Road-Tripping in Nebraska Is All About Big Views, Historic Towns, and Plenty of Bison Burgers

This trail of lakefront beaches, dusty prairies, and Old West artifacts is a low-key adventure full of simple pleasures.

Toadstool Geological Park beige rock formations beneath a blue sky

Toadstool Geological Park, a visual highlight of this Nebraska road trip, is full of otherworldly rock formations.

Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

Up until this earlier year, Nebraska had an amusingly self-deprecating (and controversial) tourism slogan: “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” It got nixed in February by the Nebraska Tourism Commission, which called it “a thing of the past,” and noted that interest in the state among travelers had gone up during the motto’s five-year tenure.

It’s no wonder. As someone who grew up in the west, always searching for ways to show my kids glimpses of my slower-paced wide-open-spaces-filled youth, I was thrilled to find that—and more—in western Nebraska, where we covered over 700 miles in a five-day road trip. We were immersed in the rich history of the Oregon Trail and captivated by scenic buttes, rolling hills, and a range of geological wonders.

Now I can enthusiastically say this: If you’re yearning for adventure and the open road, and the idea of one-room schoolhouses, bison burgers, toadstool-shaped rock formations and dinosaur bones kicks up your curiosity, then cue your Spotify trekking playlist and put the rubber to the road. Our trip starts in Denver, easily accessed by its major airport, and heads east into Nebraska, where it then follows a loop dotted with splendid scenery, quirky towns and good eats. After your final stop in Scottsbluff, it’s an easy three hours back to the Colorado city where you started.

Lake McConaughy beach filled with RVs, cars, and people sitting, boating, and wading

Lake McConaughy, or “Big Mac,” has clear turquoise water lapping miles of fine-sand beaches.

Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

Lake McConaughy and Ogallala

  • Start: Denver, Colorado
  • End: Ogallala, Nebraska
  • Distance: 213 miles
  • Recommended time: 2 days
Mansion on the Hill's white one-room schoolhouse with an open door and U.S. flag beside it

Mansion on the Hill features a preserved one-room schoolhouse.

Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

As you leave Denver and cross into Nebraska onto I-76, it’ll be a three-hour, 213-mile drive through tiny towns and grassy fields dotted with cattle ranches until you reach Ogallala, once a stop for Pony Express riders and a hub for cattle drives, with just 5,000 residents and the feel of an Old West outpost. Cattle is still a thriving local industry and at Open Range Grill, a locally owned burger joint, you can sample some grass-fed beef from right down the road. Its creatively topped specialty burgers have western-inspired names like Prairie Fire and High Noon, the latter of which is crowned with a fried egg, pico de gallo, and cheese. After dinner, head to the town’s former library for a cold one at Second Chapter Brewing, offering biblio-inspired beers like the Overdue Oatmeal Porter. History buffs will enjoy the Mansion on the Hill and its preserved one-room schoolhouse. (The last such schoolhouse in the state closed in 1964.) And don’t miss Boot Hill, the area’s first burial ground and the final resting place for outlaws like “Rattlesnake Ed,” who got shot in 1884 over a $9 bet on a saloon game of monte.

From Ogallala, it’s a short drive to Lake McConaughy. Its 30,000-acre surface makes it Nebraska’s largest reservoir and earns it the nickname “Big Mac.” The lake has miles of surprisingly enjoyable beach, with fine sand and clear turquoise water populated by boaters and swimmers in the summer months. Sit back and watch or join the fray by renting a stand-up paddleboard, kayak, or pontoon from one of several local outfitters.

Where to stay

The thing to do in these parts is to rent an RV parked right on the beach, campfire included; find a vast selection on Lake Mac RV Rentals. If rustic’s not your speed, find a small selection of cute Airbnbs, including this three-bedroom waterfront home with spectacular views and a house dubbed Beach Bum Ranch, including a deck with stellar sunset views.

Gray Carhenge automobiles stuck vertically into the ground with one balancing horizontally on top.

Carhenge features 39 automobiles that have been painted gray and artfully arranged

Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

Chadron and Chadron State Park

  • Start: Ogallala
  • End: Chadron
  • Distance: 174 miles
  • Recommended time: 1–2 days

The Gold Rush Scenic Byway, or US-385, is the road to Chadron. Once used to transport ore, its sweeping views of wide-open spaces include grass-covered knolls, river valleys, and steep, vertical buttes. Stop in the town of Alliance to stretch your legs and visit Carhenge—exactly what it sounds like, with 39 automobiles, including a 1962 Cadillac, spray-painted gray and arranged by artist Jim Reinders—and Dobby’s Frontier Town, a collection of historic frontier buildings filled with period antiques, all creating life-size dioramas of the Wild West. The collection of actual Old West–era buildings that one owner saved from demolition and relocated onto his personal property is a sort of museum (free); each structure is filled with antiques to evoke their past uses, from post office to drugstore.

