A Nebraska native, I hate to admit that in previous my 18+ years of living in Nebraska, I’ve barely left my little bubble of Omaha. I moved away from Nebraska when I was 18 years old to see the world, and it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I finally wondered, what is it that Nebraska has to offer? So I packed my bags and hit the open road heading to Western Nebraska with only one goal in mind. To answer the question, “What is there to do in Nebraska”?
As it turns out, Nebraska has a lot to offer! Driving from small town to small town and passing different Nebraska attractions, I finally realized how proud I am to be from the Midwest and what a special state Nebraska is. While you won’t find New York City style attractions, mountains, or beaches, you will find down to earth and friendly locals. Rolling green hills kissing bright blue skies on the horizon. Cows grazing, hay bales scattered throughout fields, and beauty in the most minute of scenes. So buckle up because this trip to Western Nebraska is one for the books. (And a must-do especially if you’re in Omaha!)
How to Spend 2-Days in Western Nebraska
If you drive from Omaha to Western Nebraska the drive can seem long (7+ hours) and dull at times. The key to a successful road trip through Nebraska is to break it up by stopping in small towns, seeing bizarre Nebraska tourist attractions, and taking the scenic way even if it means adding on more time. Below you’ll find my exact road trip itinerary so that you can recreate it for yourself.
Day 1 – Minden + Broken Bow + Alliance
Highlights: Pioneer Village, Sandhills Journey, Carhenge
As you begin your Nebraska road trip make sure to dress comfortably, the first day consists of a lot of driving until you reach Western Nebraska. You’ll begin your journey by heading west towards Minden, a small town in Nebraska home to approximately 3,000 residents. From Omaha, it will take approximately 2.5 hours until you reach the Pioneer Village.
If you’re looking for road trip tips, make sure to check out 6 Solo Road Trip Tips, How to Have an Epic Road Trip When You’re Alone (these tips also apply to group road trips)
Stop 1: Pioneer Village – Minden, NE
The Pioneer Village is a time warp of how America came to be. Harold Warp began to create and build the village in 1953 to show younger generations our nation’s history. This village is composed of 28 different buildings on 20 acres with a collection of 50,000+ artifacts. As you move through the museum you learn about the history of transportation, how people got around in wagons, horseless carriages, cars, and finally planes. You will learn about different ways in which people got their groceries, how people dressed, and even how houses changed from the 1800s to the 1900s. There is a school to tour, a house to tour, a train station to tour, and more. If you’re interested in learning about history, I highly recommend stopping here. Expect to spend at least 2 hours to get through everything and more if you have the time.
Entrance to the museum is $14 for adults, $7 for kids, and free for children under 5. There is no food or drinks sold in the village but food options nearby include Runza, Subway, and Pizza Hut.
Stop 2: Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway – Beginning in Broken Bow, NE
From Minden, you’ll drive an hour and a half northwest to Broken Bow, Nebraska where you’ll begin the most beautiful drive in the state, the Sandhills Journey. This journey is one of the most open and limitless landscapes in the nation. The Nebraska Sandhills is a mix of grassy prairies and dunes covering the north and west part of Nebraska. The dunes were created by strong winds during the last ice age. Grassland plants began taking root in the sand but not trees; eventually, the grass stabilized the dunes which is what we see today. While the soil is unsuitable for crops, ranching is popular in this area thanks to the invention of the American windmill and barbed wire. This journey will take you from Broken Bow where you’ll find a tourist information center about the Sandhills to Alliance by Highway 2. (Note that the Sandhills Journey truly begins in Grand Island and goes to Alliance, stretching 272 miles).
As you drive on Highway 2 west towards Alliance, you’ll notice vast stretches of open land with cows grazing, tractors plowing by, and lush green hills that kiss the blue sky on the horizon. The journey to Alliance is about 3 hours where you’ll drive on open roads passing through small towns along. There are plenty of opportunities to turn off and admire the landscape or depending on the time of day, watch the sunset behind the horizon. Take your time and enjoy this beautiful landscape, I highly recommend this drive even if it means you’ll be spending more time in the car. After all, the Sandhills Journey is quite famous and draws a lot of people to the state each year. It’s one of those things in Nebraska that should not be missed.
Stop 3: Carhenge – Alliance, NE
After the 3+ hour journey through the Sandhills, you’ll pull into Alliance, Nebraska, population 8,000+. At this point, you’ve driven nearly 7 hours and will more than likely be pulling into Alliance come nightfall. I’d recommend staying for dinner and finding a hotel before beginning back on your journey west the next day.
While you’re in Alliance make it a priority to stop at Carhenge. One of the most bizarre Nebraska sightseeing monuments is located in this small town and is built to resemble Stonehenge in England. The sculpture was built by Jim Reinders, from Alliance, who currently lives in England and studied Stonehenge. He built the sight in 1987 from vintage automobiles as a memorial to his father. Since 2006 a tourist information center has been built outside of Carhenge where you can buy kitsch souvenirs and learn more about the sculpture. Entrance to Carhenge is free and while there is a sign outside saying that it isn’t open at night, no gate or fence surrounds Carhenge giving you access at any time of the day.
