Loess Hills Scenic Byway: Clarinda to Louisville SRA, NE
Saturday April 27, 2013, 84 miles (136 km) – Total so far: 598 miles (962 km)
There are some days that are perfect, even when they’re not perfect. Today was one of those days. In the morning, a cold and clammy fog has replaced yesterday’s wind. The visibility is decent enough, so I set forth, rear blinkie light flashing.
There is more traffic between Clarinda and Shenandoah than last time I rode this bit, so I’m anxious to turn north as soon as I can. So not long after crossing the East Nishnabotna River, I am faced with a fairly steep climb out of the river valley on Hwy 2 or an even steeper climb out of the valley on county road M16. It’s a no-brainer: let’s go climbing. On M16 (all thoughts of high-powered weapons aside).
Now, I am finally riding new roads. My path won’t cross my 2010 route again until Carbondale, Colorado. My mood brightens. I love riding new roads. I love not quite knowing what lies ahead.
The climb is steep, but there is relatively little traffic. The further north I go, the road becomes skinnier and the traffic thins out. The scenery is familiar – wet and muddy cropped fields rising and falling with the hilly terrain. The sky is leaden, the fog slowly lifting, though still keeping a lid on any warmth or dryness. It is quite chilly when I stop to rest.
There are a couple differences in the scenery today, however. First, I see farmers sitting on the edge of their fields in their idling tractors. They don’t appear to be doing anything, just sitting there. Maybe they are calculating how much profit they are likely to lose each day it is too wet to plant. Or maybe they are idling in hope of the fog lifting, the sun appearing and the soil warming to seed-planting temps. Whatever the case, at the crest of several hills, the farmers are sitting patiently in their tractors, waving at me as I ride by.
Second, I start to see terraced fields. This indicates a more erodible soil, a sure sign I’m getting into the loess hills. Yippee! That also means I’ve almost crossed the state.
My map indicates that M16 is paved all the way to J18. Where the rubber meets the road, however, that road becomes gravel for the last two miles. It’s in good condition though, and it doesn’t slow me too much. At the top of one hill, though, I surprise two farmers having a side-by-side chat in their pick-ups. As I slowly ascend the gravel, the man facing my direction scrunches up his face into a confused bewilderment. He reaches up and lifts his hat, as if to get a better look. Then, he points. At me. The other farmer leans his head out the window, looking back at me. He smiles. Laughs. As I ride by on the right-hand side of them, they just follow my movement with their heads. And half-heartedly wave with confused smiles. I take it they don’t see too many cycle tourists down this road!
At J18 I catch pavement and a few good downhills. I scream right down into Randolph where I sit on a bench in the park and eat an apple. Randolph sits down in a river valley, and I enjoy the flat terrain over to and up L63. This road has a heap of impatient traffic for some reason, and I’m glad I can turn off in just a mile or so onto J10. There’s an immediate climb out of the valley – and a general climb all the way into Tabor. I’m climbing into the loess hills, and their deposition patterns generally mean steeper-sided hills.
Tabor is a busy little place. There is some fascinating, but sad, people-watching to be had at the gas station/convenience store where I stop for a chocolate milk. Then I head north on Fed Hwy 275 (this section could be a little scary if there was more traffic) until I reach L45 and a scenic byway loop through the loess hills. I had researched this back home and written the road directions down in some notes – though it is pretty well-signed throughout.
The scenic byway is gravel, and a little difficult to find a good line on occasion. But it is also very lightly travelled, so I didn’t find this to be an issue. Some of the hills are quite steep, but I did not have to walk up any of them. I did, however, walk down a couple where the loose gravel was like ball bearings. It was hard enough to walk and stay upright with the bike, so I’m glad I walked them. Skinned knees are for kiddos, not stupid cycle tourists too proud to walk.
I am so impressed with the beauty. I wish I could be here when it was green and leafy, or in fall when the leaves were changing. Still, I love this ride through such a unique landform. The only other loess deposit in the world more extensive than this one is in China. I wish I knew more about the plants, because there are ones here that grow nowhere else.
The social context overlain on this landscape must have some interesting history. There are long-established farms next to new weekenders next to trashy mobile homes with “No Trespassing” signs and cars with broken windows that are still being used for transport. I take note of this, but I’m not here really to think about work-type stuff. I’m here to see the landscape.
Watercourses wind through the hills, cutting through a fine-grained soil cemented by the rain into a rugged and hilly topography. Man-made dams create habitat for many species of birds who rise from the water in cackles and squawks as I pedal slowly by. The fields are terraced into the hills, evergreen trees mixing with eastern hardwoods in river bottoms and places left unplowed. The river bottoms seem like they would be lush in summer – cool places of shade and humidity, perfect for relaxing on a hot summer day.
The scenic byway curves around and through the hills – it’s not a ride for the rushed. At one point, I have a long climb up to the ridge top, and I can overlook much of what I’ve ridden in the previous half-hour. I am so glad I’ve chosen this route. I’m loving every second, even if it’s cold and foggy and the views are slightly obscured.
Finally, the road turns west, we hit pavement, and we descend quickly out of the hills. A highly recommend detour if you’ve got the time.
We wind along the edge of the hills. Sometimes the road ventures onto the floodplain for a bit amongst new homes and shiny cars. Other times the road climbs back into the hills for a bit. Finally, I pop out on Hwy 34. It is a little confusing and a little bit crazy finding my way into Glenwood – but I make it.
I head over to McDonalds and grab an ice tea while I pick up their wifi to check out Google maps. I don’t have my Nebraska map yet, so I need to confirm the highways I need, so I’m not riding totally blind. The store is a busy, busy place. I get a lot of looks – a couple people come over and ask the standard questions. I get out of there as quickly as I can.
Soon, I’m heading out of town toward Plattsmouth, NE. Over the rail lines and the freeway I go. The road has no shoulder, could do with some improvements (it is rough), but luckily there is not much traffic. I seem to ride over the floodplain forever. I try to imagine this all covered with water as it would have been a couple years ago when I-29 was closed for months due to flooding.
Soon enough though, I’m ready to cross into Nebraska over the Missouri. Since my McDonalds stop, the fog has quickly lifted, the temperature has started to rise and the sun has started to shine like it might actually usher in spring at some point. I pedal my way up the bridge, the toll collector waves off my 25 cent fee, and then I’m at the Nebraska sign getting my picture taken by a guy who has stopped just to hop out and take my pic for me.
I like the feel of downtown Plattsmouth. It just oozes old rivertown. I wish I had more time, but I need to get on down the road if I want to make it to the state park today.
The road over to Louisville is narrow, hilly and carries a lot of traffic. But, everyone is patient and I’m aware of what’s happening since I’ve got the mirror. I don’t impede traffic too much, and I ride hard, invigorated by the sun and the beautiful day I’ve had.
The state recreation area has heaps and heaps of people – it is within an hour’s drive of both Omaha and Lincoln. The line at the entry gate to pay for camping fees is about 7 people long. After all of the deserted campgrounds I’ve stayed in, this is definitely a big change. The check-in lady is a bit confused about pricing – she can’t figure out how to enter just a camping fee into the computer and not a vehicle entry fee, too. She has a good laugh about it and assures me she’ll figure it out, but the building line of impatient city folk behind me must wish I just had a freakin’ RV like the rest of them.
By the time I make it to my tent site, I’m exhausted. It’s been a long day with a lot of steep hills. So I just lay there, on top of the picnic table, soaking up the glorious, warm sun for about a half hour before I even think about setting up the tent. What an awesome day!