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Don’t know what to do in Nebraska? From Grand Island famous Sandhill cranes to the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo, there are lots of fun things to do in Nebraska!
Head out on the Oregon Trail for a frontier history lesson in the shadow of Chimney Rock. You can also learn some Native American folklore among the rugged rocks in one of Nebraska’s geological state parks. Then trace the state’s history with the rails at the Durham Museum. Let’s check out these and more things to do in Nebraska with kids!
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10. Track Nebraska’s Sandhill Cranes
More than 500,000 cranes along with millions of snow geese and other waterfowl migrate through Central Nebraska each spring. It’s a spectacular sight! The Sandhill Cranes represent one of the greatest remaining migrations on the planet.
From February through April, tens of thousands of the large gray birds feed and rest along the Platte River. The season culminates in one of the nation’s longest running wildlife festivals. The Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival is one of the most awe-inspiring things to do in Nebraska! Activities includes field trips out to crane blinds and bird migration stopovers.
You don’t need to wait for a festival to have a fabulous birding experience. Visit a crane viewing blind or attend birding field trips and workshops at the Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary year round.
9. Navigate the Fossil Freeway
A corridor dubbed the Fossil Freeway cuts through western Nebraska. Saber-toothed cats, ancient 3-toed horses, and barrel-bodied rhinos are among the animal remains to be unearthed here. Families can join a guided fossil-hunting excursion and do a little digging of their own at the High Plains Homestead.
Other paleontologist-type adventures include the Hudson-Meng Research and Education Center and the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. The largest bison bone bed in the Western Hemisphere resides in the former and fossilized mammals estimated to be 19 million years old are featured in the latter.
If visiting an active dig site is on your list of things to do in Nebraska, then check out Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch workers uncovering the skeletons of an animal that died about 12 million years ago. In addition, kids can try their hand at such work at a fossil dig table. Families can also easily hike park trails that include magnificent overlooks.
8. Visit the Nebraska State Capitol (Also known as Husker Country)
Nebraska’s capital city enjoys the youthful vibe of a college town. Start getting acquainted by surveying the landscape. Lincoln looks pretty sweet from the Art Deco spire of the Nebraska State Capitol Building.
Lincoln is also home to one of the top three children’s museums in the country. All activities at the Lincoln Children’s Museum focus on the power of play. There’s also the Pioneer Park Nature Center, a great place to meander through prairie grass, woodlands and wet lands.
Check out bison, elk, deer, and other wildlife in their natural habitats while you’re there. Another fun thing to do in Nebraska is pretend to be part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Kids can get into that at the Nebraska History Museum.
A visit to the University of Nebraska campus should undoubtedly include the Nebraska State Museum. It’s full of organisms, fossils, and artifacts that interpret the state’s natural and cultural history.
If your arrival coincides with football season, then get ready for a sea of red at Memorial Stadium, home of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. While the crowds are loud, they are also well-known for their warm Midwestern hospitality. It’s a great place to let little football fans see good sportsmanship in action!
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7. Join the Nebraska Star Party
This urban dweller can’t fathom it, but there’s an area of Nebraska with some of the darkest skies in the nation. This total lack of light pollution makes for great conditions for the Nebraska Star Party. Organized by the Omaha Astronomical Society and the Prairie Astronomy Club of Lincoln, it’s one of the most fun things to do in Nebraska in late summer.
Party goers flock to Snake River Campground at Merritt Reservoir bringing everything from the largest telescopes to the smallest binoculars. We’re talking anything that will help get a good look at the skies. The trek is worth it too! The clarity of the starry night sky stretching from horizon to horizon is unmatched anywhere else.
Families are more than welcome. So go ahead and peer through those huge telescopes! A special kid’s activity program is even offered! In addition, there’s a field school for beginning astronomers. Crater study, celestial mechanics and astrolabe, planisphere, and telescope construction projects are among the things budding astronomers will enjoy.
6. Visit Museums Galore
Among the fun things to do in Nebraska are the surprising number of museums located around the state. Whether historical or more quirky nature, they cover a gamut of topics.
