State Capitol, South Entrance

The south facade’s bas-relief sculptures honor great documents in history

We were awestruck the moment we stepped in, and wondered if we were really in the capitol. Uncertain where to begin, we looked first at the mosaic ceilings, wall and floor, then the long hallway leading to the rotunda.

Nebraska State Capitol

Vestibule – floor mosaics represent cosmic energy.  The walls depict the pioneer’s arrival in the state

Nebraska State Capitol

Ceiling mosaics show agriculture and native animals

Inside and out, the beautiful architecture and design overflowed with images, symbolism and stories from across Nebraska.  Like other capitol buildings, art and sculpture are used to chronicle important historical events, influential people of the past and the state’s heritage.

Rotunda- Nebraska State Capitol

Rotunda floor – Mother Earth in the center with the surrounding circles representing earth, air, fire and water

Hall of Fame, Nebraska State Capitol

The Hall of Fame features influential and prominent Nebraskans

A guided tour would certainly have enhanced our understanding and appreciation of the many features we may have missed, but the overall design and theme that went into this building was quite amazing.  It took ten years to complete the construction, and when finished in 1932 the $9.8 million cost was all paid.  Quite impressive, considering this was obviously during the Great Depression.

The Parks

With hiking mostly on the back burner during these hot and humid days, we snuck in early morning walks at the Sunken Garden, the Pioneer Nature Trail and other paths around town. After those treks we hibernated inside Betsy and took showers with the AC in full blast mode the rest of the day.

The Sunken Garden is a Depression-era project built on an old neighborhood landfill site in the heart of Lincoln.  About 100 volunteers have supported the maintenance of the gardens since then, and they keep up with the yearly design changes for the annual flowers.  The residents are proud that the garden is listed as one of the “300 Best Gardens to Visit in the U.S.” by the National Geographic Guide to America’s Public Gardens.

The sunken garden, lincoln,  nebraska

The Sunken Garden

The city has 125 parks where paths and trails abound, and we choose to check out the Pioneer’s Park Nature Center, one of the largest in the city.

Pioneers Park

On display along the prairie was the Hudson Cabin.  It was built by Thomas Jefferson Hudson in 1863, and was noted as being “the largest and grandest house and the only shingled roof, upon the whole site on Salt Creek” at that time.  In 1964 this cabin was found hidden inside a larger home during a remodeling project.  It was reconstructed and moved back to the Nature Center in 2010.

Hudson Cabin

The Hudson Cabin, “The largest and grandest house in in the area” in 1863

In the much larger expanse of the park we explored woodlands and wetlands, as well as a small area or prairie where colorful native wildflowers and grasses were on display:

Pioneers Park

And this resident American Elk (or Wapiti, Indian word for “white deer”) was taking a rest. Apparently, the last wild elk in Nebraska were killed in the early 1880’s.  This guy, with his velvety matured antlers, is found only on public and private reservations.

Wapati

Elk – or Wapiti.  This guy is big!

Off we went on another walk across the grass for some more exercise.

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What’s that on the back of Steve’s socks?

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Hmm, what’s that all about?

Pioneers Nature Park

And a clever way to use planting pots…

Around Lincoln’s historic district

Finally, we did a bit of driving and walking around the city’s historic district.  The Haymarket District was once a place of dwellings and retail stores.  As the town grew in the 1870’s and ‘80’s, it succeeded in attracting railroads to the Salt Creek bottom lands.  Wholesale jobbing and manufacturing businesses began displacing the stores and houses.

Today, several large warehouses remained intact and are part of the National Historic Register after efforts to revive the neighborhood almost failed.  It’s a fun place to walk around now, with many restaurants and cool shops to explore.

Iron Horse Legacy

Iron Horse Legacy – a brick relief sculpture depicting Nebraska landscape, 1871-1872

Several restaurants, condos, hotels, pubs, coffee shops and bars are now housed after rehabilitation of the warehouses.  They serve the sports fans before and after events at nearby Pinnacle Arena and Memorial Stadium (home of the Nebraska Cornhusker’s football team), just a short walk away.

Pinnacle Arena, Lincoln, NE

Pinnacle Arena

Memorial Stadium

Memorial Stadium

Even though we tried to avoid the hottest parts of the day, we managed to adjust our time so we could get a taste of Lincoln and the surrounding areas.  But this heat and humidity is brutal!

 

Next up:  Looking for fun while visiting Omaha, Nebraska