We found a four-wheel-drive road (luckily an easy one) in the Nebraska National Forest southeast of Chadron, Neb., thanks to a free U.S. Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Map that we’d picked up.
We found a four-wheel-drive road (luckily an easy one) in the Nebraska National Forest southeast of Chadron, Neb., thanks to a free U.S. Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Map that we’d picked up. LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER

You wonder how travelers seem to get the utmost out of their vacation and road trip destinations – and even seemingly crazy stops along the way. How on earth do they do it?

Today I’ll offer a few bits of advice to send you on your way to becoming someone your friends will refer to as a “well-traveled,” “expert” traveler. Best of all, it’s easier than you think!

First of all, do research on your travel route and stops long before you leave home. The internet makes that easy-peasy. Dig – and I mean DIG – through the websites of places you plan to go. If you’re looking at a unit of the National Parks Service (NPS), click on every link you can find on that website. Look over available maps on that site, too, before going to Google Maps to bring up a map and then a satellite view of the area. Finding more maps? Even better!

I recall that for Badlands National Park, I found a gravesite denoted on a map within park boundaries. I’m thinking it was on a large, foldable topographic map I’d purchased for the park, but may have been present in some online map(s) as well. Then I emailed the park and, yes, received more information on what was there. I have a theory that park staff enjoy getting inquiries showing that a visitor is digging beyond the obvious. This gives them a chance to share their knowledge, or do some research and then share.

Look all over and dig into tourism and area brochures, guidebooks and more in the racks at each site you stop. Last summer at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota a small sign noted info available for a drive-it-yourself geology tour – above ground, of course. (I don’t think there are driving tours in the cave, or any cave, haha, although as I recall the size of passages in Mammoth Cave in the national park of the same name in Kentucky were big enough.)

Traveling companion Mark and I asked at the information desk, received the sheet on the driving tour and spent a couple hours or more in and out of the truck to check out rocks, take pictures, learn and enjoy it all. I don’t know; perhaps the driving tour sheet might be found on the Wind Cave website. In searching the depths of that site in the past, I recall finding a photo of our own Warren Netherton of Forestville – Mystery Cave State Park, a few miles away from Preston.

As illustrated above, don’t be afraid to ask the information desk people if there’s anything else you should see or know about. They’re a great source ready to be tapped. Let them know your interests for even more focused info. Here I’ll refer to my summer weekend job at the Preston Tourism Center, where I hope to be that fount of wisdom. I’ll ask people about their interests to steer them to appropriate publications and better share my personal knowledge. If caves are up their alley, there’s Niagara Cave and – did you know, a number of cave tours of different subject matter focus in two or more locations at Mystery Cave, including wild caving tours? Since I’ve done them, I am happy to share. Why, I’ve even done a tour in a wheelchair, if that might be a possibility for visitors.

Go ahead. ASK.

Also, take pictures of informational signs, if allowed, to have on hand to peruse each night or when you’re back home.

Another tip, this one for national forests. Stop at a visitor center and pick up what’s called a Motor Vehicle Use Map. I think they’re normally free, or possibly can be ordered online for a small fee. These maps are great! They show open and closed roads, four-wheel-drive roads, points of interest and more. Last summer, while I knew of trails in the Nebraska National Forest, I had no clue in the world there were roads for four-wheeling just southeast of Chadron. Well, we tried some out, not doing anything too tough. What fun! Even if you just want to hike, some of the low-use roads might work for you.

I guess if you want to quickly summarize these tips, it would be 1. DIG, and 2. ASK. And now – during the off-season – is the perfect time to start.

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this column weekly for about 15 years.