Nebraska might not land on the top of many bucket lists, but that's part of its charm. The wide-open spaces, plus promises of fresh air, clean water, dark skies and good steaks, make it the perfect getaway for off-the-beaten-path travelers. Here are the reasons why you should consider visiting Nebraska.
While most people’s experiences in this fly-over state amount to interstate rest stops and gas refueling breaks en route to far more glamorous places, a meandering road trip from Omaha in the east to Valentine in northern central Nebraska is a road less taken. Stopping in a dozen small towns for as short as a meal or as long as a day, Nebraska has some surprising reasons to make this your next adventure.
Nebraska has big dark skies
By far, the coolest thing about Nebraska is that the sky stretches out in a colossal dome from horizon to horizon. During the day, you can admire fluffy clouds passing or watch thunderheads form and roll across the state. But once the sun sets, you'll find billions of other reasons to appreciate the sky that hangs over the state, one of the least densely populated in the country.
Outside the town of Valentine each August, you’ll find one of the largest gatherings of astronomers and interested attendees at the Nebraska Star Party. They flock to this area because of the extremely low light pollution: 'It is so dark up here that you don’t see the domes of cities,' says Eric Balcom, Nebraska Star Party coordinator. 'North Platte is the biggest city, and it’s a 120 miles away. Because it’s so far out and it’s away from towns, this site mimics what the sky looked like when the Native Americans were here.'
To make the most of star gazing in Nebraska, camp at Snake River Area Campground, where the Nebraska Star party is held. Located on the banks of Merritt Reservoir, the state recreation area also boasts some of the best fishing and boating in the state.
The great outdoors are calling
The Great Plains are an epic landscape in their own right. Home to a plethora of wildlife and plant-life, the unique environment offers a surprising number of interesting outdoor activities to get your heart pumping.
Ride your bike along the 195-mile Cowboy Trail that connects Norfolk and Valentine. This rails-to-trails project took advantage of a defunct railway and built a wide, limestone-covered bike path. You’ll venture over a quarter-mile-long 145ft-high bridge that spans the Niobara River, and the 15 communities along the way all offer a little something to passing cyclists. You can ride the entire thing, camping along the way, or try portions of the trail on your trip.
If you like hiking and wildlife watching, head to Niobara State Park. The 14 miles of trails that crisscross the park venture through Missouri River bluff country. White-tail deer, beaver, mink, muskrat and turkeys are abundant as are numerous different kinds of birds. And for a bit of fun you can only find in Nebraska? Rent a horse trough to float down the river – they call it 'tanking.' We didn’t know it was a thing either.
Nebraska recently instituted a system of water trails throughout the many river-ways in the state. Because many of these are considered Class I or easy rivers, it makes Nebraska the ideal place for first-timers wanting to learn how to handle non-motorized craft or to float with your family. Rent equipment in Norfolk where you can also take a guided tour if you’d like.
If you’re looking for speed in the great outdoors, board an airboat in Cedar Bluffs for an exhilarating ride up the Platte River. Keep an eye out for Bald Eagles in the towering trees on each bank.
There’s more to eat than steaks
Like much of the Midwest US, Nebraska is known for its hearty, cholesterol-rich dishes. There’s no denying that Omaha Steaks is one of the best food exports if you love meat. But whether you’re watching what you eat or just curious about options, there are plenty of ways to sample the flavors Nebraska has to offer.
Step inside the Downtown Coffee Company in Norfolk, Johnny Carson’s hometown. You’re as likely to find someone working remotely on their laptop as you are in any of the 'it' cities across the country.
Named in honor of the proprietor and brewmaster’s grandfather, Johnnie Byrd Brewing in Wayne, serves local craft beer brewed with a renewable energy system. It’s also Nebraska’s first benefit corporation. The company has no desire to grow outside of it’s rural roots, so this will probably be the only chance you have to sample the ever-changing rotation of brews.
For sandwiches and baked goods head to the Old Mill Bulk Food Store and Deli. This mom and pop was started by missionaries from Ohio who needed a way to help support their ministry and family. After the original space burned down, the family relocated to an old movie theater and now there is a line out the door most days for lunch.
Nebraska is cool in its own way
In 2018 Nebraska launched a marketing slogan that stunned a lot of people. 'Honestly, it’s not for everyone,' the slogan claimed. And maybe they’re right.
But from the numerous and fascinating murals that decorate the tiny town of Fremont (pop. 26,457) to the saturated sunsets of the Sandhills and of course Carhenge – we think it’s worth a trip to see if it might just be a place for you. But, if you aren’t sold, we’re happy to keep it for ourselves.