The Lincoln Highway running through Ogallala, Nebraska. Editorial credit: Sandra Foyt /

9 Offbeat Towns to Visit in Nebraska

Nebraska, known as the “Cornhusker State” for its abundant farmland, is a wonderland of natural attractions. From the Missouri River to its vast prairies, the possibilities are endless. Most people visiting the state flock to larger cities like Lincoln and Omaha for their vast opportunities. However, sometimes the less obvious destinations turn out to be the most memorable because they offer things that nowhere else does.

People who like to do things a little differently should check out Nebraska’s small-town adventures. Whether it is the unique farms of the Great Plains or the unusual art and sculptures like Carhenge, these small towns in Nebraska offer truly offbeat destinations.


An aerial shot of Brownville Bridge over the Missouri River in Brownville, Nebraska.
An aerial shot of Brownville Bridge over the Missouri River in Brownville, Nebraska.

Brownville, on the banks of the Missouri River, is a historic abode that transports visitors to the past. The town boasts so many landmarks from the 1800s that it has been designated a Preserve America Community. One such landmark is the Brown-Carson House, a display of history and Italianate architecture. Built in 1860, it was originally the home of Richard Brown, the town's founder. It was later sold to John. L. Carson, who gifted the house and carriage house on the grounds to the Brownville Historical Society to guarantee their preservation.

Another is the 1854 Didier Log Cabin, a tiny structure filled with massive stories. It was built by a young Frenchman named John B. Didier II, who arrived by steamboat in 1827 and lived in the 15x15 space for over 63 years. Today, the cabin is a homage to his life, and visitors love its authentic vibe.

Ode to its riverside location, Brownville is home to the Steamboat Trace Trail, an official Lewis and Clark attraction that runs along the Missouri River for 21 miles. Here, hikers and cyclists get up close and personal with the river and shadow the paths of the many who traveled the route. To get even closer, the Spirit of Brownville riverboat offers regular dinner cruises during the warmer months. The boat has multiple bars, and the cruises offer options for dining, dancing, and more for a unique experience in Nebraska.


A quiet street in Niobrara, Nebraska.
A quiet street in Niobrara, Nebraska, By Ammodramus - Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons.

Niobrara is a laid-back town in Knox County, where visitors can learn the unique story of the Ponca Tribe. From the forced march to Oklahoma when they were forced off their homeland to the 1966 termination of the Tribe when they lost all lands and rights, the tribe faced many hardships. It took decades of extensive work and lobbying to reinstate the Ponca, but in 1990, they could practice their ways again.

Tourists in Niobrara can join in on the culture at the Ponca’s annual powwow, held every year since their reinstatement. It marks harvest and special events like births and weddings, allowing far-flung loved ones to gather and share teachings with their children. 

For those who want to learn more, the Ponca Tribal Museum is nearby, which displays musical instruments, beadwork, carvings, jewelry, and headdresses the tribe repatriated from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. It also preserves contemporary and historical photographs donated by tribal members for a comprehensive insight into tribal heritage. The tribe also maintains the Ponca Educational Trail and Earthlodge, a series of kiosks and an amphitheater that host Ponca stories to reconnect with their traditions and teach others about their culture.

While heritage is the prime attraction in town, there are still relaxing ways to spend the day. For example, the Niobrara State Park is a major draw, with fishing, horseback rides, swimming, bison cookouts, and more.


Carhenge, the car replica of Stonehenge near Alliance, Nebraska.
Carhenge, the car replica of Stonehenge near Alliance, Nebraska.

Alliance, a town that seems normal at first glance, is home to some of the most offbeat attractions in the state. One of the best attractions is on the way into town: Carhenge, the town’s version of Stonehenge, built from 39 spray-painted cars instead of giant boulders. It was designed by experimental artist Jim Reinders, who had studied the real Stonehenge and always wanted to duplicate it. Finally built in 1987, the landmark is about 96 feet in diameter, with partially buried upright cars in five-foot pits, joined by welded vehicles on the top to form arches. Thanks to its unique charm, the site is now internationally famous, appearing in news outlets like People, in books, on TV, and in movies.

