Those only familiar with the region near Nebraska’s largest cities in the east are for a surprise the first time they visit Western Nebraska. Hands down, the western side of the state’s most dramatic landscape and some of the most unique attractions. Here are my top recommendations for things to do and see in Western Nebraska.
Western Nebraska Attractions
Fort Robinson State Park
Where: Soldier Creek Road and U.S. Highway 20, Crawford, Neb.
History: The park has an Old West feel to it, since that's about the time the fort was built. Some of its unfortunate history, though, includes being the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the death of Chief Crazy Horse. It was also once a POW camp.
Fort Robinson became a state park in 1962.
Why visit: There's a reason this is USA Today once ranked it among the best family reunion spots. There's so much to do, so much space, and it's beautiful. You can stay in the park, sleeping where officers once slept. There are guided horseback rides and jeep rides through the scenic Pine Ridge landscape; summer rodeos and chuckwagon dinners; float trips and stagecoach rides; and I could go on.
For a more complete rundown on why the park is so wonderful, read my guide to Fort Robinson State Park.
Best time to visit: Summer, when the most variety of recreational activities are available.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site
Where: 9822 County Road 75, Bayard, Neb.
Why: Chimney Rock National Historic Site is quite possibly the state’s most recognizable landmarks. Find Chimney Rock in Morrill County in western Nebraska.
The land around Chimney Rock hasn’t changed much since pioneers on the the Oregon, California and Mormon trails passed by it (though now there is a visitor’s center). There are names etched in the rock, though don't expect to hike close enough to see any. This is one part of the state known for rattlesnakes.
Best time to visit: Year-round, though I highly recommend timing your visit for when the visitor's center is open.
Toadstool Geological Park and Campground
Where: Located near Crawford, Nebraska. From Crawford, drive to the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 2. Take Highway 2 north for 4.2 miles to Toadstool Road. Follow Toadstool Road for 11.4 miles to FS Road 902 and continue on Road 902 for 1.4 miles to Toadstool Campground.
Why visit: Other-worldly geological formation -- some shaped like toadstools, of course -- are the big draw, as are the fossil of animals that once roamed the area 30 million years ago (no fossil collecting allowed).
There are three trails to choose from, and even the easy trail is a little difficult...at least when you're hiking with small kids. There's a one-mile loop that takes you by a lot of the park's highlights and USDA Forest Service has created an informative brochure that can help you interpret what you see.
Best time to visit: Fall. I visited in the summer and it was as hot as Hades, and no shade. And I suspect spring rain showers would make the drive to the park difficult along the dirt roads.
Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area
Where: North of Ogallala, Neb., near U.S. Highway 26 and Nebraska Highway 61
Why visit: McConaughy Lake -- Big Mac or Lake Mac if you're into the whole brevity things -- is Nebraska’s favorite aquatic playground. The largest reservoir in the state is ideal for boaters and fishers. You'll find white sand beaches near Martin Bay, Arthur Bay, Sandy Beach and Cedar View entrances, as well as by the beach campgrounds.
Many visitors opt to camp or stay in a camper, because there are few hotel accommodations and rental prices are sky-high.
Best time to go: Summer and early fall (but can you really choose a wrong time to go to a lake?)
Petrified Wood Museum & Gallery
Where: 418 E. First St., Ogallala, Neb.
Why visit: Identical twins collected petrified wood over the decades (they have a great story) and learned how to create delicate and detailed pieces art out of pieces. Their collection is on display at this gallery, and it's an impressive site.
And if gorgeous, polished petrified wood doesn't impress you, then just go for the carved petrified wood art.
And it's free.
Best time to visit: Year-round (it's indoors)
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Where: 190276 Old Oregon Trail, Gering, Neb.
Why visit: Scotts Bluff is not just one of the most picturesque regions of Nebraska, it's also one of the most significant landmark for peoples from Native Americans to pioneers who traveled on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.
Plan on a stop at the visitor center before exploring. Among the top things to do at the National Monument is hiking the roughly 3-mile out-and-back Saddle Rock Trails; participating in a Ranger-led program in the summer; or driving Summit Road, the oldest concrete road in Nebraska and features one of only three auto tunnels in the state.
Best time to visit: Summer
Chadron State Park
Where: 15951 Highway 385, Chadron, Neb.
Why visit: Chadron's natural beauty can’t be beaten and that’s why you’d want to visit. The 972-acre park is nestled in a forest of tall ponderosa pines, with views of buttes in the distance. It looks nothing like we have in eastern Nebraska.
There are 100 miles of trails for bikers and hikers.
Best time to visit: Summer for the most programs and amenities available or fall for the changing leaves.
A few more western Nebraska attractions
Because I tend to focus on the outdoorsy stuff (with a gallery thrown in the list just to confuse you), I figured I ought to add a few more notable attractions that may appeal to the not-so-outdoorsy. The stays-indoorsy person, if you will.
So if you want some quirky attractions, some restaurants and some other unique spots, here’s the list for you.
Ash Hollow Cave & Windless Hill
Where: Ash Hollow State Historical Park, 4055 US-26, Lewellen, Neb.
Ash Hollow State Historical Park was an important stopping point on the Oregon/California Trail, with ruts from covered wagons still visible. Some of the park’s highlights include the preserved prehistoric cave dwellings, an old schoolhouse, and 9 miles of hiking trails.
There are two notable events held at the park each year:
- The Ash Hollow Pageant features outdoor performances telling stories taken from the diaries of pioneers traveling the Oregon-California Trail, live music, and a chuck wagon supper.
- Halloween at the Hollow is in October and includes wagon rides, trunk-or-treating, food and games.
Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse & Lounge
Where: 123 N. Oak St., Paxton, Neb.
Around since 1933, Ole’s is the kind of steakhouse that is equally fascinating to dine in, and terrifying. The stares from the 200+ big game trophies on the wall and all around you kinda makes you feel guilty.
Where: 2151 County Road 59, Alliance, Neb.
It’s referred to Nebraska’s answer to Stonehenge, and perhaps that paints just enough of a picture for you. Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge, but the quirky off-the-beaten path attraction uses old cars and trucks instead of rocks.
You may ask “Why?” The creator will reply “Why not?”
Sehnert’s Bakery & Bieroc Cafe
Where: 312 Norris Ave., McCook, Neb.
Nebraskans love their homegrown fast food restaurant, Runza, which serves a sandwich that is essentially a bieroc – beef and sauerkraut-stuffed bun.
One of the most famous places to get a bieroc in Nebraska (and not a Runza) is at Sehnert’s Bakery & Bieroc Cafe. The bakery is a James Beard Foundation 2019 American Classics Award Winner.
Where: 324 Chestnut St., Potter, Neb.
Home of the Tin Roof Sundae, Potter Sundry has been offering treats since 1916. Named for its tin ceiling, the sundae includes overflowing vanilla and chocolate ice cream scoops with chocolate and marshmallow sauce and nuts.
* * * * * *
Leave a comment, let me know! What’s missing from this list?