Road-Tripping Nebraska & The Dakotas: Exploring America’s Great Plains

Windmill on our Nebraska road trip

You may or may not know that this blog was started when yours truly was pursuing her 40×40 (40 countries by age 40, which I smashed by the way). And, to be honest, I’ve yet to establish another travel goal for myself. But the #AdventurePartnerForLife has—to visit all fifty states. And who am I to stand in the way of his goals, right? Now, I’ve already done all fifty, but there’s plenty to see and lots I haven’t seen in a long, long time, so… let’s go. And this is how we ended up road-tripping Nebraska and North and South Dakota. After this, the #AP4L only has two more states left—Oregon and New Hampshire. We got this.


An Ode to Prairie Dogs

Before we begin, it’s imperative I give a special shout-out to all the prairie dogs that made me so incredibly happy while road-tripping Nebraska and the Dakotas. So happy, in fact, we visited a random ranch store in the middle of nowhere to take a photo of a gigantic prairie dog statue. (Evidence further down the page.)

The locals will tell you how destructive they are, but I’m just going to act like I know nothing about that and let them fill my heart with joy. And I shall now share that joy with you with my prairie dog photo gallery.

Note: If you’re at all a fan of sheep, I have a sheep photo gallery, too, in my Faroe Islands post.

We may now continue…


Road-Tripping Nebraska & The Dakotas: Our Great Plains Route

Road-Tripping Nebraska-Dakotas Map Detail

Road-tripping Nebraska and the Dakotas was a little tricky, to be honest. Not difficult to drive, but not the easiest to plan. The states are big. And long. And most of the things to do are located at the west and east ends of each of them.

So, we literally drove the length of Nebraska, only to head north to South Dakota and drive the length of it to get up to Fargo. (You’ll see what I mean on the detail map below.) Sadly, we didn’t see more of North Dakota because… everything else was on the western side of the state. (Ran out of time.)

1—Flew into Omaha, NE. Stayed a day and toured.
2—Drove to Lincoln, NE. Stayed a day and toured.
3—Off to Scottsbluff, NE. Stops along the way.
4—Next was Custer, SD. Stops along the way.
5—Drove to Devil’s Tower, WY.
6—Over to Rapid City, SD. Stops along the way.
7—Badlands, SD. Stayed two days.
8—Up to Fargo, ND. Flew home.
Road-Tripping Nebraska-Dakotas Map

1. Omaha, Nebraska

It was either fly into Omaha or fly into Lincoln, so we opted for Omaha with a stop in Lincoln on our way west. (I can’t imagine road-tripping Nebraska without seeing both cities.) We were sure to have our traditional pre-flight libations before take-off and, well… who can forget that time a bunch of US mail services closed down right before an election?

Also, we ran into “Cannabis Amnesty Boxes” at O’Hare. I’ve yet to encounter these anywhere else, but I question anyone trying to stash some dank on a flight. Like… whut? Maybe people get confused with prescription weed or CBD, I dunno. (None of this takes away from the fact that I actually think these boxes are a good thing, by the way. Bravo to fewer marijuana arrests.)

Getting Around

The Omaha airport is small, but the car rental facility was in a building across the way. It was also late when we arrived, so they only had one person manning all the rentals in the garage. If you can believe it, all they had left were minivans, so we had to take what we got. (Jeff switched it out the next morning. We were not road-tripping Nebraska in a minivan.)

The Omaha airport isn’t at all far from downtown Omaha. Maybe fifteen minutes. And, while historic downtown is plenty walkable, it’s probably best to rent a car to get around the city itself. Parking is super easy, even downtown. I will say, though, that car rental costs at both Omaha and Fargo airports were exorbitant for some reason, so… fair warning.

Things To Do In Omaha, Nebraska

As we always do, we found plenty of things to see and do in the city of Omaha. We spent a couple hours at Lauritzen Gardens, which was just beautiful. The Old Market area was fun to walk around and the Bob Kerrey Bridge at night was great. (You can stand right on the Nebraska/Iowa state line!) The Museum of Shadows was quirky, but the prices were steep.

