The Bison Trail, connecting the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center and Toadstool National Geological Park in the far northwestern corner of Nebraska's panhandle, offers some of the most diverse and spectacular scenery in the Midwest.
The Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center is a destination in and of itself, with an active archeological excavation of the largest Alberta culture bison kill ever discovered. The Research Center is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day and offers interpretive exhibits and guided tours of the active dig, which is enclosed within the building.
The trail heads north from the Research Center, leaving the hills and ponderosa pines of Nebraska's Pine Ridge for the vast expanse of the Oglala National Grassland and following a path marked by sporadic trail markers through tall native grasses. During the spring and summer months, wildflowers are in bloom along the trail. Wildlife is also prevalent, with various songbirds, pronghorn antelope and mule deer drawn to the natural spring in the area. The vastness and desolation of the untouched Nebraska prairie is overwhelming.
After roughly a mile the trail drops out of the prairie and into a radically different landscape, entering starkly eroded terrain that has been carved by wind and water through the ages. The trail generally follows a dry creek bed to the north, slicing through small canyons that are dotted with wildflowers in the warmer months. As the trail approaches Toadstool Park, the famous "toadstools" begin to appear...slabs of sandstone atop eroding clay pedestals. Upon closer examination of these fascinating rock formations, it's not uncommon to find ancient fossils or arrowheads (neither of which can be legally excavated from the park). The trail continues north through a maze of toadstools and other-worldly formations, eventually opening into a larger valley that is surrounded on all sides by expansive views of Nebraska's "Badlands." At this point the trail climbs out of the valley and heads east toward the Toadstool Park Trailhead and campground, which is the turn-around point for hikers that are heading back to Hudson-Meng.
For those adventurers in the Midwest that are looking for a moderate day hike through extremely unique and varied terrain without the crowds of the nearby Black Hills or Badland's National Park, the Bison Trail should not be missed. Put simply, it is Nebraska at its best.