Expecting Cornfields? Nebraska’s State Parks Are Not What You’d Expect.

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Fort Robinson, one of the Nebraska State Parks.
Fort Robinson. Photo credit: Pixabay

Don’t write Nebraska off as a flyover state. This midwest jewel encompasses the prairies of the Great Plains, the towering dunes of the Sandhills, the panhandle’s dramatic rock formations and flat-top buttes. Discover the state’s abundance of natural treasures in the Nebraska National Forest. Uncover Nebraska’s past in state historical parks. Or canoe or kayak one of the state’s scenic rivers. We’re exploring Nebraska’s extensive park system. Welcome to the heartland!

Exploring Nebraska’s Outdoor Recreation

Situated in the heartland of America, Nebraska’s topography ranges widely from flat dusty prairies to flat-top buttes rising above the landscape. The Missouri River, flowing in northeastern Nebraska, is the longest river in the United States, spanning roughly 400 miles along Nebraska’s eastern border.

Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha sits at the edge of the river. Lincoln is within an hour’s drive of the river. Lands open to public access on its banks offer excellent fishing, hunting, boating, canoeing, kayaking and many other activities.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission also offers opportunities for the public to get involved in conservation efforts. Along with river access, Nebraska State Parks provide miles of hiking trails, opportunities for horseback riding, a variety of campgrounds and plentiful wildlife viewing.

Read More: 30+ Best Midwest Road Trip Destinations

Fort Robinson State Park

Situated in the Pine Ridge region of northwest Nebraska, Fort Robinson State Park is a 22,000-acre state recreation area. A U.S. Army fort from the early days of the Old West until after World War II, Fort Robinson is steeped in history. Many original buildings remain on site today while others have been reconstructed.

A popular destination for families, the park contains a combination of Native American history and military history along with abundant recreation possibilities. Fort Robinson’s 20 miles of equestrian trails combined with miles of fire service roads lead into the Nebraska National Forest. An indoor Olympic-size swimming pool is a favorite with kids.

The Fort Robinson State Park provides 60 miles of hiking trails and 20 miles of mountain biking trails. Mountain bike rentals are available at the activity center. A $2.8 million renovation project has given new life to the park’s ponds with added fishing piers, kayak launches and more.

The on-site Post Playhouse features five musicals in rotation through the summer offering eight shows per week during the season. Free to the public, an old-fashioned rodeo is held on Thursday evenings in the summer. Additional park amenities include the Legend Buttes Golf Course and a museum operated by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Chadron State Park

Founded in 1921, Chadron State Park claims the title of Nebraska’s first state park. Nestled into one of Nebraska’s most scenic landscapes, the park sits among the flat-top buttes and canyons of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge. Spanning 974 acres, Chadron State Park remains a popular destination for family reunions and camping.

Hikers and mountain bikers flock to the park to experience trails suitable for all skill levels. Adjacent to the Nebraska National Forest, the hikers and mountain bikers also have access to more than 100 miles of trails that lace through the forest.

Placed with a lovely view overlooking the pines, the Chadron State Park swimming pool remains open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, Lifeguards are on duty. In Chadron Creek and in the park lagoon anglers fish for trout.

Additional park activities and amenities include archery, a disc golf course, historical programming, horseshoe pits, paddle boats, a playground, sand volleyball courts, a softball field, tennis, a trading post and volleyball courts. In summer months, trail rides are available for visitors six and older.

For overnighters, the park has 22 climate-controlled cabins for rent. Blankets, towels, stoves, refrigerators, silverware and cooking tinsels are included. Prefer to camp? The Chadron State Park campground offers electric and basic campsites. Amenities include a dump station, grills, picnic tables, playgrounds and showers. Half of the campsites are available for reservations up to 180 days before arrival. The remaining half are first-come, first-served.

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Eugene T. Mahoney State Park sits midway between the state’s largest cities, Lincoln and Omaha. Open year-round this modern state park provides an incredible array of activities popular with adventure-seekers of all ages.

A Go Apes Ropes Course features adrenaline-inducing zip lines along with suspended obstacles and treetop adventures. The park’s Family Aquatic Center includes a zero-entry wave pool, a swimming pool with two waterslides, a diving area and a sun deck. An indoor playground guarantees fun in any weather. In winter months, indoor rock climbing, sledding and ice skating add to the fun.

