While working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I lived in Omaha and commuted to Lincoln. Over time, I grew to admire the landscapes surrounding the cities. One of my favorite moments occurred when a rolling fog hovered just above the surface of the ground on each side of the interstate. The agriculture fields contained a new beauty that I hadn’t noticed before. Simultaneously, hearing the passionate experiences my professors had across the state, planted a new insight into my view of Nebraska’s Wildlands. There is so much hidden beauty to be uncovered here.
Living in an urban area, we go about our busy city lives surrounded by human-made structures – concrete sidewalks, brick buildings, steel bridges, and plastic signs. We often lose sight of the hidden pockets of wild landscapes that are so close to our reach – our state and city parks. We neglect the importance of taking moments to slow down, connect with natural ecosystems, and understand the importance of the spaces that are still left wild. We take for granted the source that sustains the rich diversity of our parks, water. The recognition of this significance is often neglected to be acknowledged.
Parks and water go hand in hand with each other. Water is the single resource that gives life to everything on the planet. Without water, plants wouldn’t grow, and humans and wildlife wouldn’t survive. Throughout history, humans have made their settlements on the banks of rivers, or within reach of them. They have been used for travel, transportation of goods, and irrigation of crops.
The Platte River begins its journey high in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming then strolls its way through both Wyoming and Nebraska. As it meanders its way through these states, it feeds smaller creeks and watersheds, it eventually reaches the confluence with the Missouri River along the Nebraska/Iowa border. Over 1 million people in Nebraska rely on this river, including portions of Lincoln and Omaha. Where there lies a body of water, you will often find a park. A space centered around water, designated for the community, and preserves wild spaces. What would these parks be without the water?
It’s all about taking a pause and gaining perspective
Unbeknownst to me, what began as a place to run with my dog inspired my search for more hidden wildlands. Prairie Queen Recreation Area was just a short walk from my apartment. The natural prairie grasses and the multitudes of different species that live in this small park fostered a spark that grew into a burning desire to discover more of Nebraska. From the wild magenta-shaded grasses in the fall to the yellow sunflowers speckled through the fields in spring and summer, the park continued to invite me in further.
As the weeks would go by, my mundane commute from Omaha to Lincoln for school became like a daily greeting from an old friend. With each passing season, I would observe something new and become familiar with the landmarks. I began to know when the road would start to run parallel to the Platte River. The agriculture fields become a little scarcer as the small rolling hills begin to emerge like the subtle ripples of a calm flowing river. I passed the signs to Platte River and Schramm State parks, both of which sit directly off the Platte River. Time and again I would feel a calling to go.
My first semester at UNL passed and I still only admired the Platte from the road, no visits to either of the parks yet. As my second semester began, my course work picked up, and in the throes of COVID, I found myself in need of quiet moments to escape. On two separate occasions, I finally made a point to visit both Platte River and Schramm State parks. I roamed the trails and found what I was looking for — some connection to my surroundings and a refreshed perspective. I grew up right here in Omaha and had never been to either of these parks before.
So here I am, writing about these hidden oases, which have existed right in front of me all along. I could immediately see how much these parks had to offer and I wanted to take the time to explore each of them and share the wonders that I have encountered. So if others want this same experience of being enlightened, then I suggest you take a pause and see what our local parks have to offer. I think we as Nebraskans are very fortunate to have so many amazing state parks and city parks within our grasp. We all need some peace inside ourselves through which the natural world around us can bestow. I think when we make connections with the wilderness, these places become something we want to cherish for generations to come.
Prairie Queen Recreation Area
One park to lead them all
This is the park where it all started. I grew up just around the corner from where Prairie Queen stands today. The park was named in honor of a nearby historical one-room schoolhouse that was torn down in 2002. I remember when the roads here were made of gravel and cornfields dominated the landscape. When I would drive on these backroads it seemed like I was transported into the country and far from the city. Prairie Queen Recreation Area is located off 132nd Street and Highway 370. Today, the roads are entirely paved and neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and businesses take residence around the park.
The park opened in 2015; it encompasses 355 acres of parkland that surrounds 135 acres of the reservoir. A four-mile trail encircles the human-made lake that was built to mitigate flooding. There are two spillways that capture 3,320 acres of Westmont Creek’s drainage water into the reservoir. It’s the first structure to be completed in the Papillion Creek Watershed Partnership’s Management Plan. Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Sarpy County, and the City of Papillion all partnered together to create this recreation area. These agencies had as their end goal, to conserve, manage and enhance the soil, water, wildlife, and forest resources. The Prairie Queen surface and ground waters having these protections improve the water quality. The improvements to these waters initiate a succession, expanding out to other watersheds.
