Pictures never quite capture the full majesty of a Nebraska sunset. But visitors always try.
The state contains one vista after another, with vast prairies in the east and towering cliffs in the west. The wide-open spaces act as a tonic for city dwellers. Many enjoy the Cornhusker State’s wilder side at stunning parks such as Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock National Historic Site. However, photo ops also await in the state’s cities at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha and the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln.
These Nebraskan attractions with a view will appeal to groups looking to escape the crowds and share some envy-inducing photos.
Scotts Bluff National Monument
After days and days of flat prairie, Scotts Bluff National Monument seemed an otherworldly landscape to early pioneers. The striking bluffs of the area are the first significant rock formation as the Great Plains start to give way to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Rising 800 feet above the North Platte River, the formations are a treat for the eyes that also once served as a natural landmark for those traveling the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express trails. History mixes with geology at the site, which local Native Americans referred to as Me-a-pa-te, or “the hill that is hard to go around.”
Today, groups can admire this protected outcropping and its surrounding 3,000 acres of protected mixed-grass prairie, rugged badlands and historic trail remnants. Visitors can drive to the top of Scotts Bluff via the Summit Road for a view from above.
Groups must make reservations to visit the site, since the park must clear Summit Road before motorcoaches can ascend the 1.6-mile drive to the top. The park’s staff can also help set up guided ranger programs.
Currently, the site is not offering the Summit Shuttle, a narrated drive up Scotts Bluff, although the service is expected to resume in the summer. Visitors who want to use the shuttle should contact the park’s office.
The on-site Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center provides background on the area’s human and natural history. The museum also has on display a collection of watercolor paintings by frontier artist William Henry Jackson.
Whether groups prefer wildflowers or carefully crafted Victorian gardens, beauty abounds at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha. The 100-acre gardens near Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium are an urban oasis in the heart of the city.
Groups can either stroll the grounds on a self-guided tour or request a guided garden tour. The one-and-a-half-hour tours highlight garden areas of seasonal interest.
Although temporarily suspended, narrated tram tours are another way for groups to explore the gardens. The gardens themselves remain open with social distancing measures in place, including a timed ticketing system.
The four-season gardens feature impressive visual displays at the site’s rose garden, children’s garden, model railroad garden and Victorian garden. The 17,500-square-foot Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory features a wilder look with acres of native grasses and trees.
Groups that want to stay longer can dine at the ConAgra Cafe and shop at the gardens’ gift shop.
Lauritzen Gardens is located inside Kenefick Park, home to two historic locomotives. The park celebrates the impact of the Union Pacific Railroad on Nebraska with signage, sculptures and Big Boy No. 4023, one of the world’s largest steam locomotives.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site
Northwest of Scotts Bluff, another memorable spot on the Oregon Trail stood the test of time. Chimney Rock National Historic Site centers around one massive yet slender spire-shaped formation. The iconic formation rises 300 feet above the North Platte River Valley.
Described as “towering to the heavens” by one pioneer, the landmark has come to symbolize the great migration westward for many. The park’s visitor center features exhibits and a short video that introduces Chimney Rock and its impact.
The area around the monument remains well preserved, with the visitors center and Chimney Rock Cemetery as the only two modern developments near the spire.
Though the site does not permit hiking on the rock itself, the park contains multiple historical hiking trails; one, the Oregon Trail Pathway, allows guests to walk on the same ground as the pioneers did 150 years ago. Groups should also keep a look out for wildlife, since the area is home to the endangered whooping crane, peregrine falcon and black-footed ferret.
While touring, guests can try their hand at guessing their current distance from the spire, since the geological marker is an optical illusion that appears extremely close to some and far off in the distance to others.
Nebraska State Capitol
When laying out the architectural plans for Nebraska’s third state capitol, Bertram Goodhue felt “impelled to produce something quite unlike the usual.” The imposing, 400-foot domed at the Nebraska State Capitol does stand out as a creative architectural marvel.
The 1932 structure in Lincoln was the first state capitol in the country to incorporate a functional tower in its design. Goodhue wove art and symbolism throughout the interior and exteriors of the building. Atop the dome, a statue called The Sower adds 32 feet to the building’s gold-tiled dome to represent the state’s commitment to agriculture and growth within its borders.
Guided tours reveal the history behind the $10 million structure and the meaning behind its intricate mosaics. Guides point out the Classical architectural elements that Goodhue mixed with Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque. Other details include marble mosaic floors, stone carvings that represent 3,000 years of human history and murals that depict Nebraska’s Native American and pioneer cultures.
Adult and student groups can book customized tours. Student groups sometimes add a visit to the legislative balcony when the Legislature is in session. Groups can also visit the 14th floor observation decks for a photo op of Lincoln.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
In prehistoric times, a massive volcanic eruption covered the Great Plains in ash. As a result, visitors can view fascinating fossils preserved through the centuries at the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park.
Under a structure called the Hubbard Rhino Barn, groups can examine an active excavation area. The barn’s most famous find is the fossil of a Teleoceras, a native, hippolike ancestral rhinoceros. Ancestral horses are also on display. The structure leaves the skeletons uncovered where they were found.
The 360-acre park also has a visitor center with interpretive stations and a working fossil preparation laboratory.
Declared a National Natural Landmark, the site captures a moment in time and serves as an ecological snapshot of the area’s fossilized organisms. Known as the Pompeii of prehistoric animals, the paleontological site offers educational programs and experts ready to answer questions from visitors. Groups can also walk along the site’s nature and geology trails to explore the larger park.
School and tour groups can book guided experiences from April 1 to October 20 with advance reservations. A tour leader provides an orientation and a full description of the fossil bed exposed in the Hubbard Rhino Barn.
The site is open with social distancing precautions, such as face masks, one-way traffic routes and advance ticketing.