Nebraska state park trails offer something for everyone. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, snowmobiling and cross country skiing are all trail activities offered within Nebraska’s state park system. If you’re interested in wildlife watching, if you’re heading outdoors with little ones, or if you are just looking for your next adventure, find our recommendations for the best Nebraska state park trails for your trip.
If you’re looking for ways to spend time with family, consider hiking at these 10 Nebraska state parks. These spots offer family-friendly trails set within scenic areas filled with amenities and attractions perfect for whiling away a summer’s day.
Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area: This park area offers camping and hiking next door to Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, making it easy to tour the ranch house and barn that Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody built for his home during the heyday of his famous Wild West Show. Browse through a wealth of Cody memorabilia during your self-guided tour, and then take a break to wander the 5 miles of trails, which are rated “easy.”
Smith Falls State Park: Scenic Smith Falls State Park is home to Nebraska’s highest waterfall, also called Smith Falls. The state park is a popular destination for campers, as well as canoers, kayakers, tubers and others who visit the area to experience the beautiful Niobrara River. The park features short looping nature trails, along with restrooms and areas for picnicking.
Chadron State Park: Nestled in the Pine Ridge’s distinctive buttes and canyons, Chadron State Park is a popular spot for camping, vacations and even family reunions. Nearby attractions like Fort Robinson State Park, Agate Fossil Beds, Toadstool Geologic Park and others also make it an attractive spot. Park activities include fishing, camping, swimming and, of course, hiking. Chadron State Park offers 6 miles of mostly shaded hiking trails, and another 4 miles of mountain biking trails.
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area: Situated high in a rocky escarpment in the Wildcat Hills, this park offers indoor interactive displays, interpretive programming, shooting sports and the exploration of more than 1,000 acres of wilderness. The nature center offers a stimulating learning environment perfect for kids, and the family-friendly Wildcat Hills Shooting Sports Complex provides diversion, too. Families can enjoy hiking the nature trail loop, which at just half a mile long, provides a nice family hike with a few ups and downs.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park: Called “the Pompeii of prehistoric animals” by National Geographic, Ashfall Fossil Beds features a live dig and displays of carefully preserved, intact skeletons. Nearly 12 million years ago, volcanic ash engulfed this ancient watering hole, entombing innumerable animals. Visit the Rhino Barn to see them, and view interpretive displays and a working fossil preparation laboratory at the Visitor Center. Take a break to stroll a short looping nature trail.
Fort Kearny State Recreation Area: Fort Kearny has plenty of amenities for a relaxing summer day, including camping, modern restrooms, drinking water, picnic tables, grills, an accessible fishing pier, showers and more. The park also includes a mile-long nature trail and the unique Fort Kearny hike-bike trail, which crosses both channels of the Platte River and was once a segment of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. The Fort Kearny hike-bike trail is a 1.77-mile segment of the 13.10-mile trail that connects Fort Kearny SRA to Cottonmill Park and other trail segments throughout the city of Kearney.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park: This modern state park is the perfect destination for a family escape. Families can visit the aquatic center and indoor playground, adventure through the treetop ropes course, play mini golf, ride horses, climb the observation tower or enjoy indoor rock climbing. A paved trail throughout the park makes it easy to venture from one attraction to the next, while the Railroad Trail takes visitors on a stroll through the trees near Peter Kiewit Lodge.
Arbor Lodge State Historical Park: This beautiful estate in Nebraska City was home to J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day. From its beginning in 1855 as a four-room frame house, the magnificent mansion grew to 52 rooms through several remodelings. Authentic furnishings grace the rooms and displays capture the life and times of this noted figure. The park also includes an arboretum, Italian terraced garden, log cabin, more than 200 varieties of lilacs and a tree-themed playground. Several short nature trails are available, including a lilac walk.
