By Renae Blum/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
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.
Ash Hollow State Historical Park
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.
Rock Creek Station State Historical Park
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.
Fort Atkinson State Historical Park
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.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
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.
Indian Cave State Park
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!
Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park
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.
Arbor Lodge State Historical Park
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.
To learn more about these parks, visit OutdoorNebraska.org. A park entry permit is required for each vehicle entering a park.