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.
Visit Indian Cave State Park
Indian Cave State Park
RR 1 Box 30
Shubert, NE 68437-9801
Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
2200 N. 33rd St.
P.O. Box 30370
Lincoln, NE 68503
To leave a message to request brochures: (800) 826-PARK
Location Straddling the Richardson-Nemaha county line, Indian Cave State Park is in the southeast corner of Nebraska.
Getting There Take I-29 south from Omaha (or north from Kansas City) to U.S. 136 West. At Brownville, turn south on NE 67 and follow the signs down a dead-end state highway to the park.
Season Spring and fall are best for hiking. Midsummer is hot. Park trails are open to backcountry skiers, but you should call ahead to check on snow conditions. Most park roads are closed to cars in winter but remain open to hikers and skiers.
Wildlife The bluffs along the Missouri River provide food and cover for hawks, eagles, and coyotes.
Insects High temperatures cause insect problems: mosquitoes around wet areas and horseflies elsewhere.
Plant Life Rich soil has covered these hills in an earthen mantle of native prairies and hardwood forests. Established trails wind through both ecosystems, and the terrain can be challenging.
Facilities By looking at its layout, you can tell this park is run with backcountry hiking and skiing in mind.
Parking Three parking lots offer handy access.
Permits Day, season, and camping permits are available at the park entrance.Developed campgrounds are $7 per night; $3 extra for hook-ups.
Policies Camping is limited to a 14-day stay.
Hazards The cave is readily accessible, although the trail is steep.
Leave No Trace Stick to established trails to avoid tearing up the plants that hold the soil in place. All LNT guidelines apply.
Maps A free trail map is available at the park office. Trails are very well marked. Topos are not needed.
Other Trip Options The mighty Missouri River edges the irregular eastern border of this unique park.
Little-Known Fact: Indian Cave State Park's 3,052 acres include 2,386 acres of timber.