The land of the endless prairie puts on a surprisingly spectacular show. That’s particularly true along the Missouri River Valley, which defines Nebraska’s eastern border. During autumn, the region’s majestic forested bluffs are bathed in a cornucopia of color.
In Nebraska City, 19th-century resident J. Sterling Morton established Arbor Day to celebrate trees. Morton’s lavish 52-room mansion, now part of a state historical park, welcomes visitors, who can enjoy the preserve’s foliage show on foot or by carriage. More than 260 types of trees thrive in the arboretum.
Boating and Fishing
From windsurfing to wakeboarding, you’ll find excitement on the many lakes and reservoirs of Nebraska, where prairie winds are near-constant companions. Most notable of these is Lake McConaughy near the western town of Ogallala. At 35,700 acres, this ultimate sporting lake features 15 boat ramps, 326 pad sites (268 with 20/30/50 electrical hookups), modern restrooms, picnic areas, and a swimming beach. Located in the Prairie Lakes Region, “Big Mac,” as it’s called by the locals, is one of many fine lakes and reservoirs found in the southwest part of the state, and it boasts some of the state's best fishing. Walleye Insider magazine listed it among the country’s best for that species. Below the dam, Lake Ogallala promises fast action for stocked rainbow trout.
If it is fishing you are after, head to Lewis and Clark Lake (165 miles northwest of Omaha), where you will find chalk bluffs, blue water, and sandy beaches. Known for hefty walleye and sauger, the state’s second largest lake (32,000 acres) is part of a state recreation area that includes more than 1,000 campsites and plenty of hiking and biking trails.
Located in the Sandhills, Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area (85 miles northwest of Grand Island) lets anglers test their skills against a variety of fish. Its clear water, sandy beaches, and plentiful campgrounds attract sailboaters and powerboaters. Nearby, you can catch rainbow trout in Gracie Creek Pond.
Regattas and fishing contests are common in southwest Nebraska, and they’re held on five reservoirs and lakes: Harlan County, Enders, Swanson, Medicine Creek, and Red Willow. Anglers reel in wipers, a white bass/striped bass hybrid known for putting up a ferocious fight.
Northwest Nebraska is a haven for trout. Get in on the action at two Pine Ridge state parks. Fort Robinson (30 miles southwest of Chadron) showcases brown and rainbow trout in a lake, several ponds, Soldier Creek, and White River. Chadron State Park (nine miles south of Chadron) has a trout pond and access to Chadron Creek.
Natural lakes in the Sandhills teem with northern pike, yellow perch, and bluegill. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge (25 miles south of Valentine) includes 71,000 acres of lake country. Long Pine State Recreation Area nestles in a cedar-and-pine-speckled valley 50 miles east of Valentine. Brown and rainbow trout splash in the ponds at Keller Park State Recreation Area.
Merritt Reservoir (25 miles southwest of Valentine) has gained renown as the finest all-around fishing lake in the Midwest.
Some visitors come to Nebraska to get away from it all. Others come and bring it all with them! Whether you’re pitching a tent or pulling a kitchen sink in your fifth wheel, you’ll call Nebraska your home away from home in the great outdoors. From one end of the state to the other, Nebraska has a host of public and private parks, recreation areas, preserves, lakes, waterways, and trails all designed to bring you closer to the rare and beautiful wonders found in this state.
This prairie state treats visitors to surprisingly diverse streams perfect for canoeing and tubing.
The Niobrara River reigns as the most popular: Backpacker magazine ranks it among the nation’s top 10 canoeing rivers. In far north-central Nebraska, a stretch of this National Scenic River twists through a glorious, deeply cut valley shaded by aspens and pines. Here and there, stretches of moderate white water punctuate the otherwise gentle stream. More than 90 waterfalls cascade into the river, which passes through Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (just east of Valentine).
Paddlers can pitch tents at campsites in Smith Falls State Park near the ice-cold 70-foot plunge of water that gives the preserve its name. Overnighters also can choose among seven other campgrounds.
A less traveled stretch of the river west of Valentine supplies more white-water excitement. River trips range from 30 minutes to several days long. Twelve outfitters rent canoes, rafts, and float tubes.
The state’s wildest, most remote paddling river, the Dismal, winds through the Sandhills Region of central Nebraska. Clear and spring-fed, the Dismal can be testy when it twists and turns through steep canyons. Yet, the river shows a gentle, lazy side as it flows through broad prairie valleys. A 55-mile canoe trail begins 60 miles northwest of North Platte and ends at Nebraska National Forest.
