Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ten things I love about Nebraska

Nobody should write off the Great Plains as "flyover country." There's a lot of neat stuff to do, though I concede that it's a little bit spread out.

Here are ten of my favorite destinations in Nebraska, moving from east to west. Most of them are reasonably close to Interstate 80.
  1. The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha is a world-class institution. Among other things, it has the world's largest indoor habitat dome: desert at street level, "Kingdom of the Night" nocturnal critters exhibit in the basement. Like many zoos, they have a narrow-gauge tourist railroad running through the park - but this one is powered by a bona fide steam locomotive. Finally, I saw a monkey riding a tapir in the jungle exhibit, which rocked my world.

  2. The Strategic Air & Space Museum (formerly known as the Strategic Air Command Museum), near Omaha. They have a B-36 and a the same hangar. I was a bit rushed during my visit; I could have spent all day there.

  3. The state capitol building in Lincoln is a significant piece of Art Deco architecture. It ranks with Baton Rouge and Honolulu as one of the most distinctive state capitol buildings (Huey Long essentially stole Nebraska's design for the capitol building in Baton Rouge. He was later shot in that very building, but that's another story). Nerds will enjoy the Classical-style floor mosaics of critters from the state's fossil record. Fiscal conservatives will appreciate that the building was paid off by the time it was completed - on time and under budget - thanks to pay-as-you-go financing.

    The Nebraska Legislature which meets in the capitol is also remarkable. Nebraska is the only state in the Union with a unicameral legislature. Upon statehood in 1867, Nebraska had a typical bicameral legislature with a state House of Representatives and Senate. In 1934, however, the populace voted to amend the state constitution, dissolving the House and making the Senate the sole legislative body - largely as a Depression-era cost-saving measure. As if a single, more transparent legislative body wasn't fantastic enough, the legislature is completely nonpartisan! While legislators do have party affiliations, each of the 49 Senators effectively runs as an independent candidate and is expected to vote strictly based upon conscience and the will of the constituency rather than party platforms. Oh, and the constitution requires that they balance the budget before leaving each session. Yeah.

  4. Fort Kearny Historic Site. This stopping point on the Overland Trail features a reconstruction of the stockade and blacksmith shop. To be sure that visitors are sufficiently confused, there's a similarly-named state recreation area to the north; also, the fort is spelled 'Kearny' while the county and nearby city are spelled 'Kearney'. Still worth a visit.

  5. Pioneer Village. See "a history of man's progress" at this museum in Minden.

  6. The UPRR Bailey Yard, the world's largest railroad classification yard, located in North Platte. There is a sweet double-decker observation tower (The Golden Spike Tower) from which to take in the action. You haven't lived until you've seen boxcars getting humped.

  7. Chimney Rock National Historic Site. This needs no explanation to anyone who's played Oregon Trail. Somehow, the indigenous name for the pillar - The Elk Penis - never took off with Victorian-era settlers.

  8. Scott's Bluff National Monument. Imagine traveling overland along the Platte River Road, heading west from the Missouri River over 400 miles of prairie. Then, out of nowhere, comes a giant freaking rock. ... Curiously, Scott's Bluff is slightly closer to the city of Gering than the city of Scottsbluff.

  9. The Wildcat Hills area of the Panhandle is very beautiful.

  10. Panorama Point. At 5410 feet above sea level, it's the highest point in the state. It's no towering peak - in fact, the "point" is a barely perceptible rise. However, it exemplifies the subtle beauty of the high plains. After Lisa and I returned to the car following the grueling summit trek, we were rewarded with the sight of wild pronghorn grazing nearby.
Honorable mentions go to the following places I have not personally visited but sound amazingly sweet:
  • Take a ride on the Fossil Freeway! This auto tour route (highlighted in red on my map) runs across the Nebraska Panhandle from the Colorado line north into the Black Hills country of southwestern South Dakota, with awesome science, nature, and culture destinations along the way. In Nebraska alone, you'll find (from south to north):
  • Niobrara National Scenic River, near Valentine - according to the National Park Service, it is "not just the premier recreation river in Nebraska," but a "unique crossroads where many species of plants and animals coexist unlike anywhere else." Nearby Smith Falls State Park is home to the tallest waterfall in the state (at 63 feet high, it's no joke).
  • Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, near Royal - "The Pompeii of Prehistoric Animals" is maintained by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an active paleontological dig where all work goes on in full view of visitors. Truly, it is a living laboratory of giant dead things.
  • Carhenge, in Alliance, needs no explanation.
  • An enterprising family has turned a decommissioned Atlas E nuclear missile site near Kimball into a comfortable home - and it's for sale!. Tours available by appointment. Some lucky dude who got a tour has posted his photos of the site for the rest of us. Here's a video feature on the site from the Nebraska series "Next Exit".
On the map below, the ten sites I've visited are marked by blue pushpins, and the bonus sites are marked with green pushpins. The route Lisa and I took across the Cornhusker State a few years ago is marked in blue, and the Fossil Freeway in red - note that the routes overlap between Scottsbluff and Kimball.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not on the payroll of the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism, but I am willing to be.

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