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Ponca State Park Family Guide

Ponca State Park Family Guide

Ponca State Park is tucked along the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska. It’s among the state’s most popular parks because of its access to water sports, trails, and river views.

Disclosure: Our stay was hosted by Tentrr. We paid our own expenses for activities. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.

Dawn at Ponca State Park

Where to stay at Ponca State Park

Ponca State Park has just about every camping and lodging option you could imagine for a state park: Primitive, RV sites, little cabins, fancy cabin, and just recently, there’s now a glamping option. 

Glamping

On our most recent visit, we tried the newest addition: Glamping with Tentrr. Compared to other glamping experiences we’ve had, it’s a lot more “camping” than others, but also had a much better campsite and view that the others.

Tentrr Double campsite at Ponca State Park in Nebraska

We stayed at a double site, which was perfect for my family of four. It included to Tentrr tents, which each had a queen bed, picnic table, an extra pop-up tent, fire pit, and the thing that impressed the kids the most: A portable loo that through some sort of wizardry, suppressed the smells. In all, a double site could sleep 12 people, assuming four people wanted to sleep in that pop-up tent.

We brought our own bedding, toilet paper, all the camp stuff. In case you’re wondering, no, there is no electric or running water. You’re camping, but not sleeping on the ground. 

But the view. The river view. The tents all face north, toward the Missouri River. I woke up and caught dawn breaking and the fog was hovering above the water while, I’m guessing here, muskrats swam in the water.

Anyway. It was serene. 

Cabins

And a step above camping, which there are plenty of locations throughout the park for it. Primitive camping is going to cost less than glamping, obviously. That’s the pro, there.

The park also has three types of cabins: Cottage Cabins, Mini Lodges, and Green Cabins. I’ve stayed at a Cottage Cabin long ago, and it’s fine. Nothing fancy, but at least it’s fully-enclosed, right?

The exterior of a Mini Lodge at Ponca State Park
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

My goal, though, is to plan far enough in advance to reserve a Mini Lodge for a weekend. Those huge cabins look luxe. They have four bedrooms, a huge kitchen, and I’m guessing a butler (just kidding).

I know friends who’ve attended family reunions at Ponca State Park, sharing two or three of the Mini Lodges for a few nights.

Green Cabins

The park also has two, two-bedroom Green Cabins constructed from straw bales. Yes, straw bales. It’s about as eco-friendly as you can get with a cabin.

Each of the green cabins have a kitchen, bathroom, TV, cable, wireless internet, and gas grill.

Things to do at Ponca

The state park is situated along the Missouri River, with a terrain that’s a mix of bluffs, forest woodlands, and wet lands. You’ll spot a golf course right outside the park. And inside the park? There’s a lot to do!

A sign for the Old Oak Tree in Ponca State Park

Hiking

Age range: All ages

There are 17 miles of trails, a lot of which are pretty easy to hike or bike. Trailheads are well-marked, and if you stop at the Education Center, you can pick up a map and a one-sheet on the park’s main trails. Here are a few of the easy trails;

Boy by the Old Oak Tree at Ponca State Park. The tree was a seedling in 1644.
  • Education Center Nature Trail: Less than a quarter-mile long, it’s a great trail for families with small kids.
  • Old Oak Trail: Some parts of the trail are a little more moderate than easy due to inclines, but my family managed totally fine hiking it to see the park’s famous old tree. My kids weren’t amused by the one-mile hike to see a tree, but that’s pre-teenagers for ya. Anyway, this big “old wolf” oak tree was dated back to being a seedling in 1644, so you kinda just want to see it, right? For a less strenuous hike, there is a parking lot near the old tree, with a set of wooden stairs down to it. You can park and see it in, like, 2 minutes.
  • Bloodroot Trail: This is a nice, woodland loop trail, and it connects to Old Oak Trail if you want to pair the two.

Horseback riding

Age range: Age 6+

Horseback riding is a popular Nebraska State Park activity, or at least, it’s popular with my family. It’s $25 per person to ride, pretty much what we’ve paid at the other parks (Mahoney, Platte River, Fort Robinson…). 

Horseback riding at Ponca State Park

This ride was one of my favorites, if only because we rode atop a bluff and could see a pretty decent view of the river, and bonus, it’s a mostly shaded ride. Unfortunately, it’s a seasonal activity, running only from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend. 

