20 Things to Do in Nebraska | Midwest Living

20 Things to Do in Nebraska

Explore wide-open landscapes and check out Omaha's cool new vibe.
  • Great Platte River Road Archway
    Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Economic Development

    Top attractions in Nebraska

    Nebraska is where Midwest meets West, literally. Geographers identify the 100th meridian, which nearly halves the state, as the boundary between the two regions. But travelers don't need a sign to recognize the divide. As in frontier days, the majority of Cornhuskers live in the state's eastern half, and out west, the sun still sets over vast grasslands and yucca-capped buttes.

    Click ahead to find out about 20 of our favorite experiences in Nebraska, from exploring Nebraska's largest city, Omaha, to bird-watching at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge or learning about pioneer history at The Archway (left).

    Nebraska Travel and Tourism

  • Sandhill crane migration
    Photo Courtesy of R. Neibel/Nebraska Department of Economic Development

    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

  • Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo
    Photo Courtesy of Henry Doorly Zoo

    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 Skyfari open-air chairlift takes you from one end of the zoo to the other, right over the animal enclosures. (402) 733-8401; omahazoo.com

  • Photo by Ginger Crichton

    The Archway

    This compelling museum, located in an arch over I-80 near Kearney, covers the legacy of travelers along the Platte River Road. Interactive exhibits and dioramas 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

  • Homestead National Monument of America
    Photo Courtesy of Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce

    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

  • 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

  • Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
    Photo Courtesy of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park

    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
    Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

    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

  • Omaha's Old Market
    Photo Courtesy of R. Neibel/Nebraska's Department of Economic Development

    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 Museum of Natural and Cultural History
    Photo Courtesy of the Hastings Museum

    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

  • Niobrara National Scenic River

    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
    Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Department Of Economic Development

    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

    Cowboy Trail

    Cyclists come to the Niobrara River Valley for the Cowboy Trail, a converted rail bed that will eventually cover more than 320 miles between Chadron and Norfolk. For now, visitors can explore 195 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

    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

  • Sheldon Museum of Art
    Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Economic Development

    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

    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

  • Arbor Lodge State Historical Park
    Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Economic Development

    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

  • Chimney Rock
    Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Economic Development

    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

  • Things to Do in Omaha--TD Ameritrade Park
    Photo Courtesy of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    TD Ameritrade Park Omaha

    In 2011, the NCAA Men's College World Series left its home at Rosenblatt Stadium. We miss the small-town feel of that historic park by the Henry Doorly Zoo, but we must admit, the event's 24,000-seat $131 million brick home next to the CenturyLink Center is pretty sweet.

    The giant scoreboard screens invite passersby to take a peek at the action, and nearby bars and restaurants bolster the stadium's celebratory atmosphere. The seats offer a panoramic view of both the diamond and downtown -- not to mention plenty of legroom. (402) 546-1800; tdameritradeparkomaha.com


  • Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

    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
    Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Economic Development

    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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