Nebraska tourism project, 2013-2014: Overview
In 2013 and 2014, I traveled extensively throughout Nebraska, my home state. I made a ridiculously long list of tourist attractions and events, and visited them all.
The list included every attraction that the average Nebraskan has heard of, as well as many that the average Nebraskan hasn’t heard of.
I began my travels in March 2013 at Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, where a friend and I observed one of the state’s oldest and most iconic attractions — hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes. These majestic birds make a migratory stop in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley each spring.
I ended my travels in December 2014 at one of the state’s newest attractions — Ascent, a multicolored glass tower in downtown Lincoln. Designed by artist Jun Kaneko, it had been installed just three months prior.
In between, I went to nearly 350 other sites — including all three national monuments (two visits apiece), all eight state parks, all nine state historical parks, all four accredited zoos, all six national wildlife refuges open to the public, all four national forest and grassland areas, the four largest lakes and their dams, and all nine sites maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society (including three visits to Chimney Rock). I visited the state’s three major art museums (Joslyn, Sheldon, and MONA), several smaller galleries, and a number of public art works, including Carhenge near Alliance (two visits), and in Omaha, the Fertile Ground mural, the First National Sculpture Parks, and Stored Potential (grain elevator banners that have since been taken down). I visited many natural and cultural history museums, including all the major ones (Durham, Stuhr, Hastings, U of N State Museum, Nebraska History, Strategic Air & Space). And I dined and drank at many notable restaurants, breweries, wineries, and tasting rooms.
I didn’t visit every historical marker in the state. But I did check out all five of them in my home county, Furnas County.
Nebraska has nine roads designated as scenic byways. I drove parts of all of them. But the only one I drove in its entirety was the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway — a 272-mile stretch of Nebraska Highway 2, between Grand Island and Alliance, through the Sandhills, recently described by Jim Harrison as “the most mysterious landscape in the United States.”
I went to the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island both years. I went to several college sports events — Nebraska football, volleyball, and women’s and men’s basketball, Creighton men’s basketball, Omaha ice hockey, and the College World Series. I went to NEBRASKAland Days in North Platte, Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell, the Wilber Czech Festival, the Wayne Chicken Show, Seward’s 4th of July Celebration, the Offutt Air Show, the Brownville Fall Flea Market, the Omaha, Winnebago, and Ponca tribal powwows, Blue Man Group at the Lied Center in Lincoln, and performances of the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha, and Omaha Community Playhouse.
On foot and in vehicles, I did LOTS of organized tours. Three of The Durham Museum’s River City History Tours, which are guided bus tours of Omaha. Guided agricultural tours of Switzer Ranch near Burwell, Prairieland Dairy near Firth, Kreycik Riverview Ranch near Niobrara, and Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City. Guided walking tours of Omaha’s North 24th Street area (the heart of the city’s African American community), Omaha’s South 24th Street area (the heart of the city’s Latino community), and the Henderson Mennonite Heritage Park. A cruise on the Missouri River aboard the Spirit of Brownville riverboat. Self-guided auto tours of the national wildlife refuges, and Boys Town, and the Naval Ammunition Depot site near Hastings. Self-guided walking tours of Memorial Stadium, and Wyuka Cemetery, and Fort Omaha, and Saint Cecilia Cathedral, and Lauritzen Gardens, and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, and the vast Stuhr Museum grounds, and Ashfall Fossil Beds, and Fort Robinson State Park, and Toadstool Geologic Park. A guided tour of Willa Cather sites in Red Cloud, a self-guided tour of Wright Morris sites in Central City, a guided tour of the historic sites of Bellevue, and guided or self-guided tours of several historic homes, including those of Thomas P. Kennard, George Norris, William Jennings Bryan (Fairview), Bess Streeter Aldrich, J. Sterling Morton (Arbor Lodge), Buffalo Bill Cody (Scouts Rest Ranch), General George Crook, George and Sarah Joslyn (Joslyn Castle), Father Edward Flanagan, the Fort Sidney post commander, and Nebraska’s governor. And of course, a guided tour of Nebraska’s outstanding State Capitol.
Besides these organized tours, I did informal, but thorough, walks around many other sites — Omaha’s Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park, and Lewis and Clark Landing; Lincoln’s Historic Haymarket; the three national monuments (Scotts Bluff, Agate Fossil Beds, Homestead); and lots of nature areas (Wildcat Hills, Chalco Hills, Crane Trust Nature Center, Fontenelle Forest, Neale Woods, Schramm Park, Spring Creek Prairie, Willa Cather Memorial Prairie).
In both 2013 and 2014 I participated in the Nebraska Tourism Commission’s Passport program, which encourages travelers to visit up to 80 specified attractions, collect stamps, and win prizes. The first year I got 70 of the 80 stamps, and the second year I got 57. Also, in 2013 I participated in a similar passport program sponsored by the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, and got stamps at 30 of the 33 sites in and around Lincoln.
I plan to do at least a few more blog posts about my Nebraska travels. The next one will probably be a Top 20 list.