Toadstool Geologic Park: Hike and Camp at Nebraska’s Badlands

We discovered Toadstool Geologic Park by mere accident while we were traveling through Northwest Nebraska. This geological wonder, located in the Oglala National Grasslands near Fort Robinson State Park is a very remote hiking and camping paradise! But, do you think you could hack it all by yourself there?

After parking our RV for a week long stay at Fort Robinson State Park, we went for an evening sunset motorcycle ride heading north towards the Nebraska and South Dakota state line.

We noticed a small brown historic landmark sign reading Toadstool Geologic Park pointing left onto what seemingly was a long dirt road.

Toadstool Geological Park - Highway Sign

Being inquisitive explorers, when we got back to our RV, we looked up Toadstool Geologic Park on the interweb. We were quite intrigued at what we learned about it that we just had to go visit it.

So, the next day, we packed our hiking gear, a box lunch, plenty of water and made our way to Toadstool Geologic Park, but this time in our truck.

After a 12 mile washboard dirt road to this very remote place, we can honestly say Toadstool may not suit everyone.

Road to Toadstool Geological Park

So, let’s see if it fits in your bucket list!

Check out our YouTube video on Northwest Nebraska that includes Toadstool Geologic Park:

 

About Toadstool Geologic Park

The question is, who would ever think there are badlands in a state known for their vast cornfields and prairie grasslands? When you think of Nebraska, you probably think of rows upon rows of corn fields and cows, right? After all, Nebraska is the Cornhusker State, right?

And, if you think the only badlands in the United States are only in the Dakotas, well, think again. Never, in a million years, did we think anything like this exist in the flat grasslands and agricultural region of the United States.

But, they do exist! And like Christopher Columbus’ elation when he discovered America, you can imagine ours when we happened upon these incredible badlands in Nebraska!

Toadstool Geological Park - Sandstone Formations

Geographically speaking, these badlands in Northwest Nebraska are much smaller but have the same geological makeup as those in Badlands National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

For those who aren’t familiar with what badlands are, this describes these geological formations perfectly:

“Badlands are a type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water. They are characterized by steep slopes, minimal vegetation, lack of a substantial regolith, and high drainage density.”

As the pioneer nomads of century’s ago started to explore this region of Nebraska, they too were just as surprised as we were on the day they discovered them.

Toadstool Geological Park - Toadstool Formations

There were thousands of mushroom-shaped sandstone hoodoos in every shape and size. Thus, the early explorers coining those sandstone slabs resting on their clay pillars as Toadstools.

And, of course, that’s where Toadstool Geologic Park got its’ name.

How are Toadstools created?

Toadstool Geologic Park - Toadstool Formations 2

These toadstool geological features are created by forces of the wind and water that eroded the soft clay faster than the hard sandstone rock that capped it. Though erosion eventually collapsed the giant toadstools, new smaller hoodoos are formed.
 

Over time, rushing water has cut away the underside of cliffs and ridge tops creating small river canyons.

When the river banks undercut enough, the weight of the overhead mass breaks off into large chunks, crashing into the stream bed and diverting the stream flows.

These eventually erode away at an average of an inch per year. And, this constant cycle continues as larger formations are forcibly transformed into smaller ones.

Toadstool Geologic Park - Nebraska Badlands

For a moment, let’s turn the clock back 30 million years.

The rich river water invited habitants to live here. If you were alive back then, you’d see miniature horses, humpless camels, giant tortoises, pigs and even rhinos roaming these barren badlands.

The unforgiving terrain that’s here now in these badlands, wasn’t like what it is today; 30 million years later.

Since, scientists have pieced together the clues through archeological and fossil digs; capturing what life was like in this ancient river valley millions of years ago. The water current carried volcanic debris that, layer upon later, formed rocks we see today.

Toadstool Geologic Park - Scenic Trails

Over thousands of years, water and wind sculpted the rock into badlands. The geological processes preserved, and these erosions exposed the record of North America’s earliest Great Plains animals.