Starting with agricultural history, there’s the Farm and Ranch Museum of course! There’s also the Museum of Fur Trade, offering a comprehensive lesson in the North American trade. Composed of four buildings with artifacts from the 1800’s, Pierce Historical Museum includes a blacksmith shop, train depot, and schoolhouse.
Then there’s the Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum which is housed in the original tractor testing laboratory of the University of Nebraska. In addition, the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball covers the sporting careers of over 140 men with ties to the state.
Given the state’s long and pioneering railroad history, visiting a train museum in Nebraska is a must! The Greenwood Society Historical Depot Museum and the Rock Island Depot Railroad Museum are only two of several places to dabble in the topic.
There are museums that delve into more heady pursuits and interests too! Don’t the Strategic Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Roller Skating and the Museum of American Speed sound like they’re pretty high octane?
5. Explore Omaha, Nebraska’s Largest City
Omaha was once known for its stockyards and meatpacking plants. Omaha’s central location also made it an important transportation center. In fact, it’s home to Union Pacific, the largest US railroad operator.
Climb aboard vintage train cars at the Durham Museum, a former train station. Then head to the Mormon Trail Center to find pioneer history on full display. Be dazzled by 100 acres of botanical wonder at Lauritzen Gardens. Then check out it’s surprising next door neighbor Kenefick Park, another nod to Omaha’s ties to the railroads. After that, bone up on Jazz history at Love’s Jazz and Art Center where Duke Ellington, Count Bassie, and others once played.
Moving away from local history and folklore, it may interest you to know that the world’s largest indoor desert is located at the Henry Doorly Zoo. Unleash the power of play at the Omaha Children’s Museum.
Get youngsters started on an appreciation for masterworks at the Joslyn Art Museum, named one of the 10 best art museums for kids. Then take in a performance of the “CHOMARI” Ballet Folklorico Mexicano at El Museo Latino, the Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum.
All of that exploring is bound to make you hungry! So hit up the Old Market, an historic area that served as warehouses, wholesale, and retail space in Omaha’s early days. Located in the oldest part of the city, it’s a shopping, dining, and nightlife destination now. As luck would have it, it is also within walking distance of many downtown Omaha hotels!
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4. Retrace Pioneer and Western History
Nebraska offers many opportunities for history buffs to retrace the footsteps of explorers, pioneers, and Plains Indians. Here are only a few of the many time traveling adventures your family could enjoy.
One of the most thrilling things to in Nebraska is board a prairie schooner on the Oregon Trail Wagon Train. Imagine an encounter with Pony Express riders and Native Americans under the spire of the Chimney Rock National Historic Site! The living history program at the Scotts Bluff National Monument is interesting and the Great Platte River Road Archway is a great place to chronicle the movements of fur trappers.
The pine-topped bluffs looming over Fort Robinson State Park still look as they did when the Indian Wars were fought. Visitors can take jeep and horseback tours into the hills. Once there, they’ll enjoy live entertainment and lodging in the former cavalry quarters.
Get educated on the 1862 Homestead Act at the Homestead National Monument of America. This law granted more than 270 million acres, about 10 percent of the United States, to pioneers. Then time warp onto Front Street circa 1880s for a stage show, a steakhouse dinner or a thirst-quencher in the saloon at the Front Street and Cowboy Museum.
There two other important historic landmarks that should not be missed when traveling in these parts. They are the ranch of showman Buffalo Bill Cody and the nearby Bailey Train Yard. This is the spot where east met west on Union Pacific’s rail line. It’s also where workers drove in the famous golden spike to open up the west
Check out the Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitor Center to learn more about this duo’s expedition to discover the northwest.
3. Take your Pick of Outdoor Adventures
Because the Nebraska State Park system stretches from border to border, your next outdoor adventure is never far off. So spend a weekend camping at Branched Oak Lake State Recreation Area. Stay in a teepee at Platte River State Park. Picture yourself admiring rock formations and waterfalls as you tube or canoe on the Niobrara National Scenic River.