Other Sandhills rivers to try include: the Calamus, gently meandering through a scenic valley (60 miles north of Grand Island), and the North Loup (75 miles north of Kearney), which provides excellent canoeing in its narrow upper stretch.
On a wide, untamed 35-mile segment, paddlers can see the Missouri River as explorers Lewis and Clark did. Curving and dotted with sandbars, as all the Missouri once was, the stretch begins just below Lewis and Clark Lake (165 miles northwest of Omaha).
You can picnic and camp on sandbars in the Elkhorn River, which wanders from the north-central part of the state to 15 miles north of Fremont. Or follow the path the pioneers took on the Platte River––a 75-mile trail stretches from near Fremont southeast to the Platte’s junction with the Missouri River. You can overnight along the way in several state parks and recreation areas.
Pioneer settlers joked that the Platte River was too thick to drink and too thin to plow. But sandhill cranes and their cousins, the rare whooping cranes, consider the shallow, sandy-bottomed river paradise.
Each spring, from late February through early April, a migrating squadron of cranes a half-million strong glides into the river valley. It’s one of North America’s last and most dramatic wildlife spectacles.
You’ll find most of the yard-high birds strutting in and near river shallows between Grand Island and North Platte in central Nebraska. However, the cranes range as far west as Lake McConaughy in the Panhandle Region.
Odds are, if you travel I-80 across Nebraska during the peak viewing season, you’ll see thousands of birds without leaving your car. For a close-up look, serious crane-watchers rise before dawn and hide in blinds to see the birds dance and to hear them chatter on the river’s sand islands.
Nebraska is home to a number of spectacular zoos, including the world-renowned Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. Ranked #1 in the nation by Reader’s Digest, it features the world’s largest enclosed rain forest, North America’s largest cat complex, a free-flight aviary, an IMAX theatre, an inspiring aquarium, the world’s largest indoor desert, the world’s largest indoor swamp, and the Hubbard Gorilla Valley. Between Omaha and Lincoln, take Exit 426 off Interstate 80 for a tour through Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, an extension of the Henry Doorly Zoo. Visitors drive among free-roaming bison, elk, cranes, antelope, and other species found in North America.
In the capital city of Lincoln, the Folsom Children’s Zoo and Botanical Gardens showcases many rare and endangered species, as well as pony rides, train rides, and many hands-on exhibits for young and old alike. Near the Ashfall Fossil Beds off Nebraska Highway 20, Zoo Nebraska at Royal features wolves, foxes, bobcats, lemurs, snow monkeys, and even a chimp that knows sign language. In Scottsbluff, make a stop at the Riverside Zoo to see everything from Bengal tigers to a red panda.
As the trickle of pioneer wagons grew to a flood, military posts were built to protect pioneers from plains tribes becoming increasingly irritated with their unwelcome visitors.
Fort Kearny (6 miles south of the city of Kearney) was the first of those strongholds, built in 1848. Civil War General Robert E. Lee served there as a young Army officer.
You can imagine that era as you walk among the reconstructed buildings of Fort Kearny State Historical Park. Learn more about the Fort’s colorful history at the visitors center. Unwind on the hiking/biking trail across the Platte River within Fort Kearny State Recreation Area.
The westward trails also opened the Nebraska Territory to settlement, increasing conflicts with the plains tribes. More forts went up to keep the peace.
About 70 miles north of the city of Kearney, Fort Hartsuff protected the North Loup River Valley. Five original buildings still stand at Fort Harstuff State Historical Park.
Fort Robinson was established in 1874 (75 miles north of the city of Scottsbluff). The cavalry base in the rugged Pine Ridge country of northwest Nebraska played a crucial role in the conflict with the Sioux and Cheyenne. Renowned Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was killed there while in custody in 1877. The Fort also protected travelers on the stagecoach and wagon trail narrowing north from the Union Pacific railhead in Sidney to Black Hills gold mines near Deadwood, South Dakota.
Visitors at Fort Robinson State Park can overnight in converted officers’ quarters. You can hike and bike a network of trails that probe the pine scented bluffs. Or, explore on horseback, by narrated Jeep tours, or in a stagecoach.
