Despite some flooding this summer, most of Nebraska is open and ready to welcome visitors. In fact, it’s the perfect time of year to get out and explore the state.
The Heritage Highway in southeastern and south-central Nebraska offers history, culture, outdoor recreation and plenty of quaint and quirky attractions. In short, the Heritage Highway captures the essence of Nebraska with fertile farmland, historic main streets and prairie that inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
The 238-mile drive from Brownville to Edison on U.S. Highway 136 can be made in about four hours, but why? For a more rewarding experience, travelers should take time to see the sights and taste the local flavor of the communities along the route.
Kick off the journey in historic Brownville, a charming town that relies heavily on tourism to keep it afloat, which means this artisan village has suffered doubly from Missouri River flooding and heavy reporting on the nearby nuclear power plant. Those fearing the worst, however, need not. Brownville is a fun little town where visitors can relax with a glass of wine, browse aisle after aisle of secondhand books and take in a play at the Brownville Village Theater.
Nationally recognized for its commitment to its historic assets, Brownville features art galleries, boutiques, antiques, handcrafted items and unique lodging opportunities. One could easily while away a day or two exploring this lovely and secluded spot.
Next, mosey down the road to Tecumseh, where the five-square-block historic district treats visitors to authentic Americana. And travelers who plan to be in town on Aug. 13 will be rewarded with extreme bull riding at the Johnson County Fairgrounds.
For the first taste of this byway’s quirkiness, veer down to Pawnee City. It’s the hometown of Dan Whitney, better known as Larry the Cable Guy. A visit to the Whitney barn at the Pawnee City Historical Society Museum also exposes visitors to 1,600 salt and pepper shakers, pioneer furnishings and the home of the state’s first governor. Larry the Cable Guy fans will want to pick up Git-R-Done Golden Lager at SchillingBridge Winery & Microbrewery, which also hosts Saturday night concerts in the summer and murder mysteries in the winter. Women of a certain age will appreciate SchillingBridge’s Hot Flash Red, while anyone of legal age will enjoy the wine’s explosive flavor.
Circle back to the scenic byway via Burchard, birthplace of silent film star Harold Lloyd. The actor’s childhood home is a museum that screens his films from the 1920s. Back on Highway 136, nearby Filley is home to the Elijah Filley Stone Barn, the state’s largest limestone barn, built in 1874.
Consider spending the night in Beatrice and venturing out in several different directions. Wymore, to the south, is home to the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Centre. Or hit the Old West Trail Center in Odell. North of Beatrice, Wilber hosts its annual Czech Festival Aug. 5–7.
One of the highlights of the Heritage Highway is Homestead National Monument of America, which appeals to history buffs and nature lovers alike. The new Heritage Center commemorates the profound transformation to our land brought on by the Homestead Act of 1862. An extensive trail system allows visitors to experience the restored prairie and unique wildlife. The monument hosts events nearly every weekend, including its popular Campfire Series, which revives the storytelling tradition of days past.
Kids—perhaps tiring of points of interest—can burn off extra energy at the Beatrice Big Blue Water Park with its 124-foot waterslide.
The Homestead Act began the settlement of the West, but travelers can recapture the Wild West just a few miles away near Fairbury.
Rock Creek Station State Historical Park and Recreation Area—a former stage and Pony Express station—is notorious for being the site where Wild Bill Hickok killed his first victim. The 350-acre park and its adjoining 40-acre campground offer hiking and horse trails, expansive views of craggy ravines, two reconstructed ranches from the 1860s and deep wagon ruts carved by pioneers trekking along the Oregon and California trails.
Continuing on, Hebron is home to two unusual attractions: one remaining building from the camp used to house German prisoners of war and, on the lighter side, the World’s Largest Porch Swing. One town over, Deschler offers a truly quirky culinary experience: cannibal meat, a raw hamburger dish best served on crackers with beer. The owner of Zero Pantry, which sells cannibal meat, says the butcher shop’s less quirky summer sausage is tastier and much more popular.
Farther west and a little south, Superior boasts several beautiful Victorian homes, earning it the title of Nebraska’s Victorian capital. Two of those homes host aspiring writers twice a year during Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting Colonies. The town was also home to Lady Evelyn Brodstone Vestey, who became the highest-paid woman executive in the world and married a British Lord. The Nuckolls County Museum houses a collection of Lady Vestey’s mementos. Before leaving, visitors will want to check out the lovely Superior Estates Winery, a destination in its own right. Tour the winery, learn about wine making and relax with a wine tasting and cheese tray.
Anyone exploring the byway should save time to savor Red Cloud, billed as “one of the most famous small towns in the country” and “Willa Cather’s window to the world.” Visit the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s childhood home and other buildings related to her writing. The restored Red Cloud Opera House hosts plays, concerts and exhibits throughout the year. In addition, don’t miss the 100-year-old Starke Round Barn, which is three stories high and 130 feet in diameter—and built without nails.
Nature lovers can explore the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie’s 600 acres of never-been-plowed grasses and see a variety of bird species. In fact, much of the Heritage Highway features excellent birding, including the Republican River, Burchard Lake, Thayer County, several wildlife management areas and Harlan County Lake. Check www.nebraskabirdingtrails.com and www.chickendancetrail.com/about for specific birding sites.
Outdoorsy types will find many other recreational opportunities along the byway. The Republican River—which the byway’s second half tracks—offers canoeing, tubing, swimming, fishing and wildlife viewing. Harlan County Lake, one of the largest lakes in Nebraska, supports some of the state’s best fishing. This reservoir provides waterborne fun as well as camping, hunting, hiking and golf. South of the dam, the award-winning Cedar Run ATV Trail is a 470-acre park of off-road vehicle trails open to ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles.
At the town of Orleans, Highway 136 slants northwest just past Edison to the junction with U.S. Highway 6 and the end of the designated scenic byway. However, there’s no end to the adventure that travelers can experience along Nebraska’s Heritage Highway. Visitors interested in history, rural communities and idyllic scenery will find themselves at home anywhere along the route. They’ll also find themselves part of the state’s growing tourism industry. And that’s not so surprising, because Nebraska’s winding rivers, pristine lakes, natural prairies and historic settlements celebrate America through the cultural prism the immigrants brought with them to the Plains.