This park has granted me the honor to view an unexpected array of wildlife and a place to apply the material I was learning in my courses. The diversity of grasses and shrubs which once seemed a puzzle to solve, I could now piece together because of my Wildland Plants course. The behaviors of the passerines and waterfowl became something I could understand or predict because of Avian Biology. The scat I encountered gave me confirmation that coyotes roamed the fields at night because of Vertebrate Zoology. With each passing week, there was something new I was learning and was then able to witness with greater insight at the park. From the wild muskrats to the scurrying minks and soaring hawks each trip left me with an exciting new experience. Even the smallest of parks have much to be unearthed.
Can you paint with all the colors of the prairie?
As the weeks stride through every season, the terrain teems with new and different life. At the beginning of my visits here, prairie grasses, forbs, and shrubs growing from the paved trail to the brim of the water were a sea of camouflaging vegetation. The more time I spent here, the more I began to see something else. The rolling fields of monotoned grass were now flowing with the red and purple-tinged Big Bluestem, the glowing yellow of Goldenrods, and the vibrant violet-blue of Leadplant. The caramel from the Cattails now waved to me from the shallows of the water’s edge. Blended nuances of the prairie transformed into boundless fields of prismatic colors, which now I could never unsee.
In the late fall, as the prairie began to temporarily languish, the meadows would be cut down to encourage new and more abundant growth. Nonchalantly it would slowly reemerge until its eruption in spring. I felt as if from year to year the prairie was trying to out-compete itself from the last, achieving greater heights, and a deeper diversity.
What I have come to learn about Nebraska’s prairies is that they extend on, into what looks to be forever — as if you are on a beach staring out at the limitless ocean. The Great Plains here consist of more than 450 plant species, each conveying different artistry. Just like Nebraska, the patches of prairie here are considerably more alluring than you would think.
Here the wild things are
I am blown away by how much wildlife has established this place as home since the creation of the park in 2015. The most prominent being waterfowl. At times the lake is overflowing with so many Canada Geese and Mallards, from afar it appears there are more waterfowl than lake visible. The Canada Goose is a loud and proud bird, never shy to announce its honking presence to the world. These migrating waterfowl were constantly flying over my house on their way to and from the lake day and night. The aquatic vegetation wasn’t their only source of nutrients, the neighboring cornfields also had something to offer. After the seasonal plow, I would find the geese going between the lake and the fields to scrounge what was left behind. I came to enjoy their boisterous calls, even from inside my apartment.
I would often venture off the beaten path and make my way to the lakefront. In the shallowest parts, you can see minnows whisk in and out of the sun refracting through the water. The lake has been stocked with a variety of fish: Largemouth Bass, Channel Catfish, Bluegill, Redear Sunfish, and Black Crappies. Whether it is summer or in the dead of winter, anglers of all ages will venture to the lake to partake in catch-and-release fishing. The once-living trees that congregate in the middle of the water have been converted into bleached-boned timber graveyards. Consistently as is the circle of life, nature turns the death of one into prosperity for another. As the heavy branches and bulky trunks begin to detach and float to the bottom of the lake, they create shelter for shoals of fish to live.
On cloudless and radiant days, the red-tailed hawks gracefully maneuver through the sky and perch atop the ghostly trees in search of food below. When wandering the fields and trails of the park an array of songbirds perform their artistry from the stages of trees. I will never forget the first time I saw a muskrat swimming in a small cove. Lost in time and thought as the sun began to set and cast its orange glow around the horizon, I spotted something in the water. As my eyes followed the “V” shaped trail on the lake surface I discovered what I now know is a muskrat cutting across the inky-black water, out fishing for dinner. I watched it swim, “doggy paddle style” with its head out of the water, from the shore toward the center of the lake. Then in a swift motion, it would dive down and disappear resurfacing moments later nearer the shore. Every evening that I saw one, I would pause and quietly watch this practiced dance. On very special occasions, I would be lucky enough to catch a quick glance of a mink, skittering over and between the rocks along the shore.
