While Nebraska has long been overlooked as a travel destination, this state is filled with friendly, warm-hearted people, lots of great natural attractions, and inviting cities. If you plan to visit, be sure and check out at least some of these places.
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Chimney Rock National Historic Site, Bayard
The most recognized landmark on the Oregon Trail was designated a national historic site in 1956. One of Nebraska’s most visited tourist attractions, Chimney Rock sits at the south edge of the North Platte River Valley and is a natural geologic formation, a remnant of the erosion of the bluffs at the edge of the North Platte Valley. The slender spire soars 325 feet from a conical base and is composed of layers of volcanic ash and brule clay dating back to the Oligocene Age (34 million to 23 million years ago). Early pioneers described it as “towering to the heavens,” white Native Americans referred to it as “Elk Penis.” Chimney Rock and its surrounding landscape today looks much as it did when the first settlers passed through in the mid-19th-century. Visitors can view a digital exhibit which features 187 images that document the artifacts and artworks of the Oregon Trail experience.
Nebraska City sits along the banks of the Missouri River on the border with Iowa. It was founded in 1855 and is the state’s oldest incorporated city, which means there is a wide array of historic sites to be explored, including everything from scenic Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, the former home of the founder of Arbor Day, J. Sterling Morton to the Mayhew Cabin and John Brown’s Cave. The town also hosts quite a few cultural events for such a small place, though it’s most famous for hosting the AppleJack Festival, held annually in September since 1969 to celebrate the start of the apple harvest. If you attend, you’ll find just about everything you can imagine made from apples, like apple cider, apple pie and caramel apples to apple fritters and apple cider donuts. It also features craft fairs, street dances, live music, a classic car show, parade and a carnival.
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, Valentine
The Fort Niobara National Wildlife Refuge is home to herds of bison and elk that roam the rolling sand hills. There are also some remains of the fort that once protected northern Nebraska settlers. Today, the only surviving colonists are prairie dogs that live in “dog towns” under the wildflower-filled grasses. The Niobrara River winds through part of the refuge, and is popular for canoeing in the summer months. From the south rim of the river canyon and north to the refuge boundary, is the Fort Niobrara Wilderness, a unique mix of prairie and wooded valleys. Bison spend winters here before heading south of the river for the summer season. The wilderness area is open to hiking and horseback riding with miles and miles of unmarked trails, as well as canoeing.
Often ranked among America’s most charming small cities, Seward sits on the banks of the Big Blue River. Its downtown district hosts lots of shops and eateries, while the picturesque Seward City Park is ideal for taking a tranquil stroll along the water. Renowned as the “Fourth of July City” for its popular annual Independence Day celebration – held every year since 1868, the event features parades, concerts and a massive fireworks show. The Bartels Museum is also a highlight, housed in the lower level of Link Library. It offers a remarkable variety of items, including over 75 displays of minerals, agate, fossils and rocks, with specimens from across the globe. Some of the most unique items include a collection of agate “butterflies,” a soapstone, cork and jade carvings. Kids especially appreciate the set of animals that are carved in onyx; fossils from Iowa and Nebraska; a fluorescent mineral display, and a bison skull.
Located in the rolling hills of southwest region of the state, McCook was founded in 1882 and soon became a railway boomtown on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. Today, this bustling community offers lots for the history buff, like the beautifully-preserved Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sutton House, one of the architect’s few homes west of the Mississippi, and the only one in Nebraska. The Museum of the High Plains and Carnegie Library tells the story of the town as well as the importance of the railroad and agriculture to its development and future. It features Frank Lloyd Wright house plans for a home that was never built, a Daughters of the Revolution display, the area’s role in the Second World War as the location of the McCook Army Air Base, the Indianola German POW camp and an impressive collection of quilts. The vibrant downtown hosts a number of eateries, cultural venues and specialty shops too.
In the westernmost reaches of the state is the bustling town of Gering which sits at the foot of Scotts Bluff, a dramatic cliff face that was used for centuries as a landmark by people crossing the Great Plains. The surrounding area offers a wealth of opportunity for adventure, from Scotts Bluff National Monument to Minatare Lake, home of the state’s only lighthouse and a federal waterfowl refuge. The Riverside Discover Center includes a children’s museum and a zoo with some 175 animals from around the world, while the West Nebraska Arts Center hosts shows from local artists like Peg Fowler and educational exhibits showing works from world-renowned artists like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
Toad Stool Geologic Park, Harrison
Toadstool Geologic Park is in a remote area of the extreme northwest corner of the state and is renowned for its unique geologic formations. The stunning rock formations and unusual examples of the effects of water and wind over millions of years make it a must-visit attraction for visitors to the state. The best way to experience it is to hike the Interpretive Toadstool Trail, a well-mark route that follows a one-mile loop. The park is also popular for camping and picnicking. While the view near the campsites and the interpretive signs is impressive, it’s not nearly as breathtaking as what you’d see on the hike, which takes just over an hour, if you stop frequently to take in the amazing views. A detailed trail brochure is available at the Trail Site which explains the numbered post markers along the way.
The small community of Red Cloud sits near Nebraska’s border with Kansas. This charming, historic town inspired the works of one of the most important American novelists of the early 20th century, Willa Cather, the author of “My Antonia.” Cather moved to the town as a child and today, visitors can take tours of the writer’s childhood home and other sites connected to her life and works. It’s also fun to stroll the brick streets of downtown, which is lined with magnificent historic buildings like the Red Cloud Opera House, where you can catch a performance too. The building was constructed in 1885 to house a hardware business on the ground floor, the the opera house below. Its stage brought many performances over the years, and was considered the center of social and cultural life in the town for several decades. Though it was closed for nearly 90 years, it reopened in 2003 nd has been hosting musicals, world premieres and other shows ever since.
Nebraska’s largest city offers lots to see and do, like the Durham Museum, built in 1931 as Union Station, which awes visitors with its stunning Art Deco-style archicture. Step onto the patterned terrazzo floor of the museum’s Great Hall, and gaze 65 feet up to the sculpted plaster ceilings that support six huge restored brass, copper and glass chandeliers. The historic Old Market area, filled with art galleries, boutiques and restaurants, is a must-visit with fabulous independent coffee shops like Aromas and 13th Street Coffee Co. along with fine dining establishments like the Boiler Room. From exploring underground caves at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to catch the NCAA College World Series, college baseball’s biggest event, Omaha is jam-packed with attractions.
Nebraska’s capital is a great college town with a fun outdoorsy, hip vibe. Visitors of all types will find something to do here. Cultural highlights include the Lied Center for Performing Arts, The Haymarket Theatre, and the UNL schools of Music, Theatre, and Film which offer performances all year-round. When it comes to art, the Sheldon is the largest gallery in town, while the downtown art galleries are well-worth visiting, featuring the work of local artists, – the best time for this is every evening of the first Friday of every month, when the galleries put up new work that’s often accompanied by food, drinks, and sometimes live music. Other highlights include the State Capitol building, and touring the state’s flagship campus.