Another offbeat attraction is Dobby’s Frontier Town on the edge of Alliance. Here, visitors can check out over a dozen authentic buildings saved and relocated by founder Kenneth Dobby Lee to preserve local history for future generations. It includes Robert Anderson's log cabin, a combination furniture store and funeral home, an 1889 single-room schoolhouse, and much more. The site also holds regular festivals and events, like the September Fall Festival, full of Native American dance, live entertainment, and good food.

After all the quirky fun, tourists can enjoy a day of shopping and sightseeing on the streets of this lovely town. Whether this means grabbing Mexican food at My Angels or appreciating art at the Carnegie Art Center, plenty of options are available.


The 1800s Pony Express Station in Gothenburg, Nebraska.
The 1800s Pony Express Station in Gothenburg, Nebraska.

Horse and history fans will appreciate the town of Gothenburg as the home of two old Pony Express stations, memorializing the iconic horse-mounted mail system of the 1800s. The first lies on the old Pony Express trail on private land, which is only accessible for tours and groups under some circumstances. 

The second, the Sam Machette Station, is owned by the city and open to the public. The building was disassembled and reassembled in its current location in Ehmen Park and Arboretum in 1931. Initially closed off, local teenagers noticed tourists trying to see inside it through the windows in the 1950s, which prompted the city council to convert it into a gift shop. As of today, the station is a hotspot for tourism and sees between 30,000 to 40,000 visitors every season.   

For more horse-based activities and to get a hands-on experience of life as a ranch hand, the place to go is the Smilin’ Ranch Company outside of town. Visitors can choose their adventure, from helping with chores around the ranch, milking a cow, or just spending their time on horseback through scenic rides on the trails of Platte Valley.


The Holy Family Shrine in Gretna, Nebraska.
The Holy Family Shrine in Gretna, Nebraska.

Gretna is a scenic destination often used as a home base for the offerings of its natural setting. It lies next to Schramm Park State Recreation Area, a 330-acre abode of outdoor opportunities. This area is popular among bird watchers, who especially visit during the bird’s annual migrations every spring. Meanwhile, its trails are open year-round, perfect for hikes, runs, and all-terrain cycling within nature’s charm. Visitors can also opt for a relaxing evening along the trout ponds, home to fish that kids love to feed. 

The most popular stop in Schramm Park is the Schramm Education Center, the oldest fish hatchery in the state. Newly renovated, the center has state-of-the-art aquariums containing 23 tanks of local terrestrial and aquatic habitats and many interactive maps of different types, touch screens, and other exhibits.

A unique retreat the area offers is the visually stunning Holy Family Shrine. Found on a bluff over the Platte Valley, the site has a glass chapel, Way of the Cross trail, crucifix spire, and an underground visitor center bookable for specific events. In combination, these structures create an intriguing sight, open to people of all beliefs. Still, visitors are asked to respect the site's purpose as a place of prayer and contemplation rather than a tourist-centered destination or photo-op backdrop.


The Scotts Bluff National Monument near Gering, Nebraska.
The Scotts Bluff National Monument near Gering, Nebraska.

Want to see if you’d have survived the historic Oregon Trail, the old settler wagon route immortalized in movies and video games? If so, this rustic town in Scotts Bluff County is a must-visit destination. The Legacy of the Plains Museum, located on part of the path, has a series of questions to find out the answer. Related activities include historic simulators and interactive videos. More broadly, the museum focuses on the archaeology of the inhabitants of the area and includes pre- and post-colonial cultures and technologies. Also on site is an 80-acre farm, perfect for some laid-back fun.

Remnants of the Oregon Trail, including ruts from the antique wagon wheels, can be explored at the famous Scotts Bluff National Monument, which has long been a landmark of the area. Found at the top of the 1.6-mile Saddle Rock Trail, the bluff offers an unparalleled view of the 3,000 acres of prairie, badlands, and bluffs the park encompasses. It was established as a monument over a century ago (in 1919) and now sees more than 100,000 tourists a year. Parallel to the historic opportunities, there are picnic areas, gift shops, and nature trails for a wonderful time outdoors in Nebraska.

