Nebraska Isn’t Sexy, but That’s Exactly Why You Should Visit
Nebraska’s low profile makes it the perfect place to escape the crowds.
This is the latest installment of our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Let’s be real. When is the last time one of your friends called you to tell you about their epic trip to Nebraska? Odds are, that’s never happened.
Nebraska is rarely included in travel features and it’s often passed over for its more popular neighbors (I’m looking at you, South Dakota and Colorado!). Don’t get me wrong, I love both of those states and I’ve even written about epic bike touring in South Dakota and life-changing forest bathing in Colorado for The Daily Beast, but I’m on a mission to explore all 50 states, including the less popular ones. The current COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a good time to visit less crowded states with lots of outdoor activities so Nebraska made its way to the top of my list.
For any native Nebraskans offended by my characterization of their state, I’d like to point out that in 2018, Nebraska’s state tourism director, John Ricks, admitted the state was consistently ranked as the “least likely state” tourists planned to visit. As a result, they rolled out a new slogan: “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” poking fun at Nebraska’s reputation for being a bit boring, while simultaneously highlighting activities and natural landscapes that aren’t typically associated with the state (think waterfalls, wooded areas, and rock formations).
Nebraska’s ad campaign focused (and continues to focus) mostly on visitors from surrounding states, not New Yorkers, so up until a few months ago, I, too, associated the supposedly “flyover” state with little more than football and farming. Despite my ill-informed assumption, I booked a rental car – which is mandatory for exploring anywhere in this part of the country – and began plotting my adventure.
Arbor Day Foundation
As soon as I crossed the border from South Dakota into Nebraska, I was greeted by a large welcome sign that read “Nebraska...the good life...Home of Arbor Day.” Wait, what?
Aside from, perhaps, getting a tiny tree seedling in elementary school each April, most Americans, including myself, haven’t had much interaction with the Arbor Day Foundation. Most would also be surprised to learn that Arbor Day was founded in Nebraska and that the Arbor Day Farm is a Historic Landmark with 260 acres of forested hiking trails, tree orchards, and historic buildings. There’s also a treetop village connected by netted walkways and bridges that staff assured me is totally OK for single adults to explore without children.
The Arbor Day Farm is a great day trip from Omaha but you could also overnight at the stunning Lied Lodge (the main lodge on the property), not to be confused with the Arbor Lodge, the 52-room mansion-turned-museum, which belonged to Arbor Day Founder, J. Sterling Morton. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because one of Morton’s sons went on to found the Morton salt company, which makes the adorable Morton salt mural in nearby Nebraska City make a lot more sense.
Exploring Rural Nebraska
I spent most of my trip in rural, North Central Nebraska, based in and around the largest city in Cherry County, Valentine, population: 2,737. Valentine is a great home base for day trips to nearby State Parks, wildlife refuges, McKelvie National Forest, and to the Merritt Reservoir, which has excellent stargazing. I also recommend driving to the nearby town of Cody, where you can do a vinegar tasting at George Paul Vinegar, one of only two American vinegar distilleries that produces vinegar in the classic wood barrel fermentation tradition.
After visiting several State Parks in and around Cherry County, I soon learned that Nebraska’s State Parks are best enjoyed by those who ascribe to a BYOB policy: Bring Your Own Boat. Though some hiking trails do exist (Smith Falls Park has a short hike and a pretty waterfall) State Parks in Nebraska focus heavily on boating and fishing. Unless you have a boat—in which case, I’d love to join you on your next trip—you may want to look into local outfitters to arrange a kayaking, canoeing, or tubing trip along the Niobrara River. Many outfitters arrange day trips and transportation from Valentine.
Within the city of Valentine, pick up one of their Heart City bike share bikes and hop on the Cowboy Trail, a former railroad track converted into a pedestrian and bike path. Keeping with the bike share tradition, the bikes are heavy and clunky, but they are definitely the best way to enjoy the trail. I had hoped to rent a proper road bike in Valentine but a Google search for “Valentine Nebraska bike shops” yielded an unhelpful list that only included two gun shops and a hardware store.
