Lake McConaughy, Nebraska
Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area, western Nebraska
Access: Take Exit 126 (Ogallala) off Interstate 80, about 25 miles from the Colorado state line. Head north through Ogallala about 2.7 miles to Route 61. Take a right on Route 61 and follow it for 10 miles to the State Recreation Area. There is a fee to enter the recreation area.
Map: Simple map of Lake McConaughy
Lake McConaughy (ďMa-coní-a-hayĒ) is a very large reservoir in western Nebraska created by the Kingsley Dam on the North Platte River, and seems to be the recreation center of the state. It is about 15 miles long and 3 miles wide at full pool, though some years you could almost throw a rock across it. I first traveled to Lake McConaughy in July 1997 with Andra, Amber, Matt, Val and Chris. We arrived after dark and set up camp beneath cottonwoods on the sandy beach. We soon started a campfire, and enjoyed our gritty hotdogs with gritty mustard and gritty soda. The sand was so fine, it got into everything we ate. We got used to that. What we did NOT get used to were the black flies, and itís hard to deny that we had a miserable time because of them. Sorry to report so, but thatís just the plain, simple truth, unanimous at that. The tiny black biting flies were murderous and as long as the sun was up, they were biting. One either had to swim very far out into the lake or remain completely covered with towels and clothing to escape them, and even then it wasn't always foolproof. I awoke inside my towel cocoon many times to feel flies that had crawled under my towel biting the crap out of me. Mattís strategy was to wade out into the lake about 30 feet until only his head was above water, but the flies came after him and bit his scalp. Several of us took a tiny inflatable dingy far out into the water, but too much weight in the raft punched a hole in it and we had to swim back to shore. Oh, little flies, that canít be too bad, right? Wrong. They hurt like a needle being driven into your skin. Itís just hard to overstate how miserable those flies made it.
It is an excellent lake to swim in though, and during those periods where we were energetic enough to swim far out from shore in the clear water, we had a grand old time. As a rule, I will not swim in water that I cannot see through. I know there are no giant freshwater sharks, but trust me there actually are, and I want to see them coming before I die and therefore refuse to swim in murky lake water. Lake McConaughy, by virtue of its crystal clear water, was safe enough to swim in, and I enjoyed the cool water in the heat of the day very much. The beaches are wide and sandy like an ocean's, and the water is cool and clear, with a nice smooth sandy bottom thatís easy on the feet. We saw bass, occasionally, darting along the current in the clear water. We stayed two nights on the north shore, near Arthur Bay, and were swamped by thousands of campers, such that our tent was no more than ten feet away from the next, and the entire beach was like that. There is little fun in that kind of communal camping for me. I like my space.
We found that by hiking inland, we
were able to get away from the flies which seemed to lurk only along the
shoreline. On the plateaus above the water, either from wind or by distance,
we were free of them. Matt and I brought our kites along from our Sand
Dunes trip, and enjoyed those for awhile, perhaps the last time that Buzz
Lightyear kite ever made it skyward. I also brought along my boomerang,
and played for quite some time before getting it stuck in a cottonwood.
Andra helped me look for it and since we had just started dating, it provided
a nice excuse to get away from the group for awhile
The second time I visited Lake McConaughy, in August 1999, Andra and I went by ourselves, taking along our English Pointer Frank, who was about 2 years old. As in 1997, we left Friday after work and arrived late at night on the north shore and set up camp. We were there no more than twenty minutes before a guy rolled his giant trailer down the beach to within ten feet of our tent. I actually started running up to his truck to stop him as I didnít think he had seen us. Turns out he had, just decided he needed to be real close. The truck doors opened and out spilled 4 screaming kids, putting Frank on edge, and me too. What had been a quiet, peaceful evening was instantly transformed as the man fired up his generator and they began watching television in the camper with all the lights on. Andra and I were both displeased. Jerk. Hard to sleep with a generator going 10 feet from your head. The next morning I got up at dawn before the sleeping campers next to us and waded in the still water. Frank had never been swimming before, and I was anxious to see how he'd take to it. He swam very fluidly from the start. I enjoyed swimming with him in the early morning when it was still quiet and cool. I could hear each little splash he made and the funny manner he breathed in the water. The water of this lake is still for only 20 minutes of daylight each day, before the speedboats and jet skis foul the water and air with smoke, noise and waves. After wading for twenty minutes, I went back to shore and was assaulted by a swarm of flies. I tried to jog away from them, but they stuck ....like, uh, flies. If I was uncomfortable, Frank was absolutely miserable. He had flies by the thousands plastered on him sucking his blood through his thin and unprotective layer of fur. I tried to keep them off of him, but every time he stopped running, they were on him immediately. I got him back into the tent with as few flies as possible and explained the hellish situation to Andra, who was reading her book. We decided that, given the crowded beach, the loud campers next door and Frank's problems with the flies, that we would leave this area and go to the south shore in search of more secluded areas. We didn't even take down the tent completely, or pack up our sleeping bags. We yanked everything up and threw it in the back seat of the car as it was, drawing quite a few stares from early-bird campers, and sped off.
The south shore proved quite an adventure. We traversed a 4-wheel drive road in Andraís Toyota Corolla to get there, and found abundant isolated beach space. It wasn't nearly as large or nice as the north shore, but it was free of flies and people. Andra and I found an idyllic location on the shore near Kelly Canyon with several hundred feet of beach buffer between us and the next camp. Here we lazed the day away in the water and in the shade of giant cottonwoods, enjoying the cool breeze and playing frisbee with Frank by the hour. He was the go-go doggy until mid afternoon when he collapsed from exhaustion and didn't move for the rest of the day. The funniest thing was when I would pick him up while he was swimming in the water. If he was still touching water, he would slowly paddle his feet in obedience of his instinct, even though he was being held securely almost completely out of the water. It was a panic. That night we cooked hot dogs on an open fire on the beach with the waves crashing softly on the shore. The wind picked up severely that night and by morning it was threatening to rain. We hated to leave so early in the day, but itís not fun hanging out at the beach in a thunderstorm. We packed up camp hurriedly and got the car packed just as it first started to shower. It rained the entire way back to Ft. Collins.
In August 2002, we again attempted a trip to Lake McConaughy. Andraís dog Makenzie was about 5 months old, and we were eager to introduce her to swimming in a big lake like we had Frank in 1999. Instead of attempting to drive there on Friday night, inevitably arriving late and having to set up camp in the dark, we got up super early on Saturday morning and drove out there, arriving before noon. Turns out 2002 was a terrible year for water in reservoirs across the high plains. Lake McConaughy was darn near dry. We found the wonderful spot we had camped at in 1999 with Frank, but this time it was over a mile to the water across loose sand. We all walked out to the water and waded into it some, but it stank, and the bottom was more muck than sand. Neither of us were inclined to go swimming. So, after a couple of hours of trekking around, we went back home. Good thing gas was cheap back then!
Overall I'd have to say my time at Lake McConaughy hasn't been stellar. Except for the one day of peaceful swimming in 1999, the rest of the trip times were dominated by too much motorized activity, too many people, too much noise, too much developement and too many bloodsucking insects (no doubt drawn to the amazingly high density of willing prey). I think I can safely say I've seen the last of Lake McConaughy.