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20 Things to Do in Nebraska

Explore wide-open landscapes and check out Omaha's cool new vibe.
Buffalo Bill State Historical Park
Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Economic Development

North Platte's Western heritage

This town of 24,000 along I-80 is the hometown of Buffalo Bill Cody and the site of Bailey Train Yard, the world's largest. Tour the showman's ranch at Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, pictured at left; (308) 535-8035; outdoornebraska.ne.gov, or overlook Union Pacific's vast Bailey Yard from the new eight-story Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center. (308) 532-9920; goldenspiketower.com

North Platte/Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Sandhill crane migration

From late February to early April, 500,000 migrating sandhill cranes feed and rest along the Platte River in the center of the state near Kearney. At sunset, the horizon can go dark as the gray birds—6-8 feet across the wingtips—return to the sandbars after feeding in the fields. The northbound cranes present one of the planet's great remaining migrations. And thanks to viewing areas stretching along Interstate-80 from Kearney to Grand Island, you can see the birds with hardly more effort than it takes to pull over for a cup of coffee. outdoornebraska.ne.gov

Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary offers tours. (308) 468-5282; rowe.audubon.org

Great Platte River Road Archway

This compelling museum, located in an arch over I-80 near Kearney, covers the legacy of travelers along the Platte. Interactive exhibits and dioramas at the Great Platte River Road Archway chronicle the rich history of fur trappers, Native Americans, Oregon Trail pioneers, Pony Express riders, the workers who built America's first transcontinental railroad and the daring motorists who ventured on the nation's first coast-to-coast highway. (877) 511-2724; archway.org

Kearney Visitors Bureau

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Look for the zoo's spectacular Desert Dome if you arrive in Omaha along westbound I-80. Other highlights of Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo include 1,225 species, a massive aquarium, an IMAX theater and a gorilla exhibit that puts you nose to nose with the primates. The new Skyfari is an open-air chairlift that takes you from one end of the zoo to the other, right over the animal enclosures. (402) 733-8401; omahazoo.com

Homestead National Monument of America

History buffs will love the Homestead National Monument of America, which provides an in-depth look at the 1862 Homestead Act that granted more than 270 million acres (about 10 percent of the United States) to pioneers. A heritage center, opened in 2007, has videos and interactive exhibits; you can also see a restored prairie area. In Beatrice (about 40 miles south of Lincoln). (402) 223-3514; nps.gov/home

North Platte's Western heritage

This town of 24,000 along I-80 is the hometown of Buffalo Bill Cody and the site of Bailey Train Yard, the world's largest. Tour the showman's ranch at Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, pictured at left; (308) 535-8035; outdoornebraska.ne.gov, or overlook Union Pacific's vast Bailey Yard from the new eight-story Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center. (308) 532-9920; goldenspiketower.com

North Platte/Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park

An ancient volcanic eruption left a rich cache of fossils at this site near Royal (140 miles southeast of Valentine). Today, Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park offers a top-notch educational attraction. Inside the massive new Hubbard Rhino Barn, visitors see what paleontologists are uncovering (including barrel-bodied rhinos, five species of horses and three species of camels). Activities include a fossil dig table for kids and trails with overlooks. (402) 893-2000; ashfall.unl.edu

Fort Robinson State Park

Fort Robinson State Park fuses history and nature. Pine-topped bluffs frame the site where Indian wars were fought, chief Crazy Horse died and soldiers trained for World War I. Jeep and horseback tours head into the hills, a theater shows live musicals and lodging includes motel-style rooms in the former cavalry quarters (125 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota). (308) 665-2900; outdoornebraska.org

Men's College World Series

Omaha welcomes fans from across the country when college baseball's top eight teams battle for the national title. The year 2010 marks the last for the Men's College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium before the series moves downtown to a sleek new park next to the Qwest Center. cwsomaha.com

Omaha's Old Market

This 12-square-block revived warehouse district is a model for successful urban renewal. Faded advertising murals and covered sidewalks add historical charm to Old Market's shops, galleries and restaurants. oldmarket.com

Our favorite stops include M's Pub, where surprising dishes such as Armenian lavosh bread with Thai chicken keep the largely American menu interesting. (402) 342-2550; mspubomaha.com

Hastings museums

Museums that kids will find interesting make this town of 25,000 (105 miles west of Lincoln) a good stop for families. Hands-on exhibits at the Children's Museum of Central Nebraska include a make-believe veterinary clinic with animal X-rays and a pretend pizza parlor to test kids' math skills. (402) 463-3300; cmocn.org

The Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History offers a pleasantly eclectic mix of science, history and pop culture. Don't miss the display (left) about Kool-Aid inventor Edwin Perkins, a hometown hero. (402) 461-4629; hastingsmuseum.org

