Lake McConaughy is the largest lake in the state of Nebraska. It is about 20 feet long, 4 feet wide and up to 142 feet deep at the dam. The lake offers a wide variety of water related sports and is a nice place to just relax and take a few nice pictures. Lake McConaughy is near the town of Ogallala. I just dipped my feet in the cool clear water; but there is much more to do for those coming here for recreation.
Fort Robinson State Park is considered by many to be the premier park in Western Nebraska. It is named for Fort Robinson a former U.S. Army Post but has much more than the fort to attract tourists. Fort Robinson was in service during the Indian Wars and was the site of the Cheyenne Outbreak in 1879. It was here that the great Sioux War Chief Crazy Horse died. The camp was active until after WW2. In addition to the fort there is a fine museum here with great displays of a huge mastodon, other fossils and bones and the history of the area. There are cabins for rent, campsites, and most any recreational activity you can think of, along with 22,000 beautiful acres to explore.
Fort Kearny was established as a military outpost along the Oregon Trail in 1848 to protect pioneers making the trip west, and was named for General Stephen W. Kearny. It also served as a stop for the stage coach, a pony express station, the headquarters for the Pawnee Scouts, and a supply depot/outfitter during the Indian Wars, along with providing supplies for settlers/pioneers. The post remained active until 1871 just after the railroad came to the town of Kearney. Today you can explore the recreated stockade, parade grounds and blacksmith shop. There are ample interpretive signs to educate you about the fort and its functions. Camping, fishing and other recreational facilities are available next door at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area. Hours are 9 AM to 5 PM daily from mid-May to Labor Day. Admission is $2 per adult and $1 for kids 3 to 12. You will also need a park permit $5 a day or $35 for a year.
Fort Atkinson was the first U.S. Military post west of the Missouri River and was established in 1819, by the Yellowstone Expedition. The fort was named for Colonel Henry Atkinson, commander of the expedition. The first winter was very bad and over 160 men died on this first expedition here. The fort was active from 1820 to 1827 and supported over 1000 soldiers. The fort protected water routes along the Missouri River and the overland route through the Platte Valley. The fort played an important role in the fur trade and the westward expansion of the country. Start your visit at the visitors center where you can pay entry fees, get a map and brochure of the park, and learn more from the knowledgeable rangers working here. Hours are 10 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday, in the summer. Admission is $2 per adult and you will need a Nebraska Park Pass for parking ($5 a day or $35 for a year pass).
The Cowboy Trail will one day be a 321 mile kike and bike trail running along Northern Nebraska from about Norfolk to Chadron. Currently the main part of the trail that has been completed is a 195 mile stretch from Norfolk to Valentine. The trail follows the old Chicago & Northwestern Railroad line and when completed will be the world's longest "rails to trails" trail in the world. Parts of the trail are paved and parts use a finely ground gravel. All that I have seen is pretty level, although I have only traveled a small part of the trail. Parts of the trail were damaged during the flooding in 2010. The trail parallels US Highway 20 and 275 for much of its route allowing easy access and there are about 30 towns along the route so you have places to spend the night or get something to eat.
William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, was the best known Nebraskan in his day and may still be. He was a guide, a scout, a buffalo hunter, a rancher, a farmer, and a showman known around the world. His ranch was located near the town of North Platte in Nebraska. Today the ranchhouse and grounds are open for tourists to learn a bit about the legend and the way he lived. The Victorian style house was built in 1886 and is filled with items belonging to Cody and other period pieces. Don't miss the displays in the barn. Hours are 9 AM to 5 PM daily in the summer and vary at other times. Admission is $5 plus $5 for the Nebraska Park Permit.
Ashfall Fossil Beds is a fascinating park showing the results of a volcanic eruption in what is now Idaho some 12 million years ago. The ash entered the lungs of the animals living over a wide area and slowly killed them. Their bones were preserved by the drifting ash as they fell by, and in, a waterhole. The skeletons are quite well preserved even today. This is a site of ongoing research by the University of Nebraska and when you visit you can frequently see students, and sometimes professors, busily studying the fossils and the environment in which they fell. The park is open from 1 May to mid October. Hours vary a bit so you may want to check their website. Admission is $5 per person plus you will need a Nebraska park permit $5 daily.
