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We Vacationed in Nebraska and Found More than Corn

We Vacationed in Nebraska and Found More than Corn

When you think of special vacation destinations, Nebraska probably is not on your list. I admit that I don’t think of Nebraska as a traveler’s Mecca. Yet, our family planned a road trip to Western Nebraska during fall break and found that there is more to Nebraska than corn.

Why a Nebraska Vacation?

Our trip grew out of a family vacation this summer to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We hate to take the same route coming and going on a road trip, so I often map out different routes or options. I considered dropping down to Nebraska after leaving the Black Hills. I found a couple of National Monuments to visit. However, in the end, we chose to take a different return route.

My son was disappointed that we did not go to the state and began to ask that we plan a trip to Nebraska. I decided fall break would be a good time (as long as it didn’t snow), and began plans.

Our kids love the National Park Service and look forward to collecting Junior Ranger badges at each park location (to find out more about the Junior Ranger program, check out our post here). Western Nebraska offered two NPS sites (Agate Fossil Beds National Monument and Scotts Bluff National Monument) in addition to one National Historical Site that is not governed by NPS (Chimney Rock National Memorial). Our itinerary was set for a quick two-day journey to these three sites.

You need to understand that Western Nebraska is sparsely populated. Scotts Bluff is the largest town in the region. Much of the time, we were driving an roads where we saw no traffic.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

At Agate Fossil Beds NM
It’s a tradition for us to take our picture in front of the NPS sign at each site we visit.

Our first stop was to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. The site was the most remote of our stops. The NPS’s website notes that there are no gas stations for 30-50 miles and sporadic cell phone service. We passed three cars on the 30-mile journey on the road to the monument.

The visitor’s center gives you a taste of what the area would have looked like during the Miocene Era.

Mammal fossils from the Miocene Epoch (20 million years ago) were uncovered in the 1890s and Agate Fossil Beds became a hotbed of paleontologist activity. The area was a savanna-like grasslands complete with a watering hole. When the land dried up, the mammals died. leaving their remains. You can see the remains of animals that resemble our modern-day pigs, gazelles, camels, and rhinoceros.

Bones, bones, bones

The park also contains a ranch house and the James H. Cook collection gallery, which preserves the cultural history of the Lakota people. There are two walking trails that are easy to moderate. One trail has a walking path that is accessible for wheelchairs.

Agate Fossil Beds farmhouse
Farmhouse on the Prairie

We enjoyed a nice picnic lunch at the park and walked some of both walking trails. The kids completed their Junior Ranger books and earned badges. We enjoyed the gallery and admired the Lakota artwork and learned about their history. While the park has a lot to offer in terms of leaning about the region and the Miocene fossils, there is little to do (besides the walking trails). We spent about two hours at the park, and the kids were ready to leave and go to our next destination.

Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Next up was a 90-minute drive to Chimney Rock, the iconic natural structure that was a landmark for more than 500,000 emigrants following the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail in the 1800s. Chimney Rock, though a national historic site, is maintained by the Nebraska Historical Society rather than the NPS.

Chimney Rock entrance
The kids at the Chimney Rock sign

The site has an interactive visitor’s center where our kids were immersed in the history of the 1800s wagon trains. They were able to load a wagon with sugar, water, rice, coffee, and other commodities. They learned about the pioneers who journeyed to Chimney Rock and beyond.

The famous rock
The photo area outside of the Chimney Rock Visitor’s Center is some distance away from the landmark

Outside the visitor’s center is a photo station where you can take pictures of the 300-foot-tall rock formation that has been immortalized on the U.S. Mint’s State Quarter series. We were disappointed with access to the rock. We were a distance from the rock and were unable to get the best pictures. I later read that there is a trail that allows closer access to the site that is a short drive from the visitor’s center.

Family Well Traveled visits Chimney Rock
Dad and son at Chimney Rock

While we learned about the Oregon Trail and the pioneers at the site, we would recommend that you find an off-road stop if you simply want pictures of Chimney Rock,

After this stop, we headed to our Hampton Inn Hotel in Scotts Bluff for an evening of swimming and rest.

Scotts Bluff National Monument

The next day, we got an early start at Scotts Bluff National Monument

The Bluffs were, after Chimney Rock, the second great landmark the wagon trains saw on their trek westward. More than 250,000 pioneers traveled through the pass on their way to Oregon. Today, the bluffs preserve the history of the pioneer and the Pony Express (which ran through the pass) as well as being a popular hiking spot. Scotts Bluff rises 800 feet over the North Platte River and the town of Scotts Bluff. The rock formations inspire photographers.

