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22 Best Hikes In Nebraska

Nebraska has a surprising number of scenic trails for a state considered by some to be a “flyover state.” From the rugged trails of western Nebraska to the untouched prairie in the Sandhills and the shaded hills and vistas of eastern Nebraska, there’s a little bit of everything for hikers. If you’re thinking of hiking in Nebraska, read on for some of my favorite trails and some of the most scenic routes in the state.

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I’ve divided up the top hiking trails in Nebraska by region: The Panhandle and western Nebraska; central Nebraska and the Sandhills; and eastern Nebraska. You’ll find a good mix of easy trails (ie., kid-friendly trails) and harder trails.

Toadstool Geological Park in western Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Panhandle and Western Nebraska trails

Western Nebraska, particularly in the Panhandle, is a region unlike any other in the state. Here, you’ll encounter buttes and rocky terrain, pine forests and native grasslands. It may take a while to arrive at your trailhead once you leave the highway, but it’s worth the effort.

The Pine Ridge Trail 

Trail distance: 40 miles 

Nearest town: Chadron

The east end of the trail starts at Spotted Tail Trailhead, located south of Chadron. The Pine Ridge Trail spans most of the Pine Ridge section of the Ranger District until it reaches the West Ash Trailhead on West Ash Road (about 10 miles south of Crawford). The trail covers a lot of ground, and if you hike it all, you’ll cross grassland, Ponderosa Pine Forest, creek bottoms, canyons and open ridges looking out onto buttes.

Spotted Tail Loop 

Trail distance: 6 miles long 

Nearest town: Chadron

If 40 miles is a bit much, the Spotted Tail Loop starts at the same spot as Pine Ridge Trail, following part of the Pine Ridge Trail and then making a loop back.

Trees at Chadron State Park in the dusk

The Black Hills Overlook Trail 

Trail dIstance: 4 miles

Nearest town: Chadron

Located in Chadron State Park, the Black Hills Overlook Trail is a loop exploring the park’s north canyon. The trail dips to about 3,800 feet in altitude and its high point reaches about 4,200 feet.

Cost: You’ll need a valid state park permit to enter.

Steamboat Loop Trail 

Trail distance: 1.4 miles

Nearest town: Chadron

Also in Chadron State Park, The Steamboat Loop Trail is a shorter loop hike that explores to the south rim of the north canyon in the state park.

Cost: You’ll need a valid state park permit to enter.

Bison Trail 

Trail distance: 3 miles 

Nearest townCrawford

Two attractions in western Nebraska are Toadstool National Geological Park and Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center (temporarily closed). The Bison Trail connects the two places. Hike through Oglala Grassland native prairie near Hudson-Meng, and then the terrain becomes more unusual because of the other-worldly rock formations Toadstool is known for.

A family on a trail leading to Toadstool Geological Park Loop Trail

Toadstool Geological Park Loop Trail

Trail distance: 1 mile

Nearest town: Crawford

Located in the Oglala National Grassland, this unique park got its name for mushroom-shaped rock formations found there: They’re giant, narrow clay pedestals topped with slabs of sandstone. It’s like being on the moon…or what I imagine it would be like.

While the Toadstool loop is a short hike, it’s not without difficult sections and steep drops along the trail.

White River Trail

Trail distance: 3 miles

Nearest town: Crawford

The White River Trail is a part of the epic work-in-progress Great Plains Trail. This ballast trail connects the town of Crawford’s City Park with Fort Robinson State Park (quite possibly my favorite state park for the amount of things to do and unique history).

The Saddle Rock Trail

Trail distance: 3.2 miles out-and-back

Nearest town: Gering

Visit one of the area’s most iconic natural formations, Scotts Bluff National Monument, and take a hike while there. The Saddle Rock Trail leads from the monument visitor center to the summit of Scotts Bluff, and includes a 435-foot ascent.

Pine Top Trail

Trail distance: 3 miles out-and-back

Nearest town: Gering

Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area is a rugged park located on the rocky escarpment in the Wildcat Hills. Most trails in the park are out-and-back, like Pine Top Trail, and have awesome scenic views of the North Platte River Valley.

