Who doesn’t love a good road trip? You don’t have to go too far from Omaha to have a fun getaway. I’ve collected some of my favorite Midwest destinations for this post to give you a variety of options near and far. All road trips from Omaha on this list are within a day’s drive, and most are much closer than that. Happy travels!
COVID-19 update: Current CDC guidelines advise against all non-essential travel. But if you do decide to travel, please keep in mind things have changed. Double-check your destination to make sure 1) you’re not traveling to a hot spot; 2) it’s even open and what the new hours may be; and 3) the activities you want to do are still running.
Road Trips From Omaha
These getaways are just a car ride away. Read on for destinations to consider for your next overnight or weekend trip.
Home to one of my favorite places to hike in the Loess Hills of Iowa, Honey Creek is my go-to destination on a sunny weekend day. Hike at Hitchcock Nature Center, visit the goats and try goat yoga at Honey Creek Creamery, or try the zipline at Mount Crescent Ski Resort (or if it's winter, you know, go ski there).
Tip: Don't skip the visitor's center at Hitchcock Nature Center. It's full of interactive exhibits for kids. In the winter, you can rent snowshoes there. It's next to the lookout tower.
Home to the Sarpy County Fair in the summer and just south of Omaha, Springfield is an easy day trip for Omaha families. I usually pair a visit to Springfield with a trip to a nearby state park. You could visit Louisville SRA for water time at the beach and inflatable obstacle course and end the day at the old-fashioned soda fountain at Springfield Drug for ice cream. Or, hike Schramm Park and then sip the afternoon away at Soaring Wings Vineyard & Brewery.
Tip: Soaring Wings often has live music, especially on the weekend. Pack a picnic and lawn chairs, and then buy a bottle of wine to enjoy an evening overlooking the vineyard.
Enjoy a mix of history and nature on a visit to Ashland, Neb. Exit 420 off Interstate 80 will take you to three of the state's big attractions: Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, Wildlife Safari Park, and Mahoney State Park. Just beyond those attractions, you'll find Platte River State Park (look for the waterfall!).
If you're visiting in the summer, Mahoney State Park offers a full day of activities, including horseback trail rides, an aquatic center with a wave pool and water slides, and putt-putt golf.
Tip: Ashland is home to two great wineries. My favorite, Glacial Till, has a tasting room on the main street of town. Try the cider.
It doesn't matter the season, Nebraska City is a favorite day trip for my family. We'll spend a few hours at an apple orchard like Kimmel, and a few more hours at Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure. You can also tack on a visit to Arbor Lodge to explore the historic mansion.
Tip: Have a blast exploring the Treetop Village treehouses tucked inside the Tree Adventure.
Most Nebraskans make the trek to Lincoln at least once, if only to attend a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Huskers football game. The city has a college town feel to it, with affordable local restaurants, charming shops, and plenty of museums.
Learn about Nebraska's unique history and see giant Mammoth fossils at Morril Hall. If traveling young kids, a stop at the Lincoln Children's Zoo and Lincoln Children's Museum is a must.
For such a small town, Brownville packs in a lot of history and arts. Bookstores, galleries, and one excellent winery can found in the town of a population just over 100, as well as a vibrant seasonal music and theater scene.
Tip: Brownville is pretty close to Indian Cave State Park, which has horseback riding, great hiking trails, and an interesting little living history area.
For a relaxing lake getaway, Lake Icaria near Corning, Iowa, is a well-known secret to Omaha families. This is the place for fishing and water fun in the summer. The cabins are affordable, but RV and tent camping is also available.
Tip: Food trucks stop by on the weekends, seasonally. We lucked out and found a barbecue truck on the Saturday we were there.
Sioux City has two of my favorite things: A gorgeous state park in town, and museums. Stone State Park has wonderful trails and is near the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, which has a great nature playscape. For museums, families with young kids will want to go to LaunchPAD Children’s Museum. Art lovers should check out the Grant Wood corn room at Sioux City Art Center. And music lovers should check out the memorabilia scattered throughout the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Tip: Don't leave without a visit to Palmer’s Old Tyme Candy Shoppe, home to the Twin Bing.
