If you’ve never done a Nebraska road trip, get ready for a hearty heartland welcome to a state chock-full of train lore and pioneer history. Add reasonable prices and cordial locals to the Nebraska mix and you’ve got a winning combination for a family vacation.
Start your Nebraska road trip in Omaha, the state’s largest city. From Omaha, head to Lincoln and catch the historic Lincoln Highway (US 30) and continue on to Grand Island, Kearney and North Platte, three towns that merit attention. The journey is approximately 280 miles long. The scenic byway sweeps across the state’s wide-open plains, windswept prairies and never-ending cornfields, all visible right from your window.
First Stop: Omaha
Considered the gateway to the American West, Omaha is the headquarters of Union Pacific Railroad. As the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad, its development is tethered to its railroad legacy. Omaha cherishes its railroad roots and deserves a gold star on the map of any train lover.
The Durham Museum is housed in the former Union Station, a train station heralded as an art deco gem when it opened in 1931. Today, the Durham offers hands-on fun. Step inside the steam engine, caboose, lounge and Pullman cars and soak in the magic of rail travel back in its heyday. The Buffett Grocery Store, a replica of the original 1915 shop owned by billionaire Warren Buffet’s family, gives young children a glimpse of a bygone era when a cash register was king and packaged foods came in tin or glass containers. When it’s time for a snack, the museum’s authentic 1931 soda fountain serves old-fashioned frosty treats and yesteryear penny candy.
The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is consistently rated one of the best zoos in the entire country. Up-close animal experiences invite visitors to meet the zookeepers and observe feedings. There’s a strong message of conservation permeating each exhibit. It’s also home to an indoor desert and rain forest.
Lauritzen Gardens is an indoor-outdoor botanical wonderland. Train buffs big and small come for the model railroad garden. It features seven G-scale Union Pacific train lines traveling through reproductions of Omaha landmarks, all surrounded by dwarf shrubs, plants and trees. Adjacent Kenefick Park is home to two of the greatest locomotives ever to power the Union Pacific Railroad. Explore the diesel-electric locomotive Big Boy No. 6900 and the steam locomotive Big Boy No. 4023.
Don’t leave town without indulging in the delectable confections at Hollywood Candy. Retro favorites include fudge, lollipops and rock candy. Take a walk down memory lane as you examine the nostalgic collection of whimsical PEZ dispensers.
Next Stop: Grand Island
Surrounded by fertile farmland, Grand Island’s Railside District is a revitalized downtown that’s a meaningful example of community involvement.
The Railside District’s 1937 art deco Grand Theatre has been lovingly restored by a nonprofit group of passionate locals. Movies are screened each Friday, Saturday and Sunday with an unbeatable ticket price of only $3.50 for adults, and $2.50 for kids. It’s the perfect antidote to the impersonal multiplex. If you’re a film buff, this is gold, but almost everyone will admire this community’s passion to keep the main street cinema experience alive.
UNDRground Contemporary Arts was established to display emerging young artists. The Azteca Market donated their lower level to the students of Grand Island Senior High School, who run the gallery with the help of their dedicated art teacher.
At The Chocolate Bar, hipster baristas prepare a potent espresso but it’s the signature chocolate cake that satisfies sugar cravings. The menu includes sandwiches, salads, wraps with gluten-free and vegan options.
Stuhr Museum is a living history museum and a jackpot for families. Railroad Town is a re-creation of a working 19th-century town, painting a vivid picture of what life on the prairie was like for the hearty pioneers. Learn about all aspects of daily life from tractors to teacups. Play hoops, learn to quilt, bake bread and more hands-on activities are possible. Railroad Town runs from May 1 through Labor Day.
Onwards To Kearney
This small city bills itself as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World. Each March, 80% of the world’s Sandhill Crane population converge on the Platte River. Even when the cranes aren’t here, Kearney offers family fun.
The Classic Car Collection is fun for auto enthusiasts of all ages. Over 200 vehicles illustrate the role that the automobile has played in modern history. Some of these cars are sculptural works of functional art, including a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith Limo and a 1930 LeBaron convertible.
If you’re driving on I-80, it’s impossible to miss The Archway. It spans right across the interstate, making it an architectural and engineering novelty. Once inside you’ll learn the stories of the pioneers who followed the path alongside the Platte River through Nebraska. This east-west route came to be known as the Great Platte River Road. Learn about the Pony Express, buffalo stampedes and more at the attraction’s interactive exhibits.
Last Stop: North Platte
Once the home of Buffalo Bill, North Platte is a slice of Americana with a hearty side order of railroad history.
Golden Spike Tower presents a panoramic view of the Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard from its two observation decks. Bailey Yard is the world’s largest rail yard with a mind-boggling array of over 315 miles of track handling up to 14,000 rail cars daily. Watch the train action and hear behind-the-scenes stories from savvy guides, many of whom once worked on Bailey Yard.
Lincoln County Historical Museum tells the story of the North Platte World War II Canteen. Throughout the war, locals fed home-cooked meals to the over 6 million service men and women who stopped here during their journeys. North Platte was a designated tender point for steam trains, where the train stopped for locomotive maintenance. Each troop train was met by a group of volunteers who served them a meal along with encouragement and small town hospitality. These dedicated locals (mostly women) ran the canteen every single day from 1941-1946. In a time of food rationing and shortages, it’s a truly exceptional and inspirational feat.
End your day at Pals Brewing Company. The owners are parents, so they understand that plenty of outdoor seating and old-time games like corn-hole toss keep youngsters entertained while grownups enjoy a craft beer. Pizza is the star of the menu, including an unusual one topped with bratwurst, sauerkraut and cheese curds, a nod to the owner’s home state of Wisconsin.
For additional trip planning information, go to Visit Nebraska.com
Images courtesy of Visit Nebraska
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