And now years later, the federal government had to step in to protect this natural wonder because it’s one of the only of it’s type in the world.

Toadstool Geologic Park’s unforgiving sand-barren hills and rock-strewn gullies disguise the abundant life it once supported.

The first time we saw it up close, we felt like we landed on the moon. Very little green vegetation except on the edges or tops of the cliffs and ridges.

It’s referred to as the Nebraska Badlands because it’s geological structures resemble the Badlands in North and South Dakotas.

Toadstool Geological Park - Nebraska Badlands 2

But guess what? There IS life here and we got to witness it first hand. There were jack rabbits, pika, snakes, and evidence of coyotes and big cats. And those are only what we’ve seen. Through the test of time, they’ve adapted to their hardened habitats.

Jack Rabbit

Toadstool Geologic Park today

Today, along with the Oglala National Grassland’sToadstool Geologic Park is under management and protection of the U.S.Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service.

Once you get to the entrance of the park, you’ll cross a cattle guard. Be aware, you may encounter livestock on the dirt road leading to the park; reason the cattle guard is put there to keep them out of the protected park.

Toadstool Geologic Park - Entrance Cattle Guard

This small park has two individual vault toilets that are maintained by the National Forest and Grasslands District. There’s also an informational kiosk and beautiful graphic poster kiosks that educate users of the geological history of the formations.

Toadstool Geologic Park - Sign

A small primitive camping area is situated in the small outer circle around the informational kiosks. The camping area is surprisingly well-maintained for it being miles away from civilization.

On the park grounds, there’s also a replica of a dirt and grass-packed sod house

In 1984, the U.S. Forest Service constructed a sod house near the site of an original sod house built in 1929. The original sod house (1929) was lived in briefly before being abandoned and demolished from weather and lack of maintenance.

Sod House

So, the new sod house provides a look of how the homesteaders lived on the grasslands. As you’ll notice, there’s very few trees on the grassland.

So, the settlers had to utilize natural materials available to them. We noticed it was 10-15 degrees cooler inside the sod house which was quite welcoming on the 90 degree days we were there.

Camping at Toadstool Geologic Park

Toadstool - Tent Camping

While hiking is the immediate draw at Toadstool Geologic Park, there’s primitive camping as well. 

The Park’s campground is open year round with limited services from mid November to early May. During the off season, you’ll need to pack in, pack out. 

Currently (as of 5/25/21), the overnight camping rate is $15 each night from about May 1st to mid-November. We used Dan’s National Park Access Pass which helped at $7 each night camping fee.

Toadstool Geologic Park Information Sign

Know though that Toadstool Geologic Park camping area only allows a 14 day stay limit so everyone gets a chance to enjoy camping.

Fees and registration envelopes can be deposited into the honor box next to the small outdoor information center in the center of the campground.

It’s important to pay for use as that’s what pays for the trash collection, road, park and hiking trail maintenance.

U.S. Forest Service requires campers to abide by the posted quiet hours on the kiosk. This means absolutely no generators between 10:00pm to 6:00am.

US Forest Service - Quiet Hours Sign

The park’s small camping area consists of six marked campsites. These are fantastic sites for motocamping (motorcycle camping), tent camping and smaller campers under 30′ combined with tow vehicle.

Each campsite has a pavilion over a sturdy picnic table. There’s also a fire ring as well as an upright charcoal grill. There’s also a trash can at the end of each campsite.

Toadstool Geologic Park - Empty Campsite

Again, the vault toilets are within short walking distance to the campsites.

However, there is no water onsite anywhere. So, you’ll need to bring plenty of water for drinking and general usage. And since there is no dump station, you’ll need to conserve your water accordingly and use the vault toilets.

Toadstool - RV Camping Area

Just an FYI, you can fill and dump at nearby Fort Robinson State Park or at Crawford City Park that has water and dump station for smaller RVs and Vans for a fee.

Hiking and Exploring Toadstool Geologic Park

The trailhead at Toadstool provides access to three hiking trails. There’s a small metal box at the trailhead that has interpretive brochures about the trails.

