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Top 10 family-friendly trails in state parks

Memorial Day weekend is just around the corner. 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.

To learn more about these park areas, visit OutdoorNebraska.org. A state park entry permit is required for each vehicle entering a park.

About Jerry Kane

Jerry Kane is the news manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. He can be contacted at jerry.kane@nebraska.gov or 402-471-5008.

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