A Midwest-based travel writer explores the federally protected areas of the Cornhusker State.

Standing at the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, peering for miles over rivers and buttes, it's clear that there are more than tallgrass prairies and cornfields in Nebraska. The sheer majesty of this landmark makes it easy to imagine pioneers eagerly seeking this place as they made the arduous journey West in the 1800s. That experience comes to life as you explore both the land itself and the exhibits at Scotts Bluff—just one of several sites in Nebraska administered by the National Park Service.

Dive into the state's heritage and natural beauty as you visit a national historical park, national monuments, national historic trails and national rivers. (The state also contains national forests and protected state parks, though the National Park Service doesn't administer those.) Here is an overview of NPS sites in this Great Plains state.  

Scott's Bluff National Monument - overlooking Mini Badlands
Credit: Blaine Moats

Scotts Bluff National Monument 

This 3,000-acre National Monument kisses the Western edge of Nebraska, with its eponymous rock formation towering over the Platte River. The 800-foot-high bluff has served as a landmark for Native Americans, pioneers and modern travelers. A top visitor activity is driving the 1.6-mile Summit Road, a narrow, winding route built in the 1930s that passes through three tunnels and offers stunning views from Scotts Bluff. For those who want to stretch their legs, four miles of trails wind around the site; a popular pick is the 1.6-mile (one-way) Saddle Rock Trail to the summit. Just be aware of the 435-foot climb! Other highlights: a visitor's center (open daily with interactive exhibits), the Junior Ranger program for kiddos, and displays of the famed William Henry Jackson collection of Western art. 

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

This Western Nebraska spot is known both for its collection of Lakota artifacts as well as for paleontology. It contains one of the most extensive and best-preserved collections of Miocene fossils in the world, dating back to around 20 million years ago; in the early 1900s, paleontologists at the site found full skeletons of some extinct Miocene mammals for the first time. Travelers to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument should prepare for the lack of cell service and no nearby amenities due to the area's remote nature. But there's plenty to see while here: Check out the visitors center, with its indigenous artifact collection (gifts to the Cook family who once owned Agate Springs Ranch) and dioramas of Miocene-age mammals, or hike to historic excavation sites via the 2.8-mile Fossil Hills Trail. 

Homestead National Monument, Beatrice, Nebraska
Credit: Courtesy of Mel Mann/Homestead National Monument of America

Homestead National Historical Park

Located in the southeastern Nebraska town of Beatrice, Homestead National Historical Park marks the spot of the nation's first homestead. The United States was transformed by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the resulting westward expansion due to free land; visitors can learn about this era through interactive exhibits and a film at the plow-shaped Heritage Center. Use one of the site's research computers to browse digitized homestead and genealogical records—you may find out you're descended from homesteaders. Also at the park: Short hikes through 100 acres of restored tallgrass prairie; the one-room Freeman School house; and the one-room Palmer-Epard cabin.  

Missouri National Recreational River 

Free-flowing stretches of the nation's longest river, the "Big Muddy" Missouri, have been designated as a national recreational river. Two stretches in Nebraska, totaling 100 miles, offer activities such as boating, fishing, camping, birding, paddling, and hiking the winding shoreline. A mobile ranger station serves as a visitor center on wheels. 

kayakers on niobrara river near smith falls state park
Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

Niobrara National Scenic River

Nebraska boasts more miles of river than most other states, so it's only natural that 76 miles of the Niobrara, one of the state's major waterways, have earned national scenic river status. The Niobrara makes a great destination for tubing, paddling, chasing the area's 200 waterfalls, or tanking, a distinctly Nebraska pastime. Start in Valentine, the gateway to the Sandhills and home to the Niobrara National Scenic River Visitor Center. 

National Park Trails 

Five national park trails feature segments in Nebraska. The Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail follows the famous expedition route. The 5,000-mile California National Historic Trail covers 10 states, including Nebraska, and honors the impact of the Gold Rush. The 1,300-mile Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail traverses Nebraska and four other states, following the route of the Mormons who fled from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1846-1847. The Oregon National Historic Trail, with more than 2,000 miles of trail ruts from pioneer settlers, and the Pony Express National Historic Trail round out the offerings in the Cornhusker state. 

National Forests 

Nebraska's national forests and grasslands include Oglala National Grasslands, Nebraska National Forest at Halsey and Chadron, and Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest. These areas offer additional recreational opportunities and are important pieces of Nebraska's conservation picture.