Toadstool Geologic Park is part of the Nebraska National Forests and Parks system. Located in the NW corner of Nebraska amidst the Oglala National Grasslands, this obscure little park represents another installment of badlands in this part of the country. It is known for it’s interesting, toadstool-shaped formations and fossil deposits.
The park is an incredibly well-kept secret, located down a 12-mile dirt road in the middle of nowhere (map). A small campground with six primitive sites and a handful of parking spots is utilized by tent campers. There are bathrooms in the campground. The parking lot is seldom crowded.
Hiding out in the tall, yellow grass of Nebraska, this is one of the more curious locations we have come along in our USA travels. We found it only through word of mouth with locals.
If you come all the way to Toadstool Geologic Park, you are going to want to hike. The park has three primary trails: The Interpretive Loop (1 mile), the Bison Trail (3 miles), and the Toadstool Park CG (4.8 miles). The way these trails intermingle is unclear, so I’ll draw a crude map (because I can’t find one anywhere), then take a few sentences to explain the system.
One trail leads out of the campground. That’s it. The others branch off from there.
Standing at the trailhead you can see buttes and hoodoos to your left. Much of the park is over there, however, no obvious trail takes you that way from here.
A few hundred yards down the path the above sign appears. If you want to loop around the entire park turn here and head down the above shown path. It will appear as if you are leaving the park on this trail, but you are going around the end of it and up the northern side.
The Toadstool Park CG (4.8 miles) will include all three trails. This is the best path to pick if you want to see everything the park has to offer. We would highly recommend this choice. And if you really want to see everything, we’ll tell you when to break off the trail to maximize your experience.
If you bypass this sign and continue into the “playground”, this will lead you to the Interpretive Loop and Bison Trail. *I know the sign above says Bison Trail. This is confusing. The way we are drawing it out makes the most sense to us.
The remainder of this article will focus on the three trails, from shortest to longest. We wholeheartedly recommend taking the longest one, the 4.8 mile Toadstool Park CG, which we’ll discuss last.
The Interpretive Loop is a short trail that gives a suitable feel for what Toadstool Geologic Park has to offer. You will see many of the toadstool-shaped features, walk along some elevated trails, and the excursion won’t wear you out. We would guess most folks do this trail.
A five minute walk from the campground will place you in the “playground”. Like a UFO museum on the moon, this spooky and enigmatic scene might be the most interesting part of the park. A half-dozen or more large rocks pose cryptically atop piles of eroded clay, while large buttes stand as sentinels in the background
The trail heads into the badlands from here. You can see Monica following the trail in the photo below.
The below photo is taken just around the corner from the photo above. The sign beside Monica will instruct you to take the left-hand trail up into the buttes. The elderly could have some difficulty with this part of the trail and may prefer to continue on the Bison Trail.
As you climb into the buttes, you will see additional toadstools and interesting clay formations. Atop the first hill you will be treated to this spectacular view:
Eventually you will walk down the ridges of the buttes toward the campground.
The first time we visited the park we walked this trail and left. The children were happy with their experience. We got some nice photos.
This is a great way to spend a few hours if you don’t have the time or stamina to make the 4.8 mile loop.
The Bison Trail at Toadstool Geologic Park meanders between the buttes and hoodoos from one corner of the park to the other. As you trace along the washout you will observe many unusual formations and geologic processes.
Along the way you will encounter this sign:
You will not need a stamp for re-entry. Only the scenery changes when you pass the sign.
The Bison Trail eventually winds out of the park to the top of the ridge. Here it joins with the Hudson Meng Trail (not featured in this article), and the Toadstool C G. Trail. We would not recommend taking the trail all the way to the top unless you plan on doing the entire 4.8 mile loop.
The Toadstool Park CG Trail winds around the large butte-mountain that anchors the corner of the park. Within minutes you will find yourself isolated amidst some interesting terrain.
As you examine your surroundings you might hear a coyote howl. Then another. Then several more. You might imagine yourself fighting a pack of coyotes, punching and snapping your way to victory, and the hospital visit afterward. Or maybe not. Maybe you’ll just hustle away from that ghostly place where the coyotes are out for blood.
After passing through a gate — a gate? — you will find yourself wandering toward the hinterlands. The scenery is stark here, like the barren landscape of a distant planet.
Eventually the interesting landscape will give way to what you see below.
Looking across the yellow landscape toward the distant mountains you will notice the trail markers arc away from Toadstool Geologic Park.
