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Drive along Nebraska’s miles of rural highways and you’ll quickly learn why this is officially nicknamed the Cornhusker State: Farm fields sprawl out across the mostly flat countryside, punctuated by grain towers and vintage barns painted with quilt patterns. Agriculture is a way of life here in America’s heartland, and the state’s connection to the dirt defines the outdoorsy spirit even in the biggest towns and cities.
The Missouri River hems Nebraska’s eastern border, where the landscapes seem a little greener and lusher. To the east, the two main urban centers — Omaha, the largest city, and Lincoln, the capital — claim a culture all their own, with rootsy live-music scenes and growing clusters of craft breweries. The western side of the state, though more sparsely populated, has some of Nebraska’s most remarkable natural features: Scenic roads cut across the grassy Sandhills, which cover the north-central parts of the state. In the rugged Nebraska Panhandle, rock formations such as Scotts Bluff National Monument mark the skyline, and wagon ruts from the migrations of 19th-century settlers remain carved into the dusty prairie.
Nebraska is often a stopover on cross-country road trip itineraries — fittingly, as the state is best explored by car. Nine officially designated scenic byways lace across the state’s more rural regions. The thin populations and wide-open spaces of Nebraska make this the perfect destination for getting off the grid, but that also means you have fewer public transportation connections. Greyhound coaches offer service between the major cities, and Amtrak California Zephyr trains stop at five stations in Nebraska, including Lincoln and Omaha, on their way between Chicago and San Francisco. Omaha also has Nebraska’s busiest airport: Eppley Airfield (OMA), which offers direct flights to major North American cities.
While summers can get muggy, June through August is the busiest season in Nebraska for a few reasons: All the attractions are open, outdoor patio bars are hopping, and the rivers are cool for cruising. Temperatures cool in fall, when communities throughout Nebraska throw harvest festivals to celebrate the state’s farming heritage. By late fall, ice and snow become common. Throughout winter, blizzards can make driving dangerous, so take care if you’re visiting in the cold months of December to March. Spring brings the remarkable migration of sandhill cranes, some that fly thousands of miles to rest and recharge around the Platte River. Late spring, the temperatures are typically warm and lack summer’s high humidity. But it’s also the main season for tornadoes, so pay attention to official weather advisories this time of year.
Take Nebraska Highway 2 west from Grand Island through the largest dune system in the Western Hemisphere. Known as the Sandhills, these dunes aren’t the ever-shifting mountains of sand you might expect. They’re mostly stabilized with vegetation — golden-green hills that ripple across the prairie. This 272-mile, scenic road trip has plenty of outdoor diversions along the way, including mountain biking trails in the Nebraska National Forest and canoe trips along the Dismal River.
It’s like Stonehenge in England, only made with antique cars wedged upright into the dusty prairie. Built by a family in the late 1980s, this bizarre monument in the Nebraska Panhandle now belongs to the city of Alliance, which designated the land surrounding Carhenge as the Car Art Reserve. Over the past few decades, more artists have added sculptures to the site, each made with parts from automobiles.
A moon-like landscape shaped by ancient rivers and volcanic ash, the Toadstool Geologic Park stands in stark contrast to the surrounding Oglala National Grassland. A one-mile interpretive trail loops past mushrooming rock pillars, beguiling sandstone formations, and visible signs of fossils that hint at the region’s dramatic natural history.