Schramm Park State Recreation Area: Visitors refer to Schramm Park State Recreation Area as a hidden gem nestled among the rolling hills of the Platte River valley. Families can explore a geologic display, feed fish in cool water trout ponds, tour the Schramm Education Center and enjoy a picnic on the bluffs. The park is also a noted destination for birdwatching. Enjoy the scenery and take a walk on the 1.5-mile loop, which is ideal for families and offers interpretive signage highlighting the flora and fauna of the park.
Johnson Lake State Recreation Area: Excellent camping, fishing and water sports are hallmarks of this popular area, just 10 miles south of Lexington. This recreation area packs a lot of outdoor fun in 68 acres and provides three access points to the 2,068-acre lake. It also offers many picnicking areas and a playground. Take your time and enjoy a leisurely stroll on a hiking trail encircling the lake.
Nebraska has many opportunities thanks to our diverse habitats – everything from prairie to ponderosa pine, wetlands and more than 23,000 miles of rivers and streams. Nebraska’s state parks are an ideal place to see the wildlife they hold, with a vast number of trails located in natural settings.
Here are some of the best parks for wildlife watching:
Ponca State Park: One of Nebraska’s most visited state parks, Ponca State Park is popular for its forested hills, scenic vistas – and great wildlife watching. Observers have tallied a bird list of nearly 300 species for the park and surrounding area, and during peak migration in late April and early May, the park is a hotspot for both amateur and experienced birders. Turkeys also are a common sight at the park, and if you’re lucky, you may spot white-tailed deer along the park’s 22 miles of trails.
Rock Creek Station State Historical Park: History buffs will love exploring this former Pony Express station where James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok began his bloody gunfighting career. But it’s also a great place for birdwatching: More than 6 miles of trails offer outstanding birding opportunities. The prairies host a variety of grassland species, such as grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels and lark sparrows, with barred owls in the woods and bell’s vireo in the shrubs. Watch for Louisiana waterthrush and northern rough-winged swallows along the creek.
Branched Oak State Recreation Area: This park features the largest lake in eastern Nebraska and has long been a popular spot for fishing, boating and camping. It also offers 7 miles of hiking trails, with a multi-use trail along the south side of the lake that provides great wildlife viewing. The lake attracts many birds during early spring, such as gulls, waterfowl and loons. Many species of ducks, as well as double-crested cormorants and American white pelicans, are common during migration. Upland game birds and deer also can be spotted at the park.
Pawnee Prairie Wildlife Management Area: Only 2 miles from the Kansas border, this wildlife management area features native prairie, woodlands, ponds and creeks, which support northern mockingbirds, Carolina wrens, upland sandpipers and loggerhead shrikes. A flock of about 20 greater-prairie chickens gather on a lek near the center of the prairie, about three-quarters of a mile from the perimeter parking lots. No permanent blinds are available, but temporary blinds are allowed; bring one to view the birds in early mornings or late evenings from mid-March to mid-April.
Fort Kearny State Recreation Area: Looking for a place to view sandhill cranes? Fort Kearny is a great spot. From the hike/bike trail 1 mile east of the fort, visitors can see cranes arriving and leaving the river in early morning and late evening, from late February through early April. The trail is well-maintained and handicap accessible. Throughout the year, you can see many bird species from this spot, including bald eagles, geese and ducks in the winter. Stop by the visitor center at the historical park just 1.5 miles west to learn about sandhill crane migration during the peak season.
Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area: Located on the east side of Kingsley Dam and massive Lake McConaughy, Lake Ogallala is a well-known fishing destination – and very attractive to a variety of birds. Visitors can view migrant ducks, ospreys, Caspian terns, cliff swallows, gulls, American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and other summering species, as well as Canada geese and numerous bald eagles in winter. Camping spots are available along the western and north shorelines of the lake, where the deciduous wooded habitats shelter a rich array of nesting passerines.
Niobrara State Park: Situated at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers on Nebraska’s northeastern border, Niobrara State Park offers visitors an array of outdoor experiences, including wildlife viewing. Both white-tailed deer and wild turkeys roam freely throughout the park, and beaver, muskrat and mink prowl the riverbanks. The park also is home to a wide range of birds, including whip-poor-wills, woodpeckers, warblers, shorebirds, and bald eagles and ospreys in season.
