Bordered by the Missouri River and nestled in Bellevue, Nebraska, just minutes from downtown Omaha, is Fontenelle Forest, a lush 1,500 acres of woodlands, prairie, and wetlands. In this vast natural preserve, you can escape the pressures of urban life and hike for miles, zip-line through the treetops, and watch migratory birds as they soar above the trees. This peaceful destination offers something for visitors of all ages.
Experience history, art, and fun
The forest’s lands, once the floor of a sea filled with a multitude of marine creatures and later traversed by glaciers millions of years ago, were settled by tribes of indigenous people. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed the forest in 1804 as they explored territory acquired by the United States through the Louisiana Purchase from France.
Eventually, the forest became home to New Orleans fur trader Lucien Fontenelle, his American Indian wife, Bright Sun, and their son, Logan Fontenelle, an Omaha chief and the forest’s namesake. Today, Fontenelle Forest is a National Natural Landmark and a National Historic District that can be explored with the help of a map from the forest’s nature center or on a self-guided tour of the History Trail, which is a little more than a mile long. Just off the trail, you can visit memorial markers for Logan Fontenelle and his mother. The forest hosts a variety of events throughout the year, such as astronomy events and book clubs, and has its own art museum, the Baright Gallery, which regularly hosts exhibitions. If you’ll have little ones in tow on your visit, they can explore Acorn Acres, which has a tree house to climb, a small stream to dip their toes in, and musical instruments to play made out of wood and other natural materials.
Go on a hike
The sights and sounds of the city will start to fade away once you blissfully set foot on Fontenelle Forest’s seventeen miles of hiking trails, where you can meander through deciduous forests, flood plains, and grasslands. This protected forest offers opportunities for both day-trippers and serious hikers, and its approximately one-mile-long, ADA-certified Riverview Boardwalk, from which you can spot wildlife and glimpse the Missouri River and downtown Omaha and beyond, accommodates both baby strollers and wheelchairs. You can trek deep into Fontenelle Forest for a day of exploration or enjoy a short walk on one of its gentle, flat trails.
Fontenelle Forest also has a variety of ecosystems to explore. Its Northern Floodplains feature sandy trails through wetlands with river views, its Northern Uplands offer mostly moderate slopes and approximately two and a half miles of hiking through tranquil forest, its Southern Uplands present steep climbs with ravine and waterfall vistas, and its Southern Floodplain has a level boardwalk that crosses wetlands and cottonwoods and has views of the Great Marsh. You can set out on your own for a hike or join a naturalist-led guided one, such as a sunset, star-studded constellation or a full-moon tour after regular park hours complete with a bonfire and s’mores. If you visit spring and summer, you may be rewarded with views of the locale’s three hundred colorful species of wildflowers.
Appreciate birds and wildlife
Located along the Missouri River’s migration flyway, Fontenelle Forest is a birder’s paradise and one of Nebraska’s best spots to see many species of migratory birds in May. The forest hosts almost 250 species of birds and is one of the best birding areas for warblers, a type of songbird, in the United States. As you go deeper into the forest, you may enjoy a chorus of birdsong, and if you bring a pair of binoculars, you may get closer views of hummingbirds and woodpeckers and wildlife like beavers, amphibians, turtles, rabbits, and deer. The Raptor Woodland Refuge, part of the forest’s nature center and located thirty feet above the forest floor, mimics these majestic birds’ natural habitats and provides an opportunity to see and learn about bald eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, vultures, and other predatory birds.
Get an adrenaline rush
The lofty heights of the forest aren’t just for the birds, as its TreeRush Adventure Park and KidRush Adventure Park offer the opportunity to explore from up to fifty-five feet in the air on bridges, zip lines, and swings. For children ages four to six, KidRush has two fun trails just a few feet from the ground, while TreeRush has seven exhilarating courses for visitors who are at least seven years old. TreeRush Adventure Park’s trails offer a two-to-three-hour experience high up in the forest canopy and include more than ten zip lines coded for difficulty, from beginner to expert. The most challenging courses boast bird’s-eye views of downtown Omaha and the Missouri River, while TreeRush offers Glow in the Park evenings where you can climb and zip-line after dark while listening to music among sparkly string-light-filled branches.
Planning your visit
There is a small fee to enjoy Fontenelle Forest, but for members of this natural area, admission is free. No pets are allowed in the forest. There is no charge for parking, and you can get trail maps and rent binoculars, power scooters, wheelchairs, and strollers on a first-come, first-served basis at the Visitors Service desk. And with Fontenelle being open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day, it’s an adventure just waiting to be had in America’s heartland.
For more information, visit fontenelleforest.org