At Chadron State Park there’s a swimming pool, tennis courts, paddleboats, fishing, archery, and horseback trail rides. Many adventurers love the spectacular views on the Cowboy Trail between Chadron and Norfolk.
Tanking has grown in popularity on the waterways of many Nebraska state parks. Essentially, groups board an eight-foot plastic stock tank and set off for a casual float. These vessels, which can seat six or more, are so stable in the water, it’s possible to get an ice chest full of refreshments on board as well!
A secluded campsite in Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area is perfect for taking rugged buttes and canyons. There are year round recreational offerings at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park including winter toboggan runs and summer water play park.
It’s worth noting that there’s nature to behold near Nebraska’s major cities as well. The 17 miles of walking trails in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Forest are a peaceful haven despite there being almost a million people nearby. There are also nine miles of trails weaving through forests, hilltop prairies, and woodlands at its sister property, Neale Woods.
A surprising fact: Though much of the state is devoid of trees, the founder of Arbor Day is from Nebraska. Check out his home and learn how Arbor Day began at Arbor Lodge State Park.
2. Marvel at Geological Wonders
The geological buttes of western Nebraska are an incredible sight! One of the most famous formations made it onto the state’s commemorative quarter. Known as Chimney Rock, it’s a 300-foot spire piercing the sky above the North Platte River. Its unusual shape made it a great landmark for pioneer travelers on the California, Mormon, and Oregon trails.
Another natural wonder is Toadstool Geological Park. The oddly shaped sandstone slabs perched on clay stems are the result of sediment erosion left by ancient volcanoes. Shaped by millions of years of water and wind, they often have hikers feeling as if they’ve wandered onto a moonscape. The park’s interpretive Toadstool trail is well marked and a detailed brochure also helps visitors make sense of the area.
Then there’s the ruggedly beautiful Courthouse and Jail Rocks which got their names from Oregon Trail migrants. In fact, Courthouse Rock is connected to folklore involving two Indian tribes. It’s where the Skidi Pawnees sought shelter from their enemies, the Sioux. With cliffs on three sides and a difficult path upwards, the Sioux made camp hoping to wait it out. They eventually gave into thirst and hunger. The Pawnees then fashioned a long rope, descended the rock, and quietly escaped.
A Fun Photo Opportunity
Less than an hour away is another site you’ll want to include on your itinerary. Carhenge may not be a geological wonder, but it’s undoubtedly an unusual photo opportunity! A replica of Stonehenge, it consists of 38 vintage cars all of them painted gray. While it lacks cultural significance, it is indeed a sight to see out on the Nebraska Highlands.
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1. Explore the Scenic Beauty of Unique and Unspoiled Landscape
Did you know that Central Nebraska is home to the largest area of sand dunes in the country? Strong winds shaped these hills. Precipitation then allowed grasslands to take root in the shifting sands and stabilize them. While traveling out here, you’ll encounter small towns, wide-open countryside, rolling hills, and horizons that appear to stretch out forever.
Stop at unique attractions like the Second Wind Ranch, home to the largest collection of standing windmills in the world. Then visit over 6,000 feet of honeycombed caverns at the Happy Jack Peak and Chalk Mine. It’s the only publicly accessible chalk room and pillar mine in North America. Be sure to take a covered wagon ride out to see the bison at the Hutchinson Buffalo Ranch. Make your stay even more adventurous by reserving a teepee or a sod house.
Relive the rough and tumble frontier days at Dobby’s Frontier Town. Visit a bootlegger’s cabin, peek inside a baled straw house, and shop the mercantile while you’re there. Then experience a working cattle ranch at the Arthur Bowring Sandhills Ranch State Historical Park. Learn more about the extraordinary political careers of the Bowrings as well. Arthur was a state legislator and his wife Eve was the first Nebraska woman to enter Congress.
The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge offers great opportunities for viewing sandpipers from the higher grasslands. Take great care when driving the sandy trails around the refuge. Always carry water and a tow rope.
Featured photo by: Shutterstock
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