Nebraska to Wyoming, Climbing in Vedauwoo

Looking down from Turtle Rock, Vedauwoo, Wyoming.

Day one of our annual summer road trip to the west coast begins with excitement and anticipation. We’ve got wallets, purses, phones, chargers, snacks, water, books, paper, pencils, and pillows. Bags are loaded, bladders are empty. We are clear for departure. Engage turbo boosters.

[The kids think our minivan has turbo boosters, and that they’re reserved for special occasions, like on road trips and when we’re late for church.]

Lincoln is small enough that we’re soon out of the city in light traffic, flowing west on highway 80, the contiguous asphalt artery that will carry us like an oxygenated blood cell from the Nebraska heartland to the congested extremity of our trip, California.

Everyone is pumped.

The freedom of the open road, the anticipation of seeing new sights and old faces, of camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, restaurants, parties, together we’re bound for a good time, and we’re bonding on the energy and excitement. Parents have visions of free babysitting, and sleeping in while the kids watch Fox News with grandparents. The kids can almost taste the bottomless smorgasbord of pizza, soda, treats, and all-out gluttony that awaits them. Each day, they’ll consume before lunch more sugar than they’ve had in the past month.

This is going to be an epic trip.

Fast forward eight minutes and the magnitude of 1,500 miles has sunk in. The good times are so, so far away. Too much asphalt artery separates us from vacation glory. A steady stream of questions is projected from the back of the van. Hey, are the turbo boosters still on? Why not? Wait, isn’t Nebraska a city? What is a state? Can we have a snack? Now are we there?

Vedauwoo sunrise over a quiet and dry camp, last summer.

One kid mentions Wyoming, and the rest convince themselves instantly that we must have just crossed the vast expanse of Nebraska. Phew, I thought we’d never get there! Wait, we’re not there yet? Then why did someone say Wyoming? Six more hours? The positive vibes and bonding give way to irritability and then hopelessness. The blood cell has lost all its oxygen.

For the remainder of Nebraska, everyone is holding out for Vedauwoo, where we’ll stop to breath, at least for an hour or two, possibly for the night.

[Recommended reading: Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping]

Vedauwoo is an unassuming US Forest Service camping area just off highway 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie. If you’re ever passing through, I highly recommend a visit. Exit the freeway and faster than you can say, “Stop pinching your sister or I’ll tie your fingers and toes together, you just watch me, oh, you think this is funny,” you’ll find yourself on a mesmerizing hike through enormous, globular granite formations, stacks of rounded, misshapen bricks that glow orange and pink in the evening sunlight.

Camping is ten dollars, day passes for the paved areas are five. There’s also a dirt road to an unofficial looking parking area past the main entrance where you can stop, and possibly camp, for free. Take a look.

When the weather is right, you’ll see rock climbers doing their things, flaking ropes, sorting through piles of cams, some as wide as your head, in preparation for a distinctive climbing experience. Note that the bulbous bricks that characterize Vedauwoo have no mortar between them. The gaps have been flossed clean, leaving cracks and chimneys of every shape and size, some just large enough for a fingertip, bicep, thigh, or twisted foot, wedged in for stability and then upward leverage. After much squeezing, contorting, and grimacing, all while mummified in roles of athletic tape to preserve skin against abrasive granite, people are able to shimmy their way to the top. Vedauwoo is famous for this off-width style of climbing.

Some spring-loaded cams, up to size 3, for anchoring into small to medium cracks and gaps.

This summer, my oldest son and I roped up for our first climb on Vedauwoo’s iconic turtle rock, which resembles a mountainous, scraggly old tortoise resting on its belly. Having trounced around on the crag’s scree every summer since he was five, bouldering on petrified turtle droppings, it seemed fitting that my son’s first lead belay and first climb on traditional gear would be a scratch on the turtle’s shell.

Most of my son’s belay experience comes from playing on our tiny basement wall. We’ve also practiced at the local gym. One of us will climb on the auto belay, a mechanized self-tightening safety rope, while mock lead climbing on a second rope, as the other mock belays. This seemed like adequate preparation. Looking up at the route, I did pause for a moment to make sure everything felt right. It did. Harnesses, helmets, knots, and belay were all triple checked. We were ready.

First time following lead on Walt’s Wall, making his father proud.

We made it up the first pitch of Walt’s Wall, a gentle meandering ascent with ample protection (more at Mountain Project). Rated 5.4, Walt’s is mostly a steep scramble, perfect for a dad helping his 11-year-old navigate climbing on real rock. Unfortunately, after hugs and high fives at the first set of bolted anchors, a thunderstorm rolled in from the north. With lightening approaching, we decided to call it off, before getting the full body experience of off-width. Next time.