Heading north on 385, you’ll come to peaceful Chadron State Park, in the heart of the Nebraska National Forest and offering activities from horseback riding to hiking, just before the town of Chadron. Here, the Bean Broker is an atmospheric coffeehouse and pub in a historic building whose resident tabby, Toddy, is printed on T-shirts (and has an Instagram account). The historic downtown is worth strolling to get a glimpse of early 20th-century architecture and visit the Mari Sandoz Heritage Center, celebrating Nebraska’s most prolific writer, who chronicled pioneer life and Indigenous people at a time when most women were illiterate. At the Museum of the Fur Trade, the site of the original James Bordeaux Trading Post, check out the garden of native plants, sprouted from 125-year-old seeds collected from Indigenous people, plus over 6,000 artifacts from westward expansion.

Where to stay

Airbnb offers options like this two-bedroom downtown loft or a three-bedroom farmhouse.

Fort Robinson State Park

  • Start: Chadron
  • End: Fort Robinson State Park
  • Distance: 27.4 miles
  • Recommended time: 2–3 days

It’s only a 20-minute drive to this next destination, but because it’s packed with activities, we recommend immersing yourself and staying for at least a couple of days. The 22,000-acre Fort Robinson State Park is home to sweeping, pine-edged, bison-grazing vistas, offering hiking, mountain biking, hunting, and fishing. Although a scenic recreation area today, the park has a checkered past: Natives were pushed off the land to create a military fort in 1874, and what followed was the killing of Chief Crazy Horse during the Sioux Wars, a training ground for military horses and dogs, and even a POW camp for German soldiers in World War II. You can pay homage to all its past lives at the Fort Robinson History Center (May to December).

Families will find plenty else to do: Crafts, historic tours, trail rides, Jeep tours, and stagecoach and wagon rides are all on offer. (Don’t get too attached to the picturesque bison, though, who wind up on plates at the Fort Robinson Cafe.) The Post Playhouse offers seasonal performances of popular theater productions, and the Trailside Museum of Natural History highlights the area’s natural history—starring a pair of 14-foot-tall mammoth skeletons whose tusks became entangled during combat.

Where to stay

Book a rustic space in the former officer barracks, now reserved for guest lodging from April through November, or a room in the historic, no-frills lodge. They’re nothing fancy, but provide a fun sleepaway camp vibe mixed with unique history and the convenience of being right on site for getting to the various activities early in the morning.

Harrison and Scottsbluff

  • Start: Fort Robinson State Park
  • End: Scottsbluff
  • Distance: 89 miles
  • Recommended time: 2 days

Tiny Harrison (pop. 239) feels like the set of an old western. On historic Main Street, Harrison House Hotel is an alleged former brothel with nine rooms and rates starting at just $60. The Hoyt Block has housed the post office and Whiteaker’s Western Store since 1938, and it’s a great place to pick up a souvenir Stetson. At the Longhorn Saloon, Harrison’s only watering hole, a bottle or can of Coors, Bud, Keystone, or Miller High Life will set you back about $3.50—just pull a red vinyl bucket seat up to the bar.

The Visitor Center at nearby Agate Fossil Beds holds a dazzling collection of rare Miocene fossils and Lakota Sioux artifacts that were given by Chief Red Cloud to rancher James Cook, including intricately beaded garments and moccasins, while Toadstool Geological Park is full of otherworldly rock formations that make a worthy photo op and offer local geology lessons.

Near the Wyoming border, the town of Scottsbluff was a stop on the Oregon Trail, and its Scotts Bluff Visitor Center (technically in Gering, just next door) is the perfect place to explore frontier history. From there, enjoy a hike, bike ride, or drive to the summit of Scotts Bluff National Monument for panoramic views before heading back into town for cold beers and hot wings at Flyover Brewing Co. where, after a week enjoying Nebraska’s riches, you’ll be well-positioned to argue its so-called flyover status.

Where to stay

Five minutes from downtown Scottsbluff, Hotel 21 & Co. is a low-slung motel with a boutique vibe and views of the prairie.

This story is part of our Meet Me in the Middle series, which celebrates the singular towns, cities, and outdoor spaces that lie in wait for travelers between America’s well-trodden coasts. Read more from North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based food and travel writer whose work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Hemispheres, BBC Travel, and other publications. She chronicles her adventures on Instagram @RebeccaTreon.
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