Anglers fish for trout in the spring-fed waters of the White River, and golfers try their skills on the course in nearby Crawford. In the evening, guests gather around the fire for sing-alongs and buffalo stew cookouts, view a melodrama in the Post Playhouse, or don cowboy hats to watch a rodeo. The park is open year-round. Lodging is available mid-April through mid-November.
Great Platte River Road
In 1847, Mormons fleeing persecution pulled the first small group of handcarts along the river’s north bank. Nearly 100,000 Mormons were to follow.
On a hill overlooking the Missouri River in north Omaha, more than 4,000 Mormons camped to prepare for their 1,300-mile journey to the Great Salt Lake Valley, and hundreds died. Known as Winter Quarters, this area remains a monument to pioneer faith and tenacity. Stroll the peaceful Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, marked by a bronze statue of a frontier couple burying a child. A visitors center includes a cabin, covered wagon, handicrafts, and pioneer artifacts.
Along the Platte’s south bank, an ever-increasing torrent of oxcarts and “prairie schooners” sliced a broad band of ruts into the land. Dreams of creating successful farms in Oregon or striking it rich in the California gold fields sustained the pioneers the wagons carried. Some people trekked the trail west to satisfy their wanderlust; others, to flee their pasts.
Trail life was by turns exhausting, terrifying, and tedious. Yet, the families collected plenty of memories. They gauged their progress by landmarks that became famous for their grandeur or the difficulties they presented.
In southeast Nebraska, the perilous ford at Rock Creek dealt an early test of the pioneer’s mettle. The crossing (75 miles southwest of Lincoln) is best known as the spot where James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok began his infamous gunfighting career. Legend has it that he went on to kill three dozen men.
Visit Rock Creek Station State Historical Park, and you still can see ruts made by covered wagons. Then, peek inside the restored post office, ranch houses and Pony Express barn open daily year-round. The visitors center is open daily May through September.
Travelers also approached Windlass Hill nearly 300 miles west with consternation. Stand at the top of the bluff, and you’ll understand why hearts beat faster as wagons approached the frighteningly steep 250-foot descent. At its base, though, the cold spring and welcoming shade of Ash Hollow rewarded the risk takers. It became a popular spot to rest up and make repairs.
Visitors to Ash Hollow State Historical Park (30 miles northwest of Ogallala) experience the same beautiful spot, with its cedar-speckled furrows and wildflower-covered hilltops. You can view fossils at the visitors center, as well as American Indian and Oregon Trail artifacts. You also can marvel at an ancient cave and walk through a nearby pioneer cemetery. The park is open daily and the visitors center is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Spirits soared when Chimney Rock appeared on the horizon several days before wagons reached the slender obelisk atop a cone-shaped sandstone hill. The 300-foot-high marker signaled that travelers had come to the halfway point of their 2,000-mile journey to the West Coast. Thousands carved their names into the rock’s soft surface, and hundreds struggled to describe its majesty in their diaries.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site (25 miles southeast of the city of Scottsbluff) still captivates travelers. Exhibits about the monument, trail life, and native plants and animals fill the museum, which is open year-round.
About 30 miles west, the vast, flat-topped cliff called Scotts Bluff rises 800 feet above the North Platte River. There, wagons passed through the narrow notch of Mitchell Pass. Iron-shod wheels wore away so much earth that now, in places, the 6-foot-deep trench can hide visitors strolling the trail at Scotts Bluff National Monument (3 miles west of Gering).
Though the pass could be difficult to navigate, the panoramic bluff-top vista intrigued pioneers. Modern travelers can hike or drive to the summit for 100-mile views. The road passes through three tunnels. In the visitors center, you can view trail paintings by William Henry Jackson.
To the south just beyond the spine of sandstone bluffs, Robidoux Pass served as an original Oregon Trail route. You can drive a 23-mile loop, with stops along the way at well-marked historic locations: pioneers graves, Oregon Trail ruts, and the site where Antoine Robidoux once operated a trading post. There’s a re-created trading post in scenic Carte Canyon, which teems with wild turkeys and deer.
Hiking, Biking, and Horseback Riding
Few places in the world still offer the unspoiled beauty and peaceful splendor found along the trails that weave their way through the state of Nebraska. Here, amidst the rolling hills, rugged buttes and wild grasslands, you’ll have a chance to take your own path.
Near Chadron and Crawford in the northwest corner of the state, mountain bike routes wind through the Pine Ridge country. They range from “take in the scenery” cruises to “do I dare” climbs and plunges. In all, more than 70 miles of trails crisscross Fort Robinson and Chadron State Parks and Nebraska National Forest. Bicycling magazine dubbed the area among the country’s best for mountain biking.