What is happening here is the trail is connecting to a dirt road deep in the background called the Great Plains Trail (see orange map at top of article). There is very little to get excited about by following this path. It runs all the way to Guadalupe National Park in Texas. A moderate sense of direction will insist the best views in the park are not down this path.
However, directly to the left it looks like this…
We understand if you are uncomfortable with this. You can continue toward the Great Plains Trail by following the trail markers. It will be a long dusty walk, perhaps (probably) dull, but eventually it will connect with the Bison Trail on the far side of the park.
However, if you want to stand at the very top of the park and look down over all of it, wind down into this furrow and follow the creek bed up into the small canyon at the top.
It is a bizarre setting, like a transfer station with rocks instead of garbage. Look closely on the ground for colorful rocks. Some look like wood. Others are red, yellow, or green. Some are volcanic in appearance. Some are pieces of quartz.
This is my confession: I’ve taken to collecting rocks. I’m not painting them or anything ridiculous (yet), but they are collecting in a bowl that is growing heavy. They come from the trails we hike and the regions we visit. Judge me if you must.
As you fill your hands with colorful rocks, you may consider a rock tumbler purchase. Just think of the beautiful gems you could create.
You might wonder how long it takes to polish a rock. A day? A week? Does a rock tumbler just grind day after day, week after week? Month after month? Do the rocks come out round?
Would the other campers in the RV Park grow weary of the grumbling noise coming from below your motorhome? Would it keep the dogs up at night?
As we scour the ground for rocks, we may begin to feel like Thorin Oakenshield tearing the kingdom apart for the Arkenstone.
When we tire of burning daylight, we can head up over the ridge of the canyon and walk along the upper edge of Toadstool Geologic Park.
Why did they not run a path up here? The best vista in the park and they steer you far away from it.
I wish the sky were a different color, and I wish the grass wasn’t yellow. It’s been hazy in these parts lately. This is a big, beautiful view and our photos don’t do it justice.
At this point we’re probably two miles in. If you look down into the park you can see a trail meander between the buttes in the washout creek. This is the Bison Trail.
From the highest point on the cliff, turn away from the view and peer into the distance. There is a fence far in the background with some cows beyond it.
On this side of that fence is the Great Plains Trail, which is a dirt road that moves parallel to the park. Trace that fence to the left and there is a gate. If you can’t see it from where you’re standing, just trust that it’s over there.
There is no direct path to the gate. Just head to your left and don’t fall into the park. You’ll get there sooner or later.
With anxiety I pushed onward along this stretch, not knowing where I was headed. I could see the Bison Trail down in the park, but had no real idea how to get there (or if it was accessible). Meandering through knee-high grass, taking care to watch for potholes and cacti, all while admiring the view when possible, I stumbled my way to the gate.
I tripped on a rock and yelped like a wuss, which startled some beast in the grass. Out came bounding a beautiful, white and gray creature. It looked like a huge jackrabbit, covering ground at an incredible rate. In and out of the tall grass it leapt away from me, curving to the right. Then, in between bounds, it ran like I’d never seen a rabbit run. A running, bounding, long-eared beast? Was it something out of Dr. Seuss? I think it was an antelope. Anyway, it scared the hell out of me.
Once you pass through the gate, follow the road for a couple of trail markers. In less than half a mile you’ll come to the above sign.
Below left is what it looks like if you turn left onto the Bison Trail.
Below right is what it looks like if you try to drop into the park before the sign. We would advise you to be patient and wait until you reach the sign before you hurl yourself down the ravine.
If you turn right at the sign and head to the Hudson Meng Education and Research Center, please let us know how it went.
If you continue straight on the Great Plains Trail, trae tacos a casa, por favor.
Not that I ever doubted myself, but all the anxiety I’d been housing for the previous hour was released as I traipsed down the washout to the bottom of the canyon. Knowing I wouldn’t be wandering the great plains forever made for one of the more pleasant saunters I can remember. I even saw my first fellow hikers at the bottom, three hours after I set off on the trail myself.
Toadstool Geologic Park really is a well-kept secret. If you are staying in the Black Hills area and are looking for a day trip idea, or even a change of pace, this is a place worth exploring.
How cool is it that Nebraska has signs with directions on dirt roads? Follow-up question: Why aren’t these roads paved? I’ve never seen so many dirt roads as I have in this region.
Toadstool Geologic Park is 50 miles from Hot Springs, SD, 20 miles from Crawford, NE, and 40 miles from Chadron, NE. If you have never heard of any of these towns, get to know the mid-west USA! It’s pretty great out here in flyover country.
There are three dirt roads that lead to the park, all accessed from Highway 71. Here’s a map
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