The Oregon Trail

Because it’s a fascinating part of the country, fairly detailed coverage has been directed at the places along US-20 across most of northern Nebraska. The same cannot be said of Nebraska’s far northeast quarter, but there are a couple of interesting detours.

Six miles north of US-20 via Hwy-59, from a well-signed junction two miles west of the tiny village of Royal (pop. 60), you can watch paleontologists at work uncovering giant fossils at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park (402/893-2000, daily May-Oct., $7 entry plus $6 per day Nebraska Park permit). Unusual for a fossil bed, the skeletons here are preserved completely intact because the original residents—including prehistoric herds of rhinoceros, camels, and saber-toothed deer—got caught in a volcanic eruption some 12 million years ago. Since the bones haven’t been disturbed, you can get a clear sense of the creatures’ size and the sheer numbers of their populations around a prehistoric watering hole.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating human histories and cultures of the Great Plains, head south of US-20 across the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations to the tiny town of Bancroft, where the John G. Neihardt Center (888/777-4667 or 402/648-3388, daily, free) exhibits the personal collection of Nebraska’s poet laureate and writer of the Native American classic Black Elk Speaks.