A rare and breathtaking view of the historic Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska.

6 Best Small Towns in Nebraska for Outdoor Activities

For outdoor enthusiasts, Nebraska is not the first state that comes to mind. While the state is not home to national parks, it is home to some beautiful, historic, and natural sites. Many of these incredible sites lie in Nebraska's small towns. The small Nebraskan town of Brule is home to Lake McConaughy, offering beautiful beachfront views, while Harrison is another small Nebraska town, that draws visitors in to see the Agate Fossil Beds. These are only a couple examples of the natural wonders in Nebraska's small towns, however, they are worth a visit for outdoor enthusiasts. 


Toadstool Geologic Park in Harrison, Nebraska
Toadstool Geologic Park in Harrison, Nebraska.

Harrison is home to a natural wonder that brings people to Nebraska annually, the Agate Fossil Beds. The hills are the place where paleontologists found mammal skeletons, including the complete skeletons of extinct Miocene mammals in the 1900s. Dozens of fossils show the area's 20 million years of natural history. At the Agate Fossil Beds, there are 2.7-mile-long Fossil Hills Trail that takes travelers through the hills and across the Niobrara River. Along the trail, there are interpretive signs explaining the plants of the area.

Another outdoor attraction in Harrison is the Gilbert Baker Wildlife Management Area. The area includes 2,537 acres of park and is perfect for camping and hiking. A trail in the area takes around 1 hour and 30 minutes to complete. On the trail, hikers might see deer, elk, rabbits, or wild turkeys. Near the wildlife area, lies Monroe Creek and Gilbert Baker Pond; this peaceful creek and pond are great places for fishing or bird watching.


Aerial view of rural town of Brule in Nebraska
Aerial view of the rural town of Brule in Nebraska 

Brule is a small community in Nebraska with more wildlife than people. The town has less than 500 residents and is a serene, rural area. Lake McConaughy draws people in to visit the town. This is Nebraska's largest reservoir, with 100 miles of shoreline. The lake is an excellent place for outdoor recreation. The white sand beaches and clear waters are perfect for boating, jet skiing, windsurfing, swimming, and fishing. Golfers are also drawn to the lake area for the Bayside Gulf Club's course. The golf course is on the shores of Lake McConaughy, offering stunning views while lulling visitors to sleep.

Brule is also near the California National Historic Trail. This trail is for nature and history lovers. The mid-19th century highway was a migration route to the West. The route is 1600 miles, traveling from Missouri River towns to California. Some portions of the road are drivable. Brule is one of the closest towns in the section that goes through Nebraska. Hikers on the trail can rest in town and enjoy the rural countryside scenery. 


A rare and breathtaking view of the historic Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska used by pioneers as a landmark on the Oregon Trail.
A rare and breathtaking view of the historic Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska.

The small town of Bayard is home to Chimney Rock, an outdoor monument that draws people to Nebraska annually. Chimney Rock National Historic Site is a towering rock made from a thin spire standing an estimated 325 tall from tip to base. Thirty-four million years ago, the rock formed from volcanic ash. Folks can see the different layers of volcanic ash in its formation today. The rock is one of the most famous historic monuments in the state. It was an essential landmark for navigating the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails during pioneer days. There is a nine-hole golf course and restaurant near the Chimney Rock Site to enjoy a game of gold while admiring the towering rock. 

Beyond the pretty scenery of Chimney Rock, Bayard has an exciting history. Guests can learn more about it by visiting the Bayard Depot Museum. The museum is in an old Northern Railroad depot and has ancient artifacts of the town. One of the most impressive is a 100-year-old cookie!


Scotts Bluff National Monument located west of the City of Gering in western Nebraska, United States.
Scotts Bluff National Monument is located west of the City of Gering in western Nebraska, United States.

Gering is near Bayard, a town with vibrant green prairie lands. Gering next to the Oregon Trail and the famed Scotts Bluff National Monument. The Scott's Bluff National Monument is a towering bluff surrounded by rugged badlands. There are also 3,000 acres of protected and historic areas near the bluff. A popular trail near the monument is the Saddle Rock trail. The 1.6-mile trail has a self-guided tour of the area. The trailhead begins east of the visitor center. For a shorter version of the hike, begin on the trail at the summit of the Scotts Bluff. From the trail, there is a stunning view of the North Platte River Valley that is worth the short trek.

A spot for people who are interested in history is the Legacy of the Plains Museum. The museum has interactive exhibits that show the history of settlement and Westward Expansion in the North Platte Valley and High Plains. Gering is also close to the scenic Yellowstone National Park and the Black Hills, making for some pretty scenery around town.


Hay field near Bridgeport, Nebraska
Hay field near Bridgeport, Nebraska at sunset.

Bridgeport is another Nebraska town with picturesque scenery. The town has its own Recreation Area encompassing 326 acres of land to explore and 78 acres of water in five sandpit lakes. Visitors can enjoy camping or hiking on the shores. Water activities, including kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding, are popular on the East and West lakes in all seasons. 

The Courthouse and Jail Rocks are popular spots to stop at just 5 miles south of town. Made from Brule clay, the rocks look like a courthouse and castle.  Over time, wind and water sculpted the rocks into what they look like today. To get to the stones, there is an unpaved road and trail open year-round. 

Just 6 miles north of the rocks is the Bridgeport Pioneer Trails Museum. This Homestead museum is just off the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and Pony Express Route. This was a popular stop point for pioneers traveling on the trails. While at the museum, check out a section of the surrounding trails for a peaceful stroll through the woods. 


Sutherland, seen from the east along U.S. Highway 30
Sutherland, seen from the east along U.S. Highway 30.

For history and nature lovers, Sutherland is the ideal town—home to the Sutherland State Aid Bridge, a beautiful bridge over the water that offers scenic views. The bridge dates back to the State Aid Program between 1912 and 1936. The bridge is unique as one of the only remaining unaltered bridges built by the program.  

Another great spot in town with a pioneer history is the O'Fallon's Bluff. The bluffs are 20 miles long and sit along the South Platte River. Here, visitors can see the Oregon-California Trail wagon wheel ruts and old emigrant trails. You can see the ruts from wagon wheels today because of the thousands of wagons going over the dry bluffs.  Walking through the bluffs makes for a great day hike to enjoy nature and history.

Beyond the bridge and pioneer history, Sutherland has a large State Recreation Area. The outdoor area has something for everyone, from boating to fishing, camping, and swimming. The recreation area is a popular alternative to Lake McConaughy since it is not as busy.

Whether visitors want to explore the bluffs or enjoy some time on the lake, Nebraska has some surprising outdoor adventures. The small-town vibes of these Nebraska towns and their unique outdoor attractions make them a perfect place for any outdoor enthusiast. The next time one plans a road trip, consider stopping in one of these towns for a pitstop. Whatever season folks are headed to Nebraska, there will be something that caters to the outdoorsy types.

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. 6 Best Small Towns in Nebraska for Outdoor Activities

More in Places