Vacation at Toadstool Geologic Park

One of the best tourist stops in Nebraska gets very few visitors (which doesn’t hurt its value as a site I like to visit).  Toadstool Geologic Park is in the northern panhandle of Nebraska, north of the town of Crawford.  We stopped there on a short family vacation trip this week and enjoyed hiking and camping in relative solitude.  The landscape is otherworldly and beautiful, and full of interesting plants and rock formations.  The geology and paleontology of the park are legendary, but I spent most of my time (of course) looking at bugs and flowers.  The boys and Kim, however, hadn’t been to the park before and really liked the self-guided tour that showcases rock formations, volcanic ash deposits, ancient rhino footprints, and much more.

After leaving Toadstool this morning, we cut north for a brief stop at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.  Caves and I don’t get along well (I’m an open skies person, myself), so while the rest of the family is down in a dark closed-in space, I figured I’d knock out a quick blog post.  Apologies for not including more detail, but I didn’t have a lot of time!

The landscape of Toadstool Geologic Park is rugged and gorgeous.

Wildflowers were putting on a real show while we were there, including white beardtongue (Penstemon albidus).

White penstemon was pretty, but crested beardtongue (Penstemon eriantherus) was even more spectacular.

This is, I think, leafy musineon (Musineon divaricatum), growing on rocky flats, surrounded by rock formations.

Large rocks suspended on eroding soils were common across the park.

Alkali milkvetch (Astragalus racemosus) was growing all over the place, and seemed to be particularly attractive to bumble bees.

The mud at the bottom of the ephemeral stream courses was drying out after recent rains, and there were some fascinating reticulated patterns here and there.

The landscape was no less impressive after dark, especially when illuminated by a crescent moon.

We saw a lot of these evening primroses (I think they are gumbo-lily – Oenothera caespitosa) seemed to be able to grow in almost no soil, along with many other plants in the park.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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9 Responses to Vacation at Toadstool Geologic Park

  1. Carolyn Carr says:

    Spectacular! I’ve never heard of this park – thank you for the introduction!

    • Teresa says:

      If you venture that way, another fairly close attraction is Hudson-Meng Bonebed. Another great stop, but it’s not open year-round. Loved our family visits to both.

  2. James McGee says:

    I’m a little jealous. I’ve been to Toadstool Geologic Park before, but I have never seen any of these flowers. I visited ten years ago in late summer and once in the 80’s with my parents. Thank you for giving us some snapshots of your trip. I may never get the chance to again visit Toadstool Geologic Park, much less visit at the right time of year to see these flowers.

    If you are near Rapid City, be sure to take the kids to Reptile Gardens. My parents would not let me visit this attraction and I had to wait almost twenty years before I was able to see it.

  3. Nice, brief post on Toadstool. I was born and grew up in Chadron, just to the east, spent much of formative youth in the Badlands just beyond Toadstool, worked at the Hudsen-Meng site in the early 70s.

    It’s a good thing you were there early in the season. As summer waxes over the badlands, the rattlesnakes take over the park and much of the surrounding terrain. I learned the art of levitation hiking through the badlands on archaeology/paleontology survey, when a rattler buzzed right by me, shoulder high.

    On your way to Rapid, take a side journey to Hot Springs and the Mammoth Site. I helped open that site in the 70s, as part of a crew from Huden-Meng when it was first discovered.

    Nebraska and South Dakota are not just wheat and corn fields. Paha Sapa, the Badlands and the Pine Ridge are spectacular, special places, unlike anything else in the world. From the Missouri River to the Sand Hills to the Pine Ridge is more country than you can see in a month of world travels.

  4. Edward J Lagace says:

    The the beauty of these photos allows us to view them at a click of a button. on those days when we are tied to the key board. Thank you for sharing your travels.

  5. Natalie Matz says:

    Toadstool Park is one of my absolute favorite places in Nebraska. My family and I visited it on a Nebraska road trip (nine of us in a van for several days :) !) last summer. I highly recommend visiting for anyone who has not. Great to see these pics!

  6. Joanne says:

    Visited there with my parents too — way back when– and in the spring, thus no rattlesnakes – it is a great place to explore geology. Thanks for the memories. !

  7. Patrick says:

    Chris, if you we traveling through SW Nebraska on I80 or maybe hwy 34 through McCook, is there anywhere you would recommend stopping?

  8. Kim Tri says:

    The topside of Wind Cave NP is really worth visiting too! You can have the trails to yourself, even on Memorial Day weekend.

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