10 Wild West Family Adventures
Discover how Buffalo Bill, U.S. soldiers, railroaders and Pony Express riders opened the west.
Explore the old West in Nebraska’s Sandhills, a mixed-grass prairie that covers almost a third of the state. Before the interstates were built, travelers journeyed through this region on the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California Gold Rush Trail and Pony Express Trail. It’s packed with history and family-friendly things to see and do.
Just be sure to check schedules before you go, as some attractions and events are seasonal, or may close in inclement weather.
In North Platte, make tracks to the Bailey Yard, the world’s largest switch yard. From the seventh floor, open-air observation deck in the Golden Spike Tower, you’ll see 10,000 cars being repaired, serviced or assembled into freight trains each day. Look for William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s picture in the exhibits; he considered North Platte his hometown and used the trains to move his Wild West show from his ranch. On the second Saturday of the month, kids can do a make-and-take project, meet Lil’ Spike, the yard’s mascot, and learn how trains helped settle the frontier.
Tip: Chow down on a Twisted Buffalo pizza (ranch sriracha sauce, shredded chicken and pepperoni) or other handcrafted pizza at nearby Pals Brewing Company.
Adults, quench your thirst with Jalapeno Cream Ale, English Brown Porter and other handcrafted brews. Then stay awhile and play. Pals is adding outdoor games like horseshoes, cornhole and bocce ball.
Buffalo Bill really got around. At age 14, he worked for the Pony Express, perhaps recruited by a poster advertising for “young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” The Sam Machette Station, a log building used for the Express from 1860-1861, sits in beautiful Ehmen Park, in the city of Gothenburg. Kids can romp on the playground out back. Cross the street to see period artifacts in the Gothenburg Historical Museum.
Tip: Buy a postcard at the Station and mail it to yourself for a souvenir postmark.
Take older kids to Fort McPherson National Cemetery, a relatively small cemetery where many soldiers from the 1860s Indian Wars have been re-interred. The main building on the grounds was part of the fort, which was erected to protect travelers on the Oregon and California Trails. Use a self-guided tour brochure to locate the final resting places of the brave African American men known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Early travelers once followed the Platte and North Platte Rivers. One of the best ways to experience their route is by “tankin’” on a Nebraska river. Rent a large, metal tank, like the kind used to feed and water stock, from the Sandhills Motel & Glidden Canoe Rental, and let the current carry you along. You can hop out on the way for a picnic under the shade of cottonwood trees, or let the kids swim if the water’s warm.
Tip: The tanks are roomy, so bring a cooler packed with sandwiches and drinks. Don’t forget the sunscreen.
See Wild West memorabilia at Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park. Bill’s Second Empire mansion, on his Scout’s Rest Ranch, is open to the public and has been restored with many original furnishings. You can also explore the large barn and other outbuildings and a live petting farm. The 233-acre recreation area in the park offers picnicking, hiking and camping.
Tip: the barn is turned into a “haunted house” around Halloween, and some say the ranch is haunted.
While you’re at the park, sign up for a horseback ride. Dusty Trails Stables and Outfitting offers rides along the Platte River. River trips via canoe, kayak, tube, or stock tank are also available, and the outfitter will drive you upstream, so you can float back to your car.
Take a break from historical exhibits and let the family stretch their legs at Potter’s Pasture, also in North Platte, and one of Nebraska’s most popular mountain biking trails. About 20 miles of single-track trails pass through more than 1000 acres of canyons, hills, trees and prairie grasses. Watch for cows; a rancher leases the land. For biking gear and more details, visit a local bike shop.
Sure, Fort Cody Trading Post has been called America's kitschiest roadside attraction, but it’s fun and it introduces you to some of the old West’s colorful characters and legends. Watch an animated version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, featuring over 20,000 miniature, hand-carved cowboys, Indians, soldiers and animals. Then browse exhibits of cowboy gear and antiques (don’t miss the two-headed calf). Kids can explore wagons and a log cabin out back. It’s all free, unless you can’t resist buying some huckleberry preserves, colorful t-shirts or a pretend sheriff’s badge.
Tip: Create your own burger for lunch or dinner at the Canteen Bar and Grille, or order an aged, hand-cut Nebraska steak. The Grille is dedicated to the volunteer Nebraskans who served sandwiches, coffee, cake and cookies to over 6 million servicemen and women who passed through the state on troop trains during World War II.
NEBRASKAland Days, an annual event, is slated for June 14-24, 2017. It celebrates the state’s western heritage with bronc and buffalo riding, roping, a Wild West Micro Brew Festival and more. Many events are free, although there’s an admission charge for the rodeo, concerts and some events in the Wild West Arena. Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakum, Brothers Osborne and Chris Stapleton will headline, while America's Got Talent Loop Rawlins will perform at the rodeo.
Cody Park is a great place to stop for ice cream, a ride on a 1913 carousel, and a visit to a small railroad museum and restored depot. The park pond was the site of Buffalo’s Bill’s original Wild West show, the "Old Glory Blowout". Play free horseshoes here, or let the kids visit a pen filled with elk, burros, sheep, deer, and waterfowl. Snap a selfie beside the life-sized statue of Bill at the Wild West Memorial entrance.
Tip: Wander through one of only two Challenger 3900-series steam locomotives still on public display, or contact the CVB in advance for a guided tour. The Challenger is one of the biggest steam locomotives ever built.