Toadstool Geological Park - Trailhead

If you’re going to hike Toadstool Geologic Park, we estimate about 1-3 hours, depending on your hiking skill level and time you wish to stay out there. Start your hikes in the morning when it’s cooler.

And, there is a $3 day use fee for parking, hiking and using the Park. You pay at the honor box located at the information kiosk in the parking center.

The trail system at is fairly well marked. We followed the trail markers along the mile-long loop trail to unravel the park’s mysteries.

The first quarter mile of the trail is easily accessible. Beyond that, the trail winds along stream beds, through gullies and over sandstone rock.

Toadstool Geological Park - Hiking the Riverbed

The incredible toadstools and trackways awaited our every turn and climb.

A one mile loop shows many of the eroded clay/sandstone formations. The first quarter mile of the trail is easily accessible. Beyond that, the trail winds along stream beds, through gullies and over sandstone rock.

The Bison Trail leaves the interpretive loop at the half way point and continues up the canyon to Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center

Toadstool Park Hiking Trails

Know that the Toadstool camping area to Hudson Meng is 6 miles round trip. So plan your day accordingly.

The five mile loop begins at the Toadstool camping area, treks along the graveled section of the interpretive trail for a short distance before heading north through the badlands and grasslands on the Great Plains Trail.

After 1.5 miles the Great Plains Trail intersects with the 918 Road. Follow the signs to return to the Bison Trail and Toadstool Campground. Hikers can hike the loop in reverse direction on the interpretive trail as you leave the campground.

The Bison Trail, 918 Road and part of the 5 mile loop are part of Great Plains Trail developed by the Great Plains Trail Alliance. It’s a cross country network of public land trails and roads beginning in Guadalupe National Park and ending at the Canadian Border. 

There are several small cliffs that offer fantastic views and photo opportunities. We touched, we smelled and we got to experience what perceives to be a secret treasure known only by a few.

Toadstool Geologic Park - Hiking

Unfortunately, the hiking terrain of Toadstool Geologic Park is not wheelchair accessible. And those using walkers and canes may want to sit this one out due to the treacherous terrain surface conditions.

Toadstool Hiking Tips

We’ve hiked Toadstool several times, so we appreciate you heeding our hiking tips and advice.

The hiking levels at Toadstool Geologic Park range from easy to difficult depending on terrain and trail surface. There’s a small metal box at the trailhead that has pamphlets to let you know the skill level of each trail.

Start your hikes early in the day. The afternoon sun, especially in the warmer months, is brutal. The Oglala Grassland is dry, hot and windy in the late spring, summer and early fall months. When the wind picks up in the afternoons, it can cause early dehydration when you least expect it.

Always On Liberty - Toadstool - Nebraska

So, take plenty of water for personal hydration. We military types live by the mantra, ‘hydrate or die’. When hiking in climates like this, you should too.

If you have children in your party, allocate enough water for them as well. We highly recommend each carrying a 2+ liter hydration backpack or a hydration bladder in your backpack for each person in your hiking party.

Bring high SPF lip sunscreen and sunscreen for reasons mentioned above. Also wear good UV ray protection sunglasses. Wearing a wide brimmed hat is also a good idea to keep the sun off of your face and neck.

Pack a few healthy protein snacks in your day pack. However, avoid taking meat protein snacks. We’ll get to why a little further down this article.

Toadstool Geological Park - Hiking the Riverbed

We highly recommend wearing sturdy hiking shoes or boots with good treads. The ground is soft gravel and trails can be loose and sandy.

It would be a good idea also to bring your trekking poles for balance and stability. We found the collapsible trekking poles are best so you can attach them to your day pack if you don’t need them.

If you have children who are hiking with you, keep them near you at all times. Do not allow them to climb or run far out of your reach for reasons we discuss next.

Not only be aware but BEWARE! There are living things out on the trails that will hurt or even incapacitate you. Cactus, venomous snakes, and big cats are just a few. Remember, you’re in their home and habitat. Be alert at all times on the trails. Never antagonize or try to approach any animals.

