Nebraska is one of the least-visited states in the United States, but our recent road trip through Cornhusker country truly left me wondering why. There are indeed vast expanses of grassland, but I find that particular landscape really intriguing. Not to mention the endless pioneer stories, which had me obsessively reading all about the Donner party. Yes, I’m envisioning readers’ skeptical faces now, but may I present… 7 Super Fun Things To Do In Nebraska.
Discover Fossils In Toadstool Geologic Park
Toadstool Geologic Park may have been one of my favorite things to do in Nebraska. Way up in the northwest corner of the state, and deep in the Oglala National Grasslands, sits what can only be described as a moonscape. It literally looks like you’re on a different planet.
Years of wind erosion have carved hoodoos in the sandstone and clay, often in the shape of—you guessed it—toadstools. The area is so strange-looking, it’s sometimes referred to as “Nebraska’s Badlands.” Did I mention you can find fossils over 30 million years old in the park? Yeah, that too. But please, folks… leave no trace.
You’ll find three trails—a one-mile loop, a five-mile loop, and the Bison Trail, which is three miles each way. The park is open 24/7 from mid-May through mid-November. There’s a $3/day fee, plus a $15/night camping charge. There are restrooms on site, but no water available. So, do plan accordingly.
Stroll Lincoln’s Historic Haymarket District
Lincoln’s historic Haymarket District dates all the way back to the mid-1800s, and began as a small open-air market for hay, livestock, and camping. Railroads brought manufacturing to the region and, in the 1880s alone, Lincoln quadrupled in size.
Over the decades, the warehouse district would fall into disrepair. A major revitalization effort in 1985, however, would make the area the “first urban warehouse district” to achieve economic success through the National Trust for Historic Preservation program.1
Lincoln’s Haymarket district is now a bustling epicenter of restaurants, bars, and shops. And lands firmly on my list of fun things to do in Nebraska.
Explore Otherworldly Rocks at Scotts Bluff
So, I’ve admittedly included two other rock formations in the photo mix here. Because they’re all in the same area. Scotts Bluff National Monument is the major one, obviously. Stop by the National Park Service Visitors Center and everything. But two other, equally cool ones that are close by are Courthouse and Jail Rock and Chimney Rock.
You can get out and hike around all of them, and it looks incredible. Because we were slated to hike Toadstool that same day, we passed on additional hikes here, but I wouldn’t have minded another day in the area to make it happen. Not in the least. In my mind, the entire Scotts Bluff area is, collectively, one of the most fun things to do in Nebraska.
Be Surrounded By Hummingbirds At Lauritzen Gardens
One of the very first things we did when we arrived in Omaha was visit Lauritzen Gardens. It truly is an exceptional botanical garden. (And I frequent botanical gardens on my travels.) The greenhouse conservatory was closed the day we were there, but we were able to roam the gardens freely, of which there are many.
There’s a Victorian garden and a children’s garden and an herb garden and a rose garden. A peony garden and a perennial garden and a Japanese garden on the way. There was also this ridiculously sophisticated and intricate toy train garden. (We even got to meet its caretaker.) There really is a little bit of everything there. But my favorite? The hummingbirds.
By the patch of wildflowers overlooking the Japanese garden and just outside the back doors of the visitor center as you enter the garden grounds, you’ll find dozens and dozens of hummingbirds. They fly right past your head. It’s really remarkable. And, if you ever want to catch one of these little guys on camera, Lauritzen Gardens is the place to do it.
Feel The Flower Power At Sunken Gardens
Sunken Gardens is another super fun, “garden-y thing” to do in Nebraska. Only this one is in Lincoln. To be honest, there’s not a whole lot of info I can relay on Sunken Gardens except it’s absolutely gorgeous. And you should go. When we went, there was a whole arts festival taking place there, but that in no way made them any less beautiful. (It just… messed up a lot of my photo opportunities is all.)
It’s a floral display of over 30,000 plants designed to a different theme every year. There are tulips in the spring, annuals in the summer, and “shrubbery” (in a Monty Python accent) in the winter. They have volunteer opportunities and hold weddings and other events there, and if you’re so inclined, they accept donations as well.
Get A Little Rugged In Wildcat Hills
Sadly, I didn’t get many great shots of Wildcat Hills, but that wasn’t because it wasn’t awesome. The scenery just didn’t translate well for me, and I cry. But, this spot was super interesting to me because it was one of the few places in the state where the scenery was ever so different. You still have grasslands and plains galore, but you also start to get some evergreens. And an exceptional view of the Platte River Valley.
It’s a small area and has only three miles of hiking, but the topography is pretty rugged and the elevation reaches about 4,600 feet (which, while not much overall, can be a tough transition for some folks). If you’re lucky, you might see a bobcat, moose, or bighorn sheep. And, if you’re lucky, you can avoid the prairie rattlesnakes. Camping is available and a park permit is required (which you can purchase at the entrance).
Educate Yourself At Fort Robinson State Park
We stopped at Fort Robinson in the hopes of seeing some bighorn sheep and rock pinnacles. And, well, we didn’t end up seeing either of those things. But we did find a super interesting historical state park that we had no idea about. (To clarify, we saw rock formations, but I don’t think I correctly identified the pinnacles within… the rock formations.)
But, yes, Fort Robinson is an entire [former] US Army base. In the 1870s, after displacing some 13,000 Lakota, the base would become the site of Crazy Horse’s surrender. Just two years later, it would also become the site of the Fort Robinson Massacre, when US soldiers hunted down and killed 32 Cheyenne men, women, and children.
An additional historical tidbit—it’s the home of the original “Buffalo Soldiers,” what Native Americans called the Black cavalry in the Indian Wars. (And I’ll be honest, I had zero knowledge about this.) Charles Young, the third Black man to graduate West Point and the first to become a colonel, also served at Fort Robinson.
There are all sorts of facilities in the area (entire barracks, actually) that make it super easy to stay a couple of days. And it’s only 22 miles from Toadstool Geologic Park. So, just add it to your list of things to do in Nebraska and do both.
More Super Fun Things To Do In Nebraska
There are a ton more amazing things to do in Nebraska that we, unfortunately, didn’t get to experience. But if you’re there and the timing is right, I’d make sure to put them on your list. Witness the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte River, visit Omaha’s world-renowned zoo, or even catch a Huskers football game.
And I’d bet money that, if you’re not from Nebraska, you had no idea there were so many cool things to do there. Amiright?