The birthplaces of Gerald Ford and Malcom X were just so-so. Sadly, Malcolm X’s site is literally just a sign. A hard-to-find sign. And we drove around Joslyn Castle, but didn’t go inside. It didn’t seem all that interesting to us when we got there.

• Birthplace of Gerald Ford• Durham Museum*• Lauritzen Gardens
• Birthplace of Malcolm X• Historic Main Street• Museum of Shadows
• Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge at night• Joslyn Castle• Old Market & Passageway

*Note: We didn’t have time to tour the Durham Museum, but it’s highly recommended.


2. Omaha to Lincoln, Nebraska

We officially started road-tripping Nebraska on Day 2! It seems strange to me that, in a state the size of Nebraska, the two largest cities are only an hour away from each other, but… they are. So, we drove one hour and spent the rest of the day touring Lincoln. Not at all sad we planned it this way because Lincoln was indeed a fun town.

Things To Do In Lincoln, Nebraska

Pioneer Park was fun and there was quite a lot to do there. Lots of trails and wildlife. Had we had a whole day just for that, we could’ve spent more time there. Sunken Gardens was really pretty; I definitely recommend. And, Historic Haymarket was probably the most fun of all. Lots to photograph, shops, restaurants, the works.

The University and State Capitol building were nice, but sort of just… there. And, Antelope Park was a total bust. People supposedly see apparitions by the band clamshell at the park and—not that I expected to see actual ghosts, obviously—but, I thought there might be more to see or do at the park itself, and… there wasn’t. Hard pass.

• Antelope Park (apparitions!)• Platte River State Park*• Sunken Gardens
• Historic Haymarket• State Capitol• University of Nebraska
• Pioneer Park Nature Center

*Note: Platte River State Park is actually between Omaha and Lincoln and has some baby waterfalls you can stop by.


3. Lincoln to Scottsbluff, Nebraska

The next day, we drove clear across the state of Nebraska to Scottsbluff, road-tripping Nebraska’s entire width. Now, Scottsbluff was just a stopping point for the night. And, we stopped at sights along the way on either side of it. I’ll be honest, there was not a whole lot in between Lincoln and western Nebraska, but western Nebraska itself is a true gem! (Seriously.)

If you’re in Nebraska in the spring, the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte River in the north central part of the state is supposed to be quite extraordinary. The migration is literally considered one of the world’s greatest migrations and 80% of the world’s Sandhill Cranes make an appearance. Just sayin’.

Things To Do On The Way To Scottsbluff, Nebraska

Day 3 was mostly driving, but we did make some stops along the way. We had a chuckle in Harvard, Nebraska where the city accidentally sold its Harvard Jail for $1.50 to a 16-year old. It’s not much, but it’s on the way. Had we not been driving all day, I would’ve 1000% done a couple hikes on Courthouse and Jail Rock, Chimney Rock, and at Wildcat Hills. Really cool, fun areas (albeit remote).

Prairie Peace Park was supposed to be a random house all about celebrating peace. But when we arrived, it was literally a burnt hole in the ground. Seemed like a fair assessment of the current state of affairs…

• Chimney Rock• Harvard Jail• Stuhr Museum*
• Courthouse & Jail Rock• Prairie Peace Park• Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area

*Note: We stopped by the Stuhr Museum on Grand Island, but alas, it wasn’t open. It’s literally a museum on its own little island, devoted to pioneer life. There are a lot of pioneer references in this part of the United States, by the way.


4. Scottsbluff, Nebraska to Custer, South Dakota

There was truly nothing boring about this particular day of our itinerary. We worked our way north from western Nebraska to a small town in southwest South Dakota called Custer. Had lots of stops along the way.

Just like the prior day, if I’d’ve known better, I might’ve scheduled an extra day in this region to explore a little more in-depth. I would also recommend staying in Hot Springs over Custer. Hot Springs was only a few miles south and, while there was nothing wrong with Custer per se, Hot Springs just seemed a little more authentic and fun.

