The best way to explore Nebraska is to get off the interstate and travel the byways that really tell the state’s story and are home to attractions off the beaten path. On the state’s nine scenic byways, you can see the Nebraska you won’t while driving along Interstate 80 -- rolling hills, buttes, forests, ancient rock formations, and unique attractions.
1. Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway
Running from South Sioux City to Valentine, the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway covers 231 miles.
Pay your respects to veterans at a half-scale replica of the Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Siouxland Freedom Park. The Outlaw Trail, named after infamous historical figures like Jesse and Frank James, who hid out in the Devil’s Nest area of Knox County, is home to three state parks: Ponca State Park, Niobrara State Park, and Smith Falls State Park (which boasts the state’s tallest waterfall). Enjoy artwork along the trail with historical murals at Crofton, Ohiya Casino & Resort on the Santee Sioux reservation, Niobrara, and Lynch. The smallest town in America -- Monowi -- also calls the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway home. Stop in at the Monowi Tavern, have lunch, and say hi to Elsie, the lone resident.
Niobrara is home to outstanding restaurants. The Country Cafe is a farm-to-table diner. Sportsmen’s Bar and Two Rivers Hotel is known for its steaks and prime rib, as well as its great burgers. You might even want to spend the night at Sportsmen’s bed and breakfast. If you’re looking for a quick food stop, check out the Niobrara Trading Post. Owned by a former Nebraska Cornhusker football star, the convenience store is known for its homestyle cooking, including cheeseburgers and chicken-fried steak sandwiches. It isn’t your typical gas station cuisine. In Valentine, grab a seat at the Peppermill for one of the best steaks you’ll ever enjoy.
Pro Tip: The Country Cafe does not accept credit or debit cards, but it will accept out-of-town checks and cash.
2. Gold Rush Scenic Byway
During the Gold Rush, about $200,000 worth of gold made its way along this Nebraska route on a daily basis. Today, a drive along the Gold Rush Scenic Byway in the Nebraska Panhandle offers a different type of treasure. While you’ll certainly enjoy the views of buttes and tall pine trees stretching skyward, the byway offers some eccentric history as well.
The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron shares stories of the fur trade through artifacts and memorabilia. Stop in at the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center to learn about one of Nebraska’s best-known authors. In Alliance, you’ll want to visit Carhenge, a local artist’s nod to England’s Stonehenge. Using old cars, each painted gray, the artist created the site as a tribute to his father. Explore Sidney’s Boot Hill Cemetery, where soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Sidney as well as cowboys were buried during the town’s Wild West days.
While in Chadron, enjoy a cup of coffee, breakfast, or lunch at Bean Broker Coffee House and Pub. Get your hands messy with delicious barbecue at EJ’s BBQ and Take-Out, which offers barbecue standards along with unique entrees such as barbecue mac and cheese. From steaks to broasted chicken, enjoy home cooking at Ken and Dale’s Restaurant in Alliance.
During your travels along the Gold Rush Scenic Byway, consider spending a night at the Victorian Inn Bed & Breakfast in Chadron.
3. Bridges To Buttes Scenic Byway
Covering nearly 200 miles from Valentine west to the Wyoming border, the Bridges to Buttes Scenic Byway showcases some of the most beautiful landscapes in Nebraska.
The top attraction is probably Toadstool Geologic Park -- nicknamed Nebraska’s Badlands -- which features rock formations resembling toadstools. Learn about the bison that once roamed the plains at the Hudson-Meng Education & Research Center, the site of a paleoarchaeological dig. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy a kayak trip along the Niobrara National Scenic River near Valentine. Then explore Valentine and get a special postage stamp at the local post office. Stop by Auntie D’s Gift & Coffee Shop for home decor and some fun browsing.
Enjoy lunch or dinner at the old-fashioned Staab’s Drive Inn in Crawford, featuring broasted chicken and burgers. Bunkhouse Restaurant and Saloon in Valentine has a menu featuring burgers, steaks, and chicken.
Reserve a room at the Down Home Ranch House near Crawford, where your morning coffee comes with the sounds of songbirds and Mother Nature. Valentine is home to The Niobrara Lodge, which is just a short walk from the city’s main street.
4. Heritage Highway Scenic Byway
Home to author Willa Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, the Heritage Highway Scenic Byway runs through southeastern Nebraska from Brownville near the Missouri border to more than 230 miles west.
Red Cloud celebrates Cather with a tour of homes and buildings featured in her novels. The entire town of Brownville, with a population of about 150, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The river town is home to the Governor Furnas Arboretum and Nature Trail, the Whiskey Run Creek Winery and Distillery, and quaint shops prime for browsing and shopping. Explore the nation’s first homestead in Beatrice at the Homestead National Monument.
