“Beautiful Nebraska” is the state’s official song. It describes the state as “laced with many rivers” and refers to “dark green valleys cradled in the earth.” The lyrics are painting Nebraska City. Beautiful dark green trees shelter the city above the Missouri River. In the spring, the intoxicating scent of apple blossoms fills the air. In the summer, the full canopy shelters the city from the heat. Resplendent colors adorn the trees during the fall, and winter reveals the lovely lines of the bare trees, stark against the snow.
Many of Nebraska City’s attractions are tree-related because it is the home of Arbor Day. Even their major festivals honor trees. Come for Arbor Day in the spring and the Applejack Festival in the fall.
I love all the tree-themed attractions, the beautiful downtown, the majestic Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, and the city’s fascinating history. When I scheduled my visit, I checked off Nebraska City from my bucket list. After I explored it, I put it right back again.
Nebraska City was not always Tree Central. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery past the city’s future location, grasses covered the land, not trees. Nebraska City publisher and politician J. Sterling Morton invented Arbor Day and heavily promoted tree planting. On the first Arbor Day, in 1872, people planted more than 1 million trees. The Arbor Day Foundation still promotes tree planting.
Nebraska City, the state’s first incorporated city, is just over 2 hours north of Kansas City and 45 minutes south of Omaha on Interstate 29. It’s an hour southeast of Lincoln on Nebraska Highway 2. Here are my 11 reasons to explore Nebraska City.
Note: This trip was hosted. All the opinions in this piece are my own.
1. The Ewoks Return At Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventures
Return of the Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film because of the courageous, Teddy bear-like Ewoks and their woodland home on the forest moon of Endor. So I was delighted to enter an Endor-like village at Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure. In the Treetop Village, complete with 11 treehouses, I ran across swinging bridges, jumped on the WonderNet, and slid down the 50-foot slide. What joy! I could have stayed in the village for hours.
After playing in the village, hike the 0.6-mile South Table Creek Trail. Sit in the three-bears chair and play the giant xylophone. The trail has some stairs and inclines.
Pro Tip: On the trail, look for the little fairy door in a tree. Before you leave, choose your free tree seedling at the Lied Greenhouse.
2. Join More Activities At Arbor Day Farm
While the Treetop Village and the trail were my favorite parts of the farm, more activities await visitors. In season, enjoy the hour-long Discovery Ride through the farm’s woods while an interpreter explains the journey. Look for wildlife. Taste Arbor Day Farm Wines and eat barbecue at Porter’s. Drink some cider at Apple House Market and buy seasonal fruit grown on the farm.
3. Explore The Place Where Arbor Day Began
In 1855, J. Sterling and Caroline Morton built a four-room house. By the time the Mortons’ son Joy donated the house to Nebraska, it had grown to 52 rooms. The Mortons planned and executed Arbor Day there. Nations around the world now celebrate Arbor Day.
The mansion includes Victorian and Empire-style furniture. Look for the Tiffany skylight in the sun parlor. Seven horse-drawn vehicles, including President Grover Cleveland’s brougham, fill the carriage house. Morton and other early family members built a log cabin to honor the pioneers.
Arbor Lodge State Historical Park’s grounds include 10 state-champion trees. I particularly enjoyed walking through the beautiful trees and the Italian terraced garden. The park features 200 lilac varieties.
Fun Fact: The first Earth Day was held on Arbor Day. Planting trees became so popular that Nebraska’s official nickname was the Tree Planter State from 1895 to 1945, when its nickname became the Cornhusker State.
4. Relish Fruit Straight From The Tree At Kimmel Orchard
Nothing tastes better than fruit picked straight from the tree. In season at Kimmel Orchard, enjoy the feel of fresh fruit in your hand, the explosion of sweetness in your mouth, and the dribble of juice running down your chin. Besides the seasonal U-pick options, tour the Apple Barn, join a hayrack ride, or explore the nature trail. Enjoy a wine tasting.
