Article Overview: 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.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
We’re going to give you five reasons why you’ll want to make Nebraska your next vacation destination.
So, What Is A National Park?
We get asked that question a lot because there’s a difference between a “national park” and a “national park site.” To help you understand that difference you might want to check out our article titled: What Is A National Park Really?
If you’re planning a trip to the Cornhusker State then one book I highly recommend is: Detour Nebraska: Historic Destinations & Natural Wonders by Gretchen M. Garrison.
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!
Nebraska National Parks FAQ
Whether you’re seeking the ultimate in modern conveniences in a picturesque outdoor setting or want to get back to nature amid the unspoiled beauty of the wilderness, you’ll find just that within Nebraska’s eight state parks.
The national park sites in Nebraska are as follows:
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Homestead National Historical Park
Missouri National Recreational River
Niobrara National Scenic River
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Why Trust Us About Nebraska National Parks?
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, USDA, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Table Of Contents: Nebraska National Parks
Nebraska National Parks
- Nebraska National Parks FAQ
- Why Trust Us About Nebraska National Parks?
- Nebraska National Parks
- 1. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
- 2. Homestead National Historical Park
- More Nebraska National Parks
- More Nebraska National Parks
- Map Of Nebraska National Parks
Nebraska National Parks
1. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Nebraska National Parks features some amazing places to explore. If you love history, like I do, then it doesn’t get any better or older than full skeletons of extinct Miocene mammals.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is located in western Nebraska and was established in 1997 to protect and preserve the fossil beds of the Oligocene-age Agate Springs Quarry.
The quarry was first discovered in the late 19th century by paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who identified the fossils as belonging to extinct mammals, including early horses and rhinoceroses.
The quarry was later purchased by James Cook, who worked with paleontologists to excavate and study the fossils.
In the early 20th century, the land was donated to the National Park Service, and it was designated as a National Monument in 1997. The monument today contains a visitor center and several hiking trails, as well as the remains of the Cook Ranch, where James Cook lived and worked.
You Have To See It To Believe It And See It You Can At Agate Fossil Beds
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is known for its well-preserved fossil beds from the Oligocene Epoch, around 20-30 million years ago.
The fossils found at the site include those of extinct mammals such as Paleocastor, a beaver-like rodent with powerful clawed forelimbs for digging; Stenomylus, a gazelle-like camel that stood about two feet tall; Menoceras, a three-toed rhinoceros; Monoceras, a common mammal that may have roamed the plains in large herds; and Parahippus, an ancestor of the modern horse.
The fossils were preserved in a waterhole, which provided the ideal conditions for the preservation of the remains.
Discovery Of The Fossils
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
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.
Experience A Different Perspective On Native American History
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.
While you’re there, you can see Chief Red Cloud’s shirt and moccasins.
Artifacts on display at the visitor center museum include as Crazy Horse’s whetstone, American Horse’s war club from the Fetterman Fight, and much more!
There’s Two Excellent Walking Trails
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
So much history! So little time! Here’s another of the wonderful Nebraska National Parks that you’ll definitely want to experience.
Homestead National Historical Park is located in southeast Nebraska and preserves the history of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed individuals to claim up to 160 acres of public land in exchange for five years of continuous residence and cultivation.
The park includes the Homestead National Monument of America, which was established in 1936 to commemorate the first homestead claim made under the act.
The park also includes the Freeman School, which is a one-room schoolhouse that was built in 1886, and a Heritage Center that has exhibits on the history of the Homestead Act and the people who settled the Great Plains.
The park was expanded in 1992 to include additional land and resources related to the history of the Homestead Act, including the Homestead Heritage Center, which is a living history farm that demonstrates the daily lives of homesteaders in the late 19th century.
More Nebraska National Parks
3. Missouri National Recreational River
Among the Nebraska National Parks where history takes a backseat to nature my favorite is the Missouri National Recreational River.
It’s 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.
And, when I’m traveling with my wife, she’s quick to remind me that there’s more to a great vacation than just soaking up the history of a place.
That having been said, I wouldn’t forget about history entirely. I would recommend watching the park’s 18-minute film River of Change. Then it’s on to your adventure.
Biking And Hiking And Horseback Riding, Oh My
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.
There’s Boating, Canoeing & Camping Too
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.
Let’s Not Forget Bird Watching Either
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
When it comes to breathtaking scenic river, here’s one of the Nebraska National Parks which doesn’t fail to deliver. Of course, I’m referring to the Niobrara National Scenic River.
The Niobrara National Scenic River is located in the northern region of Nebraska and is a 109-mile stretch of the Niobrara River that was designated as a National Scenic River in 1991. The river is known for its scenic beauty, recreational opportunities, and unique geology.
A Long History Of Human Use
The Niobrara River has a long history of human use, with the Ponca and Sioux tribes using the area for hunting and fishing for centuries. In the late 1800s, the river was a popular destination for settlers and pioneers moving westward, and many homesteads were established along its banks. The area saw increased use in the 20th century as a popular spot for fishing, boating, and other recreational activities.
In the 1960s, concerns began to rise about the potential impacts of development on the Niobrara River and its surrounding lands. In 1978, the Niobrara River Study Committee was formed to investigate the potential impacts of a proposed hydroelectric dam on the river. The committee ultimately recommended against building the dam and instead proposed that the river be designated as a National Scenic River.
In 1991, the Niobrara National Scenic River was established by the U.S Congress and it was placed under the management of the National Park Service to protect the river’s natural, cultural and recreational resources for present and future generations. The park offers a variety of recreational activities such as fishing, boating, hiking, wildlife viewing and camping.
However you decide to go down this magnificent river, however, be sure to have proper safety equipment.
You Could Take A Scenic Drive Along The River
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.
More Nebraska National Parks
5. Scotts Bluff National Monument
Whatever you happen to be looking for you’ll likely find it among the 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 there’s human history too. There’s so much to discover while exploring the 3,000 acres of Scotts Bluff National Monument.
Nearly Four Miles Of Hiking Trails
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.
William Henry Jackson Collection
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)
Seeing The Flora & Fauna At Scotts Bluff
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
- Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
- Homestead National Historical Park
- Missouri National Recreational River
- Niobrara National Scenic River
- Scotts Bluff National Monument
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) absolutely LOVE the national parks and public lands.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then please sign up below!