When you think of outdoor adventure, the Plains probably aren’t the first place that jumps into your mind. Spending more time exploring from the Texas Panhandle to North Dakota, I’ve discovered some amazing outdoor destinations in the states where folks tend to just drive through or flyover. Next time you find yourself in the landscape of prairies and ranches, take a detour to these destinations. Don’t just pass through the Plains, go explore them!
In Nebraska: Central Platte River Valley (Along about a 150-mile stretch of Interstate 80 between Grand Island and North Platte)
Every spring, over 1 million sandhill cranes stop in the Central Platte River Valley to rest and refuel during their spring migration from winter homes in places like Texas to their summer breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. They eat the waste grain in empty cornfields during the day and sleep in the safety of sandbars in the Platte River at time. It’s considered one of the last great animal migrations on earth with about 80% of all the cranes in the world converging here starting in mid-February and lasting through mid-April, peaking in mid to late March. Even if you’re not a birder, this is a sight to behold. Best way to see the sandhill cranes is on a sunrise or sunset tour at Crane Trust near Grand Island or Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney.
In Grand Island spend a couple of hours at Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. I was blown away by this world class museum and its living history experience, especially in Railroad Town. In Kearney, visit the museum at The Archway followed by a stop at Classic Car Collection with over 200 classic cars, a 1950s gas station, and a drive-in theater. A visit to Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center in North Platte is a must to immerse yourself in some railroad history at the world’s largest railroad classification yard. Go on a sunrise tour with Dusty Trails to see prairie chickens or an afternoon tour to see cranes in the fields.
In South Dakota: Badlands National Park (75 miles east of Rapid City)
Its rugged, harsh terrain is one of the world’s richest fossil beds. While you’re doing the scenic drive keep an eye out for wildlife like bighorn sheep and do some of the pull-off places to take in the expansive views. You can also bike the scenic road or do one of the short hike. Make sure you have plenty of water if you hike as the terrain is unforgiving.
Badlands National Park is out in the middle of nowhere, but its about 1.5 hour to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is close. The visitor center is near the northeast entrance. Visit the National Park Service website for Minuteman or look at a Badlands National Park map as the sites for locations along Interstate 90 are not well marked. During the Cold War, a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons were hidden in plain sight in South Dakota and hundred remain today. Make a stop at Wall Drug Store too. If you drive to Mount Rushmore, also plan to visit Crazy Horse Memorial. You can easily spend several days in Custer in the Black Hills National Forest visiting Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Custer State Park.
In North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Medora)
The entrance to the South Unit is in Medora, right off of Interstate 94. North Dakota also has badlands including in the park, which also has the third highest concentration of petrified wood in the U.S. You can do a 3-mile or 10-mile+ hike if you do the loop. I did the hike to the north concentration of petrified wood and highly recommend it.
Drive the 36-mile loop (part of it closed because of road erosion – turn around at Badlands Overlook) and stop at the many pull-offs with short hikes. This is a national park without crowds which makes it easier to spot bison, go through bison traffic jams, and see wild turkeys and prairie dogs. This is one of the few national parks where you can see free-roaming horses. I got lucky on my visit and spent a good 15-20 minutes just watching the horses roam on a windy day.
If you have time, the North Unit, which is even less visited, is wonderful too. The scenic drive is shorter. Wander around the quaint historic town of Medora. In summer and early fall, the Medora Musical is a must see. If you have a little more time, visit Fort Union Trading Post Nationa Historic Site about 2.5 hours away and on the North Dakota and Montana line. It’s a partial reconstruction of the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri River during 1829-1867.
In Texas: Palo Duro Canyon State Park (25 miles south of Amarillo)
The Texas Panhandle is home to the second largest canyon in United States. It’s known as “The Grand Canyon of Texas.” Palo Duro Canyon has over 30 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails. Do the scenic drive down into the canyon. If you’re a hiker, Lighthouse Trail is my favorite. Be prepared though as you are fully exposed on this hike and it gets scorching hot in summer.
After visiting Palo Duro, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon is worth a visit. It’s Texas’ largest history museum covering 26,000 square miles including dinosaurs, conquistadors, a life-size Pioneer Town and one of the finest art collections in the Southwest. On your way back into Amarillo, make a stop at Cadillac Ranch. I think it’s best at sunset. In Amarillo visit the Route 66 Historic District. For more outdoor fun head to Lake Meredith National Recreation Area and Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument where you can take a quarry tour with a ranger offered daily at 10am and 1pm April through October.
Have fun exploring the Plains!