Thursday, January 9, 2014

The River Valleys of Highway 83: An Appreciation

The Dismal River, Nebraska
As I sit at my desk, in the dead of winter, with bone chilling temperatures outside and spring seemingly an eternity away, I scroll through the hundreds of photos I have taken along Highway 83.
Inevitably I stop at the river valleys, and remember the warmer days when I took the time to stop the car and explore these natural wonders.
Because Route 83 — aka The Last American Highway — bisects the center of the country from north to south, it intersects with some of the most famous rivers in America: the Missouri, the North and South Platte, the Colorado, Arkansas, and the
South Platte River
Red River. It hugs, but never passes over the Rio Grande.
All too often we fly by the river valleys on our way to somewhere else — perhaps glancing over the guardrail to check the water levels.
“Yup, water is pretty low,” we think in the dry months. Or “Yup, water is pretty high,” when it has been raining. Then we continue to our destinations.
Any long or short trip on Highway 83 affords travelers some real scenery in these river valleys, though.
Sometimes the road departments make it easy with scenic overlooks where drivers can pull over. Other times, you have to hunt for a piece of shoulder to pull over. But it is always worth the stop.
With some 1,885 miles of road, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are a variety of rivers and valleys. No two are exactly the same and each has their own charms.
The Niobrara and Dismal Rivers run through the breathtaking Sand Hills of Nebraska.
Bridge over the Canadian
There are convenient places to stop for both. Don’t be fooled by the Dismal River’s name. It is one of the most beautiful spots on the road, although I am biased since I spent many summers here floating down its spring fed waters on innertubes.
Travelers in Canadian, Texas, (named after the river) will find a pedestrian and bike trail on the north side of town that takes them over a repurposed bridge. Get out and stretch your legs and meet some of the locals.
The Red River and its forks cut through that famous west Texas red mud. The shoulders on the bridges are wide enough to take a walk over and appreciate all the patterns the water has cut in the channels.
The Salt Fork of the Red River north of Wellington, Texas, is where Bonnie and Clyde made their famous “Red River plunge. Read about it and see the pictures in this blog. There is a nice park here to pull over.  
The Missouri still exists in some spots. It’s mostly a memory thanks the Army Corps of Engineers. There are some places where you can imagine what it was once like, when it was wild and free. Take a short drive down from the Lewis and Clark
Missouri River from Lily Park in Fort Pierre
Interpretive Center at Washburn, North Dakota, where the sand bars still shift in the channels. Pioneer Park in Bismarck has a trail along the river and Lilly Park in Fort Pierre has a view of where the Bad River empties into the big muddy.
Highway 83 crosses over both Platte River channels at North Platte. I actually took some nice pictures of the sunset over the South Platte a few years ago. You would never know that there 18-wheelers rumbling a few feet behind me, and backlit fast food and motel signs to my right. For a more serene experience, head to Cody Park on the north side of town to see the North Platte.
It would be easy to dismiss the Arkansas River south of Garden City, Kansas, simply because it doesn’t have any water. But it has its own unique charms. I spend an hour walking its channel, lined with stately cottonwoods, inspecting rounded pebbles brought here over the millennia from the Rockies. Maybe one day these day, the Colorado farmers will let the water flow again.
San Saba River, Menard, Texas. Highway 83 in background
Ditto for the Cimarron in southern Kansas and the Beaver in the Oklahoma Panhandle. If there weren’t a sign, or a blue line on a map, you may not know that they are considered river valleys. (Caution: I parked the car to take some pictures at the Cimarron and encountered two very large snakes. Neither had rattles, fortunately.)
Texas Hill Country has the famous Rio Frio, loved by sportsman, canoeists and innertubers. This is as close as one gets to the feel of being in the mountains on Highway 83.
The scenic town park in Menard, Texas, is a must-pullover spot to take in the San Saba River, where Spanish colonialists once walked. The Highway 83 bridge passes over the park.
And finally, there is the Rio Grande. Highway 83 never intersects it, but its presence is felt all along the southern stretch of the road.
Scenic view of Rio Grande, Roma, Texas
There are a dozen spots one can drive to a short distance from the route. Bird watchers love this region. The easiest and most historic spot to see the Rio Grande is the town of Roma, Texas, the terminus for steamships when they once plied these waters. Many of the buildings from those days are still intact. There is a scenic overlook here next to the downtown, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Red River mud
There are so many others I didn’t mention: the three Loup Rivers in the Sand Hills, the Souris (Mouse) Loop, the White River in South Dakota, the Republican south of McCook, the Brazos forks — the list goes on.
So the next time you’re traveling down Highway 83 and need to stretch your legs, or feel the need to get your fishing line wet, take the time to see one of the dozens of Highway 83 river valleys.  

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at
 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 

1 comment:

  1. Just finished reading and enjoying all your blog entries. I first met Highway 83 in Mission, Texas, where my grand father had moved, in 1962. The next fall, after spending my entire life in Bellevue, NE, my family moved to McCook, NE. I didn't live in McCook long but had a great time there and still visit occasionally. On a visit in 2008, I met Dale Cotton while touring the old airfield with a friend. While I lived in McCook they had a national glider event at the old airfield, I'll never forget seeing the gliders on trailers with their wings detacked and folded back.