6 Off-The-Beaten-Path Destinations In Nebraska

Nebraska’s flat, they say. There’s nothing to see, they say. Guess what? Nebraska is home to hundreds of fun and interesting attractions, some along the interstate; some off the beaten path. To really see Nebraska, you need to get off the main roads and explore. You’ll find hills, trees, and amazing off-the-beaten-path attractions. Here’s a look at a few of them.

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Planning a road trip through Nebraska? Include stops to see these six off-the-beaten-path destinations, including Carhenge, Nebraska's Badlands, and the hometown of Johnny Carson. #Nebraska #USA #USATravel

Ashfall Fossil Beds

Where: Royal

Nebraska was once a Serengeti, with plush grasslands and ample watering holes for prehistoric mammals that roamed the land. With creatures, such as a saber-tooth deer and miniature horses and rhinos, the sight had to be amazing.

However, one day, hundreds of miles away, a volcano erupted in Utah and eventually covered the region with ashfall. Covering and killing animals’ food sources and contaminating the water, the animals eventually perished.

Go off the beaten path in Nebraska - Ashfall Fossil Beds State Hisortical Park
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Buried in underneath tons of ash and later rock and soil, the first fossil in the northeast Nebraska area was discovered in the early 1970s. Since then, Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park is open certain days May 1 through the second week of October and daily Memorial Day-Labor Day.

Visitors can walk along a boardwalk inside the Rhino Barn and watch paleontologists and interns dig for new fossils. As you tour the barn, you’ll see fossils of animals in the soil, only a few feet away from you. Children can “dig” for their own fossils in a play area near the visitor’s center.

Klown Doll Museum

Where: Plainview

What started as an innocent collection of clown figurines has grown into the world’s largest clown collection. The Klown Doll Museum in Plainview is home to everything clown-related, with a collection of more than 7,000 clown figurines, dolls, and paintings.

Quirky Nebraska - The Klown Doll Museum in Plainview
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Located in a former gas station and restaurant, the museum originally was located inside the Chamber of Commerce building. As you tour the museum, you’ll see rows and rows of trinkets featuring famous clowns, such as Emmett Kelly.

While the museum may not be for people fearful of clowns, for people who love the colorful characters, you’ll find yourself in clown heaven.

Tip: Since Royal and Plainview are about a 20-minute drive from each other, you may want to plan a visit to both spots.

Taylor Villagers

Where: Taylor

As you enter the village of Taylor, you may think the locals are a bit wooden. And, you’d be correct. The Taylor Villagers – life-size wood cutouts of people – have been scattered throughout the community, about a 90-minute drive north of Kearney.

Unique Nebraska destination - Taylor Villagers, life-sized wood cutouts of people
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

The public art project by Marah Sandoz, a local entrepreneur, seeks to attract visitors to Taylor. Park your car and walk around town, so you can visit local shops and stores as you take in the more than 100 “residents” posed in scenes depicting kids heading off to a fishing hole or a man standing beside his antique car. 

Johnny Carson’s Hometown

Where: Norfolk

Norfolk, in northeastern Nebraska, proudly proclaims itself the hometown of TV talk show star Johnny Carson. From a downtown mural chronicling his television career to a large exhibit at the Elkhorn Valley Museum, you can also stop by his childhood home.

Places to go in Nebraska - Johnny's Carson's hometown, Norfolk
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

The museum exhibit features a replica of his show’s set and the Emmy Awards he won – all donated by the star, himself. The museum also highlights the careers of other well-known Norfolk residents, including Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of “Tony the Tiger” and the holiday song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The museum also traces the lives of the Hall brothers, who went to create Hallmark greeting cards.

The Elkhorn Valley Museum also provides a look at the region’s history, from local Native American tribes to the invention of a 90-degree turning radius tractor. The museum hosts a series of special exhibits, such as one highlighting rock-and-roll bands from the state.

Toadstool Geologic Park

Where: Crawford

Nicknamed Nebraska’s Badlands, Toadstool Geologic Park challenges you to look at Nebraska the same way again. Formed through years of erosion, several rocks resemble toadstools, thus the name.

Go way off-the-beaten-path in Nebraska and visit Toadstool Geologic Park in western Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Hiking through the area can be physically challenging, but the park features three trails for visitors. A one-mile loop may be the best path for people seeking a memorable, but less challenging hike. The other trails are three- and five-miles long.

As you hike through the area, located in northwestern Nebraska as part of the panhandle, you will be amazed at the beautiful scenery and landscape. 

Carhenge

Where: Alliance 

An homage to the United Kingdom’s Stonehenge, artist Jim Reinders used old cars spray-painted gray to create Carhenge. Located just outside Alliance, in north-central Nebraska, the public art piece was built as a memorial to his father, who became interested in Stonehenge while studying in England.

One of Nebraska's most unique and quirky destinations: Carhenge in western Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Carhenge is part of a unique attraction, anchoring a park featuring other art pieces using automobiles and their parts. You’ll find a covered wagon, which is a station wagon with a Conestoga frame, and a bench made from tire rims.

As you travel around Nebraska to take in its unique attractions, remember that the best way to get to know the state is by getting off the main roads and checking out the off-the-beaten-path attractions.

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Looking for more things to do and see in Nebraska? Here are my favorite must-do summer adventures in Nebraska. And, you’ll need a place to stay while on your road trip, so check out these unique places to stay in Nebraska.

About the guest blogger

Tim Trudell is a writer/online content creator, who calls Omaha home. He started writing The Walking Tourists bog with his wife Lisa in 2011. Beginning with exploring their backyard of Omaha, The Walking Tourists expanded coverage to the Midwest, exploring places on and off-the-beaten-path.

