The term “day trip” has a different meaning in Nebraska than in most other states. In the Cornhusker State, we measure distance in hours, not miles – and driving between the panhandle and the eastern edge of the state takes around eight hours, even if you don’t detour or stop along the way. What would be a day trip starting out from one town would have to be an entire weekend from another. But no matter where you start from, you’re sure to find the perfect trip to make your day in Nebraska.
This one might seem obvious, but if you live in the western part of Nebraska and have never been to the state’s biggest city, it’s absolutely worth spending a day (or a week) heading east to explore Omaha. Not-to-miss destinations: The Henry Doorly Zoo, Lauritzen Botanical Gardens, Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Western Heritage Museum, and the historic Old Market. Fontenelle Forest, a 1400-acre forest in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue, is a beautiful spot to spend a day taking in Nebraska’s natural beauty. Just a short drive away is Ashland, home to the fascinating Strategic Air & Space Museum where you can learn all about the history of military aviation.
2) Nebraska City
As the oldest incorporated city in the state, Nebraska City is rich with history. While you’re there, be sure to stop by Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, Arbor Day Farm, Mayhew Cabin/John Brown’s Cave (Nebraska’s first historically recognized underground railroad site), and any of the numerous quaint bed and breakfasts. In the autumn, the town’s Applejack Festival kicks off the apple harvest season with live music, a parade, a carnival, and every type of food you can imagine made from apples.
The capitol city boasts plenty of things to see and do. Some highlights are the beautiful state capitol building, Memorial Stadium (where the Huskers play their home games), the Nebraska History Museum (which is unfortunately closed through the end of 2015 for renovations), Great Plains Art Museum, and the University of Nebraska State Museum at Morrill Hall. The latter contains breathtaking exhibits of paleontological, Mesozoic, Nebraska Wildlife, and Nebraska art collections. The 668-acre Pioneers Park Nature Center contains woodlands, wetlands, tallgrass prairie, eight miles of walking trails and an impressive wildlife sanctuary.
This college town bills itself as the Sandhill Crane Capitol of the World thanks to the annual migration of more than 500,000 of the majestic birds which pass through the area each spring. In Kearney you’ll also find the Archway, a museum dedicated to the memory of America’s westward expansion; this is where the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails intersected. You’ll also want to make stops at Fort Kearney State Recreational Park and the Museum of Nebraska Art.
5) Nebraska Pioneer Trail
Set off on a 280-mile road trip beginning in Aurora, through Grand Island, Kearney and Red Cloud before ending up in North Platte. Although it will take you three days to complete the entire trail, you can easily hop on or off of the route at any point. The journey follows the sandhill crane migration while also highlighting the legacy of the plains pioneers. Stops along the trail include historic buildings, the Heritage Zoo, and reconstructions of historic towns. This is where famed Nebraska author Willa Cather got the inspiration to write about prairie pioneer life. In Grand Island, the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer provides a fascinating look at the lives of the region’s first settlers.
6) North Platte
Stop by North Platte for a hefty taste of the Wild West. Here you'll find the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park featuring a large Victorian house owned by "Buffalo Bill" Cody himself. Don't miss the Golden Spike Tower, an eight-story spire that overlooks Bailey Yard, the world's largest railroad yard.
7) Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
Archaeology buffs, Ashfall Fossil Beds in Royal, NE is the perfect day trip for you. This incredible glimpse at the natural history of Nebraska is unlike any other site in the state. Approximately 12 million years ago, a massive volcanic eruption in Idaho sent up a huge cloud of ash that settled over a wide area. In Nebraska, the ash fall didn’t kill the plains animals right away; rather, it damaged their lungs and killed them days or weeks later. Today, the perfectly fossilized bodies of ancient camels, horses, rhinos, birds, wild dogs, and even saber-toothed deer lay where they died. Paleontologists work diligently at the site while visitors are invited to observe their work from specially constructed walkways.
8) Fort Niobrara/Valentine National Wildlife Refuge Complex
The Nebraska sandhills region is an ecologically unique area of mixed-grass prairie on plant-anchored sand dunes. The region is the largest, most intricate wetland ecosystem in the country, covering approximately 23,000 square miles. A large variety of animals, plants and insects inhabit the area and create a one-of-a-kind nature experience.
9) Chimney Rock
When settlers headed west on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails saw this majestic natural formation soaring above the plains, they took heart knowing that they’d reached an important point in their journey. Many climbed the formation to carve their names in the rock; others simply sketched the memorable pillar in their journals. Today, Chimney Rock is a National Historic Site in Morrill County. The visitor center offers photos, videos, and exhibits about the historic westward movement – but if you’re like most visitors, you’ll spend most of your time marveling at the natural wonder.
10) Scotts Bluff National Monument
Another natural formation in western Nebraska, Scotts Bluff National Monument was also an important landmark on the Oregon and Mormon Trails. Five rock formations make up the majestic monument: Eagle Rock, Saddle Rock, Crown Rock, Dome Rock, and Sentinel Rock. Visitors can peruse the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center before setting off on a hiking tour of the bluffs. For those who prefer a less physical day out, a roadway travels through three tunnels and continues all the way to the summit.
11) Riverside Discovery Center
This sprawling nature center is just a short drive from Scotts Bluff National Monument, and it’s definitely worth the side trip. What began as a small city-owned zoo has grown into an education and conservation center featuring more than 175 animals from all around the planet.
12) Lake McConaughy
Nebraska’s largest lake is located about nine miles north of Ogallala. More than 100 miles of coastline offer unique beach experiences and outstanding fishing. Camping, boating, surfing, and a petrified wood gallery are just a few of the many activities you’ll find at “Lake Mac.” Nearby historical sites provide a nice break when you want to get out of the sun and squeeze a little learning into your day.
13) Indian Cave State Park
Located 10 miles south of Brownville on the banks of the Missouri River is the 3,399 acre Indian Cave State Park. The cave referred to the in the park’s name is a large sandstone rock shelter containing ancient Native American petroglyphs, the origins of which are somewhat of a mystery. A plethora of other activities await visitors outside of the park, including the reconstructed ghost town of St. Deroin.
These trips are just a small sampling of the wonders awaiting the Nebraska traveler. What are some of your favorite Nebraska spots to while away a day or two? Let us know in the comments below!