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5 (EPIC) Nebraska National Parks For Your Visit to the Cornhusker State

Looking for the best Nebraska National Parks? Ancient fossil beds, incredible historic sites, magnificent monuments, gorgeous rivers & more.

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Nebraska National Parks

scotts bluff national monument nebraska national parks
We’re going to give you five reasons to make Nebraska your next vacation destination | Nebraska National Parks

Nebraska National Parks! We’ve got five incredible national park sites for you to see on your next visit to the cornhusker state.

Nebraska National Parks includes ancient fossil beds, incredible historic sites, magnificent monuments, gorgeous rivers and so much more. Not to mention biking, boating, canoeing, hiking, rafting, riding, tubing and many more fun activities.

We’re going to give you five reasons why you’ll want to make Nebraska your next vacation destination.

To be clear, these are national park sites (as in managed by the National Park Service) but they are not capital letter National Parks. There are only 63 of those (so far).

Are you ready? Let’s dive in!


List of Nebraska National Parks

1. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

agate fossil beds nebraska national parks
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is a small park in the northwest corner of Nebraska, with only 2,700 acres of federally managed land included in the 3050 acres within the park boundary. The park takes its name from thin lenses of agate (White River Silicate Group) in the area, which range in color from amber to light gray. Miocene-age rocks are exposed in the park in the bluffs above the Niobrara River wetlands and contain an excellent fossil record. Much of the geologic history is recorded in the natural features found at the park today. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If you love history then it doesn’t get any better or older than full skeletons of extinct Miocene mammals. This is what paleontologists unearthed in the hills of Nebraska. Through their efforts the age of mammals comes to life at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.

Scientists discovered the bones of ancient mammals in the 1890s. Some of the most famous are the devil’s corkscrew burrows. These corkscrew-shaped tunnels into the Earth’s core were built by prehistoric land beavers called Palaeocastors.

You Have To See It To Believe, And See it You Can At Agate Fossil Beds

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Visitor Center | Nebraska National Parks
You have to see it to believe it and you can at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Paleocastor had powerful clawed forelimbs for digging and long, curved teeth like modern beavers. Herds of Stenomylus, gazelle-camels about two feet tall, grazed grasslands beside the three-toed, pony sized rhinoceroses Menoceras.

The most common mammal in the bonebed, Monoceras may have roamed these plains in large herds. Fossil remains of the ancestors of the modern horse, Parahippus, have also been found in the waterhole. (Source: National Park Service)

Discovery Of The Fossils

James and Kate Cook originally discovered the bone bed while out on a horseback ride through their cattle range (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Agate Springs Ranch, owned by James and Kate Cook, was the place where the original discovery of the petrified bones of a mammal was made. This happened in the 1880s.

In 1892, Professor Erwin H. Barbour of University of Nebraska arrived. He was the first scientist to examine the strange “Devil’s Corkscrews of Agate.” These were later identified as the fossilized burrows of Paleocastor.

It’s Not Jurassic Park, But Still Well Worth The Visit

agate fossil beds nebraska national parks
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument | Nebraska National Parks

Twelve years later, Olaf Peterson of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg became the first professional paleontologist to excavate in the ‘great bonebed’ in the Fossil Hills.

Now you can travel back 23 millions years to see these incredible creatures. You will find them at the visitor center. It’s not Jurassic Park, but it’s still well worth the visit. And, the best news of all is that you don’t have anything to fear from these creatures.

RELATED: Look Familiar? 25+ CLASSIC Movies Filmed In The National Parks

“Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been.”

-Jim Bishop

Experience A Different Perspective On Native American History

Norther Plains Native American artifacts | Nebraska National Parks
Dozens of historically and artistically significant artifacts of Lakota culture and heritage are on display in the Cook Collection at Agate Fossil Beds | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Visitors can also see an amazing collection of Northern Plains Native American artifacts.

You can explore the Lakota and Cheyenne culture by checking out the James H. Cook collection of gifts from Chief Red Cloud.

These gifts were given by the Lakota to James Cook when they visited him at the Agate Springs Ranch.

Chief Red Cloud of the Lakota | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While you’re there, you can see Chief Red Cloud’s shirt and moccasins.

