Following our explorations at two of Nebraska’s national monuments, Chelsea and I made our way to the Oglala National Grassland for our final stop in the state – Toadstool Geologic Park. Basically, Nebraska’s version of the badlands.
The formations at Toadstool date back more than 30 million years, to a time when now-extinct animals roamed the land. Volcanic debris transported to the area by a large river formed the layered rocks which have since been weathered for millions of years, eroding into the mushroom-shaped formations seen today.
There is a campground and day use area here, as well as a trailhead offering multiple hiking options. For purposes of time and beating the incoming thunderstorm, we elected to take the 1 mile (1.6 km) interpretive loop trail through the formations. Be sure to pick up a brochure at the trailhead; there are numbered posts along the way that correspond to blurbs about each location.
In addition to the unique geology, the hike itself was a lot of fun as we walked through narrow passages, along edges, and climbed over lots of rocks.
It didn’t take us long to hike the loop and read the signs in the parking lot. We also took a quick look at the old sod house adjacent to the parking lot before dashing back to the car to beat the approaching storm.
We were almost successful. It was just starting to rain as we began the drive. Toadstool is located a few miles off the highway down well-maintained dirt roads. We were about to learn the hard way, though, that these aren’t your ordinary dirt roads. They’re made of bentonite, a form of clay that expands when it gets wet and becomes extremely squishy and sticky. As we made our way along the road, rain continuing to fall from the sky, we found ourselves progressively losing traction. This worsened until we were moving about 5 mph and still fishtailing. It was as though we were driving on solid ice.
But there wasn’t anything we could do. It was too narrow to pull over and there was nowhere to turn off. Our best bet was to keep chugging along slowly enough to avoid sliding into the ditch but with enough momentum to avoid getting stuck.
But the bentonite eventually got the best of us and we got bogged down right there in the middle of the road. When we got out to assess our situation, we found the tires completely coated with a few inches of the stuff – no wonder we had no traction – not to mention blobs of it plastered all over my car. And now also coating the bottom of our shoes. It was a sticky mess of a situation.
(I wish we had thought to take photos but we were both too busy stressing out.)
Fortunately, we had enough service for me to call roadside assistance. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find anyone to come get us. Unsurprising, I suppose, for middle-of-nowhere Nebraska. When we finally found a tow company that was open, the guy proceeded to condescendingly explain to me that we shouldn’t have driven that road in the rain – as if we hadn’t already figured that out – and then ultimately informed us we would probably be there all night, as he didn’t have a truck that could make it to us without also getting stuck.
Well, we weren’t about to spend the night in the middle of the road. By this point the sun had reappeared and the road felt marginally drier, so we decided to give it a whirl. After all, what did we have to lose? It was slow going and still very slippery but against all odds we did it! We made it to the pavement! I’m really grateful Chelsea was the one driving when this happened; I’m 99% certain that if it had been me, we would have ended up in the ditch. We might still be there.
Lesson learned. Don’t drive dirt roads in Nebraska if there’s even the smallest possibility of rain. The locals seem to know this but, having never encountered a road made of bentonite before, we had absolutely no idea. Some ‘impassable when wet’ signage is something they might want to consider.
And the weather wasn’t quite done with us yet. We were now running about an hour later than planned, so rather than reaching our hotel in South Dakota by nightfall we found ourselves driving in the dark through the most massive and intense thunderstorm I’ve ever seen in my life (and I’ve spent most of my life living in places where thunderstorms are very common). The only way I can describe it is that we were driving inside a giant strobe light that was pelting us with sheets of rain and hail while trying to blow the car off the road. It was constant lightning for at least half an hour, flashes as bright as daylight followed by brief moments of complete darkness. It was extremely difficult to drive in. We eventually were able to find a safe place to pull over to wait it out.
Not entirely the evening we’d had planned. But we didn’t have to spend the night in the middle of a dirt road in Nebraska, so I guess it could have been worse.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Toadstool Geologic Park is located in the Oglala National Grassland, about 25 minutes northwest of the town of Crawford, Nebraska
- Fees and passes: From May-Nov there is a $3/car fee for day use (half price with America the Beautiful or other Interagency Pass)
- Hiking: we took the 1 mile (1.6 km) interpretive loop trail through the badlands terrain, but there are a couple longer hiking options available as well
- Where to stay: there is a campground here with restrooms and tables but no water; the closest town with lodging is Crawford, Nebraska
- Other: in case it wasn’t clear from above, never ever ever attempt to drive here if there’s any chance of rain… no matter what kind of car you have. And if you’re here and it does start to rain, plan to stay put until the roads dry out.