Big Cat Tracks

As with big cats, though we’ve not seen one (yet). However, we’ve seen fresh cat tracks on our hikes at Toadstool. So, as beautiful as the scenery is, keep your eyes looking up on the shelves and ridges.

And remember I mentioned not taking meat protein snacks on your hike? This is why. Big cats will smell that from a mile away and want to join you to share your snack.

Stay away from crevices where snakes take refuge. This is one of the reasons we encourage taking trekking poles to test out areas before stepping in or reaching for ledges to hold.

Pets are allowed in Toadstool Geologic Park. However, they are required to be kept on a six-foot leash. Don’t allow them to wander off leash for potentially dangerous reasons we mentioned above.

Make certain you have plenty of water for them as well. Oh, and it always bears repeating, always clean up after your pets. Like you, they should leave no trace.

And you? Hike your own hike! In other words, only hike your ability and comfort. You are miles from medical services in this region of Nebraska. Don’t put yourself at risk of injury, dehydration or abandon.

Always On Liberty - Hiking

And lastly, this serves as a reminder to all who hike in our Parks within the National Park System as well as protected areas such as Toadstool Geologic Park. 

Fossils and artifacts are protected under federal laws. Removing them, vandalizing or desecrating the grounds and anything around them will get you a hefty fine and possible imprisonment. This includes carving into, damaging or destroying anything on the premises.

National Park - No Artifact Collecting

Getting to Toadstool Geologic Park

Toadstool Geologic Park Coordinates:              Latitude 42.857744   Longitude -103.583742   Elevation: 3800′

Toadstool Geologic Park is very remote! Seriously, it’s so far out that you can’t see a tiny part from the two lane highway. There is a train that you can hear in the distance however, nothing earth shattering.

But once you the Oglala National Grassland, the view is absolutely breathtaking with each mile you get closer towards Toadstool.

Toadstool Geological Park Entrance

You can set your GPS to the coordinates above or follow these directions:

From Hot Springs, SD:

Take Highway 71 south 37 miles to the intersection of Toadstool Road. Follow Toadstool Road for 11.4 miles to FS Road #902 and continue on road #902 for 1.4 miles to Toadstool Campground.

From Crawford, Nebraska:

Proceed to intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 2.  Take Highway 2 north for 4.2 miles to Toadstool Road. Follow Toadstool Road for 11.4 miles to FS Road 902 and continue on Road 902 for 1.4 miles to Toadstool Campground.

As per the directions above, once you leave the 2-lane highway, you’ll travel about 12 miles on a dirt washboard road. So, take it easy if are riding a motorcycle, driving or pulling a camper.

If you’re out hiking or camping and rain is imminent, you’ll need to head back to the main highway as the roads wash out quickly leaving you stranded.

Will we visit again?

Being totally honest, I almost didn’t want to post this article in fear of it becoming too populated and desecrated as many of our other National Parks and public lands have been. 

But, we have to share it because it is not just ours.

Always On Liberty Crew

Of all the places we’ve been, Toadstool is, discriminately, one of our ultimate places to explore, camp, relax and appreciate the amazing beauty. The wide open space of the grasslands to those toadstool hoodoos heightens our every sight, sound and smell.

Oh, but the show doesn’t end when the sun sets glowing over the distant horizon. The night sky is utterly jaw-dropping with it’s endless canopy of a zillion stars winking at us!

To hear the distant coyotes yip and howl in the distance or the crickets chirping in the wild sunflowers right outside our door, it’s no wonder why the wildlife loves it out there too.

Always On Liberty Camping
“We may be alone, but we never feel lonely!”

So, while I still post this with hesitancy, please take care of this natural treasure for future generations to learn of the past.

We hope after trekking your way on that seemingly endless washboard dirt road to the cattle guards that lead you to this place, you’ll truly appreciate why we sent you. And thank us.

Enjoy!

Always On Liberty - Toadstool Geologic Park Pinterest Pin

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Some great reading material on Nebraska:

        

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