There’s also other artifacts on display at the visitor center museum including as Crazy Horse’s whetstone, American Horse’s war club from the Fetterman Fight, and much more!

There’s Two Excellent Walking Trails

One of the fossil exhibit cases visitors will see when walking the Daemonelix trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

There’s two excellent walking trails. The one mile Daemonelix Trail features exhibits of the spiral corkscrew fossil of the Paleocastor, an ancient land beaver that lived here in the Miocene.

The 2.8 mile Fossil Hills Trail takes visitors to the historic dig sites. While you’re there you can explore the source of the famous fossil discoveries.

There’s also a boardwalk to take you over natural wetlands and the Niobrara river. 


2. Homestead National Historical Park

The Heritage Center at Homestead National Monument | Nebraska National Parks
The Heritage Center at Homestead National Monument of America is one of two visitor centers located in the park | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So much history! So little time! But where to begin?

At the Homestead National Historical Park, the best place to begin is at the beginning (a.k.a. the Homestead Heritage Center).

This multipurpose facility brings the epic homestead story to life for visitors of all ages and demonstrates the true scope and importance of the Homestead Act of 1862.

The Homestead Acts

The Homestead Acts opened up America’s public lands to homesteaders who were looking to build a place to live and work. One of the most famous was the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history of this place then have no fear. As a retired history teacher, I’m also looking to do a quick history lesson. So, here we go!

The Homestead Acts were laws in the United States by which an applicant could acquire ownership of public land which was typically called a homestead.

It Allowed Nearly Any Man Or Woman A “Fair Chance”

Certificate of homestead in Nebraska given under the Homestead Act, 1862 | Courtesy of Wikimedia

By granting 160 acres of free land to claimants, it allowed nearly any man or woman a “fair chance.” It was our government’s way of giving its citizens the opportunity to have a better life and a brighter future provided they were willing to work the land.

The Homestead Acts opened up America’s public lands to homesteaders who were looking to build a place to live and work. One of the most famous was the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.

At Homestead National Historical Park, visitors learn about many aspects of the homesteading story. An exhibit titled “Opportunity and Displacement” discusses how land laws affected Native Americans.

RELATED: 7+ (AMAZING) Oklahoma National Parks-Everything To Know

Other Things To Do At Homestead National Historical Park

The Freeman School | Nebraska National Parks
The Freeman School | Courtesy of the National Park Service

There are some fascinating historic places to visit including the Palmer-Epard Cabin, built in 1867, by George W. Palmer.

There’s also the Freeman School which serves as a reminder of the role the old one-room schoolhouse played in the history of the prairie frontier. 

And, if you want to see what an actual homestead looks like, I recommend a visit Daniel Freeman’s homestead claim. Today the claim is a part of the Homestead National Monument.


3. Missouri National Recreational River | Nebraska National Parks

missouri national recreation river
The confluence of the Missouri River and the Niobara River. Near Yankton, S.D. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Missouri National Recreational River is a national recreational river that’s located on the border between Nebraska and South Dakota. With its sprawling boundaries, there are endless recreational opportunities in this national park.

Activities include the following: biking, bird watching canoeing, fishing, hiking, hunting, and kayaking.

I would recommend watching the park’s 18-minute film River of Change. Then it’s on to your adventure.

RELATED: 6 Missouri National Parks Worth A Stop On Your Next Midwest Road Trip

Biking And Hiking And Horseback Riding, Oh My

Niobrara National Scenic River | Nebraska National Parks
A photograph of the Niobrara River in the Niobrara National Scenic River | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Close to the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, Niobrara State Park has 14 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails along with a 160 acre area for horseback riding.

Ponca State Park is another great place for hiking. Thousands of Nebraskans and South Dakotans alike hit the trails at this popular state park right along the shores of the Missouri National Recreational River every year.

RELATED: Best Hiking Clothes

Boating, Canoeing & Camping

Boating on the Missouri River is a popular activity | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Missouri National Recreational River offers scenic views and a variety of river opportunities for all boaters.

If you want to explore the river the way that Lewis and Clark did then you ought to consider canoeing or kayaking. The Paddler’s Guide to the 39 and 59-mile district is a great way to prepare.

