Southeast Nebraska Woods

Field of trees

Simply Trees — July 2013

The woodlands of southeast Nebraska contain a rich diversity of tree species, including many that cannot be found anywhere else in the state.

Indian Cave State Park, located in the steep Missouri River bluffs in Nemaha and Richardson counties, is well-known for its fall foliage – but its trees can be just as fully appreciated on a spring or summer hike. Several types of oaks, including bur, chinkapin, red and black, dominate the upland slopes as an overstory while smaller trees like American hophornbeam and redbud fill in the understory. The occasional shagbark hickory is unmistakable with its namesake gray, peeling bark somewhat resembling a leafspring from an old pickup.

In the lowland areas along rivers and streams, giant cottonwoods and pillar-like hackberries make a walk through the woods seem more like a stroll through a cathedral. Silver maples and green ash shoot toward the sky like leafy fountains, shouldering each other in competition for space and light. These fast-growing trees are a far cry from their domesticated cousins that have gained a poor reputation as limb-dropping, seed-spewing shade trees. In the woods, these trees live fast and grow close, taking on a completely different appearance and form.

An under-appreciated woodland closer to Lincoln is the aptly-named Oak Glen Wildlife Management Area just north of Garland. Bur oaks form the gnarly old bones of this 633-acre wilderness, which likely represents the largest remaining stand of native woods in Seward County. A truly massive cottonwood, hidden along the creek bottom, can be seen if you're willing to walk through a couple hundred yards of cedar-infested forest from the parking area on the southern end of the property.

Wildlife Management Areas are a great place to start if you're looking for some solitude in the native woods – just remember to be aware of hunting seasons both for your own safety and for the consideration of others using the area. A quick check of satellite imagery, available widely online, can give you a reasonable guess as to whether there are woods worth the drive. The best bets would be WMAs located in Richardson, Otoe or Nemaha counties.

Wilderness Park in Lincoln is the most familiar place to see riparian forest for most Lincolnites, and it certainly has some nice trees within the forest. Look for several large American elms in the southern end of the park, survivors of the Dutch elm disease that killed so many of the iconic street trees in cities across the country.

Perhaps no other town in Nebraska is as well-situated within the woods as Peru. The college bills itself as the "Campus of a Thousand Oaks" and it's not an overstatement. The small city is so nestled into the hilly oak forest that it can be difficult to tell where the street trees end and the woods begin. Steamboat Trace Trail runs past Peru to the east; it's one of the best ways to see the native forest in the hills.

While it's an easy matter for most to identify a bur oak or cottonwood while walking the woods, unless you know what you're looking at, it's easy to miss a black oak, bitternut hickory, bladdernut, pricklyash or paw-paw unless you're either very experienced or have a good tree ID book at hand. Most public libraries have several good resources available. Get a book as specific to the region as possible – and color pictures can make things a lot easier.

Nebraska may be located in the heart of the Great Plains, but woodlands have found niches throughout the state, especially in the relatively wetter southeastern corner of Nebraska. So take a walk in the woods today. They're not as far away as you think.

Ryan Armbrust
Nebraska Forest Service

Dan Moser
IANR News Service

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