Indoors or outdoors, Des Moines has a lot for young (and young at heart) to enjoy. Favorites of my family include the Science Center of Iowa, Adventureland, and Living History Farms.
Tip: One location of my favorite Des Moines restaurant, Fong's Pizza, is within walking distance of the science center. If you time it right, the large Des Moines farmer's market takes place in front of Fong's too in the summer.
Boone is your winter and summer destination for activities, and the Hotel Pattee in Perry is where you'll want to stay. We've been to Boone in the summer to wander around the beautiful Ledges State Park and ride on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. In the winter, we had a blast skiing and tubing at Seven Oaks Recreation.
Tip: Hotel Pattee's rooms are all themed, and you can request specific family suites with fun themes.
My family has had many great adventures to Kansas City, from wild rides at Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun, to hours on end spent at Science City and Nelson-Atkins Art Museum. Oh, and the barbecue is pretty tasty too!
Tip: The City Market is a lively year-round farmer's market that's free to explore. While there, stop at the Steamboat Arabia Museum, another free attraction.
I found Excelsior Springs more of a couples or friends getaway than a family destination. Why? The gorgeous Elms Hotel has a fantastic spa with a grotto where you'll just want to relax the hours away.
The hotel is within walking distance of two great stops: A great barbecue joint that offers live music on some summer evenings and the excellent microbrewery, Dubious Claims Brewing Co.
Tip: There are a couple of wineries near Excelsior Springs, including Van Till Family Farm Winery. Order one of their artisan pizzas and a bottle of wine and grab a table on their covered patio for a low-key date.
I have so many childhood memories of canoeing the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. This calm river flows through some scenic cliffs that will surprise you, plus the state's famous Smith Falls. I dare you to stick your head in the falls!
This is a popular river for tubers and can take on a bit of a rowdy, party atmosphere on some weekends. Which may or may not appeal to you.
Tip: Valentine is one of the closest cites to use as a homebase. Alternatively, outfitters often offer campsites along the river.
A collection of interconnected lakes, you can have as relaxing or active of a getaway as you want. You want to waterslide into the lake at a waterfront bar? You can find it there. Want to sit on a beach by a firepit watching the sunset? There's a place for it.
Our favorite activities we did at Okoboji included a trip to historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park, a bike ride, kayaking, and playing at Dickinson Country Nature Center.
Tip: The Arnolds Park Funhouse Museum is home to the large wooden slide that used to be in the amusement park. You can take all the rides down you want if you have the day pass or just pay per ride.
Clear Lake is best known for the Surf Ballroom, the last place Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens performed. Once you explore the music history of the ballroom, now a museum, you've got to hit the lake and one of several sandy beaches around it.
Time your visit for the Fourth of July for a small-town celebration you won't forget.
Tip: Want a lakeside dining option? Try PM Park. We had a delicious breakfast indoors and then returned later during our trip to have lunch at the outdoor tiki bar. Yes, tiki bar.
Located along the Mississippi River and split between Iowa and Illinois, the Quad Cities are a getaway for families. We visited on a particularly rainy weekend, so we spent a fun weekend indoors at Putnam Museum and Science Center, the Family Museum, the John Deere Pavilion, and Figge Art Museum, which has a wonderful space for hands-on art activities for kids.
Tip: There’s a surprising amount of hands-on opportunities at the hidden gem, Fryxell Geology Museum, in Rock Island, Ill. And, bonus, it's free.
As much as I want to tell you all to go to Decorah for the outdoor experiences, the awesome dining there almost trumps the outdoors. I know!
OK, first the outdoors. Bike, climb a little waterfall, or kayak down one of the most scenic rivers in the Midwest. For food, get a taste of the Norwegian cuisine the city is known for at Ruby's or have delicious wood-fired pizza on a farm where the ingredients were grown and raised (experience it at called Luna Valley Farm).