You can also visit the Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail and the Missouri River Outdoor Recreation Access Guide to get maps, resources and other helpful information.

Bird Watching

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The American Bald Eagle is a common sighting during the winter season below the Fort Randall and Gavins Point Dams and at Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge.

According to the National Park Service, the Missouri River ecosystem is a significant pathway for migratory birds. Migrating species benefit from bottomland, which serves as wintering, feeding, breeding, and staging grounds.


4. Niobrara National Scenic River | Nebraska National Parks

niobrara national scenic river nebraska national parks
Niobrara National Scenic River Launch | Courtesy of the National Park Service

As the National Park Service proclaims, it’s 76 miles of free-flowing fun. The Niobrara National Scenic River is a place where you can canoe, tube, or kayak.

It’s a family friendly river and offers scenic views of waterfalls, wildlife, and the unique geology of the Niobrara River Valley.

niobrara national scenic river nebraska national parks
Niobrara National Scenic River | Nebraska National Parks

However you decide to go down this magnificent river, however, be sure to have proper safety equipment.

Or, You Could Take A Scenic Drive Along The River

Niobrara National Scenic River | Nebraska National Parks
Bluffs covered with Ponderosa pine line a curve on the Niobrara National Scenic River | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Lower Niobrara River Valley Scenic Drive travels along stretches of the lower Niobrara River and Verdigre Creek both located in the 39-Mile District of the Missouri National Recreational River. 

There’s also the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway which is a beautiful route that includes hills, valleys, and jagged cliffs. It follows Nebraska Highway 12 from South Sioux City to Valentine for 231 miles.

The highway retraces much of the path where outlaws such as Doc Middleton, Kid Wade and their associates used to hideout.


5. Scotts Bluff National Monument | Nebraska National Parks

scotts bluff national monument nebraska national parks
A beautiful day at Scotts Bluff National Monument (courtesy NPS) | Nebraska National Parks

Scotts Bluff National Monument is a geologic wonder. It towers 800 feet above the North Platte River and has served as a landmark for peoples from Native Americans to Americans on a westward migration.

It’s chock full of geological and paleontological history. And human history too. There’s much to discover while exploring the 3,000 acres of Scotts Bluff National Monument.

RELATED: 7 AMAZING Kansas National Parks-Everything You Need To Know

Nearly Four Miles Of Hiking Trails

nebraska national parks
With almost four miles of hiking trails where geologic wonders abound, what are you waiting for? | Courtesy of the National Park Service

You will find almost four miles of hiking trails at the Scotts Bluff National Monument. Please remember to stay on the trails at all times however.

The rock along Summit Trails and Saddle Rock Trail is soft and crumbly; leaving the paved trails can be extremely dangerous.

If you prefer driving to hiking then you’ll enjoy the 1.6 mile scenic drive which provides wonderful views of the countryside | Nebraska National Parks (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

RELATED: 19+ Best Hiking Apps RANKED By Experts (From Best To Worst)

William Henry Jackson Collection

The art and artistry of William Henry Jackson | Courtesy of the National Park Service

William Henry Jackson was an extraordinarily gifted photographer best known for his iconic images of Yellowstone National Park.

He was also a gifted artist whose drawings and paintings provide valuable insights to life in a time when America was suffering through the Civil War and venturing westward in search of a national identity.

Scotts Bluff National Monument houses the world’s largest collection of original William Henry Jackson sketches, paintings, and photographs. (Source: National Park Service)

RELATED: 10 (FASCINATING) Yellowstone National Park Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

Seeing The Flora & Fauna At Scotts Bluff

nebraska national parks
Among the wildlife you can see at Scotts Bluff are coyote | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Scotts Bluff National Monument is one of the few places in the Panhandle of Nebraska where wildlife is protected in a natural environment.

There you will find various species of reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and invertebrates.

Wildlife commonly seen include coyote, mule deer, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes.

You can also find a variety of plants including Plains Prickly Pear, Ponderosa Pine, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Soapweed Yucca and Winterfat.


Map Of Nebraska National Parks


List Of Nebraska National Parks

  1. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
  2. Homestead National Historical Park
  3. Missouri National Recreational River
  4. Niobrara National Scenic River
  5. Scotts Bluff National Monument
Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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