The Cornhusker State (they do grow a lot of ears) has beautiful river valleys and an often stark bleakness that is entrancing. Its links to the past – from vast fields of dinosaur remains to Native American culture to the toils of hardy settlers – provide a dramatic story line. Alongside the state's sprinkling of cute little towns, Nebraska's two main cities, Omaha and Lincoln, are vibrant and artful.
The key to enjoying this long, stoic stretch of country is to take the smaller roads, whether it's US 30 instead of I-80, US 20 to the Black Hills, or the lonely and magnificent US 2.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Nebraska.
Just across the river from Omaha in the cute little downtown area of Council Bluffs, IA, this highly interactive museum tells the story of the world's most profitable railroad (it's headquartered in Omaha) and the company that rammed the transcontinental line west from here in the 1860s. The three levels of exhibits offer a nostalgia-filled ode to train travel and how it forever changed America.
The riverfront along the Missouri River celebrates the waterway's past and present. Highlights include the architecturally stunning Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which soars over to Iowa; the Heartland of America Park, with fountains and lush gardens; and Lewis & Clark Landing, where the explorers did just that in 1804. The riverfront is also home to the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Visitor Center, which has exhibits and a bookstore.
Entering into this three-story arts center (a former mattress warehouse) is like diving down the rabbit hole into an alternative universe ruled by eccentric artists. The namesake 'hot shops' are the glassblowing, pottery, bronze-casting and blacksmithing studios that anchor the building. Above them are 55 studios where artists create and display their works for all to see. Peruse the labyrinthine studios, sign up for art classes or attend an event.
The world's largest indoor desert? Check. The world's largest nocturnal exhibit? Check. America's largest indoor rainforest? Check. An aquarium showing habitats from the Arctic to coral reefs? Check, yet again. The superlatives say it all. You could easily spend an entire day wandering through this massive and well-crafted complex, which is frequently named the best zoo in America. Optional animal encounters can be arranged if you pay extra.
Upstream of Grand Island, the Platte River hosts 500,000 sandhill cranes (80% of the world population) and millions more waterfowl during the spring migration (mid-February to early April). Expert guides lead seasonal Sandhill Crane Migration Tours ($35, 2½ hours, reserve in advance) to prime viewing blinds on the river. This nature center is a good place for viewing and has worthwhile hikes year-round.
Scotts Bluff has been a beacon to travelers for centuries. Rising 800ft above the flat plains of western Nebraska, it was an important waypoint on the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century. You can still see wagon ruts today. The visitor center has displays and its staff can guide you to walks and drives up the bluff. It's 5 miles south of Scottsbluff town. There is good hiking all around the park.
The soaring art deco Union Station train depot is a sight to behold with its cathedral windows, geometric chandeliers, ornate ceilings and reliefs of railroad workers carved into the facade. It houses a fine museum covering local history from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Omaha stockyards and the trains that once called here. The soda fountain still serves hot dogs and phosphate sodas.
Some 20 million years ago, this part of Nebraska was like the Serengeti in Africa today: a gathering place for a rich variety of creatures. Today the bones of thousands of these ancient mammals are found at this isolated site. Displays and walks detail the amazing – and ongoing – finds. Don't miss the Bone Cabin and the burrowing beaver, plus the Native American exhibits.
Arching unexpectedly over I-80 east of Kearney, the multimedia light-and-sound exhibits here tell colorful tales about the people who've passed this way, from those riding wagon trains to those zipping down the interstate. Everything has been hand-painted, like the figures narrating the tales and the murals on the walls, and the attention to detail is striking.