Homer's Travels: Hiking Nebraska: Fontenelle Forest

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hiking Nebraska: Fontenelle Forest

As I searched for hikes in the area, I kept coming across Fontenelle Forest.  While investigating this park, I was getting the impression that it was geared more towards the kiddies than for serious hikers.  Not sure I would find any challenging hikes, I made sure I had some geocaches in my back pocket as an alternative.  To my surprise, it turned out I didn't need them.

Fontenelle Forest is a located in the city of Bellevue, NE on the bank of the Missouri River and less than 20 minutes from my house.  The park is on the west side of the Gifford peninsula.  The eastern half of the peninsula is part of Gifford Farm, a working farm educational center not open to hikers. 

On Thursday off I went to investigate.  I parked at the Nature/Visitor's Center and went in to get a trail map and pay the small fee to use the trails.  The nice lady behind the counter pointed out some trails to me including a  few around a marsh that she thought I might like.  I asked how far it was and after discussing amongst themselves decided that it was about four miles one way.  This surprised me.  I'd thought most of the trails to be short - one to two miles tops - and a longer hike was exactly what I was looking for.

I left the nature center and started out on the trail.  The park is riddled with trails and are very clearly marked.  There are 27 named trails crisscrossing the 1,400 acre conservation area ranging from a tenth of a mile to 1.3 miles in length.  The path I took would take me along the Linden trail, the Hackberry trail, the Hawthorn trail, the Oak trail, the Signal Ridge trail, the Mormon Hollow trail, the Marsh trail, the Gifford Memorial Boardwalk, the Cottonwood trail, the Stream trail, the Missouri trail, the Hawthorn trail (again), the Chickadee trail, the Hickory trail, and, finally, the Riverview Boardwalk.

On my last hike I commented how flat it was.  This hike was not flat.  Nebraska has some hills.  Who woulda thunk it?  The first six trails took me up and down forested hills - up and down four times.  The path started as a three person wide dirt trail which, as you moved further away from the nature center became narrower and narrower until it became a single trace.  The farther I went the more overgrown the path was as well.  This was evidence that some of these trails weren't used often but the trail was never really hard to follow.  As I went deeper civilization faded away.  The only reminders were the sounds of trains and airplanes going in and out of nearby Offutt Air Force base and Eppley airfield.  Never the less I felt alone.

The Hawthorn trail takes you up and over the first ridge.  After crossing a bridge, the Oak trail takes you steeply over a second ridge.  The Oak trail ends in a gravel road that leads to the Hitchcock Wetlands Learning Center.  Crossing the road you find the trailhead of the Signal Ridge trail that takes you steeply up over yet another ridge.  All of these ridges are covered in thick deciduous forest.  I imagine the trails will be totally awesome in the fall after the leaves have turned.  I may have to return for some tree peeping in a couple months.

Near the top of Signal Ridge I took a left turn onto the Mormon Hollow trail.  This trail follows a wash down the side of the ridge.  The path here was damp and muddy in spots and the plants along the trail were lush and overgrown.  I imagine a lot of water washes down this trail during a good rain.  Along this trail I stumbled on a letterbox (a precursor to geocaching).  This was the second letterbox I've ever found - the first being on the old cabin trail.  I don't have a stamp so I just signed the log.  Maybe I'll make a Homer-Dog stamp and go back sometime to leave my mark.

The Mormon Hollow trail crosses a train track before arriving a rickety three board wide bridge crossing an inlet to the Great Marsh, once part of the Missouri River channel.  I don't recall a hike where the scenery changed so quickly.  From hilly forest to boggy marshland.  I had to pause to take it all in.   This part of the marsh marks a ferry crossing used by the Mormons to reach the Fontenelle Trading Post on the Nebraska side of the river in the early 1800s.  This park actually has three distinct areas with a prairie being the third ecosystem.  I skipped the prairie as it would have added a little too much distance - another reason to return later.

The great marsh area was very interesting as I'd never really hiked in a marshy area before.  SoCal tends to be a little dry for this type of terrain.  I stopped at an observation/birding blind and rested a bit.  A couple of old birders showed up.  At least that is what I think they were with the binoculars and cameras.

The trails along the marsh and the river are relatively flat and mostly wooded.  From the observation deck I headed toward the river following several trails including the Gifford Memorial Boardwalk, the cottonwood trail, and the Stream trail until I reached the aptly named Missouri Trail that takes you to the river bank before turning west and paralleling the river.  The river was flowing at a pretty good clip.  This trail took me closer to the bank than last week's Boyer Chute trail did.  The Missouri trail eventually crosses the train tracks again and connects back up with the Hawthorn trail.

To make the return trip a little different I continued straight at a junction and followed the Chickadee trail down to a creek  in Child's Hollow before taking the Hickory trail to the Riverview Boardwalk.  The boardwalk has interpretive signs with history and quotes from Lewis and Clark who figure prominently in many of the parks along the Missouri river in Nebraska and Iowa.  It almost seems that all the parks in the area revolve around Lewis and Clark or the Mormons.  In the case of Fontenelle Forest, both influences are apparent.

I was pleasantly surprised with this park.  I was really surprised how such a wild feeling wilderness with such diversity was less than 20 minutes away from the hustle and bustle.  I encountered more wildlife in this forest that any other I've hiked - six deer, three wild turkeys, various squirrels, a variety of birds, insects, and many spiders.  Spiders.  You could tell that there wasn't very many people on the trails that day because I kept running into webs stretching over the trail including one incident that caused me to do the big-spider-crawling-up-my-chest jig double-time.  I also founds a Daddy-Long-Legs crawling up my stomach at one point which gave me a little start.  All this heart stopping encounters just added to the richness of this hike.

The hike ended up somewhere around 5.27 miles.  It may have been longer as my GPS had some bad reception up in the trees and especially in Mormon Hollow which might have under-measured the hike.  I doubt it was the eight miles they told me at the nature center.   Elevation gain was about 426 feet but keep in mind that the hike topped four ridges so my estimate for total vertical is around 1,200 feet up and down.  Pictures are here.

Next week, another Mormon inspired park.  This time in Iowa.


  1. JaG: Ick is right. Scared the ba-jeebus out of me.

  2. I think everyone does the spider jig the moment they notice a spider (or any other creepy-crawly) on them. Nice pictures from this hike. I especially like the leaf and the river shots. The river looks a great place to take a chair to and sit with a good book for a spell...

  3. GH: Thanks. The river was relaxing. The whole hike was relaxing.