A drone photo of hikers at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Cedar Ridge Trail

Trail distance: About 1 mile out-and-back

Nearest town: Gering

The Cedar Ridge Trail is also at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, and is one of the shorter out-and-back trails. It has two spots to stop at to take in the views.

Lake Ogallala Hike-Bike Trail

Trail distance: 2 miles

Nearest townOgallala

The trail runs along the east side of Lake Ogallala. Start the trail at the northern dyke and end at the Nebraska Public Power District’s Diversion Dam.

Windlass Hill

Trail distance: 1.25 miles

Nearest town: Lewellen

Ash Hollow State Historical Park is notable because it was a stopping point on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. The trail is moderate with some inclines, but it’s worth it to see the indentation of wagon wheels that remain. Find the trailhead at the parking lot near the historical display of the wagon above the sod house. On top of Windlass Hill, you’ll find the markers indicating the Oregon Trail. In the fall, the trail can easily be seen by the red grasses that filled in after the trail was no longer in use.

Cost: You’ll need a valid state park permit to enter.

Scenic view of Fossil Hills Trail at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Western Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Fossil Hills Trail

Trail distance: 2.8 miles

Nearest town: Harrison

This trail, located at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, leads to the historic dig sites (though, no fossils are on display on this trail). A boardwalk takes hikers over natural wetlands and the Niobrara River. 

Sandhills and Central Nebraska trails

The Sandhills have become synonymous with Nebraska. While most of the land in this part of the state is private property, there are some trails waiting for you, including the nation’s longest rails-to-trail path, the Cowboy Trail (once it’s finished, that is).

Bicyclists on a section of the Cowboy Trail near Valentine, Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Cowboy Trail

Distance: 321 miles (195-mile section between Norfolk and Valentine is surfaced)

The ambitious Cowboy Trail is said to be the nation’s longest rails-to-trail route running along a decommissioned Chicago & Northwestern Railroad line. Once construction is complete, it will run from Norfolk to Chadron. This trail is as much for bikes and horseback riders as it is for hikers. Enjoy the small towns along the way, beautiful scenery and pristine air on the trail.

The lookout tower at the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Scott Lookout National Recreation Trail

Trail distance: 6 miles out-and-back

Nearest townHalsey

Update: In October 2022, the Bovee Fire started at the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey and destroyed about 19,000 acres. A lodge and cabins were destroyed along with the Scott Lookout Tower.

This recreation trail is located in the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, running between the Scott Lookout Tower and the Bessey Recreation Complex. There is no water available on the trail or at the tower.

Hiking trails in eastern Nebraska

Some of the state’s best yet under-the-radar state parks are in northeastern Nebraska and one of the state’s most popular state parks for hiking, Indian Cave State Park, is in southeastern Nebraska.

Ponca Old Oak Tree

Buffalo Run Trail

Trail distance: 2 miles

Nearest town: Ponca

Most trails at Ponca State Park are fairly easy to traverse with a terrain that’s a mix of bluffs, forest woodlands, and wetlands. Buffalo Run Trail has some moderate sections, though. The trail’s highlights are the great views of the Missouri RIver along the eastern portion of the trail. The trail got its name from a deposit of bison bones found below the bluffs in the area.

Cost: You’ll need a valid state park permit to enter.

Old Oak Trail

Trail distance: 1 mile

Nearest town: Ponca

I’ve mostly completed easy hikes with my kids at Ponca State Park, notably the short Old Oak Trail to see the “famous” Burr Oak Tree that was core dated to be a seedling in 1644. Going down the trail from the tree’s photo spot is a lot easier than trudging up to it.

Cost: You’ll need a valid state park permit to enter.

A boy hiking up a trail at Indian Cave State Park

Indian Cave Trails

Trail distances: 1.2 miles and 7.1 miles

Nearest town: Shubert

There’s a reason Indian Cave State Park has been nicknamed Nebraska’s Ozarks, the hilly terrain can be nearly as demanding as exploring the Missouri Ozarks. The park’s trail system is mainly numbered trails that connect to create longer hikes. Moderate hikes include taking trails #9 and #10 together, or trying #11 on its own. A harder trail to take is the Hard Wood Trail, which is a little more than 7.1 miles one way and ending at the park’s namesake, Indian Cave.