Hastings/Adams County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Canoeing the Niobrara River

Most treks to Valentine (population: 2,800) center on canoe trips. The spring-fed Niobrara National Scenic River runs knee-to-hip deep at most in summer, so there's little to fear if you overturn. Check the National Park Service website below for information on the best places to put in, take out and stop for hikes into the bluffs. The river is suitable for kids and beginners, though a few mild rapids keep things interesting. (402) 376-1901; nps.gov/niob

Nebraska Star Party

This major astronomical gathering in August at Merritt Reservoir's Snake River Campground (about 30 miles southwest of Valentine) welcomes families and observers of all skill levels to join lectures and look through huge telescopes. The Nebraska Star Party's near-total lack of light pollution makes for some of the darkest skies in the nation. (402) 333-5460; nebraskastarparty.org

Cowboy Trail

Cyclists come to the Niobrara River Valley for the new Cowboy Trail, a converted rail bed that will eventually cover more than 320 miles between Chadron and Norfolk. For now, visitors can explore more than 160 miles of the broad, level gravel path. Not far from Valentine, the trail crosses the Niobrara River on a century-old, 148-foot-high steel trestle bridge, offering a spectacular panorama (left). On most days, you'll have the trail—and the sweeping vistas—to yourself. (402) 471-0641; outdoornebraska.ne.gov

Valentine National Wildlife Refuge

Grasslands surround sand-bottom lakes at this designated National Natural Landmark. More than 260 species of birds as well as deer, muskrats and beavers are among the wildlife at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Fall and spring migrations bring as many as 150,000 ducks. Free. (402) 376-1889; fws.gov/refuge

University of Nebraska museums

In Nebraska's capital city, Lincoln (population: 254,000), choose from a trio of excellent on-campus museums: Sheldon Museum of Art (left) for modern American art, (402) 472-2461; sheldonartmuseum.org, the University of Nebraska State Museum, (402) 472-2642; museum.unl.edu, for the world's premier collection of fossil elephants, and the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, (402) 472-6549; quiltstudy.org, for a rainbow of historic quilts.

Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau

Boys Town

The Rev. Edward J. Flanagan started Boys Town in 1917, with just five troubled boys in his charge. Today, hundreds of kids live at the Omaha nonprofit's pastoral main campus. The community operates its own police and fire departments and schools. It welcomes visitors for self-guided tours. An audio driving tour includes two chapels, Father Flanagan's house and a museum. (800) 625-1400; boystown.org

Nebraska City's Arbor Day heritage

If you ever wanted to learn about trees, walk among trees or just stay in a lodge built of trees, Nebraska City (population: 7,200) is your place. Home of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton, the town lives and breathes its Arbor Day heritage, with Morton-related sites topping the to-do list.

The 72-acre Arbor Lodge State Historical Park preserves Morton's mansion in a tree-filled setting. Pictured at left; (402) 873-7222; outdoornebraska.ne.gov

At Arbor Day Farm, historic barns, a cafe, a market and the family-friendly Tree Adventure (with a 50-foot-high tree house) offer more than enough to keep a family busy for the day. (402) 873-8717; arbordayfarm.org

Across the street from the farm, the Frank Lloyd Wright-styled Lied Lodge & Conference Center features an absolutely stunning lobby of timber and stone plus rooms with views of the arboretum or the hazelnut orchard. (800) 546-5433; liedlodge.org

Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce

Panhandle landmarks

In western Nebraska's Panhandle, historic sites and national monuments dot the map, serving as stirring reminders of the state's role in settling the West. Outside Scottsbluff (population: 15,000), Chimney Rock—a 300-foot spire that was a landmark for Oregon Trail settlers—pierces the sky above the North Platte River. (308) 586-2581; nps.gov

At Scotts Bluff National Monument, a short hike leads to 100-mile views; in summer, a living-history program at the visitors center highlights the Oregon Trail journey. (308) 436-9700; nps.gov

Scottsbluff County Tourism

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Mahoney is all about amenities: trail rides, miniature golf, a driving range, a water park, pedal boats, theater performances, a hotel-restaurant and an ice rink in winter. The grounds of Eugene T. Mahoney State Park are as manicured as a golf course, and the cabin clusters look like suburban subdivisions. Rugged, it's not, but you can't beat the price for a family-friendly resort vacation (30 miles southwest of Omaha). (402) 944-2523; outdoornebraska.ne.gov

Strategic Air and Space Museum

Off I-80 near Lincoln, the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland spotlights more than 30 aircraft, including a B-17 "Flying Fortress" and a MiG-21 fighter jet. Other features include a children's play area, exhibits highlighting Nebraska contributions to flight and a Vietnam Memorial Wall. (402) 944-3100; sasmuseum.com

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