Homer's Travels: Hiking Nebraska: Indian Cave State Park - Revisited

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hiking Nebraska: Indian Cave State Park - Revisited

This week I went back to Indian Cave State Park, a place I'd visited September of last year. Last year I went there blind and discovered once I got there that there were several long trails in the park. While I only managed a 5.8 mile hike last year, this year I went intending to double that, aiming for the 11 - 12 mile point.

I arrived at trailhead #5 just after 9:00AM. It was a little chilly with temps in the upper 30s but the sky was clear and I knew the weather was ideal for a long hike. Trail #5, known as the Hardwood Trail, was where I'd hiked last year. My intention was to hike the length of trail #5, part of #9, #11, #10, #8, part of #3, and finally #6. This combination of trails would give me a meandering loop with the desired mileage.

Trail #5 was much like I remembered it but there were some differences. Last year I kept running into spider webs stretched across the trail but the cool weather we've been having has sent the spiders packing. There also was a lot more evidence of horses on the trail - both horse exhaust on the trail and torn up hills where the horse's hooves had torn up the muddy trail. The hills where the horses had stirred up the thick, clingy, clay mud were hard to climb, both up and down. The holes left by the hooves were full of rain water from recent weather, and my boots and walking pole kept getting stuck in the thick mud.

The trail moves up and down ridges, passes by campsites and shelters in the thick forest. The parts of the trail that hadn't been stirred up by the horses, were covered in a thick layer of leaves. It was kind of pretty. I like the sound of rustling leaves as I shuffled my feet along the trails. Took me back to my childhood.

There are mile markers along this trail. The first matched my GPS (GPS: 2.05, Marker: 2). The next, a 3 mile marker, was off (GPS: 2.55). Further on I ran across another 3 mile marker (GPS: 2.74). At this point I decided that the markers were pretty useless. At the same time my GPS wasn't much better at the trees and the ridges were wreaking havoc with the reception. The uselessness of the markers became apparent when I found the
5 mile marker next to the 6 mile marker farther down the trail.

About three and a half miles in, that's my best guess, I ran into a junction not shown on the map. I hate inaccurate trail maps. I made a guess and ... it was wrong. The trail came out to the park road. I pulled out the map and managed to reorient myself. The unexpected detour had bypassed a mile of trail. I found the nearby trailhead #9 and took it back, grumbling all the way, to where I wanted to be.

The trail goes up another ridge - I lost count of the number of ridges - where it crosses a large meadow. There's a campground in the meadow and I wondered what the sky looked like at night, away from all the city lights. I'm
sure the milky way would look incredible up there. Almost makes me want to be a camper.

Across the meadow, trail #9 ends at a junction with trails #10 and #11. Despite being a short there-and-back trail that didn't contribute to the loop, I took #11 because it offered two things - a scenic overlook and the park's namesake, Indian Cave. Trail #11, is fairly easy for the first 0.6 miles it takes to get to the
scenic overlook. From there it drops steeply down the hillside on a mud and leaf slicked trail 0.2 miles long. As I went down I was dreading the return trip that I knew was ahead. No switchbacks here. Oh no. Straight down the hillside.
The trailhead is at the end of the park road. I walked down the road a short distance and walked up the wooden stairs that took you to the broad but shallow mouth of the Indian Cave. While you could still see a couple of the petroglyphs, most of the cave was defaced by graffiti and modern carvings. Sad how history is rarely respected. Frankly I'm more interested in petroglyphs than who is dating whom.

After a brief rest and snack, I went back up trail #11 and, after a lot of huffing and puffing, returned to the meadow. Here I turned north-west up trail #10, continuing on my loop. This trail took me to one of my favorite places in the park. Before dropping down the side of the ridge, the trail reaches a campsite. The site is near one of the many Adirondack shelters located in the park. Unlike the other shelters, this one has a fire pit and a bench, but the best feature of this site is the view. It was a little too late to see the fall colors but the view of the forest and river was still amazing.

I followed trail #10 back to the park road, crossed a bridge, and found the trailhead #8. At this point you have a choice. Trail #8 goes to the top of yet another ridge. Trail #8A will take you around the base of the ridge. #8A looked a lot easier and probably has better views of the river. I really don't know because I took the trail up the ridge. I can be a masochist sometimes.

At the top was another campsite and another well placed bench. I plopped down on the bench and ate another snack bar. The bench had yet another amazing view, this one to the east. In the foreground, the Missouri River; on the far shore, past stands of autumn naked trees and a chute, a past channel of the river, Missouri farmland stretched east dotted with shiny metal silos; and on the far horizon, a farm of a different kind, a 21
st century farm, a wind farm, white turbines twirling in the wind.

The rest of the hike was a blur. Past a couple more meaningless mileage markers, Trail #8 ended and #3 started. Another junction and I was on #6. #6 took me over another ridge before ending at the park road. A half mile on the road took me back to my car. Along the whole hike I probably went up and down ridges at least six times, probably more. I was beat when I got to the car. I guesstimate that the hike was about 10.7 miles, a mile or so less than I'd planned. Elevation was about 400 ft peak to trough but, all the ups and downs probably made it more like 2,000 ft.


  1. I LOVE the path photo!!!!

  2. Well, you may say its too late, but I think the colors in those shots are gorgeous. Sounds like it might be a good place to try your first overnighter!

  3. JaG: Welcome back and Thank You!

    GH: It is very tempting. Thanks!