For an easy hike, try trail #3, which my family took. The 1.2-mile hike starts at the Scenic Overlook, and begins with a long descent. The climb back up is a workout. It’s a pretty trail passing through the woodlands and leads to a view of the river.

Cost: You’ll need a valid state park permit to enter.

Kim walking across the little waterfall at Platte River State Park

Waterfall Trail

Trail distance: 3.3 miles

Nearest town: Louisville

One of the busiest trails in eastern Nebraska, the Waterfall Trail in Platte River State Park leads to…a waterfall. Hence the name. It’s a lovely little waterfall, and since this part of the state doesn’t typically have natural waterfalls, it’s a draw. The trailhead to the waterfall starts from Falls Parking Lot, a small parking lot located just left of the park’s entrance. It’s a mostly-flat dirt leading to the waterfall.

Continue your hike after splashing around in the water. The trail is wooded, and several little off-shoots will take you on more moderately-challenging trails, or toward the park’s observation tower. 

Cost: You’ll need a valid state park permit to enter.

Riverview Boardwalk

Trail distance: 1.32-mile loop

Nearest town: Bellevue

Quite possibly the best and most scenic ADA-accessible trail in Nebraska, the Riverview Boardwalk at Fontenelle Forest takes you through the gorgeous woods with ease, so it’s great for those in a wheelchair or stroller. The trailhead leaves from the Visitor Center, and then take a short jaunt down Linden Trail, re-enter the Riverview Boardwalk through the first loop, and take a detour down Ridge Trail. Along the trail, you’ll discover a view over the Missouri River into downtown Omaha.

Cost: Fontenelle Forest is a nonprofit entity and there is admission charged to hike the trails there.

The Riverview Boardwalk surrounded by tall leafy trees at Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, Nebraska

The Great Marsh Trail

Trail distance: 1-mile loop

Nearest town: Bellevue

Fontenelle Forest is home to 19 miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty beyond the Riverview Boardwalk. A favorite trail, Great Marsh Trail, leads to wetlands. Rather than parking at Fontenelle’s Visitor Center, you’ll want to start at the Wetlands parking lot (check the map here). Take the Gifford Memorial Boardwalk to the Marsh Trail. To return to the parking lot, take the Stream Trail or Pond Trail back. 

Harrington Trail Loop

Trail distance: About 1.5 miles

Nearest town: Lincoln

Pioneer Park Nature Center has about 8 miles of hiking trails Pioneer Park Nature Center winding through tallgrass prairie, woodlands, and wetlands. Most trail sections are easy. The park is also home to a small herd of bison.

If you’re short on time, take the Harrington Trail Loop. It’s only .9 miles of a loop, but to get to it, you will have to cover a bit more ground. Start at Chet Ager Building, taking the trail briefly to the east before taking a right and heading south. The trail will split into three sections, take the far right trail. You know you’re going the right way when you reach the suspension bridge.

Gear for hiking in Nebraska

Before you take the the trails, be sure you’re prepared.

Kids and a dog on a trail at Indian Cave State Park

What to wear hiking in Nebraska

For most day hikes, it will suffice to have sturdy hiking shoes or boots. Wetland trails may be muddy, so opt for waterproof shoes if you’re headed for one. I’m happy with Merrills on trails.

Even on the hottest days in Nebraska, I highly recommend wearing pants for hikes. Some trails aren’t fully cleared of itchy plants and hikers regularly complain of ticks. Breathable pants will make summer hikes bearable. Brands like Columbia ensure their garments have UPF 50 for sun protection, too.

What to bring to the trails with you

Budget cuts to parks sometimes mean there won’t be a working water fountain wherever you stop, so first and foremost, pack plenty of water. If you don’t want to feel weighed down, bringing several light-weight water bottles is a great option.

I always pack snacks, and typically go the easy snack route with almonds or granola bars. I love Lara Bars since they have so few ingredients but they aren’t great on hot days. They get a little sticky when they melt.

Other essentials:

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