A Weekend at Merritt Reservoir

If you’ve never been to Nebraska, you probably think it’s all miles of corn with a few spots of bright Cornhusker red. While you’re not entirely wrong, there is one area in Nebraska that is unlike the rest: The Sandhills. 

Photo by Jarad Heintzelman

The Sandhills region begins about three hours from Fort Collins. The drive there takes you away from the mountains, through small towns and the winds of Wyoming. You know you’re getting close when the hills start to slightly roll and the cows (and the odd bison) seem to out-populate the humans. 

I first visited The Sandhills back in 2015. It was a quick getaway from where I was living in Lincoln, Nebr., and a favorite destination of my partner. Having lived in Nebraska my entire life, I wasn’t entirely convinced that camping “on the beach” was a realistic option, but I was quickly proven wrong.

And have been happily heading there every year since. 

If you’re interested in a relaxed weekend camping trip at low altitude, Merritt Reservoir near the McKelvie National Forest should be at the top of your list. Camping is first-come-first-served for most campgrounds, but I’ve never had a problem finding a spot after rolling in on a Friday afternoon. My favorite is the Cottonwood Area. It’s right on the shore, tucked away from other campers and has plenty of good trees for hammocking. 

Plus, who doesn’t want to have their own personal beach on the cheap? 

Once you’ve pitched the tent, take a dip in the reservoir. Don’t be alarmed that you can’t see to the bottom like you can while tubing in the Poudre River. Trust me, you’ll get used to the mystery of not knowing what lays beneath. No sharks or crocodiles in Nebraska yet. 

After lounging in the lake, grab your camp chair and take in the sunset. The light flickering off the water is enough to make you forget the chaos of the world, if only for a fleeting second. Make sure to #nebraskasunset to really cap off the experience. 

End the evening with a campfire (currently no fire ban), some s’mores, PG-rated ghost stories, and if it’s clear, the most stars you’ve ever seen. Pro-tip, head there during the Perseids to catch a meteor shower as well. There were so many shooting stars one year I had to make the same wish twice. 

Wake up in the morning with dew on your tent and the sounds of birds chirping instead of the alarm blaring. Post-caffeine and your favorite camping breakfast (oatmeal, always), head for a hike in the National Forest or a bike ride around the reservoir. You’ll hardly see anyone on the roads if you decide to bike, but if you do I’m positive they’ll wave. 

Photo by Jarad Heintzelman

Next up? A visit to Bolo Beer Co. in Valentine, Nebr. Located 30 miles from Merritt, it’s by far one of my favorite breweries in the Midwest. Give Happy Juice a try if you’re a fan of IPAs. 

Finish the day with yet another campfire and peaceful evening surrounded by nature and the feeling of a weekend well spent. And some more s’mores, of course. 

Make sure to tag @aregentostudios if you head to The Sandhills for a weekend adventure.

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