Tthis is the latest installment in our series on underrated destinations, It’s still a big world.
Let’s be realistic. When was the last time a friend of yours called you to tell you about their epic trip to Nebraska? Chances are it never happened.
Nebraska is rarely included in travel features, and is often overlooked for its more popular neighbors (I’m looking at you, South Dakota and Colorado!). Don’t get me wrong, I love both of these states and I’ve even written about epic South Dakota cycle touring and life-changing forest swimming in Colorado for The Daily Beast, but I’m on a mission to explore all 50 states, including the less popular. The current COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a good time to visit less crowded states with plenty of outdoor activities, so Nebraska has made its way to the top of my list.
For all those Nebraska residents offended by my characterization of their state, I want to point out that in 2018, Nebraska State Director of Tourism John Ricks admitted that the state was consistently classified as “the Least Likely State “that tourists planned to visit. As a result, they rolled out a new slogan: “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone, ”mocking Nebraska’s reputation for being a little boring, while also highlighting activities and natural landscapes that aren’t typically associated with the state (think waterfalls, woodlands and rock formations).
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The Nebraska ad campaign focused (and continues to focus) primarily on visitors from neighboring states, not New Yorkers, so until a few months ago I, too, associated the so-called “Flyover” to little more than football and agriculture. Despite my ill-informed assumption, I booked a rental car – which is mandatory for exploring anywhere in this part of the country – and started planning my adventure.
Arbor Day Foundation
As soon as I crossed the border between South Dakota and Nebraska, I was greeted with a large welcome sign that read “Nebraska … the good life … Home of Arbor Day.” Wait what?
Aside from, perhaps, getting a small tree seedling in elementary school each April, most Americans, including myself, haven’t had much interaction with the Foundation. Arbor Day. Most would also be surprised to learn that Arbor Day was founded in Nebraska and that Arbor Day Farm is a landmark with 260 acres of wooded hiking trails, tree orchards, and historic buildings. There is also a treetop village connected by walkways and mesh bridges which the staff assured me single adults could explore without children.
Arbor Day Farm is a great day trip from Omaha, but you can also spend the night at the beautiful Lied Lodge (the property’s main lodge), not to be confused with the Arbor Lodge, the 52-room mansion-turned-museum, owned by Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton. If the name sounds familiar to you, it’s because one of Morton’s sons founded the Morton Salt Company, which makes the adorable Morton Salt Mural in nearby Nebraska City a lot more logical.
Explore rural Nebraska
I spent most of my trip in rural north-central Nebraska, in and around Cherry County’s largest city, Valentine, population: 2737. Valentine is a great base for day trips. a day at nearby state parks, wildlife refuges, McKelvie National Forest and Merritt Reservoir, which offers excellent stargazing. I would also recommend heading to the nearby town of Cody, where you can have a vinegar tasting at George Paul Vinegar, one of only two American vinegar distilleries that produces vinegar in the classic tradition of barrel fermentation. Of wood.
After visiting several state parks in and around Cherry County, I quickly learned that Nebraska state parks are best liked by those who subscribe to a BYOB: Bring Your Own Boat policy. While some hiking trails exist (Smith Falls Park has a short hike and a pretty waterfall), Nebraska state parks have a heavy focus on boating and fishing. Unless you have a boat – in which case I would love to join you on your next trip – you may want to look to local outfitters to arrange a kayak, canoe, or tube excursion along of the Niobrara river. Many outfitters organize day trips and transportation from Valentine’s Day.
In Valentine Town, grab one of their Heart City self-service bikes and ride the Cowboy Trail, a former railroad track turned into a bike and pedestrian trail. True to the tradition of sharing bikes, bikes are heavy and clunky, but they’re definitely the best way to enjoy the trail. I had hoped to rent a real road bike from Valentine, but a Google search for “Valentine Nebraska bike shops” yielded an unnecessary list that only included two gun stores and a hardware store.
Stargazing is becoming an increasingly popular pastime for city dwellers keen to escape the exhaust fumes, noise and crowds, but the stargazing destinations that attract the most attention also draw the largest crowds. The Nebraska Star Party, which began in the early 90s, is one of the oldest stargazing festivals in the world and the area that hosts the party, the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, is in the process of applying. to become an official dark sky. Preserve. Given the state’s low profile and the fact that the region does not yet appear on official Dark Sky Preservation lists, crowds are still very small.