Fort Robinson State Park: This stunning park comprises more than 22,000 acres of exquisite Pine Ridge scenery and supports a variety of species, including bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn and elk. Laced with 130 miles of hiking trails, this park also offers birding opportunities, including chances of seeing species found in the western United States. Search rocky escarpments for nesting rock wrens, golden eagles and prairie falcons. Other species found in the park area include Bullock’s orioles, lazuli buntings, dark-eyed juncos and spotted towhees.
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area: Situated high on a rocky escarpment in the Wildcat Hills, this park offers an escape to the region’s signature rugged topography. An array of wildlife roams here, including wild turkeys, deer, bobcat and coyote. The rugged terrain and ponderosa pines also provide habitat for western bird species. Stop by the visitor center’s bird feeders to see red crossbill, red-breasted and pygmy nuthatches, Cassin’s Finch and lesser goldfinch. Elsewhere in the park, spotted towhees, blue-gray gnatcatchers and common poorwills can be spotted; several raptors, such as golden eagles and prairie falcons, are good possibilities as well. Traverse the park’s 3 miles of trails and keep your eyes out.
As you’re observing wildlife, remember to keep your distance so animals remain comfortable. Choose a good vantage spot, sit for a while, and take in the sights and sounds that these beautiful places have to offer.
Horseback riding is a great way to get outdoors and see the diverse beauty of Nebraska — via miles of extensive equestrian trails in your state parks.
With beautiful scenery, amenities for horse and rider, and considerable acres to roam, here are nine Nebraska Game and Parks locations every equestrian should put on their list for this year.
Fort Robinson State Park: Located in Nebraska’s scenic Pine Ridge, Fort Robinson is truly a horse rider’s paradise. The park offers 20 miles of equestrian trails and great accommodations for both horse and rider. Put your horse up in one of the many stalls available in the large barns, while you kick back at a campsite, lodge room or spacious cabin. Many more miles of trails can be found in Nebraska National Forest land adjacent to the fort.
Branched Oak State Recreation Area: Featuring the largest lake in eastern Nebraska, Branched Oak is a popular recreation spot – and can accommodate equestrians, with 6 miles of interlocking multipurpose trails and a horse camp. Trails wind through trees, open grasslands and scenic overlooks, and the horse camp offers 15 electrical rock pad campsites, water, restrooms, grills, picnic facilities, an accessible mounting ramp, hitching posts and corrals.
Summit Lake State Recreation Area: Named in honor of Nebraska Game and Parks’ 100th anniversary, the Centennial Trail at Summit Lake provides new opportunities for riders in northwest Nebraska. The trail covers more than 10 miles and follows the perimeter of the park. It also features a rock crossing through the lake, a unique feature. Game and Parks plans to add equestrian campgrounds to the park in 2023 or 2024.
Danish Alps State Recreation Area: Take a leisurely ride around the 219-acre Kramper Lake at Danish Alps, named for the early Danish settlers in the area. Besides the scenic horse trail, the park also offers an equestrian campground with 14 horse corrals, hitching posts and water. Stay for fishing, camping and picnicking opportunities at this park in Dakota County.
Lewis and Clark State Recreation Area: Riders at this park can enjoy more than 6 miles of heavily wooded and scenic lake overlook trails, which make for the perfect outdoor adventure. You can also take advantage of a campground with corrals for horses, water, restrooms and picnic areas.
Willow Creek State Recreation Area: Located 1.5 miles southwest of Pierce, scenic Willow Creek State Recreation Area offers a 10-mile horse trail encircling Willow Creek Reservoir and an equestrian campground. All 10 camping sites have paved pads, 20-, 30-, and 50-amp electrical hookups, picnic table and fire ring. This lakeside campground also includes 10 barbless wire fence corrals, hitching posts and a water hydrant.