Tip: You need to register to ride the day before you’re hoping to ride. Go to the Education Center to book a time. 

My horse, by the way, was Mardi Gras. My kids thought “Mom and Mardi Gras’ sounded like a comedy waiting to happen.

Shooting and archery 

Age range: Starting age varies; for the shotgun, kids had to be 12 or older

Boy and instructor at the shotgun range at Ponca State Park

On the weekend when we visited, they had a shotgun range open for two hours, so we decided to give it a try. It’s a lot harder than it looks, trying to hit those clay pigeons. The instructors did their best to teach me, but I was a lost cause. My son, at least, hit two. 

It’s a pretty affordable activity, too. It’s $7 for 25 shots, which the three of us split. 

I wish the archery range or other shooting activities were open, but staffing (as usual) is an issue.

Education Center 

Age range: All ages

Snapping turtle at the Ponca State Park Education Center

If you can make it past the gift shop — easier said than done with kids — the Education Center has a pretty decent collection of interactive exhibits. It’s a good place to stop before hiking and exploring the park, since you can learn more about the region’s history, wildlife, and ecology.

There are also live animals there as well as a cute little kids area with books, games and puzzles. 

Tip: The Education Center has the gift shop, and in that gift shop is a coffee machine. Parents, do what you will with that information.

Bird watching

Age range: All ages

While you’re at the Education Center, you can grab binoculars and a spot on the couch and enjoy bird watching from indoors. Come on, some days you just feel like sitting on the couch, amiright? 

I’m not kidding, though, there’s a nice bird watching room in the Education Center. They’ve set up bird feeders and have all sorts of info out for identifying the birds.

The park is well known for bird watching — outdoors. It’s listed by the National Audubon Society as one of the most important bird watching areas in the United States. In the winter, you may spot bald eagles. 

Tip: Head to the wetlands at Ponca State Park in the spring time; it’s a popular layover spot for many migrating bird species.

Towers of Time

Age range: All ages

The sculpture at the entrance of the park depicts the origins of life, geological formations and the mammals found in the region from past eras through the present day. It’s a serene space to walk around, with a waterfall titled “Stairway of Falls” and a reflecting pond.

Look for the Sasquatch

Age range: All ages

My daughter and I with the Sasquatch at Ponca State Park

Ponca State Park has a goofy photo opportunity hidden on trails: A giant Sasquatch. He moves from time to time, so it’s like a fun challenge or scavenger hunt trying to find him. There aren’t any prizes for finding him, just bragging rights. 

Swimming pool

Age range: All ages

Saving the best for last, if you ask my kids. Ponca State Park used to have a pretty standard pool, but they’ve upgraded more recently to an aquatic center with a water slide, climbing wall, and some spray ground type stuff. 

It’s seasonally open, like many of the activities at the park.

More seasonal activities at Ponca State Park

Summer is a popular time to visit, but it’s not the only time of year with fun stuff going on at the park. In the fall, there’s the Missouri River Outdoor Expo in September and the Hallowfest in October.

A bench with Ponca carved into it

In early winter, there’s Christmas in the Woods, Winterfest, and The Christmas Bird Count. It’s the time of year they’ll do lighted hayrack rides.

In later winter and early spring, there’s the Great Backyard Bird Count and Marsh Madness, as well as the Women’s Wellness Weekend Retreat. The park also plans a snowman building contest, ice fishing, sledding, and grooms trails for cross country skiing.

In the spring, there’s guided bird watching hikes.

Restaurants near Ponca State Park

We packed quite a bit of food and had grand campfire meal plans. But as it often goes, one night just seemed like a pizza night. 

A chocolate and caramel sundae at Keller Pharmacy in Ponca, Nebraska

The town of Ponca is closet to the state park, making it a quick trip for a hot meal. It’s not a large town, though, and hours for places aren’t always predicable. Even so, we found two good places for food:

  • Outlaw Pizza: Nothing fancy, Outlaw Pizza hit the spot when we decided it was Pizza Night. It’s also a good place for campfire goodies like candy and homemade fudge.
  • Keller’s Pharmacy has an old-fashioned soda fountain and you can order sundaes, phosphates, and all the other cold treats. The sundae cups overflow, and were just the kind of reward we were looking for after a hike.
Planning a trip to Nebraska's popular Ponca State Park? Here's what you need to know about where to stay, what to do and when to go!
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