Follow the migration of sandhill cranes into this heartland oasis steeped in the history of hardy 19th-century pioneers.
The south-central portion of Nebraska is dotted with the pioneer's legacy: historical villages, preserved log cabins, and lots of memorabilia. The region is also the heart of sandhill crane country. In the spring, nearly half a million of the blue-gray giants flock in vast numbers along the Platte River. If you travel between Grand Island and North Platte in March and April, you'll observe the tight V formation of these graceful fliers.
This 280-mile (451-kilometer) drive visits Aurora before moving west to Grand Island. Then it's south to Red Cloud, where writer Willa Cather gained inspiration for her fiction. The route slinks northwest to Kearney and continues along a Pony Express route to North Platte, part-time home to William "Buffalo Bill" Cody.
Start in Aurora
Situated a few miles north of I-80 near Nebraska's southern border, this town features the Plainsman Museum, which houses an extensive collection of Western memorabilia as well as period buildings, such as a one-room schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, a Victorian house, and a log cabin. Aurora is also known as a childhood home of Dr. Harold Edgerton, who developed techniques for very high-speed photography—most famously of a bullet exploding an apple and a drop creating a fluid crown of droplets as it plops into a pool of milk. The town's Edgerton Explorit Center includes exhibits on his work.
From Aurora, head west on U.S. 34 and 281 to this town known for its annual March Wings Over the Platte festival celebrating the area's largest sandhill crane-watching event. Also here: the elegant Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, a Western history museum designed by Edward Durell Stone and featuring exhibits on the arts and the history of settlers of the Great Plains. Another popular site: the reconstructed 1860s Railroad Town, complete with 60 buildings. It has been used as a backdrop for several movies. The nearby Heritage Zoo highlights Nebraska wildlife, including wolves and sandhill cranes, which often congregate near town.
Follow Route 34 south from Grand Island to Hastings, where you should check out the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History and J.M. McDonald Planetarium for its wildlife dioramas, armaments collections, and planetarium. Then head south on U.S. 281 to Red Cloud, home of writer Willa Cather from 1884 to 1890. Red Cloud went by various pseudonyms in Cather's books—it was Black Hawk in her classic My Ántonia—but was always recognizable as the prairie town of her childhood. The Willa Cather State Historic Site offers tours of eight buildings mentioned in her novels; her childhood home has been restored to match the descriptions, down to the children's hats on the hall table.
Backtrack north to Nebraska Route 4, then drive west to Nebraska Route 10 and north to the small town of Minden, and the astonishing Harold Warp Pioneer Village, 28 buildings devoted to American history since 1830. Follow the arrows to hundreds of carriages, coaches, automobiles, motorcycles, vintage kitchen appliances—and airplanes suspended from the ceiling.
Continue north on Nebraska Route 10 toward Kearney. Just south of town sprawls the Fort Kearney State Historical Park, established in 1847. The fort's role in the West is chronicled with exhibits, and it doubles as headquarters for sandhill crane watching in the spring. Proceed west on Nebraska Route 50A to Nebraska Route 44, then north to Kearney, where you'll find the Trails and Rails Museum, located in an 1898 Union Pacific Depot. Outside are several preserved 19th-century buildings, including a church, a log cabin, a schoolhouse, and a hotel. Also in town: the Museum of Nebraska Art, with works by George Catlin and Thomas Hart Benton.
End in North Platte
From Kearney, head west on U.S. Route 30, paralleling the Platte River. Across the river, the Oregon National Historic Trail—the westbound route for thousands of pioneers headed for Oregon country in the late 1840s—runs along the Platte's south bank into Wyoming. This portion of the trail was also used by Pony Express riders, and was perhaps the very leg ridden by a young William Cody, later known as the showman Buffalo Bill. Stop in the town of Gothenburg, site of a Pony Express station moved here in 1931, and the Sod House Museum, which features a reproduction sod house, a barn, and a windmill. Then continue on to the city of North Platte. After serving as a scout in the Plains Indian wars, Buffalo Bill Cody began his legendary Wild West shows here in 1883. He built a house here, now preserved at Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, for breaks between touring. Containing mementos of Cody's life, the restored Second Empire-style home has a screening room that shows footage of Cody's shows, including a Thomas Edison film. Down the street stands the Lincoln County Historical Society Western Heritage Museum. During World War II, North Platte residents provided food to thousands of troops passing through on trains. The building's World War II canteen exhibits wartime memorabilia and artifacts of the Sioux tribe. The museum also features several preserved 19th-century buildings—and a vintage train caboose.
This drive is comfortably covered in three days and is best done from May to October, when weather conditions are best. The best months to see the cranes are March and April, when the birds rest in the area's wetlands during their migration north; because of variable weather at that time of year, it's best to check state tourism websites before planning a drive. For more information, log on to www.visitnebraska.gov and www.nebraskabeautiful.com.
—Text by Dan Whipple, adapted from National Geographic's Driving Guides to America: The Heartland