The Best Things To See and Do in Nebraska

JILL WEINLEIN

After graduating from UCLA, JIll traveled the world looking for unique destinations. She’s been writing about her travels for almost 30 years in various publications.

She writes a weekly restaurant review for the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News. It’s inserted into the Los Angeles Times every Thursday and delivered to subscribers from Hancock Park to Beverly Hills, Hollywood Hills to the Wilshire Corridor.

The Best Things To See and Do in Nebraska

BY JILL WEINLEIN

Known as a ‘Flyover state’, Nebraska is one of the American states that is perceived as not on the top of everyone’s list. Most people just fly over when traveling coast to coast. This summer I decided to touch down in Denver, Colorado and drive with some friends to see the surprising sights of the 37th state admitted into the union. We discovered a scenic state filled with friendly people, historical sights, natural wonders and a diverse culinary scene.

Nebraska offers some of the most popular scenic byways including the Lewis & Clark Scenic Byway, the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway, and the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway.

Along the Lincoln Highway which stretches from Times Square NYC to San Francisco is about 450 miles of byways through Nebraska. One of our first notable stops was in the charming historic town of Potter. It’s just a minute off of I-80 in the Nebraska Panhandle and about a two and a half hour drive from the Denver International airport.

Stopping for a meal at The Potter Sundry, we were surprised that this historic soda fountain was where the Tin Roof Sundae was created. Back in the early 1900s, the owner’s teenage son “Pinky” was a soda jerk. One day while scooping chocolate and vanilla ice cream, he topped it with chocolate syrup, added fluffy marshmallow cream and nuts. Since the ceiling of the building was tin, he named this cool dessert – Tin Roof Sundae, and it soon became a town and later national sensation.

Walking down to Potter’s Duckpin Bowling Alley, we climbed up a flight of wood stairs to the historic three lane Duckpin bowling alley. Built between the 1920s and 1930s, this is the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi. After a few games, we got back in our car, and drove Northwest on the scenic Bridges to Buttes byway to Crawford, known as the “Big Game Capital of Nebraska.” It was a pretty three hour drive through vast prairies and unique geological formations that are national treasures.

Staying overnight at Our Heritage Guest Ranch, the ranch owner Jean Norman opened to the public her family homestead that is a National Natural Landmark. Her ancestors were provided the land by the federal Homestead Act of 1862, and granted around 160 acres to settle on and farm the land. She now has over 300 acres to raise cattle, farm and offer guest lodging. Surrounding the ranch is unique landscape with pine covered hills that meet badlands and prairie. It’s a unique wedding, family reunion and wellness retreat.

The ranch is just a ten minute drive to Toadstool Geological Park, named after the unusual toadstool geological formations. The area offers fossils that have provided scientists insight into the behavior of animals who passed through this area some 30 million years ago. The wide-open spaces offer limited light pollution in the evening

For one of the darkest spots in Nebraska to see stars, constellations, the Milky Way and International Space Station flying overhead every 90 minutes.

The next morning, we drove in the opposite direction to visit a modern archaeology excavation site at Hudson-Meng Reseach and Education Center. Located in the Oglala National Grassland, visitors can tour one of the most important paleo-archeological discoveries in North America. There are multiple bone bed enclosures displaying ancient skeletons of approximately 600 bison. They aren’t the same species of bison that exist today; these animals lived tens of thousands of years ago on the American plains and mysteriously died here.

Also in the Crawford area is Fort Robinson State Park that was the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the death of famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse. Over the years, the fort served the Red Cloud Indian Agency, and where blue-coated cavalrymen once bunked. It was established as a state park in 1962, and now offers stagecoach trail rides, historic jeep tours and a visit inside the interactive State History Museum. Stop in the Lodge to stay overnight and enjoy a meal in the restaurant off the lobby and gift shop.

Driving about one hour to the city of Alliance, is Carhenge, a whimsical replica of Stonehenge. Built as memorial to the artist Jim Reinders father who lived on this land, Reinders painted 38 classic 1960s and 1970s cars a stone gray color. Next he arranged them in a full scale replica of England’s mystical arrangement of stones that chart the sun and moon phases. It’s open year round, and during the summer there is a gift shop to purchase souvenirs and snacks.

After visiting the town of Alliance with over 8,000 residents, we drove to the town of Valentine to see the scenic Smith Falls State Park. It’s Nebraska’s highest waterfall, and Little Outlaw Outfitters uses the park to provide kayaks, canoes, and tubes to paddle or float down the beautiful Niobrara River. This national scenic river has a stop to take a short walk to Smith Falls. Named for Frederic Smith, who filed the first homestead patent on the land that encompasses the falls, and later this area became a state park in 1992. Not only is the land home to soaring falls, it is also an area of biological significance where several ice age species can still be found.

Working up an appetite, we stopped at the Old Mill for brick oven pizza, a variety of sandwiches and desserts made in-house. They also have a bulk food section and gift shop to stock up for another night star party. Driving to Merritt Reservoir Snake Campgrounds, this area near Valentine offers astronomical views which can’t be seen from cities with ‘light’ pollution.

After spending the evening at The Niobrara Lodge, we woke up early to drive three hours to Nebraska’s Landmark Country to see both Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Once we arrived in town, we stopped for lunch at Flyover Brewing Company, the first brewery in the Nebraska Panhandle. They make the best pizza, sandwiches, salads and hummus in town, and take pride in the beer they brew. Their equipment is made in Lincoln, and their malt and sugar beets are grown in Nebraska.

After lunch we drove 20 minutes to the prominent geological formation Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Rising 300 feet above the surrounding North Platte River Valley, there is an interactive Visitors Center to learn about the brave pioneers who traveled through this land on their way along the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails.

About 30 minutes from Chimney Rock is Papa Moon Winery & Cider House offering a family-friendly environment wine and cider tour.  Visitors can order house-crafted cider and wine tastings to enjoy outside on the beautiful grounds.

For dinner The Steel Grill in the town of nearby Gering, is a lively tavern offering American BBQ, prime rib and steak salads in a sports bar setting.

We stayed overnight at the Monument Inn and Suites before driving a short distance to Scotts Bluff National Monument. Towering 800 feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff also served as a directional landmark to Native Americans and emigrants. There are nearly 4 miles of hiking trails, and a 1.6 mile drive up to Summit Road to take in the panoramic views on top.

Afterwards we enjoyed brunch at The Mixing Bowl owned by Jamie Meisner. With the help and influence of her Grandma Ruth, she enhances traditional Midwest dishes with a German flair. After a hearty meal, we drove through the Heartland to Denver International airport to fly home.

Even though the Nebraska Tourism Bureau’s campaign touts “Visit Nebraska, Honestly, It’s Not For Everyone,” for travelers looking to see some of the most beautiful sights in America, Nebraska is filled with surprising discoveries.

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