Leaving no trace at Vedauwoo after getting rained out, Turtle Rock relaxing in the background.

Rain meant an immediate departure. Tents and gear, soaked within minutes, were crammed into the roof rack, sleeping bags were strewn about the cabin, as kids clamored into boosters and car seats. An hour after arriving, we were back on the road, with 400 miles and another state to go before our next stop, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping

Another sleepless starry night at Vedauwoo. Over the past five years, the annual Vedauwoo campout has become a tradition for us, a brief but important interruption in our 1,500 mile road trip from the waterlogged Midwest to the drought-stricken west coast. Our first time through was in 2011, en route from Minneapolis to Sacramento. We’ve stopped in twice per summer ever since.

The scene doesn’t change much from year to year, whether we’re heading west, excited to get on with our vacation, or returning east, worn out and missing home. Our tired van sputters into the campground in the early afternoon, its brakes squeaking as it eases into the familiar parking spot at campsite 4. As soon as the van door rolls open the cheers and crying of countless children disrupt the peaceful serenity of the campground.

Kids scatter in every direction, each knowing almost instinctively where to go: the nearby bathroom to pee, the bush 6 inches from the van door to pee, down the hill to find a stick sword, or up the mountain because we’re here to climb and time is short.

This was Echo’s first time at Vedauwoo and first time out of Nebraska. He also knew exactly what to do: run and smell. Glorious freedom, just like on his first campout at Indian Cave. Sadly, he kept sneaking off to beg or borrow food from other campers, so we had to tie him up while we set up camp. Not everyone appreciates a 50-pound puppy hopping onto their picnic table, tongue and tail a-wagging.

With the tent staked and firewood gathered, we were ready to hit the crag. I took the oldest three and Echo straight up the most accessible of the reddish orange granite hoodoos that characterizes the area, while my wife spotted the littlest two as they bouldered on the massive scree at its base. The dog did surprisingly well, scrambling up with us no matter how high we went. I had to boost him up a few ledges, and carry him across a few crevasses, but his four paws gave him excellent traction on the slab.

The actual rock climbing at Vedauwoo is almost entirely crack and off-width (see Mountain Project). The slabby granite boulders are rounded and featureless, leaving very little to grab. We have fun for now just hiking, scrambling, and exploring. But I am looking forward to climbing Edward’s Crack and some other routes on Walt’s Wall, once my oldest is comfortable belaying.

Tradition has it that, after hiking and climbing until dusk, we cook hot dogs and s’mores over the fire, and then settle down for few hours of star gazing and not sleeping. This time, after telling stories, and then spotting a few satellites, everyone dozed off close to midnight as I tried to explain to a five-year-old what a satellite is.

Every hour or so, when I’d wake up to rotate my back or shoulder off the hard ground, I’d check on Echo, who was leashed to a large tree stump close by. For most the night it was too dark to see, and I could only hear him rusting around on his cardboard mat, not sleeping. Toward dawn, the full moon and approaching sunrise revealed his sharp profile silhouetted against the glowing horizon, as he stared and listened attentively into the darkness.

A few times Echo sent a low warning growl toward the forest below our campsite, but I don’t think he stayed up all night in fear. I think his curiosity was just overwhelming. To a puppy, everything is exciting and new, especially on his second campout. The nighttime only amplified the mystery of the unexplored outdoors that surrounded him.

Vedauwoo

Vedauwoo, pronounced vee’-da-voo, according to a forest ranger who seemed pretty smart, has nothing to do with gris-gris (voodoo) or South Korean auto manufacturers (Daewoo). It has everything to do with beautiful campgrounds surrounded by strange rock formations.

On the first leg of our journey this summer from MN to CA, we covered Iowa and Nebraska – not the most exciting states of the union, at least from our perspective on the infamous highway 80. We pulled into the Vedauwoo campground at 7 PM, after 14 hours in the van. The kids legs started spinning, like wind-up cars, and we set them loose on the first trail we could find.

That night we hiked until sunset and then had a bonfire with the leftovers from the rocky mountain bark beetle infestation. The next morning we hiked until sunrise before hitting the pavement.

Vedauwoo sunset

Vedauwoo campground

Vedauwoo rocks

Vedauwoo hiking

Vedauwoo sunrise

I highly recommend it, especially to weary road trippers who want to save on lodging. The sites are clean and spacious (28 tent sites, potable water, vaulted toilets), the rate is low ($10), and the location super convenient (only a few miles from the freeway: Google map).

See the USDA website for more info.