Nebraska – Flyover? Nah, Destination!

Nebraska RV travel
Placing Nebraska on our RV’s travel map!

When I mentioned to a friend recently that the first long stop on our road trip was in Nebraska, she politely said, “Hmmmm. I don’t really think of Nebraska as a destination.” But we knew the National Park Service would not steer us wrong, and so we headed to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. 

Scotts Bluff National Monument is in a beautiful area in the Nebraska panhandle of lightly forested rolling hills and white cliffs. And also of cornfields. Nebraska is more than corn, but there is still PLENTY of corn! This area was settled by the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Arapahoe Indians. It became historically important because it was the location of Mitchell Pass – the point that those traveling the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Western Cattle Trail, the Pony Express, and the Mormon Trail all passed through to get to the Rocky Mountains. Once travelers got to this landmark, they were one third of the way to the west.

The white sandstone of Scotts Bluff itself, named for a young fur trader, is an amazing geological feature. It is a wide formation that juts up from the plateau, rising 800 feet from the river. Its bright whiteness contrasted starkly with the deep blue skies of a hot Nebraska September day. There are a few other formations nearby, but Scotts Bluff is clearly the star of the show.

The visitor center has some historical exhibits, including three replica Oregon Trail wagons, a movie, and a gift shop. There are also several hiking paths near the visitor center. We took the popular 1.6 mile hike to the top of the bluff, which can also be reached by car. It is a paved path all the way up, since sandstone is prone to degradation and they are trying to keep the trail intact. There is a six-stop cell phone audio tour you can call into along the hike. It was informative without being over the top, and it was a nice reason to take a short break every so often!

The hike is a bit strenuous, but not overly difficult, with some steep dropoffs in a few areas of the switchbacks. However, it is easy to hug the inside wall of the trail, and Jeff, who does not love heights, had no trouble with it. There are no services at the top of the trail, so take some water if it’s hot! There are many short, mostly level, paved trails to explore up at the top. There is also a flat, paved path near the visitor center providing views of the bluff from below.

Just a half hour from Scottsbluff is another Nebraska highlight and National Historic Site which was also an important touchstone for travelers along the same trails. You may have seen it on the Nebraska state quarter:  Chimney Rock. Rising 480 feet above the river, this was the most mentioned landmark in the journals of those who traversed the Oregon Trail. It can be seen from miles away, and was a beacon for those looking for Mitchell Pass and the end of the first third of their journey. A small museum near Chimney Rock (operated by History Nebraska) offers a great view, but a pioneer cemetery a short distance down the road has an even closer vantage point. 

We also spent time birding. We connected with a local woman through BirdingPal, and when we learned that she was one of the top 25 birders in the state, we knew we had hit the jackpot (her fun license plate was a giveaway, too!). She took us to may local birding hotspots we could never have found on our own, and she was so knowledgeable about the birds of the area and the changing patterns of bird migration in the past several years. 

Later in the day we went on our own out to Lake Minatare, about 20 minutes north of town. The largest body of water in Nebraska’s panhandle, it was packed for the Labor Day weekend with campers, boaters, and locals just out for a day at the lake. There’s been very little rain here this summer, so the lake level was low. It was so low, in fact, we could drive out right onto the lake bed! We saw 25 Great Blue Herons there (!) as well as lots of Killdeer and some ducks and gulls. We also climbed up the CCC-built lighthouse, made entirely of native stone. This pseudo-lighthouse (one of only 7 inland lighthouses in the country) is really just a cute lookout tower. A narrow spiral staircase leads to the top and a good look at the entire lake and surrounding area. The view was great, but the breeze up there on another 100° day was the highlight!

Scottsbluff, a town of 17,000 has a cute historic downtown area that appears to be working hard to revitalize (and seems to be succeeding). We loved the thematic bike racks all along Broadway, patronized several cute shops, and had dinner at an Italian restaurant, Sam & Louie’s, that offered gluten free cheese ravioli!!! (Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I ate cheese ravioli? It was delicious. They also have GF pizzas. Yay!) Flyover Brewing Company, the first craft brewery in the Nebraska panhandle, was another hopping spot on Broadway. Jeff very much enjoyed their signature Helles on a hot afternoon. And meat lovers should be sure to check out Runza’s for a unique Nebraska sandwich experience.

All in all, we’d recommend Scottsbluff as a stopover (or even a detour!). There’s plenty to explore to keep you busy for a few days, great history, and some nice spots to relax along the North Platte River. (But maybe plan your trip when it’s not 100°.) Enjoy your next unexpectedly pleasant stopover, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

PS – Our little trip mascot Goldie is pictured a few places above and in many of our daily Tripline updates (follow along HERE if you dare). Some people are wondering why in the world two grown-ups are carrying this stuffie everywhere. Well, Goldie’s a Marquette Golden Eagle, just like us (ring out ahoya!). And our trailer, who we’ve also named Goldie, is a Jayco (Golden) Eagle. See what we did there? So now you know.

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