I was born and raised in Nebraska, and we took most of our family trips within the state. Plus, when I was studying to be a social studies teacher in Kearney, I won a memorable Nebraska field trip from National Geographic. These eight towns and cities are dear to me because of those good memories.
In Nebraska’s small towns and cities, you’ll enjoy friendly faces, good food, and intriguing attractions from the Panhandle to the Missouri River. Be prepared for inspiring history and fascinating geography and geology.
Disclaimer: Some of these cities hosted me, but all opinions are my own.
Nebraska City: The Ultimate Tree City
A is for apples, J is for Jacks: Nebraska City annually hosts the Applejack Festival, which is appropriate for a city that’s all about trees and grows loads of apples. Visit during apple blossom time in the spring and apple harvest in the fall.
When J. Sterling Morton came to Nebraska City in 1854, he found a treeless land. Morton enjoyed trees and encouraged people to plant them. Nebraskans planted an estimated one million trees on the first Arbor Day, April 10, 1872, which has now spread around the world.
The city continues its love affair with trees -- and apples. Turn into an Ewok at Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventures, explore Arbor Lodge State Park, and eat apples straight from the tree in season at Kimmel Orchard. Drink a cocktail while you shop at The Keeping Room, and then eat lunch. Stay at the Whispering Pines or the Lied Lodge.
Pro Tip: At Kregel Windmill Museum, learn about manufacturing windmills, “metal trees” that brought life-giving water from the ground.
North Platte: A River, Buffalo Bill, And A Railroad Hub
Mind-boggling numbers of railcars pass through the Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard. Bailey Yard is the world’s largest train yard, handling 14,000 rail cars per day. Watch the dance from the Golden Spike Tower. The upper-level viewing deck offers 360 degrees of glassed-in comfort, but we preferred the open-air lower deck. During World War II, North Platte Canteen volunteers fed six million service people who passed through North Platte on troop trains -- for free, while civilians’ food was rationed.
World-famous showman William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody established his ranch in North Platte. His mansion, barn, and other outbuildings stand in the 16-acre Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park. Cody’s Wild West shows still influence how mass entertainment portrays the west. For the ultimate kitschy roadside attraction, visit Fort Cody Trading Post.
Pro Tip: Every spring, 300,000 sandhill cranes occupy the North Platte River. Their haunting song will live in your heart forever after you watch their beautiful mating dances. Make hotel reservations early during crane season.
Ogallala: A Wild Cowtown Turned Water Lovers’ Paradise
Beach babies should give Ogallala a chance because Lake McConaughy’s white sand beaches are fit competitors for any beach in the world. Every watersport finds a home at Lake Mac, Nebraska’s largest lake, 8 miles north of Ogallala. For trout fishing and non-motorized watercraft, try Lake Ogallala on the east (downstream) side of Kingsley Dam. Buy park permits, hunting and fishing licenses at the visitor center. For the best prices, fill up your gas tank and buy your supplies in Ogallala.
In the winter, the dam’s hydroplant prevents ice from covering Lake Ogallala. Watch eagles and other birds fish from the viewing building and shorelines.
Ogallala started as a wild cowtown. For an introduction to Ogallala’s past, catch a can-can show at the Front Street Steakhouse and visit Boot Hill. The Great Western Cattle Trail, Oregon Trail, and Pony Express Trail intersected in Tri-Trails Park.
Pro Tip: Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge in Paxton, between North Platte and Ogallala, is a must-stop. Eat prime rib and examine more than 200 big-game trophies, including a polar bear and seal.
Historic Scottsbluff And Nebraska’s Mountains
When we studied Nebraska history, we learned that Nebraska has mountains. Mountains? In Nebraska? Yes. The 800-foot Scotts Bluff National Monument is an outlier of the Rockies, and it dominates the skyline above Scottsbluff and Gering. It’s the westernmost in a series of landmark rock formations on Nebraska’s Oregon Trail. Hike, drive, or ride the shuttle to the summit and walk the Oregon Trail.
