​Ponca State Park, Nebraska

For more information about Ponca State Park, go here!

On one of my many multi-state road trip extraordinaire adventures, I recently found myself in Nebraska for the first time. It was not the destination, I will admit; I was passing through on my way to somewhere else. 

I was terribly surprised by what I saw. I was not prepared for the deep rolling hills I encountered.  I come from the land of flat (126 meters above sea level) so the hills seemed like they couldn’t be possible. Too high, too quick.

They were like small dirt mountains rippling across the terrain.  I tried and tried to get photos that were really representational, but the curse of digital photos is that they often lose depth of field.   It was terribly frustrating.  It was so easy to imagine what the country looked like a few centuries ago before we “improved” it.  It was easy to imagine huge herds of bison milling across the rolling hills. I rather wish there had been.

Rolling hills of Nebraska.

We rolled into the park around sunset, and while we were in a hurry to set up camp (I try to camp my way across the country as much as possible) the park sits atop a bluff over the Missouri river. It is a very different Missouri river than I am used to. 

Where I am from it flows deep, fast and narrow. The water is muddy, and dangerous; it’s banks are steep and muddy.  It feeds into the Mississippi river not far away, and where the two rivers meet, the water does not blend. 

The Mississippi is a warmer, slower, darker, brackish water. The two dance and swirl in giant paisleys for miles. 

This Missouri river was much, much wider. It was slower, shallower, and meandered back and forth across large river basins full of sand bars. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be the same river. 

Missouri River in Nebraska

The bluff is much higher in Ponca than I am used to back home. The bluffs where I come from are only about a hundred feet.  The bluff at Ponca seemed to be several times that height.  It was such a beautiful sight!  The plains on the other side were golden fields of wheat.  The sunset was amazingly beautiful. 

Sunset over the Missouri river, Ponca State Park, Nebraska.

Those are raw photos, by the way.  The only editing was making them into a collage.  There were no filters. I tried to get a decent panorama, and it just didn’t work out. 

The camp site was down the hill from the parking lot on a more or less level-ish hilltop. The only real trees were in the valleys of the rolling hills. There were all these tiny little forests of short (well, compared to what I am used to) trees tucked into the valleys.  

As we settled down for the night, we could hear turkeys settling in as well. EGADS they are loud when they go to bed! I took this photo out the door of my tent at an absurdly late hour (the sun goes down later up north!  It can totally mess with your brain!) .

Sunset from my tent window.

The next morning dawned chilly and amazingly clear. We stuffed our faces, and broke camp before heading up to the visitor’s center to pay our camping fee. They were pretty laissez-faire about it. I had no idea the park was as large as it was! I didn’t get a real idea of the scale until I saw the park map in the hallway.

Satellite image of Ponca State Park, Nebraska.

There was a fantastic museum and visitor center (that doubled as a nature center) at the park office.  There were some really excellent displays examining the various aspects of the area and Nebraska history, both recent and back into prehistory. 

Visitor center.

I may have forced my companions to climb into the canoe diarama and pretend to be canoeing on the Missouri… . I may also have spent some time watching some fat and sassy squirrels pigging out on bird seed.  It was a birders paradise!  I have an armchair interest in birds. There were some that I had never seen before. 

Fat squirrels.

What surprised me most is that there is so much HISTORY in Nebraska!  I mean yes, Westward Expansion, Native people…. that gets us back about 12 thousand years. It turns out there are huge fossil beds that are MILLIONS of years old in the park!  

There are fossils where I come from.. yes, super exciting fossils that one finds at the bottom of the prehistoric ocean where things like snails, bivalves and crinoids lived.. whoopee.  I’ve made necklaces from crinoid sections, that’ show common they are. BORING! 

Nebraska was pretty much the western shore of the ocean that my home is the bottom of. They have much more interesting and plentiful fossils. They get actual animals AND marine life. Plus their marine life is more interesting. Much. 

We played around the visitor center for a bit, then we headed out to a monolithic fountain/ monument we saw when we arrived. 

That was fascinating!  There was a little area of recreated prairie surrounding it, and the monument itself was created from giant concrete monoliths with scenes from Nebraska’s history. ALL OF IT. Settlers Natives, and prehistoric life. 

The waterway leading down the hill from it was lined with local fossil rich rocks. It’s Karst, like where I am from, but a different kind of limestone. I’m not geologically savvy enough to tell you the difference, other than I could see that there was a difference. 

It was fun to explore, and the view from below was rather nice.  I wish we had spent more time there, but we were really only rolling through. It was a bird and insect enthusiasts dream!  I saw all sorts of butterflies that were new to me. 

If you are wandering freely, with no structure, in no hurry and no direction, this park is a wonderful place to stop and spend some time!  From what I understand, the area is a bit of a bird hunter and angler mecca. 

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