If you’re planning to stay the night in Alliance and you’re looking for dinner suggestions I recommend the Mexican restaurant, Mi Ranchito. For a hotel, the Holiday Inn Express.
Day 2 – Harrison + Gering + Bayard
Highlights: Toadstool Geological Park, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Chimney Rock
Now that you’ve made it this far, on day two of your road trip, there are even more things to see in Western Nebraska than what you saw on day one. Before leaving Alliance, make sure to check out Carhenge (mentioned above) if you didn’t see it the night before. If you already saw Carhenge, then you’re ready to hit the open road!
Tip: Before leaving stop at the grocery store Safeway to stock up on snacks and drinks! At your next stop there will be outdoor picnic tables with grills, so if you don’t want to eat fast food, make sure to grab lunch as well.
From Alliance head northwest, about an hour and a half, until you reach Toadstool Geological Park and Campground.
Stop 1: Toadstool Geological Park and Campground – Harrison, NE
Toadstool Geological Park is located in the Oglala National Grassland and named after its unusual rock formations resembling toadstools. Originally the land was volcanic before a river cut through forming a valley. This changed the land from semi-arid to plaine. Seasonal floods and volcanic ash would add new sediments before the layers were finally exposed by wind and water erosion. The toadstool like rock formations are created by wind and water, which erode the soft clay faster than the hard sandstone rock that caps it. It’s believed that the park is 30 million+ years old and that the first human visitors would have been in the 1800s.
At Toadstool, there is an easy 1-mile hiking loop that you can follow which will take you through the park while pointing out fossils and other interesting things about the park. There are also picnic benches and grills if you want to eat out of the car. Lastly, there are free restrooms available as well. Entrance to the park is $3, you put your cash in an envelope and stick it in a dropbox. There will then be a piece of paper you can put inside your car to prove you’ve already paid. If you want to camp overnight it will cost you $15.
Stop 2: Scotts Bluff National Monument – Gering, NE
Upon leaving Oglala National Grassland head south, approximately two hours, until you reach Scotts Bluff National Monument in Gering, Nebraska. Once you’re here you’re about as west as you can get with Wyoming being only 30-minutes further west. On a clear day, you can see Wyoming from the top of Scotts Bluff.
Of all of the cool things to do in Nebraska, Scotts Bluff National Monument is well known and should be high on your list. It’s greatly recognized for its historic significance that it played due to its location along the Oregon Trail. The 800-foot bluff was originally known as Me-a-pa-te, “hill that is hard to go around”. Today you can enter the monument free of charge and drive to one of the many scenic lookout points at the top. By choosing the “Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center” on your Google Maps, you’ll be able to walk part of the real Oregon trail, visit the visitor center, and drive to the top of the bluff. Once you’re parked at the top, there are short and easy hiking trails around the bluff.
After you’ve finished seeing Scotts Bluff, head into Gering and stop at the “fake town” created by one of Gering’s residents. Tom, the creator of this town, has essentially built an entire fake street front of stores and shops. You can find this bizarre and quirky street at 7th and S. But please be respectful, it is Tom’s property and he asks that if you want to be shown around that you call him and ask permission. His phone number can be found on signs near the gas station.
Stop 3: Chimney Rock – Bayard, NE
Upon leaving Gering, head 30-minutes east where you’ll reach Chimney Rock. Like Scotts Bluff, Chimney Rock also plays a significant role in history by being one of the main recognizable landmarks on the Oregon Trail. By spotting Chimney Rock, pioneer’s new that they were headed in the right direction. You can drive up close to the rock for free, and there is a short hiking trail allowing you to get closer.
Near Chimney Rock there is also a souvenir and gift shop at the start of the road leading to Chimney Rock. The area is called Pioneer Crossing and along with the souvenir/gift shop it has a campground, and a cabin to rent (from May-September). Ice cream, milkshakes, and simple food such as hot dogs and hamburgers are all sold at the shop. As mentioned, there’s also a small cabin you can rent for $60/night. The cabin doesn’t have WiFi or a toilet (you’d have to use the shop for that), but it has an incredible view facing Chimney Rock. You can find information on camping and renting the cabin here.
Once you’re done at Chimney Rock you have a couple of options as far as where you plan to stay the night. if you want more time in Western Nebraska or don’t plan to go back to Omaha quite yet, I’d recommend heading back to Gering to stay the night. Otherwise, if you want to tackle part of the 6+ hour journey home I’d recommend driving further east and staying the night in Ogallala.
If you’re planning to stay the night in Ogallala and you’re looking for dinner suggestions I recommend Urban Farmer Kitchen and Cocktails. For a hotel, the Holiday Inn Express.
Whether you visit Nebraska for your first time or you’re a Nebraska local, there are tons of things to see and do in this state that will amaze and entertain you. Growing up in Omaha, I had no idea what lied in my own “backyard” and my only regret is that I didn’t explore it sooner. When you visit Western Nebraska, you’ll learn about the rich history of the state and how America came to be America. This two-day road trip is easy and cheap, and there is no reason that we shouldn’t be giving Western Nebraska the attention that it so clearly deserves.
For more details and suggestions on this Nebraska road trip make sure to check out my Instagram page/highlight reel and search for #ppinnebraska or in my highlight reel, “Nebraska”