One of the top spots to stay in town is a converted barn, which lies within sight of Scotts Bluff National Monument on the Oregon Trail. The Barn Anew Bed and Breakfast is in a building over a century old but now has a second life as a bed and breakfast, serving gourmet food in the morning.

Nebraska City

The Arbor Lodge State Historical Park in Nebraska City, Nebraska.
The Arbor Lodge State Historical Park in Nebraska City, Nebraska. By Workman at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons.

Nebraska City, renowned as the home of the first Arbor Day in the US back in 1872, combines historic and outdoor attractions. The first stop for many visitors is the scenic Arbor Day Farm, a massive collection of natural beauty across 260 acres of pristine land. One of the most popular activities here is Treetop Village, which boasts 11 treehouses connected via elevated walkways and wooden bridges. From jumping along the route to holding along the railing, it is an adrenaline rush for all. Moreover, the farm includes an apple tree orchard, a functioning greenhouse, and a 140-room hotel complete with a spa and indoor pool.

Also well worth the stop is the estate of J. Sterling Morton, Arbor Day’s founder, preserved within Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. The original 1855 house grew from four to 52 rooms over the years and reflects authentic decor and furnishing. Additionally, the Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting and Education Center is a short walk away in town. This site honors the local fire department, home to the state's oldest volunteer force.

For a change of pace, local and natural history is on display at the Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Interpretive Trail and Visitor Center. Right on the banks of the Missouri River, it contains more than 300 discoveries of the famous duo over three floors and replicas of a white pirogue and a keelboat. 


Historic buildings along a street in Ogallala, Nebraska.
Historic buildings along a street in Ogallala, Nebraska. Editorial credit: YULIYAPHOTO /

Named after a local Indigenous nation, the town of Ogallala is home to some quirky attractions adored by tourists. One example is the Petrified Wood and Art Gallery, an abode of pictures and art made from petrified wood sourced worldwide. It also includes gorgeous music boxes, collections of gems, stones, arrowheads, and other finds. The wood theme continues with the Driftwood, a 1920s hardware store converted into a restaurant and event center by three local families. Grab a bite, enjoy some drinks, or get to know the locals at this lively outlet in Ogallala.

The town is also popular as the home base for visitors to the state’s largest reservoir, Lake McConaughy. North of town, the reservoir is affectionately also known as “Big Mac” and is a major draw for beach lovers, swimmers, anglers, wind-surfers, and even scuba divers. Along with the 30,000-acre lake, the surrounding state recreation area contains 100 miles of shoreline for some fantastic coastal activities. Even sightseeing is fun as the dam that creates the reservoir is one of the largest of its kind, and the fish are so large that they’ve set several records within the state. 


A view of Toadstool Geological Park near Crawford, Nebraska.
A view of rock formations in Toadstool Geological Park near Crawford, Nebraska.

Within the Badlands, the town of Crawford lies near the moonscape-like otherworldly terrain of Toadstool Geological Park. With some of the most unusual rock formations to be found, the area is a hotspot for photographers, hikers, and those interested in the geology involved in the formations’ creation.

History enthusiasts make sure to check out Fort Robinson State Park and the 16-foot high teepee-shaped monument to the Cheyenne Outbreak, which list the names of those who tried to break free from their forced confinement at the fort. The park also offers history tours, stagecoach rides, as well as bison and longhorn herds, cabins, and a modern lodge.

Also within the park is the Trailside Museum of Natural History, a trip to the past. Here, tourists flock to learn the one-of-a-kind story told by the “Clash of the Mammoths” exhibit, featuring the fossilized remains of two Ice-Age mammoths who died when their tusks became locked in a mortal battle. The fossils were actually found only 15 miles from the museum’s location.

With its low population compared to some states, Nebraska is full of small towns, and these all have their own unique charms. From comfortable and cozy lodging options to unique sculptures and art, quirky museums, and historical oddities, these towns are small but special. Visitors quickly find these underrated places to be hidden gems, and the towns pull out all the stops for those who decide to visit. For a break from crowds and congestion, the wide-open skies of Nebraska can’t be beat.

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