For a special experience, reserve a room aboard Brownville’s River Inn Resort, a former riverboat that’s been converted into a bed and breakfast. In Red Cloud, stay at the historic Kaley House or the Cather Second Home, which was owned by Cather’s parents.
5. Loup Rivers Scenic Byway
Covering 150 miles in central Nebraska, the Loup Rivers Scenic Byway runs from Wood River to Dunning.
Along the route, you’ll want to explore the Happy Jack Chalk Mine near Scotia. Afterward, climb to the top of the mine’s hill for a breathtaking view of the Loup River Valley. Saint Paul is home to the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball, which honors seven Nebraskans named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as well as each Nebraskan who has played in the major leagues. Visit Brick Street Mall, where you’ll find antiques and home decor. And last but not least, hop into a converted cow tank and float down the Calamus River for a classic Nebraska outing.
6. Lincoln Highway Historic Byway
The longest byway in Nebraska, the Lincoln Highway Historic Byway runs about 400 miles along U.S. Route 30 from Omaha to Kimball.
Take a walk along the Omaha riverfront to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, the longest pedestrian bridge connecting two states. You can also drive along a 1-mile stretch of the original brick-laid Route 30 in suburban Elkhorn. Columbus’s Pawnee Park is home to the Andrew Jackson Higgins Memorial, which recognizes the local who invented the Higgins boat, which played a major role in the D-Day invasion during World War II. Kearney’s Classic Car Collection features more than 100 vintage autos. While in Kearney, you’ll want to visit The Archway, which covers the American pioneer experience and provides a look at life on the Lincoln Highway. Grand Island is home to the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, which includes a living history pioneer town. In North Platte, you can visit the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, which features the cowboy entertainer’s home.
For a delicious breakfast or lunch, visit Harold’s Koffee House in the Florence neighborhood of Omaha. The Chocolate Bar in Grand Island is the perfect spot for a coffee break and a slice of delicious cake. Enjoy a steak or burger at Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse in Paxton; you’ll see the stuffed animals that Ole hunted over the years, including a polar bear, giraffe, and elephant.
7. Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway
Covering more than 270 miles, the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway runs from Grand Island to Alliance.
A drive through the Sandhills offers amazing views, with rolling hills seemingly creating a sea of prairie grass. Check out the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands near Halsey. With more than 90,000 acres of trees and plants, it’s the largest hand-planted forest in the United States. Comstock is home to the Dowse Sod House, and Grand Island’s downtown offers some unique boutiques and antique stores.
Grab lunch or dinner at Wave Pizza Company, where you can enjoy a delicious hand-tossed pizza and an ambience that will transport you to the Florida Keys. Grand Island’s Sin City Grill may resemble an old Las Vegas dive bar, but its burgers are amazing.
Grand Island is also home to several national chain hotels.
8. Western Trails Scenic & Historic Byway
Following Highway 92, the Western Trails Scenic & Historic Byway runs about 140 miles from Ogallala to the Wyoming border.
Plan to visit Lake McConaughy, a man-made paradise. With a shoreline that’s about 20 miles long, the lake has a depth of about 140 feet when at full capacity. Summer visitors can enjoy boating, swimming, fishing, and almost any other water activity. Ogallala is also home to the Petrified Wood Gallery, a unique gallery featuring petrified wood art. You’ll want to visit two of Nebraska’s most popular natural attractions, too: Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock National Historic Site.
9. Lewis & Clark Scenic Byway
Running along the Missouri River for 82 miles from Omaha to South Sioux City, the Lewis & Clark Scenic Byway traces the path the famous explorers took during their expedition in the early 1800s.
Fort Atkinson near Fort Calhoun is a replica of the first military installation built west of the Missouri River. It also marks the spot where Lewis and Clark first met with leaders of area Native American tribes. Blair is home to the Black Elk-Neihardt Park, which includes a monument to Native Americans along a nature walk. You’ll want to stop at Master’s Hand in Tekamah to browse its home decor section as well as sample handmade chocolate treats. You’ll likely leave with a bag or two of their fudge or chocolates. The Omaha and Ho Chunk (Winnebago) tribes have reservations along the byway. You can learn about the Ho Chunk tribe’s history at the Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden.
South Sioux City is home to Mi Familia Mexican Restaurant, which features an authentic Mexican menu. Master’s Hand offers homestyle lunches but requires a reservation.
For a one-of-a-kind experience, reserve the Kottage Knechtion Treehouse Bed and Breakfast, where you’ll stay 18 feet above the ground, overlooking about 5 acres of attractive landscape.