Things To Do On The Way To Custer, South Dakota

Where can you find a bunch of cars stuck in the ground Stonehenge-style? In northwest Nebraska. And, why not? It’s on the way! Fort Robinson State Park was cool. Learned all about the actual Buffalo Soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War.

The Oglala Grasslands (in Nebraska) and Buffalo Gap Grasslands (in South Dakota) are not so much stops as large swaths of area you’re driving through. And, if you pictured Nebraska to be rolling plains of grass, this would be the area you had in mind. Bison included, free of charge.

Last, but not least, Toadstool Geologic Park. Now, it took forever on a dirt road to get out to this place, but we didn’t regret it for a second once we got there. We even did a short hike on this one. And could’ve done more… with more time. Super cool rock formations in a really remote area. Forget a cell signal; you won’t have one.

• Buffalo Gap National Grassland• Fort Robinson State Park• Toadstool Geologic Park
• Carhenge• Oglala National Grassland• Wind Cave National Park*

*Note: Wind Cave National Park was 100% on our list, being the National Park lovers that we are. But, if you can believe it, the caves were closed—not due to the pandemic—but because the elevator was being repaired. Total bummer.


5. Custer, South Dakota to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

Another jam-packed day of awesomeness here. We’re doing a small loop of this area that includes Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming. Day 5’s itinerary is half the loop, and Day 6 is the second half of it, if that makes any sense. …Just look at the map. It holds all the answers you seek.

Things To Do On The Way To Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

Yes, today is the day! It’s the day we visited Mount Rushmore. And here’s my take on Mount Rushmore: You should probably go see it, but it’s not really all that interesting. In my humble opinion. But do go check that box. Crazy Horse Memorial is another carving in the mountainside nearby. It’s cool, but they’ve started charging an entrance fee since the last time I visited in… 1997. (#TrueStory.)

Needles Highway and the Needle’s Eye Tunnel are must-sees. And, you’ll catch the Thunder Basin grasslands on your way out to Devil’s Tower. While Devil’s Tower is pretty cool, there’s not much else around it. It’s another thing you kind of look at and leave. But you can do some hikes around it, I guess. Pretty area. Lots of prairie dogs. Sadly, that haze you see around it in the photo below is wildfire smoke.

• Crazy Horse Memorial• Jewel Cave National Monument*• Needles Highway
• Devil’s Tower• Mount Rushmore• Thunder Basin National Grassland

*Note: Also closed.


6. Devil’s Tower, Wyoming to Rapid City, South Dakota

We watched a gorgeous sunset and sunrise at a Devil’s Tower bed and breakfast and set off for Rapid City. Along the way, we’d planned to stop off at a bunch of small towns, legit old Western towns! Sad to report it turned out to be an underwhelming day for a few reasons (one being a migraine).

Things To Do On The Way To Rapid City

Did you know there’s a completely random Nordic church in South Dakota? Yep. It’s called the Chapel In The Hills. It’s nice. And a little strange. A quick, pretty stop. But, when all was said and done, we kind of half-assed the rest of our list. I was treating a migraine that day, but also… things just weren’t what we were expecting.

Roughlock Falls was nice enough, but not exceptional. Deadwood and Sturgis were just over-the-top commercialized. Wherever the old town areas were, we didn’t see them. (And Deadwood is supposed to have a Main Street shootout everyday. We didn’t stay long enough to see it.) Mount Moriah Cemetery is where Wild Bill Hickock is buried. It’s way up a super steep hill and they charge you to get in. Meh.

Next was the Hotel Alex Johnson and an art alleyway in Rapid City. We were actually staying at the hotel and the art alley was literally on the side of the building. The Alex Johnson is supposed to be one of the most haunted hotels in the country, and you can pay extra to stay on certain floors. The art alley really disappointed me. (And you know how I love a good street art hunt.) It was just a bunch of graffiti when we were there. Not art at all. Maybe it’ll be updated soon.

