Hiking is a perfect way to explore the natural beauty of Nebraska. With thousands of miles of hiking trails and over a dozen designated parks, there’s no shortage of trekking opportunities in the Cornhusker State. So, which trails are a must-see on your trip?
The 11 best hiking trails in Nebraska are:
- Platte River State Park Trail Loop
- Bison Trail
- Saddle Rock Trail
- Rock Bluff Run
- Smith Falls State Park Trail
- Chadron State Park Loop
- Canyon Loop
- Wehrspann Lake Full Loop
- Hidden Lake Trail
- Schramm Park Nature Loop
- Pine Ridge Trail
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a trail. The best trek for you will depend on which amenities you need, what kind of scenery you enjoy, and your preferred level of difficulty. Read on to discover more about Nebraska’s best hikes, so you can see everything this beautiful state has to offer.
The 11 Best Hiking Trails In Nebraska
1. Platte River State Park Trail Loop
Length: 6.7 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 797 ft
Platte River State Park is a natural oasis lying just a short 20-minute drive from the bustling cities of Omaha and Lincoln. The prime location makes Platte River convenient, while well-marked trails and stunning scenery make it just perfect.
The 6.7-mile trail here winds through woods and grasslands, boasting 797 feet in elevation changes throughout the walk. However, you won’t feel that much burn in your calves as you navigate this trail, as Platte River is so peaceful, you’ll forget all about the exertion.
Keep in mind that since Platte River is a State Park, you’ll need a Nebraska Parks Pass to enter. If you’re only looking to buy a one-time entry, you can pick up a day pass at the park’s entrance. If you want to explore every trail on the list, it might be worth it to purchase a year-long pass for a steeper fee.
Bring The Whole Gang
Despite the length, this trail is excellent for families looking to spend a day in nature. You’ll find trickling creeks and chirping birds as you meander through grassy meadows teeming with wildflowers. Once you enter the forest, the whole family can splash around in the waterfalls that pepper the path.
Since this is a loop trail, you won’t have to hike out and back. You’ll be constantly inundated with changing scenery as you trek, so there’s no danger of boredom setting in. There is a danger of smaller tots tiring out, but never fear, as you can stop for a snack on the banks of the Platte River when you need a rest.
Summer Is The Best Season
If you’re looking to take advantage of all the activities on this trail, consider going in the summertime from May through August. That way, you’ll be able to enjoy the sunshine and take a dip in nearby Crawdad Creek, or linger on shadier parts of the trail listening to the call of the abundant wildlife that Platte River State Park is known for.
2. Bison Trail
Length: 6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 360 ft
Nebraska is famous for its badlands. These endless stretches of prairie are pockmarked with deep craters and towering geological formations, and there’s no better place to witness their glory than on Bison Trail. Here you’ll be able to see it all without the crowd of people, making for a magical experience a cut above the rest.
Located in the furthest northwestern stretches of the state in the Oglala National Grasslands, this trail connects the Toadstool National Geologic Park to the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center three miles away. I recommend starting the trail at the Research Center, beginning your hike through tall grasses blowing gently in the prairie breeze.
Off The Beaten Path
Bison Trail isn’t the most highly-trafficked trek because it’s so far out of the way. However, the lack of people only serves to enhance its otherworldly appeal. After the first mile, you’ll notice a drastic change in the scenery. Tall grass gives way to a stark landscape jutted through with awestriking rock formations and deep ravines.
When you see massive stone slabs laid atop crumbly clay pedestals, you know you’ve arrived at the famous toadstools. Feel free to climb around the formations, searching for artifacts and arrowheads among the rocks, but make sure to leave these remnants in the park where the law dictates they belong.
Prepare For The Badlands
This out-and-back trail is largely unshaded, so make sure to prepare well by bringing some water and sunscreen along with you. It’s a better idea to head out for this hike early in the morning to catch the neon sunrise or late in the evening to see deep pinks and oranges caress the sky.
Bison Trail is best enjoyed during the springtime. These months offer temperate and comfortable days chock-full of blooming wildflowers and healthy green grass. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to see mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and all the other delightful creatures that call these badlands home.
3. Saddle Rock Trail
Length: 3.2 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 564 ft
Located near the unassuming town of Gering, Saddle Rock Trail is a hidden gem of Nebraskan history. While it’s relatively short at 3.2 miles round-trip, the hike may take half a day or even more. It’s hard to believe this little trail packs such a big punch, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how much there is to see here.
