Nebraska is the proud home of 17 state and historical parks, as well as dozens of state recreational areas. From sandstone buttes and winding rivers to national grasslands, waterfalls, fossil strewn prairies, and even a section of the Badlands, these natural areas are a treasure trove of outdoor adventure.
The Huskers share a deep sense of pride regarding the grit, independence, and exploration that’s indelibly tied to cowboy culture. These are exactly the values you’ll discover while exploring Nebraska’s wealth of wild, public land.
Here are five adventures that are awaiting you inside Nebraska’s state parks.
1. Visit a Ghost Town at Indian Cave State Park
Indian Cave State Park is located in the far southeastern corner of Nebraska. Inside its 3,052 rugged acres lies the ghost town of St. Deroin. The town was founded in 1854, and for many years flourished off the proceeds of its river ferrying service. But the same waterway that caused its success was ultimately its downfall. The river changed course, the ferry closed down, and a series of floods swamped the town at the start of the 20th century. By 1920, St. Deroin was abandoned.
Today, all that is left of the town are two cemeteries filled with crumbling headstones, the general store, a log cabin, and an old schoolhouse in surprisingly good condition. There are a number of hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty that lead into the ghost town. You are free to explore the abandoned structures at your leisure, but be warned that the atmosphere becomes decidedly eerie around sunset.
As the name suggests, the main attraction of Indian Cave State Park is a large sandstone cave where visitors can view prehistoric Native American petroglyphs. There are also 22 miles of hiking trails throughout the park, many that boast breathtaking views of the Missouri River. But for the intrepid adventurer, exploring the ghostly remains of the once thriving community of St. Deroin should be your top priority.
2. Hike the Hudson-Meng Trail to Toadstool National Geographic Monument
The Hudson-Meng Bison Kill site is an uber-remote 20-acre section of the Oglala National Grasslands, located in the northwestern region of Nebraska. The Hudson-Meng Trail, which connects the Education and Research Center of the same name to Toadstool National Geological Monument, was named by USA Today as one of the top ten trails in the country.
If you find that a bit unlikely, consider this, though the trail is little-known and only three miles long, it is seeped in cultural and archeological significance. It is also characterized by an astounding, almost unearthly natural beauty. Hikers begin by cutting through a swath of true grasslands, bringing to mind the classic portrait of the pioneer’s westward journey. You then dip down into an ancient riverbed that is scattered with fossils and the remains of bison that date back 10,000 years.
Long-ranging views of rough sandstone buttes, cliffs, and towers create a sprawling background while on either side of the trail, precariously balanced rock formations bloom like enormous stone mushrooms. The trail culminates at Toadstool National Geological Monument in the Western Nebraska Badlands. That’s correct- the Badlands. Who knew they extended outside of South Dakota?
3. Explore the Oregon Trail at Ash Hollow State Park
Windlass Hill is one of the two major attractions inside Ash Hollow State Historical Park in Garden County, Nebraska. The hill is located along the Oregon-California Trail, and marks the pioneers’ passage from the high southern tablelands to the lower North Platte River Valley. The section of paved trail that climbs up Windlass Hill is only one hundred yards long, and will not pose much of a challenge to visitors besides leaving them a bit breathless. For the approximately 400,000 pioneers that traveled through, however, the slope was a serious hazard that required dragging their wagons with the aid of ropes.
This dusty hillside is one of the few sites along the 2,170 miles of the Oregon Trail where the original wagon tracks are still visible. It is an absolute thrill to stand inside the ruts, absorbing the sweeping, desolate beauty, and imagining yourself as one of the travelers onboard the famously precarious journey.
4. Watch a Free Rodeo at Fort Robinson State Park
Fort Robinson State Park epitomizes the pioneering spirit of Nebraskan adventure. It entails 22,000 wild acres, and well over 100 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Only a handful of those trails are signed, which means you’ll need to keep your wits about you, as well as a working compass. You can find mountain bike and river tube rentals on-site, and although you’ll have to bring your own horse, there are overnight accommodations for both horse and rider.
Fort Robinson operated as a military fort from the days of the Old West until shortly after World War II. It is the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak, and the place where famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse was murdered. Before becoming a park in 1962, it served as a POW camp and a beef research station. The park even has its own herd of buffalo and longhorn sheep. Fort Robinson is a perfect mix of outdoor exploration and our nation’s history.
During the summer months, the park hosts a free, old-fashioned rodeo every Thursday evening. After a full day of biking across the grasslands, over mesas and beneath buttes, it’s time to kick back, drink a beer, and take in the authentic cowboy culture. There’s steer wrestling, bull riding, and rodeo queens. The park hosts buffalo stew and steak cookouts throughout the peak season as well. Nebraska’s version of après adventure is something you should not miss out on.
5. Tank the River at Niobrara State Park
If you’re from out of state, you’ve probably never heard of river tanking. For native Nebraskans, however, it’s considered an adventurous right of passage. A stock tank is commonly used in the region for providing water to livestock. These steel vessels can range from to 30 to 1,500 gallons. Typically, four people can fit together inside one tank to float down the river. One of the best places to experience this buoyant tradition is by floating the lazy twists and turns of the Niobrara River.
The Niobrara State Park is tucked into the hills of northeast Nebraska, and overlooks the confluence of the Niobrara and the mighty Missouri. The park offers 14 miles of trails, guided horseback rides, cabins, and primitive camping. Bazile Creek Wildlife Management Area is adjacent to the park, and offers visitors even more opportunities for boating, fishing, and bird watching.