While over the years, Nebraska has garnered a reputation as a “fly-over state” full of cornfields and uninteresting pastures, our amazing state really is so much more. In fact, did you know that Nebraska is home to five national parks? Or that we also lay claim to more than 50 state recreation areas?
To help dispel your belief that Nebraska is just full of cornfields and dust—and give you a few ideas on how to spend your summer—we’ve crafted a guide to Nebraska’s many national and state parks. Read on to learn more about the rich history of these areas and a few things you can do when you visit. Have fun!
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In northwest Nebraska, you’ll find a small park filled to the brim with history. Located in a unique, unglaciated area of the High Plains, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument contains important information about the life of the mammals in the Miocene Epoch. The park was once home to prehistoric creatures like the Dinohyus, Stenomylus and Menoceras—and these animal hoofprints and layers of fossilized bones can be found throughout Agate. While the area has long since been excavated, park visitors can still explore the area’s rolling hills, rock formations, museums and more.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of the most significant and enduring events since the westward expansion of the United States. The act granted 160 acres of free land to claimants, giving any person (including immigrants, women and those formerly enslaved) a “fair chance.” It made the dream of westward expansion a reality for millions of men and women—and Homestead National Historic Park in Beatrice commemorates the effects this act had on the landscape and people of the western United States. Here, visitors can explore peaceful homestead land, museums, historical monuments and more. Click here for a list of everything you can see, do and learn at Homestead National Historic Park.
The longest river in the United States is the Missouri River, which runs for more than 2,340 miles and spans from northeastern Nebraska to southeastern South Dakota. The Missouri National Recreational River is a 100-mile stretch of the river—along with 20 miles of the lower Niobrara River and 8 miles of Verdigre Creek—offering recreational activities like boating, fishing and bird watching. Because of its size and different types of scenery, you could spend days exploring the area. If you only have a couple of hours, don’t miss the Audubon Bend Wildlife Area or Ponca State Park. If you’re planning to spend the day here, check out the NPS’s “Plan Your Trip” tool that will help you plan your entire itinerary.
While the full Niobrara River begins in Wyoming, and winds more than 500 miles across northern Nebraska, in 1991, a small section of it was designated as a national scenic river. Located in northern Nebraska, approximately 300 miles northwest of Omaha, the Niobrara National Scenic River offers 76 miles of “free-flowing fun.” Featuring a little something for everyone, this national park is a destination for river recreation lovers. Float the Niobrara River on a canoe, tube or kayak. Hike, bike or go wildlife watching throughout the park land. Or go on a hunt for waterfalls hidden throughout the area!
Towering 800 feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff has served as a landmark for westbound travelers for centuries. In fact, it was so important that it became the first US national monument in 1919. Located near the city of Gerring in western Nebraska, this National Park Service site protects over 3,000 acres of historic overland trails, mixed-grass prairie, rugged badlands, towering bluffs and, of course, incredible rock formations. Visitors can reach the top of the bluff on the 1.6-mile Saddle Rock Trail or in a car on the Summit Road. From the top, you can catch site of Nebraska’s gorgeous prairie land as well as parts of the historic Oregon Trail.
Nebraska’s first state park, Chadron State Park, was founded in 1921 and is nestled among the distinctive buttes and canyons of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge. Since its founding almost a century ago, this park remains a popular spot for camping, hiking, fishing and more. Between the trails in the park and in the adjacent Nebraska National Forest, a hiker or biker will find more than 100 miles of beautiful trails and old roads suitable for all experience levels.
Photo courtesy of Nebraskaland Magazine & Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
Located halfway between Omaha and Lincoln, Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is a popular outdoorsy retreat for residents of both cities. Perfect for visits year-round, this state park is home to an aquatic center and indoor playground, hiking and biking trails, a treetop ropes course, an observation tower, indoor rock–climbing wall, sledding, ice skating and the Peter Kiewit Lodge. The park also offers an arts and crafts center, an array of cabins, as well as ample camping opportunities.
Established in 1820 on recommendation by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Fort Atkinson was the first U.S. military post west of the Missouri River. Today, much of the historic outpost has been reconstructed and is open for visitors looking to get a little taste of American history. Bring the whole family to enjoy one of the living history demonstrations, which take place throughout the summer and fall and typically includes actors playing fur traders, coopers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and more. You may even witness a cannon blast!
One of the most popular parks in Nebraska, Indian Cave State Park spans more than 3,000 acres on the Missouri River. It has gained quite a reputation for its picturesque camping sites, as well as for the 22 miles of gorgeous hiking and biking trails! Take an afternoon to explore all this amazing park has to offer, specifically the iconic sandstone cave in the center of the park that gives this natural oasis its name.
Situated at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers on Nebraska’s northeastern border, Niobrara State Park offers visitors a wide array of outdoor experiences, from camping and picnicking to swimming, boating, fishing and hiking. Some of the most popular attractions include the summer Buffalo Cookouts, wildlife watching, wrangler-led horseback riding, and the J. Alan Cramer Interpretive Center, which not only highlights the history of the area, but also offers an exceptional view of the entire park.
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Located a few miles from both Lincoln and Omaha, Platte River State Park is known for its magnificent waterfall, scenic hiking and biking trails, and dual observation towers featuring views of the Platte River Basin. If you’re looking to make an overnight trip of your visit, your options range from charming vintage cabins and teepees to first-come, first-serve tent campsites.
Ponca State Park is set on the picturesque Missouri River bluffs in northeastern Nebraska. Due to the spectacular scenery, wildlife viewing opportunities and varied lodging options, the park is one of Nebraska’s most–visited outdoor getaways! Enjoy a wide range of fun activities for the whole family, including biking, golfing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, horseback riding, a shooting range and so much more.
Home to Nebraska’s highest waterfall (also called Smith Falls), Smith Falls State Park is a popular destination for campers, canoers, kayakers, tubers and others who visit the area and want to experience the beautiful Niobrara River. This area is a part of the Niobrara Scenic River area, which we discussed a little earlier, featuring a plethora of year-round activities for outdoor enthusiasts. Founded in 1992, this area is not only home to some beautiful waterfalls, but it is also an area of biological significance where evidence of several ice age species can still be found.
We hope you have a great summer full of fun and exploration! Which of these national and state parks are you planning to visit first this season? Let us know in the comments below!