A Guide to Nebraska's Great State Parks
Great, plains. No truly. Great Plains. There's tons of beauty to be found in the state of Nebraska, from untouched prairies to the scenic Sandhills to ponderosa pine forests to rushing rivers. Much of it is preserved in state lands, a total of 76 protected areas like historic parks, state parks and recreation areas. Here's a breakdown of eight great state parks in Nebraska.
Fort Robinson State Park
This northwest Nebraska gem covers 22,000 acres and even has its own buffalo and longhorn herds. Its centerpiece and namesake is the former fort, which dates to the Old West of the 1870s. Visitors can see the park's highlights, like the surrounding buttes, via a horse-drawn carriage or Jeep tours. And, with 60 miles of hiking trails, 20 miles of equestrian trails, and 20 miles of biking trails, it's an outdoor lovers' dream. Guests can also enjoy a free rodeo experience every Thursday evening in the summer season, along with multiple shows at the Post Playhouse. Fishing, swimming, camping, picnicking and golfing round out the park's offerings. Fort Robinson State Park is also an excellent destination for group travel and has been nationally recognized as a family reunion spot.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
Sandwiched between the state's two largest metros, Omaha and Lincoln, Eugene T. Mahoney is the most-visited state park in Nebraska. Mahoney State Park boasts many amenities, including an aquatics center, high ropes course, an indoor rock climbing wall, and an observation tower. The lodging here is another primary reason to visit, with the Peter Kiewit Lodge and its 40 rooms as the star attraction; 57 cabins are also onsite. Other activities like swimming, biking, hiking and camping plus winter offerings such as sledding, Nordic skiing and ice skating make Mahoney a year-round delight.
Related: The Best Midwest State Parks
Ponca State Park
Situated in the picturesque Missouri River bluffs of northeastern Nebraska, Ponca State Park is the eastern gateway to the 59-mile section of the Missouri National Recreational River, one of two picturesque, unchanneled stretches of the river bordering Nebraska. Comfortable lodging, special events like the Missouri River Outdoor Expo, and sweeping views of the river have made Ponca a popular destination for all types of gatherings including family reunions and weddings.
Niobrara State Park
The word "Niobrara" comes from the Ponca tribe's word for running waters or vast waters. This park lies in the northeastern part of the state where the Niobrara, a National Scenic River, meets the Missouri, the longest river in the United States. Niobrara State Park's attractions include a modern swimming pool, cabins, multiple types of campsites, and horseback riding trails. Guests can also picnic, hike, fish, and look for wildlife like deer, wild turkey, beaver and mink.
Chadron State Park
Nebraska's oldest state park, Chadron, has welcomed visitors to the majestic buttes of the Pine Ridge escarpment since 1921. Hikers and mountain bikers enjoy access to more than 100 miles of trails in the adjacent Nebraska National Forest and 10 miles of trails inside the park itself. Camping, archery, swimming, fishing and picnicking are other popular park pursuits. There's also a seasonal trading post with hatchet-throwing, a craft center and a gift shop. Located in northwestern Nebraska, Chadron State Park covers roughly 1,000 acres.
Platte River State Park
As its name implies, Platte River State Park sits along the Platte River, famous for the annual crane migration further west into Nebraska. This eastern segment of the Platte is between Omaha and Lincoln. Interestingly, the park used to be two separate camps; travelers can even stay overnight in the vintage camp's cabins or new glamping ones. Other highlights include a two-tiered spray park for kids, access to the river for paddlers, ziplines, observation towers and a lovely waterfall.
Related: Best Minnesota State Parks
Indian Cave State Park
Southeastern Nebraska is home to the 3,000-acre Indian Cave State Park, which hugs the Missouri River and all its bluffy beauty. It was named for its star attraction, an extensive natural cave system complete with petroglyphs. The cave can now be accessed via an ADA-compatible wooden boardwalk. Visitors can traverse 22 miles of hiking and biking trails through the hardwood forests, which are stunning in autumn during peak foliage. Indian Cave State Park also has 16 miles of equestrian trails, a restored schoolhouse and river access for boaters.
Smith Falls State Park
This park is best known for its namesake, the 63-foot-high Smith Falls, Nebraska's highest waterfall. Beyond the falls, travelers will find basic campsites, a visitor center and a picnic pavilion. Smith Falls State Park also provides excellent access to the Niobrara River, a National Scenic River; canoeing, kayaking, and tubing (and tanking) are popular. Note: Access to Smith Falls is closed through May due to replacement of the walkway.
Bonus: Merritt Reservoir
Though it's technically a state recreation area, Merritt Reservoir deserves attention as it was just named an IDA Dark Sky Destination. IDA stands for the International Dark-Sky Association, which works to protect skies for future generations by limiting light pollution. This can mean more beautiful night skies as well as safer skies for migrating birds. Merritt hosts the annual Nebraska Star Party and also boasts some of Nebraska's best fishing in its north-central footprint.
How to Access Nebraska Parks
Anyone with a motor vehicle must have a Nebraska park permit to access these areas legally. Residents can expect to pay $31 for an annual permit or $6 for a day pass; the non-resident price is $61 for a yearly pass or $12 for the day option.