• Chapel In The Hills• Mount Moriah Cemetery• Roughlock Falls
• Deadwood’s Main Street shootout• Rapid City art alley• Sturgis
• Hotel Alex Johnson

Photo Credits: Deadwood, Unsplash.com. Sturgis and Hotel Alex Johnson photos, Wikimedia Commons.


7. Rapid City to Badlands National Park, South Dakota

I love Badlands National Park. And I was so excited for Jeff to see it! Badlands is just an hour east of Rapid City. So if you’d prefer to have higher-end lodging and food options, stay in Rapid City. If small-town budget is more your style, I’d recommend staying in Wall right outside the park. You’ll find a number of tourist-class hotels and motels and several restaurants right on the Wall Drug strip.

Things To Do In Badlands National Park

I mean… my advice is to drive the length of the park. There are tons of trails to choose from and lots of wildlife to view. We did two separate trails—the Notch Trail and the Door Trail. If you have a couple days, I recommend also doing the Window Trail.

The Notch Trail is fairly short—1.3 miles roundtrip. What’s great about it is it has this wooden ladder you have to climb on part of it. It’s not too treacherous. Because of the line waiting to go up, we just slid down the side of it on our butts going back down.

The Door Trail is equally short and—I can’t stress this enough—it’s well worth it to hike the whole thing instead of just stopping at the end of the boardwalk and turning around. You’ll be met with ridiculous panoramic views of the canyons and gorges.

Between the two trails is the Window Trail. While we didn’t do it, it looked like you could hike in and around all the “windows” that separated the Notch and Door areas. Literal holes in the rock dividing the two landscapes.

As for Wall Drug, it’s a fun and interesting little tourist trap out in the middle of nowhere. Like “South of the Border,” but in the western half of the United States. Don’t ask questions, just go and look around.

• Badlands National Park• Wall Drug

8. Badlands National Park, South Dakota to Fargo, North Dakota

This was another long day of driving, but we did try to break it up a little with some really bizarre stops along the way. The following day was a full day exploring Fargo, North Dakota before we flew back home.

Things To Do On The Way To Fargo (And In Fargo)

You must do the Badlands Ranch Store and the Minuteman Missile sites as you’re leaving the Badlands (heading east). The ranch store has a gigantic prairie dog statue and you can buy peanuts to feed the prairie dogs. And the Minuteman Missile Center is literally where the US used to house nuclear missiles. Yes, you can see the actual launch site.

Continuing east through South Dakota is 1880 Town and Okaton Ghost Town. 1880 was closed due to the pandemic. And, wherever Okaton Ghost Town was, it was pretty invisible because we couldn’t find it. We found the town, just not the ghost town.

Last—but not least—Fargo, North Dakota. Which feels like a must when road-tripping Nebraska and the Dakotas, right? I’ll be honest that there’s not an awful lot to do in Fargo in the big scheme of things. But… it was a pleasant town with fun flavor.

We stayed in a great little AirBnB loft in historic downtown and had access to all the restaurants and bars. We hit up the farmer’s market and saw some of the art murals. Checked out the shops and got some ice cream.

• 1880 Town• Fargo murals• Minuteman Missile Visitors Center
• Badlands Ranch Store• Fargo Theater• Okaton Ghost Town

Road-Tripping Nebraska & The Dakota: The Conclusion

So, after road-tripping Nebraska and the Dakotas, what are my thoughts? I once read that Nebraska is one of the least-visited states in the United States. But after doing a solid visit and spending a few days in the state, I think there’s quite a lot to do in it. It’s fairly remote out west, but the landscape and geology is so cool. And Omaha and Lincoln are fun cities.

I’ve always been a big fan of South Dakota. The western part of it, anyway. That same sort of other-worldly geology from Nebraska extends up that way and gets even crazier. And, while we didn’t do much in North Dakota, Fargo was a nice place to finish our trip. We took an early morning flight out and got to watch the sun rise.

Sunrise on return flight

Have you spent time road-tripping Nebraska and South or North Dakota? What sights did we miss? What did we like that you hated? Reach out via my Contact page or leave a comment below!

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