Windswept prairies and fertile corn fields give way to shifting sand hills as you traverse the largely rural, 77,358 square miles that make up Nebraska. Hemmed in by South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming, the Cornhusker State lies within the so-called Tornado Alley, where violent thunderstorms frequently erupt across the flat plains in summer.
Two time zones divide the state. Central Time rules the eastern half, while the western half observes Mountain Time. The eastern part of Nebraska is where you’ll find the state’s two largest cities: Omaha and the capital, Lincoln.
Set on the banks of the Missouri River, Omaha counts nearly half a million residents. Head downtown to the 12-square-block Old Market district, where late 19th-century warehouses now hold a variety of galleries, restaurants and shops. Then take the kids to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, which claims a pair of superlatives: the world’s largest indoor rainforest and the world’s largest indoor desert. In the Lied Jungle rainforest, visitors can walk across rope bridges past waterfalls and habitats harboring monkeys, macaws and pygmy hippos. Under the Desert Dome, plants and animals from deserts in Africa, Australia and America co-exist.
Bird lovers should schedule their trips between late February and early April in order to spy the more than one-half million sandhill cranes, whooping cranes and other migratory birds that show up in Grand Island and Kearney in South Central Nebraska each year. Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon and the Nebraska Bird Observatory at Crane Meadows in Wood River are prime places to take in the feathery show that animates the shallow waters of the Platte River.
Nebraska has been the scene of many a historical road trip. Routes once traveled by explorers and pioneers in wagon trains forging their way west now cross the state as modern highways. Hop in the car and follow scenic byways that trace the road followed by gold diggers in the 1870s, the route blazed by explorers Lewis and Clark in 1804, and even the Outlaw Trail, hideout of the infamous Wild West bandit Jesse James.