You’ll begin the hike near the visitor center, taking in the sights and sounds of nature as you head past Scott’s Spring and into a foot tunnel dug deep into the rock. Next comes the climb to Scott’s Bluff, named after infamous trapper and trader Hiram Scott himself.
A Geological Wonderland
The final part of the trail ascends steeply up the bluff. You’ll see sandstone, volcanic ash, and siltstone layered together like a delicious geologic cake, preserved by a hard capstone that compresses and protects it from erosion.
If you’re lucky, you could catch sight of soaring golden eagles, captivating Kestrels, or clusters of swallows making mud-nests on the cliffside. You’ll also be able to see the trail’s namesake Saddle Rock as you make the climb, a massive formation in its own right and well worth the visit.
Accessible For All
Saddle Rock Trail is paved and suitable for wheelchair use, though it’s possible wheelchairs may need assistance during steeper parts of the climb. It’s also worth noting that there is a Saddle Rock Shuttle that runs from the summit to the visitor center, and sightseers can take it there (or back) if they prefer a one-way trek.
4. Rock Bluff Run Trail
Length: 6 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 1,115 ft
If you’re searching for a challenging hike through some of Nebraska’s most beautiful forests, Rock Bluff Run Trail might be your cup of tea. Located near Falls City in the Indian Cave State Park, this trail begins at trail marker #7.
You’ll stroll along the grassy banks of the Missouri River for the first half-mile, but these easy beginnings are a poor forecast for what’s in store. This trail will soon skyrocket you through some surprisingly steep elevation changes, with many areas ascending quite rapidly and giving way to gorgeous views of the river below.
Wear good boots because this trail gets muddy, steep, and is eroded in some parts. It’s a 6-mile hike, so come prepared to stay all day with water, snacks, and sunscreen during brighter days. Note that there are multiple trail intersections and some markers have been taken down, so you’ll need to pay close attention to avoid getting lost.
Fall Hiking At Its Best
The Indian Cave State Park is open all year round, but the best time to go is autumn. Temperatures stay cooler during the fall months, so you won’t get so hot on your hike. You’ll be able to enjoy all the scenery with less of the sweat, making for a more comfortable trip overall.
Of course, the temperature is only half the equation. You’ll also be able to see hundreds of acres of forest foliage in all its fall glory. Reds, oranges, and yellows will surround you as you wind your way up the bluff. Go ahead and cast sideways looks at the colors, but watch your footing on these steep trails!
A Place For Camping
Don’t want your trip to end? It doesn’t have to! There are numerous campsites near the trailhead available for a fee, but you can take things into the backcountry here as well. You could even try your hand at primitive camping at the plethora of forested sites which line the path.
5. Smith Falls State Park Trail
Length: 1.1 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 49 ft
Nebraska isn’t exactly famous for its waterfalls, but Smith Falls is an exception to the rule. This Instagram-worthy waterfall is the highest in Nebraska at 63 feet, and it should be on your radar if you like to get wet.
Located near the town of Sparks, Smith Falls State Park provides easy access to their waterfall with a mile-long out and back trail that begins across the Niobrara River. In order to access the falls, you’ll take a wooden footbridge over the river and wind your way through stunning forests.
Since Smith Falls State Park plays host to several rare species, hiking off-trail is strictly prohibited here. However, you are able to walk directly underneath the waterfalls, splashing in the foamy spray and enjoying the feel of the fresh water on sun-soaked skin during the summertime.
Perfect For Beginners
This hike is short, flat, and relatively easy. It’s perfect for beginners who want to stretch their legs for a faster stroll in nature without foraying deep into the badlands or forests of Nebraska. Depending on your hiking speed, you could complete this trail in under an hour, though you may want to linger at the falls for longer than that!
The trail features informational plaques and resting benches along the way. If you do get tired, you’ll have a scenic place to stop and catch your breath. Watch squirrels play among the birch trees, or simply sit and listen to the sounds of nature on this serene path.
A Winter Wonderland
If you want to avoid the summertime crowds, consider hiking Smith Falls State Park Trail in the wintertime. You’ll need to watch for patches of ice and snow, but the flat nature of the trail makes it easier to navigate than more elevated hikes.