Moon at Mitchell Pass
Moon over the bluffs

The staff at the visitor’s center was helpful and accommodating to the kids. We were ushered into an auditorium where a Ranger told us the history of the Monument. He showed us the works of William Henry Jackson, a naturalist photographer and artist who was the first person to photograph Yellowstone. Outside the visitor’s center, you find a short trail with wagons and gorgeous views of Mitchell Pass.

visitors's center at Scotts Bluff NM
The Visitor’s Center at Scotts Bluff

You are able to drive up to the bluffs on a narrow, switchback road, which leads to some hiking trails and views of the North Platte River and surrounding countryside. From the top of the Bluffs, you can see Chimney Rock and some other rock formations that dot the Western Nebraska landscape.

Wagons Ho
Wagon at Mitchell Pass

The Monument is a must see for those interested in the western expansion of the United States or the outdoors person who loves hikes and mountain vista views. We spent about two hours at the site, but you could easily spend half a day exploring all of the monument.

Our Take

Western Nebraska was a surprisingly enjoyable vacation spot. The kids enjoyed Agate Fossil Beds and I enjoyed Scotts Bluff National Monument for its stunning scenery.  It is economical to visit the sites (Agate Fossil Beds is free, Chimney Rock is $3 for adults and free for children, Scotts Bluff is $5 for a non-commercial vehicle). Scotts Bluff has a number of hotels with very reasonable rates and a good number of restaurants and fast food options. We learned a great deal about the wagon trains and the Miocene era on the trip and enjoyed bonding as a family.

Have you visited Nebraska or these Monuments? What were your impressions or recommendations? Leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

 

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27 thoughts on “We Vacationed in Nebraska and Found More than Corn”

  • I love the idea of Junior Ranger Badges! I hadn’t heard of that before. I’ve definitely never considered a vacation in Nebraska, but it’s a good reminder that everywhere in the world has it’s own hidden gems!

    • The kids love the Junior Ranger program. And we love finding those off-the-beaten path locations. There is so much beauty to be found everywhere around the globe.

  • This post was amazing! I have been to Nebraska before and it is definitely worth the visit! I’ve only been to Omaha but all of these places look like something I need to check out! Thank you for sharing.

  • Way to spread some love for Nebraska. I actually have nothing but fond memories of my visit there. We were heading west, moving from Ohio to Washington, and had to stop for car repair in Lincoln. Long story short, they did a fabulous job and saved the trip. From there, we drove the Platte Valley headed out. They are great people out there and it’s super cool that your kids are so into the Junior Ranger program that they wanted to return. Safe travels to you all.

  • I have to admit, I’ve been building a folder with all the places I want to visit during a mammoth USA tour but Nebraska hasn’t been on this list because I didn’t think there was much to it, having read through this post, I may have to put it on just for the Agate fossil park . Thanks for this post, without it Nebraska wouldn’t have even made it to the thought process let alone the list haha

  • I have to admit, Nebraska isn’t the first state I think about when traveling through my own country. However, the U.S has so much beauty in its land that all of it would be great to explore. Definitely want to make it out there one day. Plus, by the look of your pictures it seems you got to enjoy the place without over crowding! Glad you and your family had a great time.

  • Nebraska isn’t somewhere I often think of visiting, but I also didn’t realize there were three national parks there. We did visit when I was a kid on a big family road trip, but the corn is the main thing to stick in my memory!

  • I know nothing about Nebraska or corn so this was an interesting read for me! The fossil park looks interesting as does the monument too. If I visit the US again, I’ll be sure to stop by here!

  • The midwestern states and west coast of the United States is next on my list to explore! There is such diversity across America is amazing what 10hours West offers in comparison to East of the Mississippi River!! Great post! Thank you for sharing what your kids liked on this experience! Cheers!

  • I love learning about new places and all I knew about Nebraska until now was its location on the map. Thanks for introducing a lesser-known destination. I’m already up for collecting some agate and checking out some cool fossils at Agate Fossils Bed National Monument!

  • I did not know about the Agate Fossil Beds, which seem very interesting to visit. I did not know that there used to be rhinos in the US. Will add it to my list when traveling the US!

  • I do not know why people rarely choose South Dakota as a travel destination. It’s wonderful and really peaceful there. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  • i heard Nebraska but not about it corn industry. What a way to experience a place thru their livelihood and agri-tourism. I will love to learn all about those things.

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