As with much of the Midwest, you might not think of Nebraska for great hiking opportunities, but there are some exceptional trails in this state. And you might be surprised by the variety that Nebraska has to offer. Whether you are driving through on your way somewhere else, or you are like me and are going to make a whole trip out of exploring this state, you have to check out at least some of the best hiking in Nebraska. This include some of the amazing national parks of Nebraska, along with some lesser known federal and local lands that are full of magic.
I hope this guide can open your mind to what you can discover in Nebraska, or give you a little glimpse into the beauty that this state has to offer. Either way, my goal is for you to walk away with a little inspiration. And some reminders on how to stay safe on the trail, no matter where you are.
- 1 Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
- 2 Scotts Bluff National Monument
- 3 Nebraska National Forest and Chadron State Park
- 4 Fontenelle Forest
- 5 Safety First!
- 6 Planning a Trip to Nebraska?
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
As you might guess from the name, the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (henceforth, Agate Fossil Beds) is known for its fossils. I absolutely enjoyed seeing the fossils, and learning about the animals that left them behind from the very well-equipped visitor center. But my favorite thing about this park is its beautiful trails. They are unique from among the national parks of Nebraska, with their petrified sand dunes and evidence of life on Earth from another era.
There are two trails in this park. One is the Daemonelix Trail (1 mile lollipop) which is near the junction of the 20 and the 2. And the second is an out-and-back trail called the Fossil Hills Trail (2.8 miles) that leaves from the visitor center and heads across the grasslands to University Hill and Carnegie Hill. With the unique qualities of these little treks, they are among the best hiking in Nebraska. It is also free to visit!
Fossil Hills Trail
Of the two, the Fossil Hills Trail was my personal favorite. While the Agate Fossil Beds are not actually located in the Sand Hills (which I fell in love with when I drove through them), the landscape here is an expansive grassland. Unlike much of the plains, which undulate gently, the lands here maintain the more dynamic shape of the Sand Hills, with many shifting elevations among the grasses. In exploring the park, you will find out that many of the formations in the landscape here were formed by petrified sand dunes. For me, this dynamic flow of the geology, along with the waving prairie, makes for an otherworldly, beautiful place. The Fossil Hills Trail will help you sample it all, from riparian areas, to plains, to the hills of this Nebraskan landscape.
After spending some time in the Visitor Center, follow the trail out past the Niobara River. You will then walk through the flatlands for a while, with a slight elevation gain as you near the hills that the trail will take you up. University Hill has a spur to enjoy its views, and then Carnegie Hill has a short loop. Depending on the weather and how you are feeling, try to do both. Each hill has its own character, and offers wonderful views of the surrounding wilderness. Once you summit both, you will return the way that you came.
As a quick preface to my Safety on the Trail section, please don’t underestimate the Nebraskan summer heat if you visit in that season. There is no cover on this trail, and it can get quite oppressive. The best time to go, in my opinion, is the early morning before it gets too hot. It’s always good to pick a comfortable time to hit the trails when you are trying to enjoy the best hiking in Nebraska and elsewhere. It’s not only important for safety, but key to your trip being fun.
The Daemonelix Trail is much shorter at only 1-mile round trail. The main draw of this trail is the “Devil’s Corkscrew,” which is actually the petrified remains of an ancient beaver burrow. It was built by an extinct species that lived on dry land. (Can anyone explain to me why so many things in this area were named “Devil’s” this or “Devil’s” that?) This area also showcases other fossilized burrows, roots, and evidence of the ancient landscape of Nebraska. The best way to prepare for this trail, is to visit the Visitor Center first, where you can read about the world that the Agate Fossil Beds have naturally recorded for us.
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Scotts Bluff National Monument (SBNM) is located just outside of the small town of Scott’s Bluff in the southwestern corner of the state. It features the beautiful bluff for which it and the town is named – Scotts Bluff. If you aren’t sure what that is – I would describe this bluff as a relatively large hill (or small mountain) that rises out of the Great Plains. It has a flat top and many steep, cliff-like sides. It’s a very unique and stark place, and that’s what puts it on my list of best hiking in Nebraska. I think it is my favorite of the national parks in Nebraska too. It’s also free to visit!
National Geographic defines a bluff as: “A bluff is a type of broad, rounded cliff. Most bluffs border a river, beach, or other coastal area. Bluffs may form along a river where it meanders, or curves from side to side. River currents on the outside of the curve erode, or wear away, the lower part of a river bank.”
Anyway, there are two ways to see the top of Scotts Bluff, and both leave from the visitor center. There is a road that goes all the way to the top of the mountain, and up there you can park and take in all the views.
