There’s a lot more to Nebraska than just corn fields and prairies. Sure, these are the major characteristics that have helped define this Midwestern state. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the “Cornhusker State” possesses a depth of character that goes well beyond its reputation as an agricultural powerhouse.
Spread across the Great Plains and dotted among the sand dunes and rock formations of Nebraska are numerous small towns which, while often under the radar, offer inquisitive tourists no end of unique things to see and do. From the historic trails of Scottsbluff to the stunning landscape that surrounds Valentine, these unique towns each offer a truly authentic Nebraskan experience.
Find out more about these and other great places to get to know in our list of the most unique Nebraska towns.
Valentine is situated in the beautiful Sandhills region of north-central Nebraska near the South Dakota border. Affectionately known to locals (and savvy marketers) as “Heart City”, Valentine was in fact named in 1884 after a popular local congressman and not the most romantic day on the calendar.
Valentine’s enchanting setting is truly captivating. Highlights include its location near the scenic Niobrara River, a big draw for kayaking and tubing. It’s also just a stone's throw away from the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, home to roaming herds of buffalo and elk. The town's most unique feature, however, is the stunning Smith Falls State Park. Here a fun mile-long hike will take you to Nebraska's highest waterfalls… and one of the best selfie spots in the Midwest.
One of Nebraska’s westernmost communities, Scottsbluff is located on the North Platte River and is steeped in the history of the young USA’s westward expansion. The town's crowning jewel and its most unique feature is Scotts Bluff National Monument. Just a few miles drive southwest of the downtown core, these magnificent ancient bluffs rise dramatically from the plains and once served as a beacon for countless Oregon Trail pioneers, guiding them on their arduous journey westward.
This stunning natural monument offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes, especially during sunset. As you traverse this unique scenic area, it’s fun knowing you’re walking in the footsteps of those who shaped the American West.
Situated in southern Nebraska just a short drive from the state border with Kansas, the unique town of Red Cloud owes its name to the famed Oglala Lakota chief who rose to prominence for his opposition to the U.S. Army in the 1800s. These days, this picturesque community serves as a living museum dedicated not only to this period of time but also to the writings of Willa Cather.
This famed American author lived in Red Cloud for a period and famously set some of her popular prairie stories in and around the town. The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, a preserved tallgrass prairie, gives visitors a glimpse into the iconic landscapes that inspired her work and commemorates her achievements. The scenic Republican River is also worth seeing and provides a variety of recreational opportunities.
Its location just 10 miles away from the geographic center of the state certainly qualifies Broken Bow to be considered the “heart of Nebraska.” Founded in 1882 and named after relics found nearby at an abandoned Indian camp, Broken Bow boasts some of the most interesting scenery in the state. Surrounded by the undulating Sandhills, an area of lush meadows and marshland fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, this landscape is certainly unique for Nebraska and is well worth exploring.
Highlights include the nearby Victoria Springs State Recreation Area, notable for its crystal-clear springs and rustic cabin rentals, and Broken Bow Lake, a great spot for trout fishing.
Kearney’s strategic location on the Platte River helped cement the town’s role in the westward migration of European settlers. Although only officially founded in 1873, Kearney’s riverside location had served as a junction for the Great Platte River Road, a natural “superhighway” through the 450-mile-long Platte River Valley that stretched all the way to Wyoming which was favored by early settlers during the migrations of the mid-1800s.
If you’re travelling past Kearney on the I80 highway, be sure to stop in at the Great Platte River Road Archway. This fascinating attraction uses interactive displays to tell the story of the region’s important role in the pioneer days.
The attractive community of Minden is located just a short distance north of the state border with Kansas. Minden’s novel designation as Nebraska’s “Christmas City” is a nod to the importance its population of nearly 3,000 residents places on the festive season, when the town comes alive with countless twinkling light displays.
This fun tradition started back in 1915 when Kearney’s already attractive courthouse was strung with lights to impress visiting dignitaries. Visit today at Christmas and you’ll see the building lit up spectacularly with over 12,000 bulbs. Regardless of the time of year you visit, other attractions include the nearby Harlan County Reservoir, popular for water-based recreational activities including fishing and boating, and the fascinating Pioneer Village museum complex.
Chadron is set on the edge of the state’s Pine Ridge escarpment near the border with South Dakota and serves as the gateway to Nebraska’s vast National Forest region. Standing in stark contrast to the state's more typical prairie landscape, this densely treed region covers over 141,000 acres and is home to no end of possibilities for outdoor adventures. Chadron State Park, with its scenic drives and hiking trails, is also fun to explore.
As much fun as it is to spend time in the great outdoors here, you’ll also want to set aside time to wander downtown Chadron itself. Notable attractions include the Museum of the Fur Trade, which delves into a bygone era when fur trading was the region's economic mainstay.
The Final Word
While we’re all familiar with the traditional image of Nebraska as a prairie state known for its agriculture, dig a little deeper and you’ll find the “Cornhusker State” has so much more to offer. From vast areas of woodland near Chadron to the fascinating topography of the Sandhills region, some of the most authentic travel experiences can in fact be found in small-town Nebraska. Read through our list of the most unique Nebraska towns for ideas and inspiration.