Tip: Decorah is home to microbreweries that bring in beer aficionados from around the Midwest, including Toppling Goliath. I particularly enjoyed having a beer after a long bike ride at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co.
If all my destinations could be as bike-friendly as the Twin Cities, I'd be a happy mama. One memorable place to bike around the park at Minnehaha Falls. Indoor fun includes Can Can Wonderland, Science Museum of Minnesota, and the hidden gem, the Bakken Museum.
Oh, and there's a little place called Mall of America. Perhaps you've heard of it.
Tip: One of my all-time favorite brewery experiences was at Surly Brewing Co, where we had dinner and beer with friends. The large brewery is surprisingly family-friendly and if the weather is nice, you can enjoy the immense patio and green space.
Perhaps you remember old family trips to Mount Rushmore, with a stop at Evans Plunge, the indoor water park that uses mineral water from nearby thermal springs. It's still open after all those years (with several updates) in Hot Springs!
Hot Springs is a less touristy stop in the southern Black Hills. Nearby, visit Mammoth Site is a must-visit.
Tip: Hot Springs is a short drive from two beautiful parks, Wind Cave National Park (10 miles away) and Custer State Park (20 miles away). Don't skip Sylvan Lake and the begging burros at Custer!
It's the quintessential summer experience: Road trip to Mount Rushmore. Head straight there or make stops along the way, as we did on our exciting western Nebraska and South Dakota road trip.
We explored everything from the fascinating Toadstool Geological Park in Nebraska to Reptile Gardens in Rapid City. Other stops on this road trip included Wall Drug, Badlands National Park, Mammoth Site, Chadron State Park, and Fort Robinson. It's a long trip and the distance below doesn't factor in the extra stops.
Tip: Everyone has to stop at Wall Drug, if only for the photo ops, right? While you're there, don't forget to order one of their fresh donuts.
Distance: 545 miles to Mount Rushmore
Find more inspiration for road trips
Sky’s the limit on these bucket list for Midwest destinations:
Disclosure: The Hot Springs tourism office provided complimentary admission to Mammoth Site of Hot Springs for me and my family. All opinions and thoughts expressed here are my own.
I’ve never had more than a passing interest in dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. But ever since I read about Hudson-Meng Bison Kill site in Nebraska, my interest was piqued on major archeological digs in the Midwest. What would it be like to see a massive dig site in person?
More than 60 Columbian and woolly mammoths have been identified there, as well as a number surprising (to me) fossils of camels, llamas and giant short-faced bears, to name just a couple here.
What to expect
Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief: It’s in a climate-controlled building (AKA air-conditioned).
You’ll want to take a tour, which includes a short film in the beginning and a guided walk around the “in-situ” exhibit (fancy talk for bones being on display as they were discovered).
You get headphones to wear so you can hear your guide. My 3-year-old hated them with a passion.
Photography is allowed, but you’re encouraged to wait until after the tour so that you don’t miss whatever the guide is showing next. It’s so tempting, though, to want to snap photos in the moment.
After the tour, you’re free to roam, then proceed to the next door. It’s full of interesting replicas, including a mammoth model and a walk-in mammoth bone hut. There’s a gift shop full of books, stuffed animals and apparel.
We lucked out and saw Mammoth Site Excavation Committee members at work during our visit. However, the people who timed their visit about 30 minutes after us missed them during their lunch break. Time your visit around the noon hour.
There picnic tables for lunch time, if you packed accordingly. The tables aren’t far from an outdoor work site.
Near Mammoth Site is the restaurant Woolly’s Western Grill. It’s a kid-friendly place to get a bite to eat.
Bringing little ones here
My kids are 3 and 5, so not exactly at the grade levels that have been studying any of this in school. That said, they’ve at least read “Magic Treehouse” books and know a thing or two about woolly Mammoths and other prehistoric creatures, so they’ve got that going.
My 3-year-old daughter, Mooch, lost interest early on in the tour; our 5-year-old fared better. The tour guide provides a lot of facts, but there’s very little hands-on things to keep the truly young interested.
