Little-Known Fact: Indian Cave State Park’s 3,052 acres include 2,386 acres of timber.
The Midwest is known for things like soybeans and corn, not for its backpacking destinations. But along the Missouri River in Nebraska, a bizarre twist of geology has left behind bluffs better suited to hardwood forests than cash crops. Some of the most spectacular of these geological gifts lie within Indian Cave State Park.
The park is set in the Loess (pronounced “less”) hills area of the Missouri River Valley. These loamy mounds were created when the last glaciers retreated and enormous quantities of windblown silt were deposited along the edge of the Missouri Valley. The result is a chain of 300-foot-high ridges extending from northern Iowa to Kansas City. To find similarly dramatic examples of these landforms, you’d have to visit China’s Yellow River or Germany’s Rhine.
Seasonal streams carve through the ridges, and each is nestled in a deep ravine. There isn’t much more than 200 feet of total elevation change in the park, but you can get worn out climbing that 200 feet over and over again.
At the very least, you’ll want to hike down from the ridge-tops and stand at the edge of the river that opened a young continent to travel. Whether by birchbark, flatboat, paddlewheel, or diesel towboat, the people and commerce of the heartland have followed the Missouri for thousands of years. The river flows dark and powerful here, swirling past so full of silt that nothing can be seen below the surface. Occasionally an entire tree trunk will tumble up from a midchannel boil, break the surface, and be sucked down again. If you think it sounds menacing, it is. Don’t even think of swimming in these waters. Fishing is also dicey. You might catch nothing, or you might catch something bigger than your leg.
The rest of the park is a fragile place. Loess is basically packed dirt, not rock, so it’s tremendously vulnerable to erosion.
Besides the natural charm of the loess hills, the park offers a few historic attractions. The oldest is the park’s namesake cave, nestled at the foot of the bluffs where the loess finally meets real rock. Petroglyphs still exist, although debates continue as to what culture created them and during what period.
At the other end of the park lie the more recent remains of a 19th-century river community that was a trading center for river travelers. Some buildings have been restored. Both the cave and town can be reached via hiking trails, but park roads go to both spots as well. Prepare to meet car-borne travelers if you hike to either site.
If you’re looking to make a break from civilization, plan a winter excursion to Indian Cave. Make your way to the top of the bluffs and you’ll be rewarded with a rare view of the bald eagles that populate the great river’s frigid shores. It’s not often you can look down at a soaring eagle.