Nebraska boasts that the possibilities are endless, and they certainly are for the visitor to this central state. Nebraska sits between South Dakota and Wyoming to the north and west, Iowa and Missouri to the east, and Kansas and Colorado to the south. This is pioneer country on the great prairie, steeped in cowboy and pioneer history and fantastic natural landscapes where cliffs soar out of nowhere. You are guaranteed a warm welcome wherever you lay your hat along the Oregon and Mormon trails. There are some wonderful cities too in which to kick back, enjoy the jazz scene and Midwestern cooking at its best.
1. Chimney Rock National Historic Site
On the Oregon to California Trail, from Highways 92 and 26, is one of the natural wonders of the West. A towering column rises out of the surrounding flat river valley and its plain, to make an incredible landmark over three hundred feet into the sky. For the frontiersmen, it was a simply awe-inspiring thing to see and a natural navigation point. In the mid nineteenth century, more than half a million passed by in their migration to the West. It's first name was the slightly less poetic 'Elk Penis'! You can visit every day except for the major holidays, with access from Bayard and Bridgeport. Gaze in awe, relive the history and walk all around this incredible geographical feature.
2. Smith Falls State Park
In the far north of the state where Nebraska meets South Dakota, twenty miles east of the town of Valentine, is Smith Falls State Park. This is the newest park in the state, and certainly deserves the status as a remnant of glacial Nebraska. Here on the protected Niobrara River, you can visit Nebraska's tallest waterfall (just under twenty metres high), canoe the rapids, walk and take in the peace of the wide open spaces and dense forests. This is a remote part of the state, unspoilt by tourism. You can take a boat for anything from a quarter of an hour to seven hours along the meandering, scenic river in solitude. This is an ecosystem that exists nowhere else in the States, and - for now at least - you can explore it without the crowds. You can camp here under the stars in the quiet forests. Get there before everyone else does!
3. Scotts Bluff National Monument
In the west of the state near the town of Gering is an historical landmark on the Oregon Trail, and also the Mormon Trail. Here amongst the plains and the sharply rising cliffs that loom seemingly out of nowhere, is wonderful scenery and a real piece of pioneer history. The settlers came through here on their way to the gold rush of California. There are a whole host of trails, short and long, suitable for cyclists and walkers. There are interpretive programs, covered wagons, wagon rides and a visitors centre. Or you can just enjoy the wilds and the great outdoors.
4. Buffalo Bill Ranch
If you have any sense of history, you can't drive past Buffalo Bill's homestead without stopping! Near North Platte, this is a designated state historic park and a chance to explore the 1880's home of this legendary showman. There is heaps of memorabilia in the house and a further twenty-five acres of the land previously belonging to William F. Cody to explore. It's just off Highway 80, under three hours west of Lincoln.
5. Lake McConaughy
Less than 95 miles to the south on a scenic drive along Highway 26/92, following the course of the North Platte River, you will find McConaughy Lake and its recreation area and wildlife reserve. It's actually a reservoir, created by the Kingsley Dam and is a great place for all outdoor pursuits on and around the water with white sand beaches. Twenty two miles long and four miles wide, this is Nebraska's biggest expanse of water in which to play, in an otherwise fairly dry state. So everyone makes the most of it! The views are spectacular, there is fishing for trout, bass, walleye and catfish and of course boating to be had, and camping and cabins available on the shores. You can swim, take a cruise and camp on the lake shores. Find it less than ten miles north of Ogallala.
When you need some city life, Omaha is the biggest town in the state, though not the state capital. It's right over to the east, literally on the border with Iowa, and less than 190 miles north of Kansas City. It sits on the Missouri River, and is famous for hosting the College world series, the Henry Doorly Zoo and more. It has an old-style feel with all modern amenities, making a conscious effort to preserve its twelve historic districts. Omaha has a lively jazz scene, great dining, outdoor green spaces, museums and theatres. Shake off the country pleasures and dive in to a thriving city scene!
7. Sand Hills
You can't miss the Sand Hills, covering almost a quarter of the state! Some of these now stable dunes reach over a hundred metres high, and it is the biggest sand dune area in the entire western hemisphere. This is a protected, wild area of sand and prairies, dotted with lakes from the aquifer that lies just below the surface of the land. Basically, beneath the sands and meadows is a massive store of underground water that shifts, creates new lakes and streams each year and makes for an unique, fertile land. This combination of sand and fresh water makes for an unique environment for wildlife and it's definitely no desert. There are over fifty species of mammals alone here, including elk and bison, and the bird life is incredibly diverse with more than 300 kinds in the grass lands alone. There is no landscape like this in the States, so don't miss it.
Omaha may be the biggest city, but Lincoln is the state capital and the second largest with just over a quarter of a million residents. It's just an hour's drive southwest of Omaha down Highway 80 and is well worth a visit. It feels very green, with more than a hundred parks connected by almost as many miles of recreational trails. Definitely one to stop at is Antelope Park which has a beautiful sunken garden and children's zoo. This is one of the Midwest's favourite cities, with a great culinary vibe, good live music, golf courses and museums.
For a small town feel, head to Ogallala with a population under 5,000. This is an original frontier town, just south of McConaughy Lake with a real feel of the wild west as it was in the nineteenth century. There is an historic Front Street with old bars and a feel of the 1870s, access to the lake and also to the Oregon Trail. There are some wonderful old buildings, including the Mansion on the Hill to explore or just pull up a stool and step back to the days of cowboys and indians in one of the old-style bars. You can also use Ogallala as the base from which to explore the scenic byways of the area, including the Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway and the Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway.
Just an hour and three quarters west of Lincoln on Highway 80 is the town of Hastings, a nineteenth century railroad town. It was a boomtown and arts & crafts centre and the art heritage and many historic buildings live on. It's a laid back, low-rise place full of parks, rivers and artisans. Visit old style bakeries and galleries, stroll through the downtown and enjoy some great shopping. It has several museums including a children's museum, country clubs, a planetarium and golf courses. It's also the home of Kool-Aid: a drink invented in Hastings by Edwin Perkins - and you can learn all about the history at the Hastings Museum.
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