Pawnee State Recreation Area: Enjoy a scenic ride around the lake with Pawnee’s 6 miles of multipurpose trails. For those who wish to camp with their horses, Pawnee offers a primitive camp that includes picnic tables, drinking water, fire rings and pit toilets. The area has mature trees that provide plenty of shade.
Rock Creek Station State Historical Park: Known as the site where James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok began his bloody gunfighting career, Rock Creek Station has a rich history. Take a trip back in time and ride at this former stage and Pony Express station, which offers 5 miles of trails and a horse camp with 20 corrals, water for horse and rider, picnic tables and grills. Additional riding is available at the adjacent Rock Glen Wildlife Management Area, though riders must observe special regulations.
Two Rivers State Recreation Area: One of the most popular recreation areas in the state, Two Rivers can accommodate equestrians as well. It offers about 12 miles of wooded trails both in the recreation area and the adjoining Two Rivers Wildlife Management Area, though trails in this area are closed during hunting season. The park also offers an equestrian campground with firepits, picnic tables, water and restrooms.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission features 10 water trails along stretches of the state’s well-known rivers and creeks. For the most part, these water trails — which cover more than 500 miles — are calm and perfect for kayaking, canoeing, tubing or even tanking. Choose a trail or a portion of the trail to suit your interests and skills.
Here are our top five, must-do water trails this year:
Calamus River Water Trail: Found in northcentral Nebraska, this river flows gently from its start in the Sandhills to the Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area. It flows even in the hottest and driest summer months because it’s fueled by groundwater from the underlying Ogallala Aquifer. The trail can be extremely meandering, with some bends curving nearly 360 degrees. Views of the gently rolling Sandhills dunes are sure to wow travelers. Though the entire trail is 56.6 miles from Nebraska Highway 7, south of Ainsworth, to Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area, the float can be broken into smaller sections.
Republican River Water Trail: This southwestern Nebraska water trail, a slow-flowing braided journey, offers the opportunity to see abundant wildlife. The best times to canoe are July and August, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases large quantities of water from Harlan County Lake. The trail is 49 miles from Harlan County Lake Dam to Red Cloud. Hot dry weather or intensive irrigation can affect the water levels, so be sure to check ahead.
Platte River Water Trail: Drop in at the canoe and kayak launch at Schramm State Recreation Area and float down the Platte River to Louisville SRA — about 4.9 river miles or about one hour of float time. The difficulty of this east Nebraska water trail varies with water level and river flow, and during the summer, the navigable channel will narrow. Except at its lowest levels, the Platte’s flow is gentle, varying from 3 to 5 mph. If you want a bigger challenge, float the whole trail: about 55 miles from North Bend to Louisville SRA where a recently completed boat ramp and canoe access facility is located on the east end of the park, just before the Highway 50 bridge.
Niobrara River Water Trail: The combination of spectacular scenery and an easy float trip have made the Niobrara River one of the top canoeing rivers in the country, drawing tens of thousands of people each year. In some spots, rock beds form short stretches of fast water, riffles and rapids (clearly marked by the Park Service), but for the most part, the flow is a lazy 2 to 3 mph along this north-central river. From the Cornell Bridge to Norden Bridge is 30.4 miles, but avid canoers and kayakers can do the entire 76-mile Niobrara National Scenic River stretch over multiple days.
Lower Missouri River Water Trail: Most of this river is wild, appearing much like it did when Lewis and Clark traveled up it in 1804. This river winds back and forth between high banks, and those on the water will see Nebraska’s high, wooded bluffs and gorgeous exposed shale. Keep in mind, the Missouri can be 25-feet deep or more in places, so remember to wear your lifejacket. Drop in at Mulberry Bend Wildlife Management Area and end at Ponca State Park for a day trip over 22 river miles. Or plan a multiday trip along the entire 57-mile segment starting at Nebraska Tailwaters Recreation Area below Gavin’s Point Dam north of Crofton, Nebraska.