Saddle Rock Trail
The other way is more relevant to this post, as it is the Saddle Rock Trail (1.6 miles one-way, and 3.2 miles out-and-back) from the visitor center to the top of Scotts Bluff. (As of July 2023, parts of this trail were closed due to a rock slide. Please refer to the SBNM website for up-to-date trail conditions, and ask the rangers when you arrive about the trails.)
The Saddle Rock Trail travels across the flat lands to the base of Scotts Bluff from the visitor center. So, depending on the time and season when you visit, consider checking out the center before or after your hike. Once the trail makes it to the bottom of Scotts Bluff, you will start an upwards hike that will not end until you reach the summit. Along the way, you will get to pass through a very cool, man-made tunnel. This is a great spot for photographs. However, please watch out for other hikers and don’t block their progress. After that, you will pick up your upwards climb, to the top of the mountain. There are some trails up at the summit that you can add onto your trek. Altogether, it is a wonderful little hike, and definitely among the best hiking in Nebraska.
Notes on Safety for Scotts Bluff
Unless you have someone picking you up at the top, you will need to hike back down. This is especially important to remember on hot summer days. It can get very oppressive on this trail and outside of the tunnel, there is no guarantee of shade anywhere along the way. While this trail isn’t technically challenging, we actually had to turn around because of the heat. And to give you an idea of how hot this was – I was living in Arizona at the time, and we went on in two days to summit a 14er. So, it can get seriously difficult. Take care of yourself out there! Start hiking early in the morning during the summer. And if it gets too hot on the way up turn around. Definitely bring water, sunscreen and a hat.
Nebraska National Forest and Chadron State Park
When I was doing my first roadtrip through Nebraska, I wanted to see the forests that I had heard about in the northern part of the state. This place is more like the Black Hills to the North, than much of Nebraska, and that’s what drew me all the way up to Chadron. There are plenty of trails in the section of the Nebraska National Forest in this area. But I ended up going to Chadron State Park, because it was easier for me to find information on the hiking in that area. Because of its unique character and access to a northern part of Nebraska that’s off the beaten path, I consider this among the best hiking in Nebraska.
For non-residents, it is $12 for a day pass to the Chadron State Park. And there is plenty to do in the park along with hiking. That includes fishing, playgrounds, and more. There is also a great little loop road that goes up into the hills. So, if you are looking to explore the forest, but don’t want to or can’t access the trails here, the road is a great option.
Steamboat Butte Loop
But for hiking, we drove up into the hills and walked the Steamboat Butte Loop. Traveling clockwise, this took us up higher into the hills, through the forest, then along the top of the ridgeline. The tail end of the loop comes back down from the butte and travels along its base for a while. There is a bathroom at the trailhead as well.
I found the forest in this area to be really intriguing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It is very sparse and the trees have a particular, top-heavy look. It’s a very arid-feeling forest, but the views from the trail with the few trees out there were just exceptional. This is a really special, and strange little corner of Nebraska. It isn’t quite as cool as the national parks of Nebraska, but it’s still well worth a slot on the best hiking in Nebraska list.
Fontenelle Forest is the only private forest among my list of best hiking in Nebraska. But although it isn’t one of the national parks of Nebraska or a national forest, it is a really special and beautiful spot. Fontenelle Forest is located in Omaha, NE on the very border of the state. And it is home to a verdant forest that grows along the rolling hills of the area.
There are some other things to do if you visit the forest as well. The non-profit that manages the area also has a raptor refuge that displays ambassador birds. They have a beautiful visitor center, and a cool action course as well (although I have never done it).
When it comes to hiking, there are many interlinking trails in the forest. I have never stuck to just one in the two times that I have visited. But if you are looking for a short, easy hike, there is a loop trail on a boardwalk through the trees. If you take this route, you will get a little digest of the forest, and have many informational signs to help you learn about this unique place. There is also a view of the river from the boardwalk.
If you are looking for more rugged hiking, you can create treks of various lengths by combining different trails. Just be sure to get a map from the visitor center when you leave and take it with you. The signage in the forest is really great, but the map will be needed to navigate if you aren’t familiar with the park. It can be a bit of a challenging walk if you go far enough, because the hills can be steep. Depending on the time of year, it can also be hot, humid, and buggy.
It is $11 per adult (as of 2023) to hike in the forest.
Your safety is your responsibility. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety. Follow the tips above, but know that this list is NOT comprehensive. You need to take care of yourself and always put your own safely above your exploration goals.
Listen to your body, and avoid inclement conditions of any kind. Bring food, water, and a map of the trail you are hiking. Wear the right shoes and clothing. I’d also suggest big spray depending on the season, because mosquitos and ticks are a thing in Nebraska. Obey closures and signage. Stay on the trail.
Check with the rangers before leaving on your hike for the most up-to-date information and any relevant warnings for a specific trail. And let someone who isn’t with you know where you are planning on going and when you will get back.
Take care of yourself out there.
Planning a Trip to Nebraska?
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