Getting Around Nebraska
The Cornhusker State is filled with miles and miles of country roads that beckon for a slow, Sunday drive, but a vast network of paved corridors exists for swifter, less-dusty and often just as scenic travels. Air travel options are becoming more numerous, as are public transportation options by bus and train. Oftentimes, the toughest part of traveling is simply deciding where you want to go next.
It’s helpful to be aware of the state’s large size and unique demographics when trying to get from point A to point B. With more than 77,000 square miles, Nebraska weighs in as the sixteenth largest state. However, Nebraska is only the 37th most-populous one with roughly 1.9 million people. Omaha and Lincoln, the two biggest cities in the state, are located on the more densely populated eastern side. In comparison, Central and Western Nebraska tend to be more sparsely populated.
The state’s largest airport is Eppley Airfield in Omaha. Alaska, Frontier, Allegiant, Southwest, American and United Airlines offer travelers nonstop options from major hubs such as Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., as well as connections world-wide. The next-largest airport is the Lincoln Airport, located in Nebraska’s capital city about an hour west of Omaha. Flights from Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver and Atlanta are available via United and Delta. The Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island offers nonstop service from Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas and Phoenix through Allegiant and American. The Western Nebraska Regional Airport provides nonstop flights from Denver to Scottsbluff via Peninsula Airlines.
Denver International Airport in Colorado is another option for airline transportation and currently offers service to Kearney, North Platte, Scottsbluff, Chadron and Alliance.
You can drive across Nebraska in a day, but it’s going to be a long one.
The state isn’t exactly a rectangle, but it’s roughly twice as long as it is wide. The journey from east to west along Interstate 80 covers 455 miles, crossing into the Mountain Time Zone and a different climate. In comparison, north-south routes range between 160 and 220 miles.
I-80 bisects the state between Omaha and the Wyoming border, following the same path that Oregon, California and Mormon Trail pioneers forged in the 1800s. It still serves today as a major transportation artery for cross country travel in the United States. With a 75 mile-per-hour speed limit, travelers are in for a streamlined, educational journey across the state. More than 80 exits lead to sights of historic interest and special attractions, as well as plentiful opportunities for rest and refueling. Larger cities along the interstate include Lincoln, Grand Island, Kearney, North Platte, Ogallala and Sidney.
Bus service is available to/from cities state-wide on Greyhound. Travelers can also find routes to larger cities via regional carriers such as Country Travel Discoveries, Burlington Trailways and Black Hills Stage Lines.
Omaha and Lincoln also offer local bus transportation to popular destinations within their city limits. In Omaha, the Metro runs daily routes to shopping hubs, medical centers, major attractions and even takes passengers across the border to Council Bluffs, Iowa. In Lincoln, StarTran routes offer transportation to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Lincoln Airport and other points of interest.
For travelers seeking train service, Amtrak offers passenger transportation to/from Omaha along the California Zephyr route between Chicago and San Francisco. This route also passes through Lincoln, Hastings, Holdrege and McCook allowing for additional destinations for in-state transit by train.
Nine scenic byways lead through Nebraska’s captivating and diverse landscapes. These 2-lane highways trace the paths of pioneers, explorers and outlaws as they meander through grassy plains, river bluffs, rocky escarpments, pine forests and the state’s awe-inspiring sand hills. Historical sights and odd attractions lurk behind many bends and offer off-the-beaten paths for adventure and discovery.
The Gold Rush Byway travels north-south through the state’s panhandle in the west on U.S. Highway 385 between the South Dakota and Colorado borders. This 158-mile route was used in the late 1800s to transport gold from South Dakota’s Black Hills to railroad lines near Sidney, but it today takes travelers on a sweeping journey through the buttes and canyons of the Nebraska Badlands, on into the wide-open sand hills near Alliance and ends in the high plains near the southern border.
The Bridges to Buttes Byway runs east-west from Valentine to the Wyoming state line along U.S. Highway 20. This 197-mile route begins in the solitude of the Sandhills region and then travels the breadth of the Pine Ridge escarpment with breathtaking views of the state’s rocky and remote northwest corner.
The Heritage Highway stretches 238 miles east-west on U.S. Highway 136 starting in Brownville and ending mid-state not far from Holdrege. This road-less-traveled begins on the banks of the Missouri River then journeys past the nation’s first homestead in Beatrice and the town of Red Cloud, the hometown of Nebraska author Willa Cather.
The Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway is an 82-mile trek north-south along U.S. Highway 75 between South Sioux City and Omaha. Running parallel to the Missouri River and following in the footsteps of these ambitious explorers, modern day travelers pass through some of the state’s earliest settlements and present-day Native American reservations.
The Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway follows U.S. Highway 30 east-west from the Iowa border to Wyoming. Known as America’s Main Street, this 400-mile route was the first to connect the country from New York to San Francisco.
The Loup Rivers Scenic Byway meanders alongside three rivers west of Grand Island on Nebraska Highways 11 and 91. This 150-mile route curves through the farmlands of central Nebraska and ends in the Sandhills near Nebraska National Forest at Thedford and Halsey. Opportunities for outdoor water adventures abound at three state reservoirs.
The Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway runs east-west from South Sioux City to Valentine along Nebraska Highway 12. This 231-mile journey leads through historic cowboy country where the likes of Jesse James once roamed with scenic views of the Missouri and Niobrara rivers.
The Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway covers 272 miles east-west from Grand Island to Alliance along Nebraska Highway 2. Deemed one of the top 10 scenic drives in the country, this route begins in the spring migration grounds for sandhill cranes and continues through the heart of the state for an extensive exploration of the grass-covered dunes of the Sandhills.
The Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway runs east-west from Ogallala to the Wyoming border on Nebraska Highway 92 and U.S. Highway 26. This 144-mile route passes by Nebraska’s largest lake, Lake McConaughy at Ogallala, then follows the path of the North Platte River. This Western Nebraska route showcases several large rock formations that Oregon, California and Mormon Trail pioneers relied upon to guide their journeys west. Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff National Monument still rise high above the plains as dramatic reminders of primitive navigation.
Need a little help finding your way? The Nebraska Department of Roads offers free highway maps for travelers at DOR offices and visitor welcome centers across the state. Maps may also be requested online at roads.nebraska.gov. Current road conditions, possible construction delays and weather forecasts can be accessed online at 511.nebraska.gov or by calling 511 on your mobile device or (800) 906-9069 from a landline.
No matter what path you travel in Nebraska, all routes lead to the Good Life and memorable journeys.
Nebraskans like to say, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. It’ll change.”
This adage rings true when discussing the day-to-day highs, lows and in-betweens of temperatures and precipitation on the Great Plains. When traveling throughout the Cornhusker State, it’s always a good idea to keep one eye on the local weather forecast and the other on the western horizon – notorious for spectacular sunsets as well as approaching weather fronts. Mother Nature dials up destructive weather at times, but with a little preparation and planning, the beauty of Nebraska can be enjoyed in all four seasons.
Located geographically in the center of the United States and encompassing more than 77,000 square miles of sweeping plains, Nebraska’s waves come in the form of prairie grasses rippling in persistent breezes. The state is divided into two climates – the more humid east and the semi-arid west. The differences between the two regions are dramatic. The state’s largest city, Omaha, lies on the eastern border with Iowa and receives an average of 30 inches of precipitation a year. Scottsbluff, not far from the Wyoming border in the state’s panhandle in the west, receives less than 16 inches.
Nebraska’s seasons pass in sync with the seeds our farmers sow into the ground. As the state thaws with milder temperatures and rain showers each spring, tiny green leaves of soybeans emerge and fledge into purple-flowered plants. Average spring and early-summer temperatures range from lows in the 30s to highs in the 60s in March and April, with warming to the 50-80s range by May and June. Omaha averages about 2-4 inches of rain per month while accumulations in Scottsbluff are generally between 1 and 2 inches. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the spring, and tornadoes are most likely to spin up between March and June.
Hot, humid summers ripen ears of corn and propel their stalks towards the sky so fast some swear you actually can hear them grow. Afternoon and evening thunderstorms often bring a break in humidity as well as massive blooms of wildflowers and rainbows that stretch across the sky. Average summer temperatures range from the low 60s to the high 80s. July usually ranks as the hottest month and days with 95 percent humidity, and 95 degree temps are not uncommon. During summer, Omaha averages about 3 inches of rain per month while Scottsbluff averages about an inch per month. With the summer heat comes opportunities to enjoy Nebraska’s many lakes and rivers. You will also see the ripening of the wheat in the western part of the state.
Fall ushers in cooler temperatures, high school and college football games, golden corn fields and the constant hum of combines harvesting the bounty of another growing season. Average temperatures range widely between 30 and 60 degrees in October and November with lows dipping down into the teens by December with highs in the 30s. Precipitation-wise, Omaha averages 1 to 2 inches of rain per month while accumulations often drop under an inch per month in Scottsbluff. The state’s first measurable snowfall can occur early in fall, but is more common in November or December.
Winter forces some plants and animals into dormant states, but most species of Nebraskans bundle up and continue to thrive amid falling snow and temperatures at the end of the year. Average temperatures range from lows around 10 degrees to highs in the 40s during winters in Nebraska. January is historically the coldest month of the year and bitter-cold days of sub-zero temperatures and wind chill do occur. Generally speaking, the lion’s share of the state’s annual snowfall occurs during winter. Omaha averages 26 inches of snow every year while Scottsbluff averages 43 inches.
Navigating the extremes of Nebraska’s seasons requires some prior planning and the awareness of potential threats like a spring tornado or a winter ice storm. Local news outlets and the National Weather Service are often the best resources for predicting when and where these events may occur and how to seek shelter.
For specific information on road conditions year-round, travelers can tap into two resources maintained by the Nebraska Department of Roads. The department’s website, 511.nebraska.gov, provides statewide information on current traffic speeds, road construction impacts and weather forecasts. It also provides links to highway cameras for real-time views of conditions. Travelers can dial 511 on their mobile device or (800) 906-9069 from a landline to listen to automated updates on road conditions.
The weather possibilities may be endless in Nebraska, but for resourceful travelers, great adventures await.