Ponca State Park, sitting on the banks of the mighty Missouri River, is full of surprises. Though located in the heart of the Midwest, here visitors will encounter dense forests, towering bluffs, plentiful wildlife, and diverse flora. The park not only boasts impressive natural diversity - there's also a great diversity of things to do here!
Park visitors have access to over 20 miles of well-maintained trails, which will take you over hills, across bluffs, and underneath the canopy of hardwoods that still grows thickly along the banks of the Missouri. Guided hikes and organized horseback rides are both available. The trail system is tremendously popular among mountain bikers too (that's right, Nebraska has some great mountain biking spots!). If you're trekking through the woods or hanging out along the river, make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife. Birdwatching at Ponca State Park is a big draw, especially during the spring migration season.
Patrons of the park can also kayak, boat, fish, golf, and picnic. From Memorial Day through mid-August, visitors can swim and participate in other family-fun activities at the aquatic center. If water sports aren’t for you, Ponca State Park also has a shooting complex. On top of all that, the park also hosts many seasonal family events, including a Winterfest famed for its "Fruit Cake Fling." With so much to do at Ponca, it's clear why so many people visit over and over again!
Ponca State Park straddles the South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska state lines, and runs along a portion of the 59-mile section of the Missouri National Recreational River. The park is located just a few hours north of Omaha, Nebraska and south of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s open to visitors year-round, but some amenities are only available from April to October.
Ponca State Park is located two miles north of the town of Ponca, Nebraska. In Ponca, signs posted at each intersection will guide you directly to the park’s entrance. All vehicles are required to purchase a valid park entry permit, which are available at the park’s entrance station. If the service station isn’t staffed upon your arrival, you may use the self-service boxes to pay park fees.
Ponca State Park is big-rig friendly, and signs are posted within the park to direct visitors to the campground and other activity areas. Park maps available at the entrance will guide you to scenic viewpoints, wildlife viewing areas, and other points of interest. While some trailheads are accessible by foot from the campgrounds, Ponca's size, coupled with the fact that its camping areas and cabins are well spread out, means that driving is often necessary to get to other points within the park.
All the main roads to and within the park are paved, and, although the park sports some impressive topography, the drive there is quite flat. One driving hazard to consider is the weather. The upper Midwest gets summer thunderstorms which can cause torrential downpours. Driving in winter means the possibility of a plains blizzard. And, year-round, high winds can be an issue (especially for high-profile vehicles). But, as long as you check the weather and drive cautiously, getting to Ponca should be a breeze.
Most of the RV sites at Ponca's two campgrounds are back-in, though a few, reserved for particularly large vehicles, are pull-through. Even if you do have to back in, the spacious campgrounds and well-separated sites make for relatively easy parking. RV parking is available at a few other key locations within the park, including the Visitor Center. Parking for cars is available at almost every other trailhead and point of interest.
Ponca's scenic pet-friendly Riverfront Campground offers spectacular views of the Missouri River and the rollings hills and bluffs that line it. This smaller RV campground sports just 20 sites, each with 30- and 50-amp electrical hookups but no water or sewer connections. Fire rings and picnic tables are available at all sites, and the campground also has a modern restroom.
Riverfront Campground is open year-round, but some facilities are closed during the off-season All sites here are reservable up to one year in advance. with unfilled sites going on a first-come, first-served basis.
Oak Bluff Campground (sites 37—73) allows campers to reserve their spaces up to one year in advance of their stay. Oak Bluff is popular among RVers since every site has electric hookups. Each site features a picnic table, a grill, and a fire ring. Oak Bluff is set in a thickly wooded area, offering shade and great wildlife viewing opportunities too. Amenities at Oak Bluff include community water spigots, a nearby dump station, restrooms, and shower facilities. The maximum vehicle length ranges from 45 to 60 feet, depending on the site. Pets are welcome to join you at this campground as long as they are restrained when outside of the RV. Camping is available throughout the year, although keep in mind that some facilities are shut off during the off-season.
Sites at the Riverfront Campground that are unreserved become available on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of arrival.
Turkey Ridge (sites 1—36) is a first-come, first-served campground. Campers have access to community water spigots and a nearby dump station as well as picnic tables, grills, fire rings, restrooms, and shower facilities. This campground is located closest to the playground and the trailhead where horse rides are offered.
Turkey Ridge is pet-friendly and offers standard and pull-through RV spaces with cement pads and electrical hookups. Pull-through spaces are limited, though. Each RV site varies in size from 45 to 60 feet long. Campers can stay up to 14 consecutive days within 30 days. Camping is permitted throughout the year, although keep in mind that some facilities are shut off during the off-season.
The Missouri National Recreational River is a wonderfully scenic place to go fishing, canoeing, kayaking or floating. This section of the Missouri is truly special, as it's one of the last significant stretches that is un-dammed and relatively unaltered. You'll get a taste of the mighty Missouri that used to be as you paddle along the bluffs and forested shorelines.
Ponca State Park visitors can launch boats from two boat ramps, which provide access to nearly three miles of the riverfront. The park offers weekly youth fishing programs and has a tackle loaner program for those wanting to try to catch catfish, walleye, and other river species. If you do decide to cast your line, make sure that you have a valid Nebraska state fishing permit.
Ponca State Park has one of the most comprehensive outdoor and recreational education programs in the state. On-site staff and volunteers create hands-on and informational programs for visitors of all ages. The programs, which cover everything from conservation topics, outdoor skills, and cultural and natural history, are always changing. These programs are offered daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day and then on weekends only during the spring, fall, and winter seasons. Ponca has a history that is both surprising and fascinating so come ready to learn.
Make sure to bring your binoculars in your camper. The National Audubon Society lists Ponca State Park as one of its "Important Bird Areas" due to the spectacular avian diversity there. If you visit the park during the early spring (peak migration season) you can see and hear some of the most beautiful species of birds in the United States. Vibrant seasonal visitors include yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers and red-breasted grosbeaks. The river draws a whole different cast, including buffleheads, American white pelicans, least terns and piping plovers. Guided bird tours are offered during peak migration for people who want to learn more about bird identification or ecology.
Whether you're a seasoned marksman or just interested in trying a new activity, you can head over to Ponca's Eric Wiebe Shooting Complex, an all-weather range. The complex features traditional ranges for rifles and skeet-shooting for shotguns, but it also offers target practice with tomahawks, slingshots, and atlatls (ancient spear-throwing devices). All equipment for these activities is provided by the park. If you're into archery, and if you bring your own equipment, you can also use the complex's fantastic 3-D archery range.
While winter is certainly a quieter season at Ponca, there's still no shortage of ways to get out and enjoy nature. Cross-country skiing at Ponca State Park is a big draw during the off-season. Sail over well-groomed trails and take in the beauty of the park's snow-clad forests and bluffs. When the powder is deep enough, the park also has a sledding hill that's fun for the whole family. If skiing and sledding aren't your thing ice fishing is another popular pastime at the park.
Because these activities are weather and staff dependent, always contact the park for the most up to date information. They'll be able to fill you in on the condition of ski trails and the availability of ice-fishing spots (ice has to be a certain thickness before fishing is allowed).
Each month, the park offers special interest events created with people of all ages in mind. Some events include The Missouri River Outdoor Expo, the annual Hallowfest celebration, holiday-centered festivities like craft fairs and yule log quests, and special bird-related activities and events during the migration season. Every January, the park also hosts a Women’s Wellness Weekend Retreat. No matter when you show up or who you're traveling with in your motorhome, they'll almost certainly be something for you to take part in at Ponca.