As the night takes over and the stars wink high above, the hoots of the great horned owls can be heard, echoing across the water in the still night. Further off in the distance, high-pitched yipping from a pack of coyotes rings clear. During the spring when I would make my way home, a chorus of frogs thunder in the nearby ponds, the Boreal Chorus frogs. What starts as a low rumble will follow me all the way to my front door, still sounding as if they are right beside me. After every trip or moment spent at Prairie Queen, I would leave with a renewed passion for wild spaces and wild things.
The land of parks on the Platte
My goal while traversing these wildlands was to get to know them intimately. I wanted to discover more and share this experience with others. Most generally, we look at state parks and see the surface. We see the camping, the trails, and activities as a place to go for recreation. This is all entirely true, but there is more than meets the eye. They create a chance for connection with each other and a refinement of one’s mindset. Parks entice us with amusement but keep us through the secrets we uncover.
Platte River State Park
This 453 acres of land is purely dedicated for the public’s recreation, but also beneficially serves as a place for wild things to exist in their own wild spaces. Platte River State Park is located off the quiet town of Louisville between Omaha and Lincoln. It was created in 1982 from the merge of two camps, Harriet Harding Campfire and Camp Esther K. Newman, combined with some additional surrounding woodlands. The park offers an abundance of recreational activities: hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, and kayaking on the Platte River.
One of the most notable features of the park is Stone Creek Falls. No matter if you’ve taken the path less traveled, all trails in the park lead you to the falls and immerse you in the woodlands. I didn’t know what to expect with a waterfall in Nebraska. I never would have guessed the two go together, nevertheless, there is one to be found at Platte River State Park.
The journey tells more tales than the destination
I intended to uncover these mysterious falls. I decided I didn’t want to take the shortest trail from the park headquarters. I wanted to use a map from the alltrails app that would allow me to see more of the park. My cell service was spotty, which meant so was my map, plus I have a terrible sense of direction. Shortly into my jaunt, I had a hunch I was not heading in the right direction, but continued to see what I would reveal.
When I finally hit a clearing, I was not at the falls but the river access point to the Platte. It sits off Decker Creek, which flows directly into the river and just below the walking bridge that takes you to the bike trails. There I could also see the railroad tracks that run parallel to the river. The eerie sound of a train has always brought a sense of calm to me. Instead of being a hindrance to the sounds of nature on these trails, it was a reminder to me that even though I felt I was far off into the wilderness, home was just around the corner. I never made it to the falls that day. Instead, I just explored the other parts of the park the trails led me through.
Attempt number two of my hunt for the lost Stone Creek Falls was a success. I chose one of the shorter direct trails to get me to my destination. I approached from the ridge above the falls where the creek leads to the edge of the drop. I could hear the water rushing over the edge before it was in sight. I followed the water and walked down to view the front of the falls.
For such a quaint little waterfall, it was surprising that I could hear it on approach. I had always wanted to see what these falls were about and now I understood. I think these falls perfectly represent Nebraska. At first glance, one might assume the landscape is entirely flat. But yes, even the water in the Great Plains is confined by the rules of gravity and creates a waterfall as it travels across land. The unexpectedness of something like this in Nebraska is what makes it so unique.
I then followed the course of the water for some time after the falls, enjoying the stepping stones of rocks that allow you to cross back and forth across the creek. This small creek eventually joins with the Platte, what happens here at these falls reaches other lives in distant states far away. This was in Fall, and despite the dead fallen leaves floating like tiny toy boats along the stream, the water was alive, persisting and heading on its way.
Settling in the still
The following winter had been lacking the snow I had been hoping for. With the whiplashing of hot to cold weather, I was worried I wouldn’t get to see the falls glistening with winter snow. When there was finally a light dusting I quickly made a trip out to see how the forest had changed.
The trail leading in was lined with Eastern Red Cedars on each side with their branches creating an arched path over me. The glow of the freshly laid snow showed me the route to follow. The light from the entrance of the trail began to fade as I continued on my way under the dense canopy. The still silence of the winter air took over, with only the sound of crunching snow under my boots. As my footsteps turned into an anonymous noise in the woods, a symphony of songbirds began to simultaneously announce themselves. I hesitated and stood still. The longer I paused the greater the symphony began to crescendo around me. The forest had settled back into its routine despite my being there. My presence had become one with the natural order of the forest.
Approaching the falls from the front allowed me to notice the ice stalled over the edge. When I came closer I could hear the water rushing beneath the ice despite its deceiving look. Even the cold winter temperatures couldn’t halt the flowing water. Once more, the water was alive, persisting and heading on its way.
