Tag Archives: Nebraska

Missouri National Recreational River

Overview

Forming the border of Nebraska and South Dakota, the Missouri National Recreational River was originally designated in 1978, but only 300 of its 34,128 acres are managed by the National Park Service (NPS).  Its lower segment runs 59 miles from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park.  More than a decade later, a 39-mile stretch was added from the Fort Randall Dam to Niobrara State Park, and includes 20 miles of the Lower Niobrara River (which is itself designated a National Scenic River upstream).  The section of river in between is a 29-mile long reservoir known as Lewis and Clark Lake, named for the explorers that led the Corps of Discovery up this section of river in August-September 1804.

Highlights

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium, boating, fishing

Must-Do Activity

Most visitors come for the boating and fishing opportunities along the Missouri River.  If you are well-prepared, canoeing can be a fun way to experience these two relatively free-flowing sections of river.  The NPS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) manage the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center near Yankton, South Dakota, which, in addition to dam tours, offers the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium.

Best Trail

The 4,400-mile long Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail tracks through here, but since the Corps of Discovery used the Missouri River as their path, there is no hiking trail to follow.

Instagram-worthy Photo

There are several great museums along the Missouri River section of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail.  Our favorite is the NPS headquarters for the trail in Omaha, Nebraska, which has the beautiful Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the river connecting to Iowa.  If you drive over to Council Bluffs, do not miss the free museum at the Western Historic Trails Center.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/mnrr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None for the NPS unit, but the state parks charge admission.

Road Conditions

Roads to the state parks and visitor centers are paved, but there are many dirt roads that access boat launches along the river.

Camping

Niobrara State Park and Ponca State Park both have more than 100 campsites with running water.  The COE also operates campgrounds near its dams.

Related Sites

Niobrara National Scenic River (Nebraska)

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (North Dakota)

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (Oregon-Washington)

Explore More – In the aftermath of several devastating floods, when did Congress enact the Flood Control Act to construct five dams along the Missouri River?

Niobrara National Scenic River

Overview

When most folks think of Nebraska they imagine endless dusty prairie scenes of the Oregon Trail, yet between the wide Platte and Missouri Rivers also runs the 535-mile long Niobrara River.  The Niobrara cuts across the 100th Meridian of Longitude that roughly divides in half the continental U.S.  This special area is home to species representative of the eastern forests, Rocky Mountains, boreal forests, and prairies; consequently it has high biodiversity.

Highlights

Smith Falls State Park, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, canoeing

Must-Do Activity

The 76-mile section of river designated the Niobrara National Scenic River in 1991 begins within Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge where the first 4.8 miles are closed to the public.  From Cornell Bridge downstream is the most popular portion for canoers, tubers, and people who float downstream in round metal cattle troughs.  The Niobrara River has a few big Class IV rapids, but nothing more than Class II through the first 27 miles.

Best Trail

Pull over in Smith Falls State Park for a short walk to a 63-foot tall waterfall, which is interesting because it pours off a prominent ledge instead of a cut bank.  You can also drive to the state park and walk over the Niobrara River on the Verdigre Bridge, originally built in 1910 and relocated here in 1996.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Do not miss the opportunity to drive the dirt road through Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to see the bison herd, especially in May when the bison calves are born.

Peak Season

Summer, though water levels drop after June.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/niob/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None for the river, but there is a launch fee in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and entry/camping fees at Smith Falls State Park.

Road Conditions

The dirt roads in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and Smith Falls State Park are well-maintained and passable to all vehicles.

Camping

Camping options are limited since most of the river banks are privately owned, though Smith Falls State Park offers a campground ($6/person/night) and other campsites are marked on river maps.

Related Sites

Missouri National Recreation River (Nebraska-South Dakota)

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Nebraska)

Scotts Bluff National Monument (Nebraska)

Explore More – Named for a town in Nebraska, the Valentine Formation holds what types of fossils?

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Overview

Ancient mammal bones from Agate Fossil Beds can be found in museums around the world.  Excavations began at Carnegie Hill in 1904 and soon thereafter at University Hill to be shipped back to Lincoln, Nebraska.  You would never guess at the thousands of fossils removed from these nondescript hills while hiking the 2.7 miles across the prairie from the National Park Service (NPS) visitor center.

Highlights

Museum, film, Daemonelix Trail

Must-Do Activity

The NPS visitor center has an excellent display of the 20-million-year-old inhabitants of this spot, as well as a great collection of American Indian artifacts.  You can also learn about the mystery of the daemonelix, a corkscrew burrow which baffled researchers until it was eventually discovered to have been formed by palaeocastor, an ancestral land beaver.  

Best Trail

The Daemonelix Trail on the west side of the National Monument allows you to get an up close view of one of the palaeocastor’s corkscrew burrows.  A cast of this exact same formation is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Northwest of the National Monument in Oglala National Grassland, Toadstool Geologic Park is a beautiful badlands that is best photographed at sunset.  While exploring its trails, look for fossilized bones and trackways, plus be sure to visit the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center, which is open in the summer.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/agfo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The entrance road from Highway 29 in the west and through the park is paved, but turns to well-graded gravel east of the National Monument.

Camping

No camping within the National Monument, but there is a free primitive campground at Toadstool Geologic Park in Oglala National Grassland.  Fort Robinson State Park offers camping, cabin rentals, and accommodations in former military barracks.

Explore More – How did the frontiersman James H. Cook collect the impressive array of American Indian artifacts now on display in the NPS visitor center?

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Overview

If the names of Scotts Bluff and Chimney Rock sound familiar, it is perhaps because you grew up playing The Oregon Trail computer game on a Macintosh in the early 1990s.  The massive 800-foot tall sandstone cliffs enclosed within Scotts Bluff National Monument were once the unofficial one-third mark along the historic trail, as well as a landmark along the California Trail, the Mormon Pioneer Trail, and the short-lived Pony Express Trail.

Echo at Scotts Bluff

Highlights

Museum, vistas, historic trail, only road tunnels in Nebraska

Must-Do Activity

While we recommend the hike to the top from the visitor center, you should probably also drive up there, because these are the only three tunnels dug for a road in the entire state of Nebraska.

Best Trail

Saddle Rock Trail leads from the parking lot at the visitor center 1.6-miles up the 800-foot tall bluff through a tunnel carved in the sandstone for great views of distant Chimney Rock National Historic Site (an affiliated NPS unit), another prominent Nebraska landform noted by early emigrants.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Pose with the oxen sculptures pulling a wagon up Mitchell Pass in front of Scotts Bluff.

Where the Oregon Trail went

Peak Season

Summer, but watch for prairie rattlesnakes

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/scbl/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$5 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is not a campground within the monument, but the adjacent cities of Scottsbluff and Gering have RV parks.

You can also drive to the top (there are three tunnels)
The only road tunnels in Nebraska are in this National Monument.

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The trail on top of Scotts Bluff.

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Enjoy views of Scottsbluff, Nebraska and the North Platte River from atop the cliffs.

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Scott in the tunnel on Saddle Rock Trail.

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Drive east to Chimney Rock National Historic Site for another Nebraska landmark on the Oregon Trail.

Explore More – Did the U.S. Army abandon Fort Mitchell before or after completion of the transcontinental railroad?

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