Toadstool Badlands

Standing among rocks shaped by years of wind and water erosion, it’s easy to think you’re on another planet rather than in the panhandle of Nebraska. Carved over millions of years, Toadstool Geologic Park is Nebraska’s version of the Badlands.

By Tim Trudell

Dating back more than 30 million years, when Nebraska was part of a prehistoric sea, Toadstool Geologic Park is aptly named as some rocks resemble toadstools. Rising above the prairie grass in the Pine Ridge, Toadstool’s formations are the result of water and wind erosion among siltstone, sandstone, and clay. With fossils embedded in the stone, visitors often enjoy fossil hunting, though it’s illegal to remove any of them.

With three trails, Toadstool Geologic Park challenges hikers, taking them to a prehistoric bison skull site and campgrounds, as well as along sandstone formations and crevices. It’s easy to spend a full day experiencing the park’s nature and history.

Toadstool Geologic Park’s three trails vary by difficulty. While none is easy, the one-mile interpretive Trail Loop offers the easiest level. You’ll hike among the stones and formations, climbing steep inclines to spots with magnificent views of the Oglala National Grassland.

The Bison Trail splits midway through the interpretive trail, following a canyon three miles to the Hudson-Meng Bonehead Education and Research Center. Here you can view fossils from extinct bison. With more than 500 bison identified here, about 10,000 years old. They are a far cry from modern bison, growing to about 15 feet long with nearly three-foot-long horns.

A five-mile loop begins at the park’s campground and takes hikers to the Bison Trail and Toadstool Campground. Hikers can also follow the trail in reverse order, ending in the parking lot.

Located about 90 minutes from Scottsbluff, the road to the park traverses about 15 miles of gravel. Along the drive, visitors get a taste of what awaits them with small buttes, formations and miles of prairie grass blowing waving in the wind. You may even see wild pronghorn antelopes grazing.

Since Toadstool Geologic Park is located in a secluded area, you’ll want to plan to stay at nearby lodges or bring camping gear to stay at the park.

Our Heritage Guest Ranch offers a true ranching experience, just feet away from the entrance to Toadstool Geologic Park.

Believing in recycling, much of the ranch’s accommodations include refurbished material. The house that owner Jean Norman lived as a youth includes two bedrooms and a full kitchen. People need to bring their own food and other supplies.

The barn includes two apartments built using locally-sourced lumber. A refurbished electrician’s trailer acts as a communal kitchen. Three traveling trailers have been parked and used for lodging with each capable of sleeping two people. Food and personal supplies need to be prov

ided by guests. The ranch is open May 1-Oct.1 (weather permitting).

Founded in 1887 by homesteaders, the ranch features a variety of activities for guests beyond hiking through the park. A popular attraction, guests often follow owner Jean Norman and her team around the ranch, taking part in the daily chores, such as repairing fence posts and interacting with livestock.

Norman, an artist by trade and rancher by heritage, teaches a class on how to develop a relationship with a horse. No one should saddle up a horse without knowing about the animal, Norman said. While she no longer offers horses for people to ride, guests are welcome to bring their own equines to ride as they explore the scenery of the ranch with Toadstool as a backdrop.

Another popular outing is surface fossil hunting. Since no digging is allowed, guests are allowed to keep any fossil they find on the ground, some may be small while others may be a bison skull.

Only a few miles from Toadstool Geologic Park, High Plains Homestead offers a glamping-style trip back to the Old West. With four themed rooms and a main cabin, the campground also has four RV spots and room for tents. Bring your own linen or sleeping bag for the stay. Open May 1-Oct. 31, High Plains Homestead requires a two-night minimum stay.

With an Old West town, guests can visit an old-time post office, schoolhouse, log building, and mercantile, or spend time in jail. Visitors are encouraged to explore the homestead’s 40 acres, offering impressive views of the grasslands.

A trip to Toadstool Geologic Park takes you through millions of years of evolution in Nebraska’s panhandle. From the state’s badlands to a look at life as homesteaders, you’ll never look at the Cornhusker State the same way again.

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