I-80 Adventures Off the Beaten Path

 I-80 Adventures Off the Beaten Path

Usually, Tom and Patti Burkett write our Off the Beaten Path Report – but this week their daughter Anna said that she had a trip on I-80 she wanted to share with everybody. So here it is! Anna and her friend Chris have this week's report.

By the way, before we get started – If you want to listen or WATCH this post – check out our podcast and start listening or watching around 53:40 minutes in!

Chris and I were up early this past July 3rd to complete our 2nd leg of a three-day drive from Baltimore, MD to Grand Teton National Park in WY.

Our first leg was long and uneventful and, being a Burkett, I was on the lookout. It was day two and we were going to find some interesting sites.

Chris and I took a 10 day trip to the Tetons this summer, but today we wanted to share our best day on the road.

Well, not just any road. Interstate 80. I-80.

We were up before dawn (with the time change working in favor of our early start) and we hit the road from Peru, IL.

Not long into the trip, we started craving some coffee, so we were keeping an eye out for a good place to stop, and, well, we found something extraordinary.

On highway 80, between Davenport and Iowa City, if you keep an eye on the exit signage, you can easily make your way to the World’s Largest Truckstop.

infront of the world's largest truck stop
The World's Largest Truckstop

This isn’t quite “off the beaten path,” so I expect some of you have been here.

If you have, you know. If you haven’t, it’s hard to explain the sprawling complex that includes everything from a convenience store, to a dentist, a bowling alley, and a diner. You simply have to see it.

Chris and I had fun exploring and shaking off our morning sleepiness by wandering around. We grabbed some coffee and it was back on the road! The coffee didn’t quite hit the spot – it was much too weak for my taste, but the stop was beyond worth it.

As a mural in the front of the truck stop will tell you, Interstate 80 is the second-longest highway in the US and it stretches from San Francisco to the NYC Metro area.

Our day’s drive would only take us as far as Ogallala, NE, but there was still plenty to see. We kept chugging along and had our eyes set on a stop for lunch. 

Tom (my dad) had recommended a few stops for us along the route and one happened to land right around noon – the Holy Family Shrine in Gretna, NE, between Omaha and Lincoln.

I-80 Adventures Off the Beaten Path 1

We didn’t know what to expect as we turned off the highway onto a local, then gravel road. What we found was a stunning chapel built into the NE bluffs.

The glass and wood structure is built to mimic wheat waving in the wind.

Water running through the floors creates a beautiful spot to sit and reflect, pray, or enjoy the quiet. If you spend some time in the visitor center, a docent will gladly tell you the story of their chapel which was divined through a dream, destroyed to test their faith, then re-built.

And however you interpret their story, the final product is magnificent.

Some notes if you plan to stop- the site is free, but requests donations, they have walking paths around the site if you need a stretch break, and beautiful shaded picnic tables, where we enjoyed our lunch.

We packed the cooler and hit the road again – with one final stop planned just outside Ogallala.

If you’re ever driving through NE, keep your eyes peeled because the state tourism office advertises many of their local points of interest on billboards along the freeway.

We were sidetracked by one such billboard and made a quick stop in Gothenburg to see an original Pony Express Station and read about the history of the town, settled by Swedish immigrants.

I-80 Adventures Off the Beaten Path 2
An original Pony Express station

We particularly enjoyed the enthusiastic guide, the collection of Pony Express memorabilia, and the radio channel where you could listen to the history while parked across the street. Located in a local park, this would also be a great place for lunch.

With so many great stops, our day was flying to a close and we were down on the road to the stop we had planned – the Golden Spike Tower at the Union Pacific Rail Yard.

In North Platte, NE, you can visit an observation tower that lets you look down on the largest rail yard in the US.

I-80 Adventures Off the Beaten Path 3
Golden Spike Tower at the Union Pacific Rail Yard

The ground level of the tower has a small museum and there are interpretive signs on the two observation levels. We were fascinated by the process of train “humping” (I’ll admit, we may have made an unsavory joke or two).

When “humped,” trains are pushed to the top of a small hill and then directed down different lines to be stored or connected with a train – their momentum carries them down the hill and pushes them into place.

We stood for a while and watched the process. Besides the child-like glee of watching the trains, there was something particularly entertaining about watching the single cars glide down the hill and then hearing them crash into their respective lines. 

Around dinner time, we made it to our final destination, Ogallala. Ogallala was the northernmost point of the Texas cattle drive and retains much of its old west charm.

We enjoyed dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, Golden Village, where the portions were generous and the bill was cheap (especially for us east coasters).

After dinner, we walked to the local attraction – Boot Hill.

I-80 Adventures Off the Beaten Path 4
Boot Hill

If you’re familiar with Wild West history, you may have heard the phrase “Boot Hill.” It refers to a cemetery where cowboys and passers-through were buried in a hurry, often with their boots still on.

Thus, the name was born. In Ogallala, where the cattle drovers would come and go, spending most of their time in the local pubs and brothels, Boot Hill saw a lot of business.

Today, Ogallala’s Boot Hill is just a re-creation, all of the bodies were exhumed and moved to a local cemetery years ago, but it seems like a site of great local pride.

The small site is impeccably maintained, there are brochures available and signs that tell the stories of the people previously buried there.

Even so, with a storm brewing overhead, our visit was downright eerie. By the time we read the sign about a body being found adjacent to the site less than five years ago, the hairs were raising on our arms and we were ready to make our way back to the hotel. It was early to bed for our final leg the next morning. 

If you’re ever in NE, maybe you’ll make some of these stops yourself. With a little bit of research, some good recommendations, a keen eye, and some luck, we had a great day off the beaten path.

How about that? We love it that Tom and Patti's daughter Anne and her friend Chris can enjoy these adventures too. Have YOU been to the World's Largest Truckstop or any of these places along I-80? Let us know in the comments.

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Tom and Patti Burkett

Patti & Tom Burkett spend months of the year wandering the back roads and parks of North America between stints at their home in central Ohio. No fair weather travelers, they'll go north in the winter and south any time of year. She's the photographer, he writes, and together they sing, bake, explore, and start conversations.

3 Comments

  • We took Route 30 through North Platte and stayed the night at a lovely town campground in Gothenburg. The Pony Express stop is worth the visit as is the town. We were greeted with a high and good morning by very friendly town folks. Somehow we missed the observation tower in North Platte. We find driving the back roads to be more pleasant than the interstates. Traveling at 55 is much more enjoyable and produces better gas mileage.

  • Not only is the truck stop a great destination, but behind it is the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum. They have a huge museum with beautifully restored trucks and others waiting to be restored. The information about the trucks is a trip through history. We take all our out of town company to see the museum. Afterwards we cross over the road to Granny’s Restaurant. Great place to eat. Do come back and enjoy one of our favorite places.

  • We rented an RV just this past June and traveled I-80. We saw the truck stop and planned to boondock at the Golden Spike. That planned got derailed when my husband locked us out of the RV, fortunately at a rest area that boasted a visitors center as, of course, our phones were also in the RV. We ended up staying at a campground outside Ogallala, on Lake McConaughy. Beautiful area!

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