Pro Tip: Explore Nebraska’s mountains, the Wildcat Hills, at the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area 10 miles south of Gering.
Crawford: Gateway To Historic And Prehistoric Adventures
Flying to the moon is still impossible for ordinary people. Toadstool Geologic Park, half an hour northeast of Crawford, is the solution for ground-bound folks who want to visit a lunar landscape. Bring plenty of water because the park has none. It’s also not accessible.
Fort Robinson State Park’s surprising history runs from the Indian Wars to World War II. During the Cheyenne Breakout, Cheyenne tribe members escaped confinement in a Fort Robinson barracks. They made it to the Cheyenne Buttes before recapture. Visit the buttes’ summit via the Cheyenne Butte Trail, and watch for bighorn sheep. Check out the dueling mastodon fossils at the park’s Trailside Museum.
Buy homemade honey products at Gibbons Honey Farms. Grazing longhorn cattle are a unique hazard at Legend Buttes Golf Course. Eat at Q’s Dairy Sweet. Stay at the High Plains Homestead for a ranching adventure. If that’s too adventurous, stay at the Hilltop Motel.
Pro Tip: From Toadstool Park, Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center is a 6-mile round trip hike on the Bison Trail. A rancher found 600 bison skeletons tangled in a bone bed. It’s now a working archaeological site with seasonal activities. The Bridges to Buttes Scenic Byway connects Crawford to Valentine.
Valentine: Romance And Recreation On The Niobrara River
Every day of the year is Valentine’s Day in Valentine, Nebraska’s Heart City. I bragged about Valentine for years, and last summer my husband decided we had to visit. Valentine did not disappoint.
The Niobrara River, a National Scenic River, is Valentine’s biggest attraction. Float down the river in style. While floating, watch for more than 90 waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. Nebraska’s highest waterfall, Smith Falls, and nearby Fort Falls are the best known. We loved the horseshoe-shaped Norden Chute.
Eat at the Peppermill, a third-generation steakhouse, and The Old Mill, a wood-fired pizzeria, deli, bakery, and bulk food store. Stay at the Niobrara River Ranch. In the evening, drive half an hour west to tiny Nenzel, home of Niobrara Valley Vineyards. Follow their directions.
Pro Tip: For the lowest rates and smallest crowds during floating season, explore Valentine on weekdays.
Editor’s Note: For a truly unique experience, consider tanking, which consists of floating down the river in a cattle tank. Here’s why tanking is the ultimate river experience!
The Pine Ridge Calls You To Chadron
Chadron (pronounced SHAD-run) nestles in the Pine Ridge. The ridge abruptly arises south of Chadron. The Nebraska National Forest and Chadron State Park offer more than 100 miles of trails and old roads. Inhale the intoxicating pine scent while exploring the dramatic escarpment.
I wasn’t excited to see The Museum of the Fur Trade on our field trip, but I should have been. Located on an 1837 fur trading post site, the museum offers a comprehensive look at a nation-building industry and includes unique options in its gift store.
Pro Tip: “Meet” groundbreaking author Mari Sandoz at the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center. Among other works, she wrote Old Jules, her father’s biography. The Old Jules Trail around Gordon, about an hour east of Chadron, brings the book to life.
Kool-Aid Adds Sweetness To Hastings
Get an ear-to-ear Kool-Aid Smile when you visit Hastings, my hometown. Edwin Perkins invented the powdered drink mix there in 1927. Every August, the city celebrates the official Nebraska state soft drink during Kool-Aid Days. Drink some at the World’s Largest Kool-Aid Stand.
Any time of the year, take your picture in front of the original Kool-Aid Factory and step into Kool-Aid Man’s footsteps. Learn more at the Hastings Museum. The Kool-Aid Man isn’t the only big creature that Hastings honors. Check out the Bigfoot Museum.
Pro Tip: Watching the Fisher Rainbow Fountain is the most relaxing way to end a day in Hastings.
Once you tour these towns, you’ll see just how endearing Nebraska can be.