I think one of the best options for families with little kids is to register them in one of the kids activities offered there – in the summer, there are two types of junior paleontologist classes, which sound like the perfect hands-on learning my kids would like; unfortunately, it didn’t fit with our travel schedule. There’s also an Atlatl Throwing Experience that sounded intriguing.
If you go
Mammoth Site of Hot Springs
Where: 1800 US 18 Bypass, Hot Springs, South Dakota
Hours: Open year-round, hours vary depending on the time of year. Details
Cost: Adults (13+), $10.14; seniors (60+), $8.29; kids (4-12), $7.37; kids 3 and younger, FREE. Summer classes are $10-$20.
Hot Springs, South Dakota, is one of the southernmost cities of the Black Hills, and one that attracts tourists for a couple reasons. The big draws are Mammoth Site and Evans Plunge.
It’s a small town that feels less touristy than many others in the region. Mr. Wonderful and I marveled at the castle-like appearance of some buildings, thanks to the interesting sandstone architecture throughout the town.
There’s also a neat waterfall along a trail that passes through town.
So if you have a budding paleontologist in the family or just want to cool off in a big pool, you may find yourself in Hot Springs.
Disclaimer: My family was provided a complimentary stay at Hills Inn in order for me to write this review. All opinions are my own.
Where to stay
Hot Springs Hills Inn invited my family to stay two nights while we explored the area. Hot Springs was a town I had on my itinerary on because I wanted to take the kids to Mammoth Site, and because it was close enough to Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park. It was a nice homebase for exploring the southern region of the Black Hills.
About Hills Inn
If you search customer-rated sites on attractions or lodging, you’ll find The Hills Inn as one of the top ranked options in Hot Springs, if not the top one. The Hills Inn is a family-run motel with a small outdoor pool and a putt putt golf course connected on site (which is FREE to motel guests). Wally greets the guests at the front desk, he’s a friendly guy.
As far as motels go, this is as clean as I’ve ever seen them, with a few extra amenities I don’t expect from a motel, like the FREE breakfast. Running from 6:30 to 9 a.m., there is a small assortment of items from fresh fruit and cereal, to bagels and toast…and my kids’ favorite, chocolate donuts.
We took advantage of the breakfast during our stay, bringing our plates, orange juice and coffee to a table poolside. There’s a small dining room off the lobby, as well.
The other amenities I thought were nice touches: A 40-inch TV, a refrigerator and microwave. Plus FREE putt-putt which I mentioned earlier. Nice, huh?
It’s super near Mammoth Site and Evans Plunge. Further afield is Wind Cave National Park (I’d guess about 10 minutes away) and Custer State Park (30 minutes).
Hot Springs’ Freedom Trail is near the motel, and if you walk it, you’re about a mile or so from that waterfall I mentioned earlier.
If you go
Hot Springs Hills Inn
Where: 640 S. Sixth St., Hot Springs, South Dakota
There is a coffee maker in the room at The Hills Inn and there’s some included with breakfast, but you may want to venture out for a cup of joe. Hot Springs Coffee Kiosk was a pleasant surprise for me – good stuff.
As far as dining goes in town, you don’t have a lot of choices, but we were happy with what we did pick. All places were pretty close to The Hills Inn. We had dinner at Woolly’s Western Grill (located near Mammoth Site) and a post-Evans Plunge breakfast at Dale’s Family Restaurant (right across the street from it).
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Planning a trip to South Dakota and Western Nebraska? I wrote a series of posts and reviews of kid-friendly attractions, lodging and a photo-heavy trip recap. Check them out:
Evans Plunge is one of those attractions in the Black Hills that everyone seems to have been to as a kid. I mention it to several friends, and they each recalled a story from their childhood. Some remember the rocky bottom (the rocks are still there). Some mention how cool the waterslides were.
Disclosure: Evans Plunge provided a complimentary family pass for my family to visit. All opinions, thoughts and typos are my own.
My first visit was as a mom, so I don’t have that nostalgic recollection. My kids will someday.
This location isn’t in a natural setting of a hot spring, just so you know.