5. Harness The Wind’s Power At Kregel Windmill Factory Museum
For 60 years, Kregel Windmill Company crafted windmills. In a drought-plagued land, windmills were essential for settlers, farmers, and those who raised livestock. The thum-the-thrum-hrrum sound of a vintage windmill meant water for thirsty people, animals, and crops. The Kregels ceased windmill production during World War II because of raw material shortages, but some of their windmills are still pumping. At the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum, marvel at the dedication and determination of the staff who crafted those windmills.
6. Slavery’s Northern Frontier And The Underground Railroad
In the decades before the Civil War, national debate raged about slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 fanned the embers of sectional conflict into violence. The act established Kansas and Nebraska as separate territories. Congress usually paired admission of one slave and one free state to maintain balance in the Senate. Kansas was a potential slave state, but Nebraska’s cold climate made slavery unsustainable.
Even so, citizens of Nebraska City held people in slavery. The state’s only slave auction, held in Nebraska City, pushed the territorial legislature to ban slavery.
While some citizens enslaved people, others, like the Mayhews, worked to free them. At the Mayhew Cabin and John Brown’s Cave, experience the lives of Underground Railroad conductors and those they helped usher people to freedom.
Pro Tip: Download a driving tour and follow Nebraska’s Underground Railroad Trail (PDF).
7. Meet Lewis And Clark, The Pioneering Naturalists
The Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Center focuses on the Corps of Discovery’s numerous contributions to the natural sciences. The Corps lived up to their names, discovering 112 new animals and 178 new plants in their epic journey across the Louisiana Territory. Pretend to be a prairie dog burrowing in the ground; run with a bison; avoid a grizzly bear; dodge gigantic wasps nests; and listen to every bird call the Corps documented.
The most intimidating of all the animals was not new to the Corps: the mosquito. The center displays a nightmarish overgrown version of the blood-sucking bug — and they expect guests to insert their arms into the mosquito tube. I’m usually brave, but I couldn’t make myself do it. You’ll have to find out for yourself what’s behind the curtain.
The interactive exhibits aren’t limited to the nightmare insect. Paddle a pirogue while you try to avoid the vicious Missouri River snags. Outside, sit in the 55-foot replica keelboat, enter an earth lodge, and examine the log fort. Hike to the birding amphitheater and the Missouri River overlook. The return hike to the center is steep.
8. Drink A Cocktail While Shopping And Dining At The Keeping Room
At The Keeping Room, drink a cocktail and browse in the attached boutique. The shop is full of excellent apparel and seasonal decor choices. When a table opens, staff will find and seat you. The apple walnut salad and the apple pecan pie are delicious. The ham panini and soup were perfectly prepared and served on exquisite Polish ceramic plates.
9. Enter Your Portal To Delicious Mexican Cuisine
The arcades at El Portal Mexican Restaurant’s front entrance entice you to go south of the border. Try the tortilla soup, the carnitas, and the chili verde. Enhance your meal with a Milagro margarita.
10. Stay And Play At The Lied Lodge
Adjacent to Arbor Day Farm, the 260-acre Lied Lodge and Conference Center offers numerous activities. The colossal tree trunks serving as pillars in the lodge’s lobby made me think of Glacier Park Lodge in Montana. Dine at the Timbers or curl up with a book and a drink at the Library Lounge. Relax with a massage in the spa.
11. Inhabit Victorian Splendor At Whispering Pines
If you leave Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast hungry, it’s your fault. The food is delicious and creative. The rooms are spacious and luxurious. If you want complete seclusion, reserve the barn suite.
Several Nebraska City attractions have joined to offer Observation and Discovery Tours (PDF) for a discounted rate.
Downtown has restored vintage advertising murals. Look for the Morton Salt and Argo Corn Starch murals. Joy Morton, J. Sterling’s son, purchased a salt manufacturer and renamed it after himself. His brother Carl manufactured Argo in Nebraska City for many years.
Iowa’s Waubonsie State Park is across the Missouri River. It’s one of our recommended stops on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway.