Lake McConaughy – Nebraska’s Largest Reservoir

Lake McConaughy, Nebraska.

We’ve driven I-80 in Nebraska many times between North Platte and the Interstate’s beginnings west of Ogallala. Our usual goal is Albuquerque by the end of the day, so we don’t have much time to stop. This summer, though, we were only going to Colorado Springs to our family reunion. We could spend a little time in Nebraska rather than just driving through. Last week, we visited Sutherland Reservoir near Sutherland, Nebraska just off I-80, west of North Platte. The next stop after our visit to Sutherland was near Ogallala. Lake McConaughy is a large reservoir of some 35,000 acres or so. As with Sutherland Reservoir, the recreation area is a secondary function. In this case, the project, built in the 1930’s employed about 1500 people during its construction.

The lake’s original purpose was for water storage in the area, but in the early 1980’s, a hydroelectric project was added to provide power to the region as well. The North Platte River is the source of water for the reservoir that headwaters in Wyoming. There is an interpretive center and several sandy beaches along the lake’s shoreline which is some 22 miles (35 km) long and 4 miles (6.4 km) wide at its maximum length and width.

At the east end of the lake you will find the reason the lake exists, Kingsley Dam, the second largest hydraulically filled earthen dam in the world when it was completed. By the way, the largest earthen dam in the world (at the time of its construction) is at Fort Peck, Montana. I have family at Fort Peck and in 2013, I posted a photo story about Fort Peck Lake you will find here. But I digress… The 162 foot (49 m) tall, 3.1 mile (5.0 km) long earthen dam has a roadway built to transit the north and south side of the lake. On the north side of the lake, State Highway 61 forms a “Y” with State Highway 92 which provides access to the north shore of the lake and the towns of Lemoyne and Belmar. That’s Highway 61 in the photo above as viewed from my drone where it transits over the dam. That small watershed visible to the right in the photograph is known as Little Lake and is part of the Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area.

Permit me one more digression as I relay an encounter with a large number of starlings. In the opening photo, you’ll notice that my Mavic Air drone appears to be approaching a large group of starlings. When I launched the drone, as it was climbing through about 30 feet (9 m) or so, probably 30 or more starlings appeared from out of nowhere. They didn’t attack the drone, kept their distance but they all began circling around it in a clockwise direction. I immediately landed the drone and the birds disappeared as quickly as they came. Launching again, at about the same height, the starlings came to call again. I suspect they were protecting their territory from what surely was a noisy intruder. This time, I went straight up and when the drone was about 50-60 feet (15-18 m), the starlings all disappeared again. For the remainder of the shoot, I kept the altitude high enough so as to not stress out the birds. When I brought it down to land, again in that sensitive airspace, they came to call, circling clockwise around the drone. In the other locations where I launched the drone, I had no more avian encounters.

The white sandy beaches along the north shore are inviting to campers. I’d purchased a day pass for $8 USD at Sutherland Reservoir and found that the pass would work for us here at Lake McConaughy as well. Overnight camping spots are available in both modern and primitive style. We stopped at a few of the shoreline stops and also at the information center located along the northern side of the lake. I submit for your review a gallery of images captured on our visit to the lake. As usual, if your browser supports it, you can click on any image in the gallery to enlarge it and scroll through the image set. Next week, we will visit our third and final stop along the western stretch of I-80 in Nebraska.

John Steiner


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