A sampling of the Cornhusker State turns up canyons, lakes, and sandhills, not to mention a Kool-Aid festival, an enclave of Czech culture, and other overlooked delights

Surprising Nebraska: a sampling of the Cornhusker State turns up canyons, lakes, and sandhills, not to mention a Kool-Aid festival, an enclave of Czech culture, and other overlooked delights

Mike Michaelson

ONE OF THE GREAT NEW ATTRActions at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo–consistently ranked among the top 10 zoos in the nation–is the world’s largest indoor desert. Housed in a giant geodesic dome, it allows visitors to experience the Namib Desert of southern Africa, the Central Australian Desert, and the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northwest Mexico. It features puma, bobcats, wallabies, foxes, roadrunners, and a variety of cacti, succulents, palms, and mesquite trees, plus desert grasses, herbs, and shrubs. To be added this year is “Kingdoms of the Night” billed as the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit: It includes a swamp with floating walkway, an underground river, beaver lodge, aquariums, caves, stalactite cavern, “Raccoon Bayou” and eucalyptus and tropical rainforests.

When it comes to sightseeing, Nebraska offers visitors a zesty mix of brand-new attractions and old favorites. Many–such as attractions around North Platte and Omaha–are close to Interstate 80, which bisects the state.

Others are at geographical extremes-such as Valentine, hugging the South Dakota line, and McCook, 200 miles due south of it, close to the Kansas border.

Among new attractions is a state-of-the-art visitor center at Ponca State Park in extreme northeast Nebraska along the Missouri River. With the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition beginning next year, it will include displays about the two famed explorers who traveled the Missouri River exactly where the park now is located. This 59-mile stretch of the famous river is one of the few segments of the Missouri that never has been dammed or channelized and exists in a relatively natural state.

Latter-day paddlers head for the Niobrara River in Cherry County, which attracts kayakers, canoeists, and tubers. It flows through steep sandstone canyons and was designated a National Scenic River in 1991. Mostly, the river is gentle, ideal for novice canoeists and lazy floats on inner tubes, although there is a stretch of faster water and rapids downstream. Make Valentine, the county seat, your headquarters for river running and for exploring the sandhills of north-central Nebraska, where sand dunes as high as 400 feet extend for up to 20 miles. This is the spot for horseback riding, biking, and hiking along the Cowboy Trail, which runs for 320 miles along the northern edge of the state.

Cherry County is well endowed with waterfalls, including sparkling Smith Falls, highest in the state, tumbling nearly 70 feet. You’ll find a living history ranch, the Arthur Bowring Sandhills Ranch Historical Park, and, at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, herds of plains bison and elk (as well as communities of cute prairie dogs). Valentine’s annual Old West Days features the Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Tucked away in south-central Nebraska is McCook, with brick streets and landmark buildings. Established in 1882 as a railroad town, it became a typical Old West boomtown. You can visit the 1886 home of Senator George Norris, the political maverick Republican known as “the fighting liberal,” and see a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie house.

Nearby are fishing, boating, and other water sports at four sizable reservoirs that provide more than 10,000 acres of recreation to a quarter million people annually. Within the tranquil Republic River Valley is Heritage Hills Golf Course, known for challenging design and good value and ranked one of Golf Digest’s top 75 public golf courses in America. You’ll also enjoy such simple pleasures as a drive-in where burgers are served by carhops and Sehnert’s Bakery & Bieroc Cafe, sought out by visiting “foodies” for traditional German baked goods.

For a taste of Nebraska’s rich frontier history, stop at North Platte to visit Buffalo Bill State Historical Park. For more than 35 years the Pony Express rider, Army scout, and buffalo hunter made North Platte his home and headquarters of his world-famous Wild West Show.

Also in North Platte, you can visit the distinctive Golden Spike Tower and Cody Park Railroad Museum to soak up the history of the Union Pacific’s expansion and learn about modern railroading. North Platte is home of June’s Nebraskaland Days, which incorporates the Buffalo Bill Rodeo.

The state abounds with museums and restored forts that reflect its importance in America’s westward expansion. Among the most visited are Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village in Minden, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, and Fort Kearny State Historical Park in Kearney.

If you’re looking for funky fun, the Wayne Chicken Show (July 12) may be eggs-actly what you’re looking for. Chicken puns fly faster than a bird from a coop in the city of Wayne, located in the heart of the fertile farmland of northeastern Nebraska. A hard boiled egg eating contest brings shades of Cool Hand Luke, while the National Cluck-off Contest asks the question, “Can you act and sound like a chicken?” There’s a chauvinistic rooster-crowing contest (no hens allowed) in which roosters are literally kept in the dark so that they will think it is morning when the covers of their coops are removed.

Other fun festivals include Kool-Aid Days (August 8-10) at Hastings in south-central Nebraska. Find the world’s largest Kool-Aid stand, plus a chili cook-off, games, antique market, collectibles, and entertainment. Edwin Perkins invented the popular powdered drink in Hastings in 1927. To overcome the high-cost of shipping bottles of a liquid concentrate of a drink called Fruit Smack, Perkins developed a process for dehydrating the drink mix so that the remaining powder could be re-packaged in envelopes.

Check out Czech culture at Wilber, about 35 miles southwest of Lincoln. At its annual Czech Festival (August 1-3), you can sample kolaches (pastries) and sausages, learn about Czech costumes, and shop for hand-painted ornaments and blown glass made by centuries-old Bohemian techniques. There is music, dancing, and a quilt show, plus a daily parade and historical pageant.

A visit to Wilber offers a taste of Fastern Europe mixed with Midwest small-town friendliness. Take a walking tour around town with stops at the Wilber Czech Croft Shop (hand-embroidered costumes, cookbooks, dolls, imported braids, and original-design china) and at the Wilber Czech Museum, a storehouse of heritage and culture, including recreations of a typical school room and doctor’s office.

Contact: Nebraska Division of Travel & Tourism, (877) NEBRASKA; www.visitnebraska.org.

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