During the Perseid Meteor Shower craze in mid-August, I set up camp at the “primitive” Snake River Area campground (where the annual Star Festival is held), in hopes of meet dozens of other astronomers. On a crystal-clear Sunday night, with the Milky Way in full view and at least a dozen meteors shooting through the incredibly dark sky, only two other campers were there to witness it with me. I should note that the RV campground four miles away was completely full, but in our quiet little corner of the woods all you could hear were crickets and coyotes.
Speaking of crickets and coyotes, Nebraska is also a great destination for wildlife enthusiasts, especially bird watchers. Each March, approximately 600,000 sandhill cranes make a stopover in Nebraska on their annual migration to warmer temperatures in Central and South America. The birds travel along the Central Flyway, and their month-long stopover in the Central Platte River Valley, Nebraska has been described by National Geographic as “one of the last great migrations.”
Wildlife viewing is available year-round in Nebraska and Cherry County, you’ll also find the Valentine Wildlife Refuge and Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, which are home to bison, elk and grassland chickens, between other animals. Each refuge’s wildlife loop routes are heavily geared towards road travel – and a great option for travelers with limited mobility – but if you want a good hike, the 2,100-acre Fontenelle Forest in Omaha is a great choice.
The forest is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Omaha, but the dense foliage and intricate network of trails would make you think you’re in the middle of nowhere. Some of the trails are ADA compliant sidewalks with comfortable benches, while others are sturdy, low maintenance treks that would absolutely benefit from better signage. Either way, you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter wild deer and turkeys, not to mention the eagles, hawks, and owls that are part of the nature centre’s raptor recovery program.
Omaha is much cooler than you think
Almost all cities operate differently due to the pandemic, and Omaha is no different. Its open-air concerts and festivals have been replaced by virtual events and quieter streets, but the Old Market entertainment district remains the best place to dine, have a drink or browse quirky and eclectic shops. Omaha’s bike sharing system is quite extensive (stretching around town and down the Missouri River to western Iowa), making it a great way to explore the city.
My first stop in Omaha was the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, but since I didn’t make an appointment for a private tour, I was only able to visit the historical marker of his birthplace. The foundation hosts virtual and in-person events – ranging from chats with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, to music festivals and community yoga classes – so be sure to check their schedule before your visit.
Omaha has a mask mandate that just about everyone in the city seems to comply with so many of their art, culture and history museums have reopened to the public with limited hours. Although Omaha did not experience a COVID-19 outbreak during my visit and I feel safe exploring the city, I still decided to skip the museums and indoor attractions and, at the instead, to focus on outdoor activities.
One of Omaha’s main attractions is the Omaha Zoo, which is regularly rated as one of the best zoos in the world. The zoo recently launched an awesome “Late Nights at the Zoo”, adults-only, where visitors 21 and over can explore the grounds without children, drink wine and beer, and dine on a dozen food trucks. spread throughout the zoo. As this is a warm weather affair, the zoo is announcing that it will resume events in the spring of 2021. Pro tip: Walk past the Lauritzen Gardens before / after the zoo as it is only a short walk away. ‘within minutes.
Nebraska deserves several visits
I usually try to structure my trips so that they are long enough that I can see enough destinations and attractions that I am okay with not coming back. Remember, I am on a mission to visit all 50 states! I spent 8 days in Nebraska and it just wasn’t enough so I’m already planning a kid-friendly return trip with my family next year (assuming it’s safe to travel then). While I plan to visit every Omaha museum that I skipped on this trip (at the top of the list is the Durham Museum, a National Historic Landmark located in an art deco train station), nature will be, again a times, central to my journey.
With climate change wreaking havoc on animal populations around the world, and the future of air travel and long-haul flights, literally and figuratively “in the air”, it seems to me the time is right for to witness a massive migration of birds in my country. Even though I hope you all join me, I also hope you don’t, so I have the experience for myself alone. Remember, Nebraska is not for everyone.
Cassandra Brooklyn is a writer, travel expert and group leader. She runs EscapeNY, travel agency off the beaten track and author of the guide Cuba by bike.
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