Falling into a landscape painting may feel like this: a canvas of golden prairie and pale-blue sky without borders. An immense beauty that swallows you up, luring you toward the horizon. In the mid-1800s, much of America’s enduring legacy was formed on the flat trails that traced the Platte River across the Great Plains, branching in turn for Oregon, California and Utah, where Mormons sought sanctuary.
The railroad eventually took its place in the river valley, and then Interstate-80, which wasn’t completed here until 1974. Today’s drivers head off into a land just as big, with discoveries waiting along the interstate itself and the slower highways heading into the surrounding prairie.
South of Lincoln, the Homestead National Monument of America (nps.gov) in Beatrice makes a great starting point for any pioneer-themed tour. The visitors center tells the story of the Homestead Act of 1862, which made Western land available to average citizens and helped spur much of the migration along the nation’s famous trails.
Homestead National Monument. Photo courtesy of Mel Mann/Homestead National Monument of America.
In central Nebraska, discoveries begin just north of I-80 at Aurora’s Plainsman Museum (plainsmanmuseum.org), where the collection highlights military heritage and early farm culture. In the same town, The Edgerton Explorit Center (edgerton.org) grabs kids’ attention with hands-on science exhibits. The center is named for Dr. Harold “Doc” Edgerton, an MIT professor and inventor whom you’d know best as the guy who did those slo-mo photos of bullets piercing apples and playing cards.
Edgerton Explorit Center, Aurora. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
A little west on I-80, blacksmiths pound orange-hot steel into sparks and ironworks at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (stuhrmuseum.org), a late 19th-century village brought to life in Grand Island. The large campus includes a complete 1896 village dubbed Railroad Town and staffed in summer with historians who educate visitors.
Straight south of Grand Island near Red Cloud, 612 acres of native Willa Cather Memorial Prairie (visitnebraska.com) lush with wildflowers, grasses and wildlife carry the same sweeping experience the famed novelist remembered from her childhood here. Visitors can see what she described: “The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains.... And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”
The author’s trim childhood home, part of the Willa Cather State Historic Site (visitnebraska.com), anchors a neighborhood stroll past other important sites in her life and writings, including the 1885 Red Cloud Opera House (willacather.org). The refurbished 1886 Kaley House (redcloudbb.com) on what she called Quality Street serves a memorable bed-and-breakfast today.
As travelers resume the journey west on I-80, they reach Kearney and one of the most memorable landmarks on the road’s 2,900-mile length. The Archway (archway.org) spans the highway. Inside, the museum’s high-tech exhibits highlight 170 years of travel along the river, and windows offer a rare view of passing cars from above the middle of the interstate.
The Archway, Kearney. Photo by Bob Stefko.
Southeast of Kearney, one of the state’s longest-running attractions waits in Minden. Harold Warp Pioneer Village (pioneervillage.org) opened in 1953 and remains a 20-acre timepiece with 50,000 items and 26 buildings, such as a frontier fort and a Pony Express relay station.
The prairie lends itself to large-scale wonders, such as Golden Spike Tower (goldenspiketower.com) in North Platte, which gives visitors a panoramic view of the web of iron tracks and streams of locomotives in the massive rail yard. On the edge of North Platte, the larger-than-life mystique of famed showman William F. Cody is on display in his mansion and barns at the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (outdoornebraska.gov).
As drivers head for Nebraska’s western border, they come to the grand natural attractions that most pioneers noted as landmarks in their journals. Wagon ruts and granite markers dot the bluffs and valleys of Ash Hollow State Historical Park (outdoornebraska.gov) near Lewellen.
Formations lift like stone sculptures from the plains at Courthouse Rock, Jail Rock (nps.gov) and Chimney Rock (visitnebraska.com). Gering’s Legacy of the Plains Museum (legacyoftheplains.org) celebrates the Oregon Trail and Nebraska history against a magnificent backdrop at the Scotts Bluff National Monument (nps.gov).
Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, Bridgeport. Photos courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
3 Must-See Sites
These engaging sites along your drive bring the past to vivid life.
Fort Atkinson State HIstorical Park
Cannons pound with drama, but even the brooding, low-slung structures reveal a deep, compelling sense of history. Part of a 154-acre 1820 garrison, the first built west of the Missouri River, this Fort Calhoun site near the Missouri River once housed a quarter of the American Army and guarded the American fur trade as the gateway to the West (outdoornebraska.gov).
Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, Fort Calhoun. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
Wessels Living History Farm
A signature red post-and-beam barn, farmhouse, granary, poultry house and gold-plated Dempster windmill mark 145 acres of farm heritage. The site, one mile south of I-80 at exit 353 near York, shares agricultural history from the 1920s through today (livinghistoryfarm.org).
Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park
Blue-coated period soldiers relate life during the Plains Indian Wars (1870s and 1880s), with details about their rifles and how settlers took refuge in the original fort’s limestone and concrete buildings, nine of which still remain. The site is near Burwell, north of I-80 (outdoornebraska.gov).