Keep in mind water levels can fluctuate with weather, as well as when it’s peak irrigation time, so be sure to check conditions on the U.S. Geological Survey streamflow site, waterdata.usgs.gov, before heading out. Also remember only the water belongs to the State of Nebraska. The riverbeds and all adjacent lands are the property of the landowner through which the water flows, so be respectful of property.
Nebraska’s state parks hold a wealth of history that can be discovered by walking a few of the trails tied to the past.
Here are our top suggestions for parks to visit when you’re ready for a good stroll that allows you to explore — and experience — Nebraska history.
A major stopover on the Oregon and California pioneer trails, Ash Hollow State Historical Park near Lewellen has several trails allowing visitors to explore its history. A steep half-mile trail leads to the crest of Windlass Hill, where deep ruts carved by thousands of covered wagons are still visible. The easy half-mile Cliff Line Trail takes visitors past the 1903 rock schoolhouse, and the Ridgeline Trail by the visitor center has an amazing view of the North Platte River valley, showing where the California, Oregon trail and Mormon Pioneer trails converge. Once at the top, pause to remember those lost during the Battle of Blue Water, then stop in the visitor’s center to learn more.
Known as the site where James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok began his gunfighting career, Rock Creek Station features 6 miles of multi-use hiking trails that wind through beautiful native grasses and wooded areas. From the trail, you can view wagon ruts from westward travelers and reconstructed buildings at this former stagecoach and Pony Express station. Those curious to learn more can stop in the visitor center to see what Rock Creek Station was like during its heyday. The parks’ trails are mostly easy walking, and those who bring their horses can use an equestrian campground at the nearby Rock Creek Station State Recreation Area.
One of the earliest U.S. military posts west of the Missouri River, Fort Atkinson can claim several firsts: the first school, farm, hospital and library in what would become the state of Nebraska. The fort was active from 1820 to 1827, and several buildings have been reconstructed. Two trails are available: a half-mile path winding through native grasslands and a 1.5-mile trail leading through timber below the bluff.
Nearly 12 million years ago, volcanic ash engulfed this ancient watering hole, entombing innumerable animals. National Geographic has called it the Pompeii of the Plains. Visit the Rhino Barn to see the fossils as they are unearthed, then walk the 1-mile nature trail and imagine what the land would have looked like when prehistoric rhinos, horses, camels and birds roamed the earth. Visitors can also take the Verdigre Overlook Trail about 150 yards out to a scenic overlook of Verdigre Valley.
Named for the large sandstone cave within the park, Indian Cave State Park encompasses 3,052 rugged acres bordering the Missouri River. The cave bears petroglyphs likely carved some 1,500 to 1,800 years ago by nomadic people who used the area for temporary shelter. Though marred by modern carvings, some petroglyphs are still visible; bring binoculars to view them from the new boardwalk. Then go for a hike on Trail 11 that starts just 120 yards from the cave. The first quarter is a steep hike, so be prepared with good shoes!
Home of famed showman and scout William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park at North Platte recaptures the life and career of the famed frontiersman, Army scout and buffalo hunter-turned-showman. Tour Cody’s mansion home and barn, and then go for a walk on the 5 miles of hiking trails at the adjacent Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area. These trails are located at Buffalo Bill’s ranch, offering the chance to walk the grounds where this famous man once lived.
This beautiful estate in Nebraska City was home to J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day. The highlight of this 72-acre park is the historic mansion, with its 52 rooms and countless historic artifacts belonging to the Morton family. The park also includes an arboretum, Italian terraced garden, more than 200 varieties of lilacs and a tree-themed playground. Make sure to visit the walking trails and see trees planted by Morton himself. The trails include a lilac walk, tree trail, and trails through the whispering pines.
Discover additional information on trails — including the Cowboy Trail, water trails and more — spread across the state of Nebraska. Explore our Nebraska Trails page.
Use the interactive trail map to search for trails near you, view maps and find information on trail width, surface, permitted uses and features found along each trail in the Nebraska state park system. Explore our interactive trail map.