Curiouser and curiouser…
Jenny Newman Lake and Crawdad Creek is a quiet place tucked down off the road – a series of ponds lined like dominos down the hillside. The artificial ponds are pumped from well water to provide a water source that recharges the lake in spring and summer. Each pond is a separate watering hole and connected by human-made streams that guide the water from pond to pond until it reaches the lake. In these seasons, the ponds come alive with minnows, reptiles, and invertebrates like crayfish and insects. Children can satisfy their curiosity by interacting with the species and life they find in the ponds.
Crayfish in Nebraska are in the family Cambaridae, the largest family of freshwater crayfish. The species found in this area are the northern crayfish, found along rivers flowing from the midwest to the south, where the waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico. To survive the freezing temperatures of winter, the crayfish burrow into the sediment under the shallow waters. Their burrows mix and move the layers of soil, which increases the uptake of nutrients and water. In turn, the surrounding vegetation benefits from the added soil health. Snakes and frogs have even been found to use crayfish burrows as a refuge from predators and winter temperatures. An easy way to take a quick peek at one is to look under rocks where burrows are often found.
Back at the lake, there is a short path that leads you around the north end culminating with a small pavilion where you can take in the view or gaze at the wildlife. I was greeted by a couple of different species of geese on my first visit, Canada Geese and a domestic species, Greylag. I watched as the geese dipped their heads into the water to grab their meal of aquatic plants. Not only does the aquatic vegetation provide for the waterfowl but it also oxygenates the water, stabilizes the shoreline, and provides shade for aquatic organisms that call it home.
Without aquatic vegetation, the adjacent ponds wouldn’t be able to sustain the abundant different species that it does. The lake is also a peaceful place for an angler to take a seat for catch and release. The lake houses several different species of fish: Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, Channel Catfish, Black Crapple, and Red Shiner are stocked to help provide a healthy ecosystem.
Platte River and the tower of landscapes
After ascending 85 feet worth of stairs toward the clouds to the top of the Lincoln Journal Tower, I was rewarded by the in-person perspective of the Platte River I had only experienced in photographs. There was something about earning my way up the vast staircase that made the view all the sweeter. The soaring tower allows you to view a panorama of the last bend on the Platte River just over 18 miles from the confluence of the Missouri River.
Camping is allowed year-round and is mostly first-come/first-serve with only a select few available to reserve. There are also cabins available to stay in, some of which are renovated original cabins from Harriet Harding Campfire Girls Camp and Camp Esther K. Newman, established in the early 1900s. Any of which you choose, you can be assured the wild woods are waiting to be revered and unmasked. Guided horseback riding, archery, and firearm ranges are available for use too. There is an assortment of activities to do here. Each and every visit will be different from the last.
Schramm Park State Recreation Area
Schramm is located just a short few miles northwest of Platte River State Park. In 1881 Nebraska acquired its first fish hatchery, known as the Santee Hatchery (Note: Santee can be found spelled in different ways; Sauntee, Saunty, and Saunzfy). While the Santee Sioux tribe originated in Minnesota and was forced to northeast Nebraska in 1866, the hatchery’s name originates from the ferry company which purchased it, Sauntee Land and Ferry Company. Both the hatchery and ferry company appear to bear little to no connection with the Santee Sioux Tribe. Before Lewis and Clark marked their maps, these lands belonged to the indigenous. The tribes which occupied these lands were the Omaha, Otoe-Missouria, and Pawnee tribes.
The Santee Hatchery later became the Gretna Fish Hatchery and then finally became Schramm. The property was selected on the basis of its natural spring water that seemed to never end. The Gretna hatchery closed in 1973 and the property, plus another 277 acres donated by University of Nebraska Geology Professor E. Frank Schramm, became Schramm Park State Recreation Area. Today, what was once an actively utilized building for the hatchery is now a museum. Since learning the stories of the past, I can’t help but reflect on the adversities of the ground beneath my feet.
A few years after Schramm Park opened the Aksarben Aquarium was built to enhance the learning potential for visitors. In 2019 the aquarium was expanded into a new education center. When I walked in for my first visit it was immediately apparent how kind and helpful the staff are. The new center immerses you into the world of different species the park houses as well as other native species to Nebraska.
