1) Auto Art On a patch of prairie near Alliance, a circle of gray cars rises from the ground, standing strangely vertical. Thirty years ago, an artist created Carhenge, a quirky roadside stop, by positioning vintage American cars to mimic England’s prehistoric monument Stonehenge. In Lincoln, the Museum of American Speed’s impressive collection of mint-condition hot rods and vintage cars is a work of art in its own right. Retro toy pedal cars, championship racers and much more fill three floors.
Carhenge, Alliance. Photo by Blaine Moats.
2) Spring Migration Each spring, more than a half-million Sandhill cranes fill central Nebraska skies along the shallow Platte River as they stop to refuel during migration. At dawn and dusk, spectators tuck into chilly viewing blinds to watch massive flocks of the slender gray birds cloud the sky over the Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon and the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Wood River. Eighty percent of the world’s Sandhill cranes, as well as millions of migrating geese and ducks, drop by.
Crane Tip: Reserve a spot before sunrise or sunset in Rowe Sanctuary’s viewing blinds. You’ll need to stay quiet, but the experience leads to great photos.
3) Boys Town A century ago, Father Edward Flanagan opened a home in Omaha to provide comfort and direction to struggling youngsters. The place eventually blossomed into Boys Town, one of the country’s best-known charities in the mid-20th century. Today, visitors see students at play and at work, including tending a 22-bed rose garden. The Hall of History Museum captures everyday successes and landmark moments, including Spencer Tracy’s Oscar for playing Flanagan in the 1938 movie Boys Town. The priest’s house has become a repository, featuring 1920s decor and an elaborate wooden desk made by his students.
Boys Town, Omaha. Photo by Douglas Smith.
4) Starry Night With almost no light pollution from cities, stars shine brighter in the night sky at the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, considered one of the Midwest’s top stargazing destinations. Stunning astronomical details, typically hidden in more populated areas, shine over this Sandhills lake in the Snake River Valley, more than 20 miles from the closest town of Valentine. Veteran observers converge for the annual Nebraska Star Party, which welcomes newcomers with workshops for beginners.
Star Club: The Omaha Astronomical Society meets once a month (free and open to the public), and members share their love of astronomy.
5) Romantic Rides A Venetian-style gondola cruises the serene lagoon at Heartland of America Park, with striking views of a 320-foot fountain and downtown Omaha’s skyline. Those who want to propel themselves can row stand-up paddleboards at Zorinsky Lake in west Omaha, thanks to Driftwood Paddle Adventures. For a view from above, private rides from Lincoln Hot Air Balloons gently float over the countryside at dawn or dusk.
Gondola ride, Omaha. Photo courtesy of Omaha CVB.
6) Movie Night Carloads of moviegoers wait for dusk to fall and movie screens to light up at the state’s handful of remaining drive-in theaters, a taste of nostalgia for some and a new concept for others. Cars fill with soundtracks and the scent of buttery popcorn at the TK-Starlite Drive-In in Neligh and the Sandhills Drive-In in Alliance. At Sokol Park near the Omaha suburb of Bellevue, campers are also welcome to walk in with folding chairs or blankets to watch films projected on a screen above the grassy grounds.
7) 90-mile views Spectacular views of vast prairie and rocky outcroppings await in Gering on top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, accessible by foot, car or shuttle. Wagon paths cut by early settlers remain at the base of the 800-foot-tall bluffs. Above an old chalk mine near Scotia, a dirt trail leads up to Happy Jack Peak, where a 360-degree view overlooks dusky hills to the west and the North Loup River ambling by farm fields to the east.
8) Hey, Kool-Aid Man Nebraska inventor Edwin Perkins created the fruity powdered beverage in 1927, and it wasn’t long until Kool-Aid Man, that cartoonish, smiling pitcher with legs, became a pop culture icon. Kool-Aid Man’s footprints, cast in concrete at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre, now sit outside the Adams County Convention and Visitors Bureau. At the Hastings Museum, colorful posters and ads show how the beverage evolved over the years, while retro package reproductions brighten the windows at the original factory downtown.
9) Tubing and tanking The stat is surprising enough on its own: Nebraska has more river miles than any other state. Adding to the “Who knew?” factor, outfitters have capitalized on a novel way to see a few of those miles: tanking. Groups picnic and play cards while riding down the river in circular, 8-foot-wide metal livestock tanks, while individuals bob along in inner tubes. Tanks and tubes from Glidden Canoe Rental in Mullen and Calamus Outfitters in Burwell mosey past windswept prairie and dunes in the Sandhills. Chalky bluffs and leafy trees tower over Niobrara River floaters near Valentine.
Tanking on the Loup River. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
10) Unusual Stays Stately brick buildings and low-slung cottage duplexes that once housed Army officers and soldiers now provide respite to family and friends gathering at Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford, once an Old West military outpost. Roomy porches provide breaks from exploring the park’s 22,000 acres of buttes and pines. Along the Missouri River in Brownville, guests gather on sunny decks of the River Inn Resort, a floating hotel anchored to the Missouri River shore, and dine during cruises on The Spirit of Brownville.