Ponca State Park is 892 heavily forested acres located on high bluffs and steep hills along the western banks of the Missouri and is adjacent to the Missouri National Recreational River. The park is the eastern terminus for people taking float trips through the National Recreational River from Gavins Point Dam to the west.
Created in 1934 out of 200 acres of donated land, the park is named after Chief Standing Bear of the Native American Ponca Tribe. An early defender of human rights, Chief Standing Bear successfully argued before the American Supreme Court that Native Americans should be declared a, "person," under United States law and have the full rights and protection that ordinary citizens enjoyed.
The park offers incredible biodiversity like most Nebraska state parks. Eastern flowers of bloodroot, Canada violet, phlox and white cicely growing among prairie plants of yucca, prairie clover and larkspur on the windswept upper ridges. Gooseberry and wild plum also grow on the edges of the mixed prairie that fades into forests locked away in the deep gorges and canyons of the park.
The dense forest is mostly black oak with basswood, elm, walnut and hackberry found in the park. Located close to the center of the park is the, "Old Oak Tree." This weathered and gnarled black oak is 360 years old, a rare survivor of the development over the last 200 years. Spotting white-tailed deer and wild turkey, especially in the fall, is common. As the sun sets coyotes, more elusive red and gray foxes, raccoons and bobcats can be seen. The barred owl with it's haunting, "who-who-who-you," call can be heard at almost anytime of the day. In June the white fluffy seeds of the cottonwood trees rain down like snowon the park.
In the fall and winter the park becomes a bird watching paradise. Thousands of migrating geese and ducks call the Missouri River home, some even winter in the area. Bald eagles have been known to nest in Ponca State Park and native songbirds come to visit several winter feeders. Winter visitors enjoy cross country skiing and snow shoeing when conditions allow.
Ponca State Park isn't without modern facilities and family activities, and in the summer the park becomes a vacation paradise. A large swimming pool is open from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM with a lifeguard on duty. Barbeques are held during holidays and special events and excellent food can be eaten for a very reasonable fee. Programs on astronomy, ecology, history, paleontology, and flora and fauna are held daily. A boat ramp and dock provides easy access to the Missouri River for pleasure boating and paddling. The 9-hole Highland Oaks Public Golf Course sits on the southern boundary of the park, overlooking the forest and hills.
Supervised horseback riding is also available within the park. The three-mile trail wanders through dense forest climbing almost 500 feet in vertical elevation to the top of a bluff with a commanding view of three states and the Missouri River below. Hayrides are also provided during the weekends and can be arranged for groups.
Ponca has over 17 miles of maintained trails. Trails range from ½ mile loops to an eight-mile walk around the perimeter of the park. The multi-use trails on the northeastern side of the park are most popular providing some of the best views in the region. In October the leaves turn into a kaleidoscope of color providing for wonderful trekking in the crisp air. Later in the season a thick carpet of leaves blankets the forest floor with deep reds, browns and oranges. The only sound you will here is the leave crackling under your feet as you walk.
Ponca State Park has excellent camping and lodging facilities. A total of 87 forested campsites with paved pads and electricity are available. An additional 50 walk-in campsites are also available for primitive camping. Campground facilities include hot showers, potable water, picnic tables, fire rings and a playground. Reservations are not accepted. Facilities are open from April to November, however walk-in camping is allowed year round.
If camping isn't your idea of a good time Ponca State Park also offers 14 two-bedroom, single bath cabins. The spacious cabins are air-conditioned and complete with bedding and towels for four, electric range, refrigerator, dining room and dishes for six. Large screened porches allow you to enjoy the cool night air and scenic views or sip a morning cup of coffee. Up to eight guests are allowed to stay in a cabin. Reservations for more than two nights are taken up to a year in advance, overnight stays are on a first come first served basis.
With so much to offer Ponca State Park is an outstanding destination when visiting the Upper Missouri River in northeastern Nebraska. Whether you just relax within the boundaries of the park or explore the nearby attractions at Lewis & Clark Lake the quiet beauty of the old Missouri can be enjoyed any time of the year.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Ponca State Park
Location: Northeastern Nebraska, Sioux City, Iowa
Nearest Major Air Service: Yankton, South Dakota, Sioux City, Iowa, Omaha, Nebraska
Fees & Permits: $2.50 daily park access fee or $14 for an annual permit. Nebraska state fishing permits are required.
Why Visit: Year round activities, excellent trail system through dense forest provides year round recreation. Plenty of summertime family fun from horseback riding to cookouts. Eastern terminus of the Missouri National Recreational River.
When To Visit: May to November
Essential Gear: Depends on a wide variety of activity. Sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, lip balm, windbreaker, camera, binoculars, and drinking water. In the summer be sure to bring a bathing suit and towel. Other gear is strongly recommended.
You Should Know: Swimming in the Missouri River is not recommended due to strong currents. Weather in May and in the fall can be unpredictable. Many other state parks in South Dakota and Iowa are close by.
More Information: Ponca State Park, PO BOX 688, Ponca, Nebraska 68770-0688, (402) 755-2284