You can walk around and view the many tanks of various Nebraska fish species and learn about the distinct features of Nebraska’s waters. They have the world’s largest Common Snapping Turtle properly named “Big Snap Daddy”. I felt as if I had been pulled back in time and was standing in front of an ancient dinosaur. They have seventeen tanks housing reptiles as well as amphibians, which include Nebraska’s largest frog, growing up to 7 inches, the American Bullfrog. Since the education center opened, an interactive section was included, allowing children and adults to use all their senses to actively immerse themselves with the various species.
All the small things
Schramm was the first Platte River park I explored. I leisurely took my time, photographing whatever piqued my interest. I originally chose this park to scout out the trails but I ended up spending most of my time at the series of ponds. As soon as I was done admiring one, there was the next ready to be adored. In one of the ponds, there were these elegant bright pink Water Lilies scattered throughout one of the ponds. On another, the water’s surface was beaming with neon green algae.
Second to that were the canyon ponds littered with Koi fish glowing just beneath the surface of the water. There were families tossing in fish food bringing the swarms of fish together. The Koi moved into radiating geometric groupings. I was amazed at how coinciding this was with how nature tends to fall into mathematical principles. The short walkway around these ponds is heavily shaded by trees providing a cooler space to stroll on hot summer days.
When I hit the trails I was captivated by the changing terrain. There was the occasional uphill walk contrasting with the flat even portions of the trail. The light cascading through the trees was exactly what I was looking for. The reason I wanted to scout the trails specifically was for an assignment in my studio photography course. The assignment was about getting familiar with large format cameras and you only had a few sheets of precious film to work with. I wanted to make sure I could find my shot before hauling the giant camera and tripod up the trail. (Well, actually before having my amazing husband haul it up the trail as he so graciously “offered” to do).
The next day we came out and hiked up to the spot that caught my eye and I snapped my photo from under the cape. Large format cameras resemble the types shown in old westerns where the operator is hidden under a thick heavy curtain draped over their body. This is to block light from bleeding onto the sensitive photo paper and allow the projected image to be framed and viewed. Under the thick cloth cape, the heat is stifling in late summer. This was my first ever shot on this type of film. Just like in the original 1900s, this method can sometimes result in small light leaks. Which in some circumstances can ruin a shot. However, the surprise of a small leak after developing added more character to my photo, and it came out exactly as I visualized in my mind.
The silence of the woods
Nestled deep in the woods, down a rarely traversed and slightly overgrown path off the main trail, stands what appears to be a destitute shack. As I gathered the courage to walk toward the structure, it looked as if ripped from the pages of a horror novel; but instead of the expected ominous atmosphere, I discovered a place of solitude. The sloped roof covers a bench that overlooks the forest below.
As I sat there looking out at the infinite branches of the trees swaying in the breeze, feelings of freedom washed over me. My mind was no longer encumbered by responsibilities of daily life or my own heavy expectations I place on myself. I was now lost in the moment fully connected with the nature surrounding me. When I was ready to continue on my adventure, I felt refreshed in a way I had not felt for some time. As I returned to the main trail, I noticed a sign aptly labeling this spot as a Meditation Shelter.
River view solace
My choice for calm moments at this park became a trail that was across Highway 31 to the side of the boat ramp. You’ll find a modest path with a front-row view of the Platte. During my first exploration here I began to realize I was on what appeared to be a game trail and not a designated trail for visitors. Nevertheless, I proceeded with the deer tracks leading the way for me between the overgrown flora.
Not far beyond the path, a small stream was nested behind a prominent goldenrod patch. The stream crawled towards the river in gentle trickles and I found Raccoon prints marking the muddy sides of the river. With birds echoing in the distance, I took a seat and watched the water flow by, carrying logs and leaf debris past me. With every visit to Schramm, I would always take a moment to view the river from here. The debris would change with the seasons. In winter it became disorganized blocks of ice that would fail to hinder the river’s flow.
These hidden wildlands found me
Water is uncompromising as it moves and flows along the landscape. It creates places of wildlands uniting and connecting us as communities. Just as people in history’s past lived and worked near the water, Omaha being just north of the Platte River provides a plethora of options for outdoor spaces to indulge in, which factors in defining the greatness of Nebraska. Outdoor spaces offer up the fresh air, new wildlife to discover, and alluring plant species to view. In return, parks leave us with a revived state of mind. Synchronous of how vital it is, water is the pinnacle of our parks, and as such cannot exist apart from the water, just as life itself. Like flowing water, you can’t always count on a story taking you where you want to go, only where you need to be.