We went early one weekday morning, so we didn’t contend with other tourists save for one other family. Everyone at the pool at that time was local – kids in swim lessons or adults in exercise classes. It meant no lines for the slides.
Evans Plunge is a spring-fed water park of sorts – it’s mostly a large swimming pool with some fun features like kid-friendly water slide, three larger slides and Tarzan swings. The water is warmer than most pools because of the spring water – 87 degrees.
We got lifejackets at the check in for our beginner swimmers. They weren’t needed in the kid pool, which was 3 feet deep with a small frog slide. They were handy in the larger pool. There are also a couple tubes on deck to use.
The waterslides are definitely for big kids (and parents). I only went down one, and while it wasn’t scary fast or anything, I knew better than to ask my kids if they were interested in trying it out.
Since we were there early, I had to ask for the slides to be turned on. And because of the timing of our visit, the outdoor pool wasn’t open yet (it opens at 11 a.m.). But we enjoyed an uncrowded pool and no lines for anything.
You could easily spend an hour here, and likely more when you’re with kids. If you’re feeling the need for some strength training, there is a fitness center upstairs that’s included with admission. Need a snack or lunch? There is a small concession stand there, as well.
The great thing, I learned from one helpful lady at the pool, is that our wristbands are good for the whole day. You could leave to eat lunch, nap, whatever, and then return in the evening.
If you go
Where: 1145 N. River St., Hot Springs, South Dakota
Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 to 9 p.m.
Cost: $14 (ages 16+), $10 (ages 3-15), FREE (ages 2 and under). The 16+ price includes access to hot tubs, sauna and steam room.
Tips: Admission is 50% off if you visit within the last two hours of the day. You can get 10% off your admission if you bring a receipt showing that you’re staying at a hotel, motel or campground in Hot Springs.
Dakotah Steakhouse is one of those restaurants that gets high ratings on travel and food sites and you wonder, is it really that good?
Yes, yes it is.
This Rapid City, South Dakota, restaurant was located across the parking lot from our hotel during our recent stay. The city’s tourism office said it was a place I ought to check out, so they gave me a gift card and off I went with the family.
What to expect
This was the nicest place we dined at during our Western Nebraska/South Dakota road trip. While you may want to pack something a little nice to wear for dinner, it’s also in a city that attracts tourists, so you won’t be turned away if all you have are shorts, a clean shirt and flip flops. But, I felt more comfortable having changed out of my sweaty, touristy day clothes.
The restaurant has a lodge feel, with a huge fireplace and wood throughout. It was cozy though it actually was quite a spacious restaurant.
It’s the kind of place that you want to sit back and take your time, perhaps order a bottle of red. Which we did… but we couldn’t sit back and relax because the kids were with us. And it was taking too long for their food to get to the table and they were a ticking time bomb of impatience. Kids…
It is fairly kid-friendly. There is a kids menu and with some activities on it (for kids older than my own). However, it’s like any other steakhouse I’ve been to, in that it takes time to prepare the food.
It’s a great place for a date night, but come prepared to entertain your kids if you’re bringing them along.
What to order
Obviously, the steak is a big draw; it is a steakhouse. But we’re in South Dakota so you kinda have to try the buffalo, right? The buffalo served here is provided by local ranchers.
I was given great advice to try the buffalo skewers, which my whole family scarfed down. Get yourself some of that when you visit!
Entrees: I got a few recommendations of great dishes, from the walleye dinner to the buffalo ribeye, to the elk ravioli. I went for something I couldn’t find in Omaha, and got the ravioli – it was so good!
Mr. Wonderful ordered a KC strip, which the kids ate half of.
For sides, we both got the Three Sisters Soup, and I recommend that one. To come with my dish, I ordered asparagus wrapped in bacon, which is as good as it sounds, and Mr. Wonderful got mashed sweet potatoes. We ordered an additional side to share with the kids, fried macaroni and cheese, and it was hands down, the favorite.
Stuffed, we had no room for dessert.
