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Nebraska: Follow the course of a mighty Great Plains waterway

Follow the Platte River as it winds across Nebraska from Scottsbluff to Ogallala, flanking the routes of the Oregon and California trails. From some of the best bird watching in the country, to rodeos and rock formations, the Panhandle stands out as a surprising hot spot of unique attractions.

Drive 123.5 miles, 2 hours, 32 minutes

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

1. Scottsbluff

Starting Point

Despite expectations of flat plains stretching for miles, the panhandle is actually full of unique geologic formations, and none more so than the area just outside Scottsbluff. Home to the Scottsbluff National Monument site and the famed Chimney Rock Park, the area treats visitors to a stunning natural landscape and diverse history that includes both Native American culture and westward expansion along the Oregon Trail. The visitor centers at both sites offer guided and interpretive tours of the magnificent features.

2. Bridgeport

34.6 miles, 46 minutes

The main draw in Bridgeport is the Recreation Area, which attracts visitors from across the region to swim, hike, bike, fish and picnic among the cottonwood, plum and cherry trees that dot the grounds. After a morning outdoors, head to the Pioneer Trails Museum for its intimate look at area history, including the Gold Rush trails and influence of the mighty Platte River on pioneer life. Squeeze in 18 holes as the sun goes down at the Courthouse and Jail Rock Golf Course in the shadows of its namesake landmarks. The design expertly integrates the natural landscape into the course for an unforgettable golfing experience.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

3. Lewellen

56.7 miles, 1 hour, 7 minutes

A small town with a big personality, Lewellen is quickly becoming a surprise destination for artists and birders. Priding themselves on their creativity, many of the 200 or so residents are artists or gallery owners. A stroll down Main Street yields a number of quirky offerings. For birdwatchers, the town is a standout that is consistently ranked among the best birding areas in the country. The Lewellen Bridge just south of town offers spectacular sunrise views of the springtime gathering of sandhill cranes.

4. Ogallala

32.2 miles, 39 minutes

As the state’s “Cowboy Capital,” this town has never forgotten its past. For the last 50 years, Front Street has been hosting Wild West mock shoot-outs and dancehall performances in the saloons. Modern-day rodeos happen regularly in town, and a stop at the Haythorn Land & Cattle Company means chuck wagon dinners and tours of the historic property. The nearby Front Street and Cowboy Museum shows off old-time jail cells and Native American artifacts. After a busy day of fun, sink your teeth into a thick, juicy steak. The Front Street Steakhouse and the Spur are the places to go for hand-cut rib-eye steaks.