Explorations continue with a climb to the top of the Walter Scott Jr. Observation Tower for a sweeping view of the Platte River and the park. Rounding out the adventure options are hiking and biking trails, pony rides, sand volleyball courts and tennis courts.

At the heart of Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is Peter Kiewit Lodge. The lodge boasts 40 guest rooms with most offering balconies with views of the picturesque Platte River valley. The park also has 57 cabins ranging in size from two to six bedrooms.

Two campgrounds offer a total of 148 campsites. The 99 campsites at Little Creek Campground are close to a basketball court, laundry facilities and a playground. Both campgrounds have drinking water, showers and a conveniently located dump and fill station.

Platte River State Park

Nearby, the Platte River State Park provides a quiet contrast to the more modern Eugene T. Mahoney State Park. With miles of tranquil forested trails, the park attracts bird watchers, hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners. Other popular features include a picturesque waterfall and two observation towers with spectacular views of the Platte River Basin.

The peaceful setting of Crawdad Creek provides both a peaceful respite and muddy explorations. Visitors are invited to get into the water, get muddy and search for aquatic invertebrates, insects, minnows and tadpoles.

Platte River State Park also features a spray park with three waterslides, a waterfall, dump buckets and a fountain. Younger children enjoy the upper level while older kids frolic at the lower level. Popular for birthday parties, the park also features picnic tables, benches and plenty of shade.

For those interested in practicing archery or firearm shooting skills, the Roger G. Sykes Outdoor Heritage Education Complex provides a safe environment to do so in a safe environment.

Platte River State Park previously served as a Campfire Girls Camp. The vintage cabins that once housed the campers now provide cozy accommodations. Glamping cabins on site add a luxury touch to the park’s nature-immersive experience.

Poncha State Park

Located in northeastern Nebraska, Ponca State Park exists among the enticing Missouri River bluffs. The park serves as the eastern gateway to a 59-mile section of the Missouri National Recreational River. The Missouri River access, forested hills, scenic vistas and excellent wildlife watching make Ponca State Park one of the state’s most visited parks.

In the spring, the park’s wetlands serve as a stopover for migratory bird species making Ponca State Park a popular destination for bird watching. Seasonal activities at the park include bird-watching tours in spring and naturalist events in summer. When autumn arrives it’s time for haunted hayrack rides with local actors. Winter brings the park’s nationally known and entertaining Fruitcake Fling.

Ponca State Park features one of Nebraska’s most comprehensive outdoor and environmental education programs. Led by on-site staff and volunteers, the program includes interactive activities focused on natural and cultural history.

Like most parks, Ponca State Park begs exploration on 22 miles of hiking and biking trails. The park’s challenging trails are especially intriguing for mountain bikers. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the experienced wranglers lead horseback rides through the woodland bluffs to river overlooks. Summer also attracts swimmers who take advantage of the park’s aquatic center. The park also features a golf course at its southern boundary.

In September, the park hosts the Missouri River Outdoor Expo. The annual event offers visitors an opportunity to try kayaking, hiking, shooting sports, bow fishing and other outdoor pursuits free of charge.

Nebraska State Historical Parks

This is just a sampling of the wealth of outdoor activities and cultural experiences found in Nebraska’s State Parks. In addition to these and all of Nebraska’s State Parks, there are nine state historical parks to explore.

From fossils dating back 12 million years to the founder of Arbor Day and even Buffalo Bill, the state historical parks provide visitors with a glimpse into Nebraka’s intriguing history. Learn more here.

Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, road trips, soft-adventure, camping, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru to road-tripping through the jungles of Belize, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Drop her into a landscape filled with mountains, towering evergreens, waterfalls and a glacier or two and she’ll be in heaven. But what thrills her most of all is traveling with her teenage grandkids. Terri serves on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA). She also serves as the First Vice-Chair of the Eastern Chapter for the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Terri’s publication credits include AARP, Island Soul, Girl Camper Magazine, A Girls Guide to Cars, CHILLED, World Footprints, North Hills Monthly, Alaska Business Monthly, Alaska Contractor and more. Follow her on Instagram at TrippingWithTerri.
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