It’s going to be more than most stops for a traveling family, that’s for certain, but most stops aren’t going to be at a steakhouse, amiright? If you splurge on one meal on your South Dakota vacation, you can’t go wrong here.
And get the buffalo.
If you go
Where: 1325 N. Elk Vale Road, Rapid City, South Dakota
Reptile Gardens in Rapid City was on a USA Today list for Top 10 Roadside Attractions. Roadside attraction?
It may have once been a roadside attraction capitalizing in people’s interest in snakes in 1937, but it has grown into a family-run, kid-friendly destination that educates as well as entertains.
The friendly owners of Reptile Gardens gave me a family pass to visit so I could tell you about the place. I’m glad we got to go and spend a few hours there – it was certainly one of my kids’ favorite stops.
Let’s talk animals
So, with the name Reptile Gardens, you know what to expect. You’ll get your snakes, alligators and lizards, as well as a menagerie of others.
The highlight for my kids (and me, I’ll be honest), were the tortoises. Park visitors are welcome to pet and touch the free roaming behemoths (and I use roaming loosely here, these guys are not speedy).
Hello, photo opportunities.
I could barely get Mooch away from them.
If you can get your kids away from the tortoises, head to the Sky Dome. The Sky Dome is home to a pretty tropical jungle with free-roaming parrots and other birds, hanging snakes and other creatures.
The dome building actually has three areas you’ll want to see.
Upstairs there are snakes – highly venomous ones if that interests your kids.
Some display windows were too high for young kids to see without some help. Some of these snakes are pretty rare – the rough-scaled pythons are the only ones in the world outside Australia.
On the ground floor, you’ll find gators and other creepy crawly things.
You’ll find Maniac in that area, a 16-foot saltwater crocodile that you’ll just have to see to believe. I couldn’t fit him into one picture.
Reptile Gardens has three animal shows. You can fit them all in during a three-hour visit, but it’s tight. They’re timed so that you can make it to the next one about 10 minutes before it starts.
Word of advice: Show up early for a good view.
The bird show was the most interactive, with a couple kids getting to go “on stage” and help with demonstrations. More than 20 species were part of the show.
The snake show was packed. The biggies, like the python, excited the youngsters in the crowd the most.
The big show of the place is the alligator show. Gator Arena has the most seating, which was needed. There were 37 alligators, crocodiles and caimans in the arena, most laying still in the water (yes, they’re real, the handler confirmed).
The highlight was the alligator wrestling.
The guy who did the alligator show also did the snake show and he was pretty funny. Hope you get him if you see a show here.
The show ends with kids being able to put a baby alligator.
Reptile Gardens has several photo opportunities, which you kinda expect from a tourist attraction, right?
They’re fun, though.
We can’t resist a good photo op.
There is also a playground, which isn’t too shaded so on a hot summer day, making it unbearable for parents. Kids love it, of course.
Which leads me to the next spot: A cool off room. It’s between the playground and the tortoises, so it was a nice stopping point for us to sit and, well, cool off.
Reptile Gardens also has a bald eagle exhibit, Prairie Dog Town, and Japanese Garden & Turtle Pond.
There are a couple places in Reptile Gardens to get a snack or full meal, or a drink, plus a massive gift shop.
Mooch would not leave without getting herself a tortoise, which she carried around with her the rest of the trip.
How does it compare to Omaha’s zoo?
It has more species of reptiles than our zoo – in fact, no other zoo or park in the world has as many species.
It’s not nearly as big, and the jungle in the Sky Dome doesn’t compete with our indoor rain forest. But it’s still pretty cool and you get a lot closer to some of the animals at Reptile Gardens.
During our visit, I learned Reptile Gardens has a working relationship with the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Keepers from our zoo come to Reptile Gardens to learn from the poisonous snakes expert – cool, huh?
If you go
Where: 8955 S. Highway 16, Rapid City, South Dakota
Hours: April 1 to Dec. 31, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in the summer (call for spring and fall hours)
Cost: Summer admission is $18, adults; $16, seniors; $12 ages 5-12; FREE ages 4 and under. Spring and fall admission is less (see here).
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