Seeing the falls frozen over is truly a sight to behold. Opaque and motionless, giant icicles can play tricks on your eyes. You’re sure they’ll begin to flow at any moment, but they remain suspended above the boulders below until the first spring thaw. With less activity around to spoil the serenity, you’ll be able to experience a side of the falls and forest that few ever have the chance to see.
6. Chadron State Park Loop
Length: 6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 643 ft
If you’re looking for a hike featuring a little bit of everything, head to Chadron State Park. The trailhead begins at the campgrounds just inside the entrance, where you can park and hit the trail for stunning views of Nebraska’s famous Pine Ridge and a surprisingly good workout on the hills.
Expect to spend some time here exploring, as the scenery changes throughout the hike. You’ll start off with grassy meadows and be instantly rewarded with the scent of fresh pine, but even more wonders await further on.
The trail winds through the gorges and buttes so quintessential of Nebraska topography before ascending upward to Lookout Point. This picturesque panorama offers a million-dollar view of the badlands, and is well worth the gain in elevation.
Explore Like A Pioneer
Why not make the most of Nebraska’s rich prairie history by exploring it in true pioneer style? You can take a trail ride through the park from Memorial Day through Labor Day, viewing all the splendor from atop a trusty steed as your tour guide explains the colorful past of the region.
If horses aren’t appealing to you, there are plenty of other activities to partake in. Fish for trout in Chadron Creek, take the kids to the on-site craft center, or hit up the lagoon for a swim. If you don’t want to go back at the end of the day, that’s ok too. There are cabin rentals and plenty of camping here as well.
7. Canyon Loop
Length: 4.8 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 547 ft
Nebraska is full of surprises. Among the best of these are its series of deep canyons and high cliffs set in the Pine Ridge region, offering a more mountainous side of Nebraska you have to see to believe. The Cliffs trailhead will take you on a journey to discover these high hills and valleys, so head 12 miles south of Chadron to go exploring.
Named for a high rock cliff located on adjacent Bordeaux Creek, the Cliffs trailhead plays host to several hiking trails. The one you’re looking for is Canyon Loop, a 4.8-mile trail that will lead you up the cliffside and onto a gorgeous grassland with a stunning view of the canyons below.
A Rustic Experience
Canyon Loop isn’t a very difficult hike, but it’s important to keep in mind that accessing the trailhead requires quite a few miles of driving down dirt roads. There are vault toilets and picnic tables at the entrance, but that’s about it.
If you’re into backcountry hiking, this will be music to your ears. No crowds to spoil the fun can add an extra layer of adventure to your hike. However, hikers who need access to flush toilets or other facilities may want to look elsewhere.
8. Wehrspann Lake Full Loop
Length: 6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 262 ft
If you’re visiting Omaha, don’t miss out on a day trip to Wehrspann Lake. Also known as Chalco Lake, hiking the waterfront loop trail here is relatively easy but offers huge rewards to those willing to make the 6-mile trek. You’ll see rabbits, deer, birds, and other adorable wildlife on the trail, but nothing quite wild enough to get your hackles up.
The trail isn’t uncomfortably crowded, but expect to meet other hikers while you’re there. Wehrspann Lake is a popular spot for fishing, trail running, and biking, with many coming from nearby towns to enjoy the scenery and activities. You’ll park in the northwestern entrance, then follow clearly-marked signs to begin your adventure.
Perfect For Family Trips
Wehrspann Lake is one of the best hiking destinations in Nebraska for kids, families, and pets. The trail is relatively flat and follows the lake, so there’s no danger of getting lost here. You’ll find that most of it is pleasantly shaded during the warmer months, so you won’t need to worry about excessive heat ruining your hike.
If you do wind up hot and thirsty, never fear, as this trail has water spigots along the way, so you’ll never have to suffer from a parched throat for long. It also features picnic tables and benches spread intermittently along the path, so everyone can stop to have a rest when they need it.
While you’re exploring, make sure to pay close attention to the trees and plants along the trail. Many of them are marked with educational plaques, allowing the whole family to stop and learn a thing or two about the indigenous flora and fauna.
9. Hidden Lake Trail
Length: 5.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 285 ft
Did you know that Nebraska boasts its very own wetlands? Located near Omaha at the Fontanelle Forest, this area is definitely worth checking out. And if you’re truly intrepid, Hidden Lake Trail definitely gives you the most bang for your buck.