Pine Ridge hiking paths skirt rim rock ridges and deep canyons and meander through lush meadows. Bighorn sheep perch on the outcroppings, and elk and other wildlife graze the grasslands in the 52,000-acre forest.
At the opposite corner of the state, 20 miles of trails draw mountain bikers and hikers to Indian Cave State Park. The 3,000-acre playground sprawls across a forested Missouri River bluff. Intermediate to advanced riders enjoy the challenging paths. Some plunge steeply and traverse streams, as they wind through rocky bluffs and dense forests. Backpackers often camp in Adirondack-style shelters that dot park ridges.
Not far away, the 20-mile Steamboat Trace Trail follows the Missouri River from Nebraska City south to the historic village of Brownville. Along the way, the route passes through riverside forests and along high cliffs that reward you with commanding views of the river.
You can pedal completed sections of the 320-mile Cowboy Trail linking Norfolk with Chadron to the northwest. Among the most scenic open stretches, a five-mile section east of Valentine crosses over a high railroad bridge above the Niobrara River. A 35-mile segment from Norfolk west to Neligh follows the Elkhorn River through woods and farmland. The 20-mile section from Ewing northwest to O’Neill treks through meadows and river bottoms.
At Platte River State Park, a six-mile loop hugs the river and passes over hills and under a canopy of trees. You can overnight in a tepee village.
Beginning in Lincoln, the MOPAC East Trail winds 25 miles east through the rolling farmland of Nebraska. Along the way, you can stop to sip gourmet coffee at the Walton Trail Company, a combination bike shop and café that occupies a 100-year-old former mercantile.
Nebraska richly deserves its reputation for world-class pheasant hunting. Outdoorsmen bag about 700,000 of the prized game birds each season.
Pheasants thrive in a band stretching from southwest Nebraska to the southeast, as well as in the northeast corner of the state. More than 800,000 acres of state and federal land are open to pheasant hunters. You also can stalk the birds on many farms and ranches after gaining permission from the landowner.
The state’s many wetlands and its location on the fall migration routes result in excellent waterfowl hunting. You’ll find some of the region’s best shooting along the Upper Missouri River and its marsh backwaters. In wet years, ducks and geese flourish in the Rainwater Basin of south-central Nebraska. Action on Canada geese in the Sandhills lakes is an early-season draw, while the central and western valleys of the South and the North Platte Rivers yield excellent winter hunting.
Nebraska ranks high in the country in the harvest of wild turkeys. Gobblers abound in the rugged Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska and populate most of the state’s river valleys. Deer also are plentiful, and antelope, elk, and bighorn sheep roam the western regions.
Be sure to get your permit and get ready for the adventure that awaits you.
Lewis and Clark: Discover What They Explored 200 Years Ago
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson made a deal that would forever change this nation. He purchased from France an 828,000-square-mile piece of land—an arrangement known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Immediately after inking the deal, President Jefferson began assembling the Corps of Discovery—a military expedition charged with the task of exploring the new land.
To lead the Expedition, he chose his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, who, in turn, selected his trusted friend and military colleague, William Clark, as his co-leader. Together, these two ordinary men would embark on an extraordinary journey into the uncharted western wilderness.
President Jefferson’s primary assignment for the Expedition was to find a transcontinental water route to the Pacific. In addition, they were to conduct diplomatic councils with native peoples, map the territory, and gather information about plants, animals, and mineral resources. With forty-odd men accompanying them, the two young explorers started up the Missouri River from St. Louis on May 14, 1804.
Little more than two years later and after traveling more than 8,000 miles, the Corps of Discovery returned. With them, they brought countless journals littered with maps and drawings and packed with invaluable information. What they didn’t bring was news of the Northwest passageway—not because they couldn’t find it, but because it simply didn’t exist.
One of the most important stops made by the Corps of Discovery took place in Nebraska just north of Omaha, near present-day Fort Calhoun. The site—recorded in the journals as “Councile Bluff”—was the location of the Expedition’s historic first meeting with American Indians on August 3, 1804. Expedition members in full-dress uniforms listened as Lewis addressed the Otoe-Missouria and informed them of their new “Great Father in Washington.” The journals also suggested that this site would make an excellent fortification along the Missouri River.