Tim loves sharing stories about people and places in his native state of Nebraska. Tim’s stories of Omaha led to greater opportunities, including writing the books “100 Things to Do in Omaha Before You Die” and “Unique Eats and Eateries of Omaha.” A third book – “100 Things to Do in Nebraska Before You Die” will be published in April 2020. Tim is the primary author of both books, with Lisa handling social media and promotional efforts.

As a former community journalist for about 10 years, Tim’s background also includes working as a project manager and a team manager for telecom account managers. His love for writing led him back to the profession as a freelance writer. Besides travel, Tim enjoys writing about personal profiles, sports, military and veterans attractions, as well as minority issues and accomplishments.

Tim and Lisa have two adult children from his first marriage, as well as three cat kids – Gus, Lassiter and Shawn.

Tim is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Native American Journalists Association, American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, North American Travel Journalists Association and the Midwest Travel Network.

Venture off the interstate for these six hidden gems in Nebraska! See where the active fossil dig site is located, venture into a clown doll museum, and traverse Nebraska's Badlands. #Nebraska #roadtrip #Midwest

Exploring Platte River State Park In The Off-Season

On a recent cool, gray spring day, I took the kids to Platte River State Park in search of a waterfall.

Platte collageWM

I needed some fresh air and a change of scenery, and the kids needed some place to run and explore.

Farley poking around a fallen tree trunk.
Farley poking around a fallen tree trunk.

I can’t recall the last time I’d been to this park, if I ever had. I know now, we’ll be back.

We parked in the first lot by the park entrance, the sign “waterfall” in view. Off we went, following an easy, flat trail of dirt and bridges.

The start of the easy hike to the waterfall at Platte River State Park. I see my daughter has my patient look.
The start of the easy hike to the waterfall at Platte River State Park. I see my daughter has my patient look.

The hike to the little waterfall was not long and can be walked by the smallest of kids. Or ran as is usually the case.

Spring’s not quite here in Nebraska, but even with the gray surroundings, the park’s setting is remarkable this time of year.

Regardless of the season, I have a feeling this park is pretty year-round. It's pretty peaceful, at least.
Regardless of the season, I have a feeling this park is pretty year-round. It’s pretty peaceful, at least.

It’s peaceful and you feel very much like you have the park to yourself.  My kids and I enjoyed being silly on the trail.

You can hear the waterfall before you see it. The anticipation of exactly how big it will be grows.

Found the waterfall!
Found the waterfall!

OK, I’ll admit it’s no Smith Falls. The kids wanted to keep walking so we didn’t spend much time by it.

If you keep on the trail heading toward the river, you’ll encounter a steep climb. I let the kids lead and, naturally, they headed for the hill. It’s manageable for most abilities.

Going up, up, up on our loop hike at the Platte River State Park.
Going up, up, up on our loop hike at the Platte River State Park.

Once at the top, there’s a clearing with some campsites and picnic tables. You can complete a loop back to the trail to your parked car in under an hour easily.

I think we’ll be back once things are greener and warmer. The park has paddleboats I’d like to take the kids on, and certainly more trails to explore.

Platte River State Park meets the kids' approval.
Platte River State Park meets the kids’ approval.

Your turn: Have you been to Platte River State Park? Where do you recommend us exploring next?

Strategic Air & Space Museum With Children

Until recently, I figured the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska, just wasn’t my thing. I didn’t think aviation was my thing, and while space travel sounds exciting, I never felt motivated to visit the museum. Then I had kids. And it turns out that this museum is for people like me. It impresses me, actually.

But more importantly for this post – my kids enjoyed it there. A lot. As in, take off like they’ve been launched into space as soon as we get into the museum.

What to check out with kids?

Your first stop will likely be the Science Zone right by the entrance – or if your kids are especially wound up from the car ride, head to the hangers so they can run. And run. And run.

Our last visit was this winter and the Science Zone featured several activities, some more suited to my under-4 crowd than others.

Didn’t matter, they enjoyed watching big kids play, too.

Dominoes were tough for my littles to figure out but they liked watching the big kids make an elaborate path.
Dominoes were tough for my littles to figure out but they liked watching the big kids make an elaborate path.

The hit was the over-sized building blocks, though the kids also liked the weather map and rocket launcher. I think I disappointed the kids since I have very little mechanical ability – the rocket I helped them construct was a dud.

Launching - or at least trying to launch - their handmade rocket in the Science Zone.
Launching – or at least trying to launch – their handmade rocket in the Science Zone.

The museum features two large areas of full of aircraft, displays on uniforms and a lot of history. There’s an exhibit on astronaut Clayton Anderson that at least made my kids pause on their sprint around the museum. Enhance your visit by sharing some fun facts on the SAS website.

Strategic Air and Space 6

However, if yours are like mine, my kids were only interested in the planes they could climb in (can you blame them?). I’m pretty sure the kids didn’t even notice any signs.

"Roger that, Houston."
“Roger that, Houston.”

And the ride-on toys. And the bounce houses.

Naturally.

Bigger kids will like the simulation ride. That’s extra (as is the ride on toys and bounce houses. Naturally).

Many people like to pair a visit to the SAC Museum with some of the attractions nearby – Mahoney State Park and the Gene Simmons Safari. That’s fine, especially if you’re traveling from far. However, the museum itself is worth the trip by itself.

Kids love the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Nebraska.
Kids love the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Nebraska.

If you go

Address: Strategic Air & Space Museum, 28210 West Park Highway, Ashland, Nebraska

Hours: Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $12 for adults; $11 for 65+ and active/retired military; $6 for kids (4-12); free for kids 3 and younger and members

Food: There is a cafe on-site offering mini pizzas, hotdogs, chips, pretzels, that sort of thing

Thank you to the Strategic Air & Space Museum for providing two complimentary passes. All opinions expressed were my own.