Stargazing is becoming an increasingly popular pastime for city folk eager to escape exhaust, noise, and crowds, but the stargazing destinations that get the most attention also get the largest crowds. The Nebraska Star Party, which started in the early ’90s, is one of the oldest stargazing festivals in the world and the area that hosts the party, the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, is in the process of applying to become an official Dark Sky Preserve. Given the state’s low profile and the fact that the region doesn’t yet appear on official lists of Dark Sky Preserves, the crowds are still very small.
During the Perseids Meteor Shower craze in mid-August, I set up camp at the “primitive” Snake River Area Campground (where the annual Star Party is held), expecting to encounter dozens of other stargazers. On a crystal-clear Sunday evening, with the Milky Way in full view and at least a dozen meteors shooting through the astoundingly dark sky, only two other campers were there to witness it with me. I should note that the RV campground four miles away was completely full, but in our quiet little neck of the woods, all you could hear were crickets and coyotes.
Speaking of crickets and coyotes, Nebraska is also a great destination for wildlife enthusiasts, birders, in particular. Each March, roughly 600,000 Sandhill cranes stopover in Nebraska during their annual migration to warmer weather in Central and South America. The birds are traveling along the Central Flyway, and their month-long stopover in Nebraska’s Central Platte River Valley was described by National Geographic as “one of the last great migrations.”
Wildlife viewing is available year-round in Nebraska and in Cherry County, you’ll also find the Valentine Wildlife Refuge and Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, home to bison, elk, and prairie chickens, among other animals. The wildlife loop roads in each refuge are heavily oriented toward car-based travel—and are an excellent option for travelers with limited mobility—but if you want to get in a good hike, the 2,100-acre Fontenelle Forest in Omaha is a great choice.
The forest is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Omaha but the dense foliage and complex network of trails would have you think you’re in the middle of nowhere. Some of the trails are ADA-compliant boardwalks with comfortable benches, while others are rugged and minimally-maintained treks that would absolutely benefit from better signage. Either way, you’re just about guaranteed to encounter deer and wild turkeys, not to mention the eagles, falcons, and owls that are part of the nature center’s Raptor Recovery program.
Omaha Is Way Cooler Than You Think
Pretty much every city is operating differently due to the pandemic and Omaha is no different. Its open-air concerts and festivals have been replaced with virtual events and quieter streets but the Old Market entertainment district is still the best place to grab dinner, a drink, or peruse quirky and eclectic shops. Omaha’s bike share system is fairly expansive (stretching around the city and over the Missouri River into western Iowa) so it makes for a great way to explore the city.
My first stop in Omaha was the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation but since I failed to make an appointment for a private tour, I was only able to visit the historic marker at his birth site. The foundation puts on virtual and in-person events—ranging from talks with Black Panther co-founder, Bobby Seale, to music festivals and community yoga classes—so be sure to check their calendar before your visit.
Omaha has a mask mandate that just about everyone in the city seems to comply with so many of their art, culture, and history museums have reopened to the public with limited hours. Though Omaha wasn’t experiencing any COVID-19 outbreaks during my visit and I felt safe exploring the city, I still decided to skip museums and indoor attractions and, instead, focus on outdoor activities.
One of Omaha’s top attractions is the Omaha Zoo, which is consistently rated as one of the best zoos in the world. The zoo recently launched a genius adults-only “Late Nights at the Zoo,” where visitors 21+ can explore the grounds kid-free, drink wine and beer, and grab dinner at a dozen food trucks scattered across the zoo. As this is a warm weather affair, the zoo says they’ll resume the events in spring 2021. Pro tip: swing by the Lauritzen Gardens botanic garden before/after the zoo, as it’s just a few minutes away.
Nebraska Deserves Multiple Visits
I generally try to structure my trips to be long enough that I get to see sufficient destinations and attractions that I’m OK with not returning. Remember, I’m on a mission to visit all 50 states! I spent 8 days in Nebraska and it simply wasn’t enough so I’m already planning a kid-friendly return trip with my family next year (assuming it’s safe to travel then). Though I plan to visit all the Omaha museums I skipped on this trip (at the top of the list is the Durham Museum, a National Historic Landmark housed within an art deco train station), nature will, again, be the focus of my trip.
With climate change wreaking havoc on animal populations around the world, and the future of air travel and long-haul flights, literally and figuratively “up in the air”, it seems like the perfect time to witness a massive bird migration right within my own country. Though I hope you all join me, I also kind of hope you don’t so I have the experience all to myself. Remember, Nebraska isn’t for everyone.