Indeed it did. Fort Atkinson was established less than two decades later. Today a fascinating reconstructed state historical park, Fort Atkinson was at one time home to more than 1,000 soldiers and their families.
Farther north, near Lynch, the Expedition happened upon a perky little creature that refused to be caught easily. However, after much effort, the “barking squirrel” was indeed captured for study by the Corps. Today, we know the animal as a prairie dog. Get one for yourself—in the form of a stuffed toy, of course—by stopping in Lynch.
For those wanting an authentic trail experience, travel Nebraska’s Lewis and Clark Trail from Rulo in the southeastern part of the state to Boyd County where the Missouri River enters South Dakota. Along the way, enjoy displays and celebrations at Lewis and Clark Landing near Omaha, Ponca State Park, Niobrara State Park, Lewis and Clark Lake, the Lewis and Clark Lake Visitors Center, and the Corps of Discovery Welcome Center, among others. And don’t miss a spectacular new museum, the Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trails and Visitors Center in Nebraska City.
In 1860, the first Pony Express rider raced across the valley’s dusty trails with mail for a growing population out West. Telegraph line strung along the route in 1861 rendered the riders obsolete, and Wells Fargo stagecoaches began bumping along the valley bound from Omaha to Sacramento.
Yet, the bravery of the Pony Express riders and the adventurous spirit of the enterprise still captures our imaginations. Billy Cody, who became the famous Buffalo Bill, was known as a skilled Pony Express rider at age 14.
The riders’ glory lives on at two Pony Express stations in Gothenburg (40 miles east of the city of North Platte). In sharp contrast to its frontier origins, one of the stations has been enveloped by a city park. The log cabin served as a trading post, ranch house, and stagecoach stop. Visitors also are welcome to look inside Midway Station on private property south of town.
Sure, University of Nebraska football rules in the Cornhusker State. But baseball and hockey devotees also can find plenty of top-notch action across Nebraska.
For more than 50 years, Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium has hosted the NCAA College World Series where the best college teams in the country battle it out for the Division 1 title. Omaha also is home to the Omaha Royals, a Triple-A farm team of the Kansas City Royals. Down the road in Lincoln, the Northern League Lincoln Saltdogs entertain visitors at Haymarket Park during the summer months. In the spring, this complex is home to the baseball and softball teams of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.
If you visit Lincoln in the fall, there’s nothing quite like the spectacle of a Husker Football Saturday, where nearly 80,000 people make Memorial Stadium the third largest “city” in the state. Nebraska offers football of the indoor variety as well. In the spring and early summer months, the Omaha Beef and Lincoln Capitols satisfy the most devoted fans’ thirst for gridiron action.
By the end of baseball season, hockey pucks already are whizzing and sliding across the ice of the state’s arenas. Nebraska claims one NCAA Division I team and three Junior A teams. The Lincoln Stars and Omaha Lancers are members of the United States Hockey League’s West Division and never fail to excite the crowd when they take the ice.
The last spike of the coast-to-coast railroad tracks was driven home in 1869. With that, a difficult months-long wagon trek was reduced to a few days of modestly comfortable travel. Across Nebraska, passengers on the Union Pacific Railroad could gaze from their windows at the ruts and relics of the wagon trails. The rails linked the populous East to the lightly settled West. Thousands rode the trains to homesteads on the plains, pushing the frontier toward the western horizon.
Union Pacific Railroad still calls Omaha home. The Union Pacific Historical Collection in the Durham Western Heritage Museum includes exhibits ranging from uniforms, dining-car china, and silver to model trains and an 1890s-era steam locomotive.
When the fast-lane pace of life has you looking for the next exit, a trip to Nebraska can take you as far away from the stresses of everyday living as you need to go.
Many renovated historic hotels with small-town charm are sprinkled throughout the state.
There’s just something about a bed & breakfast that quiets the spirit and refreshes the soul. Choose to relax in a quiet, historic neighborhood of a larger city or pick a small town where a stay will take you back to a simpler time.
Pull up your boots and strap on your chaps at a guest ranch in the heart of cattle country, where brands aren’t necessarily designer, “pies” are best avoided, and horses are the preferred mode of transportation. A working cattle ranch can allow guests to do everything from driving cattle to mending fences and learning how to make chaps.
There are some accommodations in Nebraska that simply can’t be classified. Take the time to search for the one that's just right for you.
Photos and wording courtesy of Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism