Nebraska is often overlooked as a vacation destination, but the state has plenty of activities to keep you busy. There are bustling cities with historical districts to explore, as well as a surprising number of natural attractions. The state was key to westward expansion, and residents remain proud of their contributions to the pioneers and homesteaders that settled in the area before moving west. Today, you can see Nebraska as they saw it back then, with hints of its ancient history and the exciting future that lies ahead.
For pioneers heading west to Oregon and California, Chimney Rock was one of the most recognizable landmarks along the way. It quickly became a symbol of westward expansion. This natural rock formation features a center spire rising 325 feet upward and an imposing conical base that's impossible to miss. The formation dates as far back at least 23 million years. Today, it looks just as it did when settlers passed through in the 1840s.
Toadstool Park is the most visually stunning section of the Nebraskan Badlands. Forty-five million years ago, an ancient river laid the thick sandstone layers, striped with red and green from volcanic ash. The river dried up about 26 million years ago. Since then, wind and rain have carved the remaining sandstone into the other-worldly toadstool shapes you see today. This park features a one-mile loop trail, along which you're encouraged to wander among the toadstools. Be gentle as you scurry around looking for fossils of saber-toothed cats and brontotheres, an ancient relative of the rhinoceros.
Covering six city blocks in downtown Omaha, Pioneer Courage Park tells the story of the pioneers who settled the area before heading west. This park is a nice place to walk around and take a break from the surrounding city but its main draw is the public art installation. More than 100 statues the story of four pioneer families heading west from Omaha, like the hundreds of thousands who actually passed through the region on their way to settle the west. The series is one of the largest bronze and stainless steel sculpture installations in the world. Don't miss it when you're in Omaha.
Lauritzen Gardens is a 100-acre oasis in southern Omaha. A four-acre arboretum features plants from seven regions, including prairie, marsh, flood plain, and savannah. There are multiple gardens to explore. Stroll through the fragrant rose garden, check out the indoor conservatory, or take the kids to the children's garden or model railroad garden. Lauritzen Gardens also offers seasonal activities like a Halloween garden and holiday poinsettia show.
Scotts Bluff was an important landmark for homesteaders heading west as well as the pony express riders. The site includes two bluffs as well as five major outcroppings and a portion of what used to be the Oregon Trail. Over 3,000 acres of land are protected here, including mixed-grass prairies and badlands. A drive to the top of the bluff provides amazing opportunities for photography, especially at sunset.
A safari is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Nebraska, but the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari is something you won't soon forget. Visit the Bison Overlook and Nature Play to see bison in their natural habitat. Explore Wolf Canyon to observe gray wolves and black bears, then head to the Eagle Aviary for an up-close and personal look at bald eagles. There's also Pelican Wetlands, Deer Woods, and Prairie Dog Town to round out this unique experience.
The history of Nebraska goes back a long way, and Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park gives you some idea of just how far. This area is filled with extraordinarily preserved fossils from 12 million years ago. The mass grave was a result of a volcanic explosion that covered the area with ash, quickly damaging the lungs of the animals roaming there. Within five weeks, everything was gone and their bodies were covered with ash. The area was mostly undisturbed and some of the fossils were so intact when found that it was possible to determine their last meal. Today, paleontologists are still making new discoveries and are on-site to answer questions. Choose a trail and go explore the area.
President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in 1862. This law was instrumental in settling the west. It granted homesteaders 160 acres of land in exchange for a small filing fee. Settlers moved onto more than 80 million acres by 1900, transforming the region. The Homestead National Monument of America explores the westward expansion, commemorating its importance as well as the effects it had on the native peoples, landscape, and animals. Explore three miles of trails and the many interesting exhibits, including an award-winning film and the chance to research homesteading genealogy.
Indian Cave State Park is another place to see some of Nebraska's interesting history. The park gets its name from a cave where prehistoric petroglyphs depict nature scenes and wildlife. It's a great place to explore outdoors, too. The park is located on the banks of the Missouri River and is ideally situated for camping, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and skiing in the winter.
There's only one Carhenge and the only place to see it is outside of Alliance, Nebraska. This art installation features 39 cars arranged in the prairie grasslands, designed to perfectly replicate the real Stonehenge in England, if on a smaller scale. The cars include a 1962 Cadillac and an ambulance, as well as and other cars and pickup trucks. This site contains other interesting works of the artist, Jim Reinders, as well.