Ash Hollow was named for a grove of ash trees located here, and was a rest stop along the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails for settlers heading west. Of course the area was attractive to mankind many years before the expansion west, as its ready supply of water and plantlife attracted lots of animals and therefore pre-historic hunters. As settlers began to travel through the area a small settlement sprang up. A school was built in 1903. Part of the trail traversed Windlass Hill a hill so steep the wagons had to be lowered with ropes. A nearby spring provided water for the travelers and fed into the Platte River. There is a 1 mile hiking trail, access to the springs and a cave used by pre-historic Indians and a visitor's center with interesting educational displays. Check out the old school too. Hours are 9 AM to 4 PM Thursday through Sunday (grounds are open 8 AM to sunset) Memorial Day to Labor Day. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for kids 3 to 13.
This state park preserves a turn of the century cattle ranch displaying artifacts and memorabilia about the ranch and its owners Arthur and Eve Bowring. Arthur was a state legislator and Eve was the first Nebraska woman elected to the US Congress. Hours are 8 AM to 5 PM Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, 9 AM to sunset the rest of the year.
Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for kids 4-16, and children under 4 are free. You will also need a Nebraska Parks Permit (to park) which costs $5 per vehicle. The park is located three miles north and east of Merriman off Highway 20.
Not far from the town of Valentine, in Northern Nebraska, and not far from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is another refuge called Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is about 72,000 acres of the Nebraska sandhills studded with shallow lakes and marshes. The refuge is home to a different variety of plant and animal life than some of the surrounding sandhills. Hunting, fishing and a few hiking trails are the main recreational opportunities here. The refuge is open during daylight hours year-round and admission is free.
Scotts Bluff was a landmark along the Oregon and California Trails. Between 1841 and 1869 some 350,000 pioneers headed west in the shadow of Scotts Bluff. This is about 1/3 of the way along the trail. Settlers did not stay here long to celebrate, however, because they had to get through the mountain passes in the Rockys before winter or they could well die.
The visitors center has some nice displays about the history of the trails west, the people that took them and the local area.
There is a trail to the top of Scotts Bluff. I think it is paved all the way but as you reach the bluff it gets steep. I wimped out and drove to the top. I have now walked much of the trail and all I have seen is paved.
A portion of the Old Oregon Trail goes right by the entrance to the park.
The previous tip was about a predominately historical site, now this one is more geared toward sports and recreation. There are 76 miles (120 kilometers) of the river set aside as the "Niobrara National Scenic River" and for good reasons. The river has cut through some rocky cliffs allowing the rivers and stream that feed into the Niobrara to from some very pretty waterfalls. The region is home to a wide range of plant and animal life and has good fishing. There are Class I and Class II rapids and long stretches of the river are nice for a relaxing ride on an intertube. There are places along the river for renting the intertubes, kayaks and canoes or to launch your own. There are a number of good scenic overlooks and hiking trails too.
Homestead National Monument was established to commemorate the Homestead Act that opened the way for free land and the expansion west. It is located in Nebraska because it is believed the homestead on this spot, applied for by Daniel Freeman, was one of the first, and possibly THE first homestead granted under the Homestead Act.
The visitor's center has some interesting display and informative signs about the homstead and the Homestead Act and there is an Education Center with an extensive collection of information about the homesteads and the people who attempted this method of earning land.
A small town grew around the area of the Freeman Homestead. In order to educate the growing population of area children the Homestead School was built.
There are some hiking trails to see some of the sights but this park is much more about history than sports and recreation.
The Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge preserves over 19,000 acres of prime wetland and prairie located along the Niobrara National Scenic River. The refuge got its name from the Fort Niobrara Military Reservation that occupied the land from 1879 to 1906. The river, and the limestone cliffs eroded by it, provide a home habitat for a number of species of wildlife and plants. There are several very nice viewpoints of the river, hiking trails, all kinds of water related activities and of course watching the animal life. There are even prarie dog towns, bison (buffalo) and a small herd of elk here.
Chimney Rock rises 300 feet above the surrounding plains, which made it a prominent landmark as settlers made the long, hard trek west along the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. The site is a National Historic Site but is run by the Nebraska State Historical Society. There is a visitors center here with some nice displays about the history of the westward movement and the formation of the rock. There are also a couple of hands-on things for the kids. Hours are 9 AM to 5 PM daily and admission is $3 for adults and free for kids with an adult ticket purchase.