There are a variety of tamer trails here, but the adventurous won’t want to miss out on Hidden Lake. Park at the Wetlands parking lot when you arrive at the forest, taking the Gifford Memorial Boardwalk around the Great Marsh to find the trailhead. This is an out-and-back hike, with an alternative to walk back to the parking lot on the paved road once you’ve passed Hidden Lake.
True to its name, Hidden Lake is set back from the parking area. It nestles between the Missouri River and the Great Marsh, offering serenity and solitude for those who seek it. Visitors should keep in mind that although this trail is relatively flat, it does have impediments due to overgrowth and requires a steeper climb in some areas.
A Different Kind Of Wildlife
Fontanelle Forest is full of wetlands wildlife rather than the prairie and grassland creatures native to northern Nebraska. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise with species like osprey, warblers, owls, and hawks soaring above. Closer to the ground you’ll find beavers constantly working to build dams and frogs chortling along with the sounds of the forest.
Deer dart through the trees here as well, and in some seasons you can even see turkeys trotting around. Especially during the warmer months, be mindful of the smaller creatures and bring along bug spray. Mosquitoes and ticks can be fierce in the wetlands!
10. Schramm Park Nature Loop
Length: 3 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 252 ft
An often-overlooked gem of southeastern Nebraska, Schramm Park boasts a series of neat loop trails. Taking the longest route will net you around three miles through gently rolling hills. You’ll head deep into the park’s forest and over a wickedly cool suspension bridge that hangs over gentle flowing waters.
Springtime is a great season for visiting Schramm Park. The blooming wildflowers and various bird species returning from migration makes for a beautiful sight, and there are many clearings along the path to watch birds in flight. You can feed the fish at the trout ponds near the nature center, or simply sit on the resting benches and watch them splash around.
Plenty To See Here
Schramm Park offers the chance to head out on the bluffs for a picnic with a view, or stay indoors during rainy weather at the Nature Center. Paying a small fee here will give you access to a number of interactive exhibits, including a series of aquariums where you can hold snakes and other amphibians. The Nature Center adds displays regularly, and is well worth the visit if you have the time.
11. Pine Ridge Trail
Length: 40 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 890 ft
There are all kinds of hikers in the world. Some prefer short jaunts of a few hours, and others want a true backcountry hiking experience that takes several days to get through. If you’re of the latter mindset, the Cornhusker State has something special for you.
The Pine Ridge Trail spans 40 miles, taking you through the most rural parts of pristine northern Nebraska. To enter on the eastern end, you’ll be heading to the Spotted Tail trailhead located just south of Chadron. If you prefer to enter westwardly and hike east, you’ll need to head south of Crawford and park at the West Ash trailhead.
Both trailheads have camping options nearby, and dispersed camping is allowed on all portions of the trail. You’ll need to camp if you want to complete this hike, as most typically take between three and five days to make the trek. Keep in mind that this trail runs 40 miles one-way, so unless you want to hike all the way back to where you started, having two cars or a pickup arranged is ideal.
Pine Ridge Trail provides an ever-changing landscape that morphs from Ponderosa pine forest to immense rock buttes and cliffs rearing up from lush green valleys below. Here you’ll find a diverse wonderland of natural beauty as you view the remnants of massive burns and fresh new growth on parts of the trail.
From grasslands to forests to flat prairie plains, life along the Pine Ridge Trail thrives in all seasons. You’ll see animals of all shapes and sizes, from deer to gophers to immense birds on the prowl for prey. This hike is a feast for all five senses, bringing something new to explore each day.
Shorter Options Available
Want to experience the magic of Pine Ridge Trail without spending multiple days on it? Plenty of shorter trekking options are available to you, as numerous trailheads and county roads intersect with Pine Ridge Trail. Many of these are open to the public, and you can use them to see a condensed version of Pine Ridge.
For a day hike, consider entering on the Coffee Mill trailhead off Forest Service Road 702. You’ll see great views from nearby Coffee Mill Butte as you make your way to the Pine Ridge Trail. Use the East Ash trailhead to view the burnouts and have a waterside picnic, or take the Strong Canyon trailhead for wondrous vistas.
No matter where you choose to trek, you’ll have a blast on these top Nebraska hiking trails. From easy riverside walks to harder hilly hikes, the Cornhusker State is full of adventures for all levels of hiker. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find a trail that suits your needs here.