This is the latest for our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Want some trivia for your next social gathering? Ask the question “Where is Scottsbluff?” and for a bonus round, “What is the topography of Nebraska?” More than likely, you will get confused glances and amused head shakes. Or you will get the response “Isn’t Nebraska just… flat?”
And that’s where they’re wrong. Nebraska has quite a varied topography especially in the western part of the state where the badlands crash against the prairie. Towering bluffs become the backdrop for miles of pine forest, contrasting with the wide-open prairies that are optimal for stargazing under some of the clearest skies in the Midwest. And towns like Scottsbluff are the perfect stopover, leaving you saying, “I had no clue THIS was in Nebraska.” I certainly did.
Scottsbluff, and the areas surrounding the city, are rich in history. Fossil beds full of mammoth and bison remains lay buried next to century-old Western-style homesteads and remnants of the Oregon Trail. You can find modern amenities to suit your style as well, with renowned breweries, award-winning wineries, and much more.
My visit to Scottsbluff had me completely changing my opinion that Nebraska was just a flyover state. Scottsbluff boasts the first brewery in the Nebraska Panhandle—Flyover Brewing Company. This local brewery takes pride in its beer, food, and location. They use equipment made in Lincoln, malt produced in Nebraska, and locally grown adjuncts such as sugar beets in their brewing. Located in a completely renovated downtown corner, the brewery has an industrial style warehouse appeal, eclectic aviation memorabilia and décor. It even has an airplane wing suspended over the bar. If you’re like me, preferring fruity, light beers, try their funkiest flavors. My favorites were the Mosaic IPA, a tropical-flavored blend with stone fruit and pine, Hiram’s Hob Bomb IPA, a classic grapefruit citrus with tropical fruit characteristics, and Hefweizen, a classic unfiltered German wheat ale with notes of banana and clove. The aviation theme also carries over to their dining menu where A Preflight Checklist serves appetizers, Bomber Wings serve crisp chicken wings and On The Flight Deck serves wood fired pizzas. I later found out the bar hosts live music nights most summer weekends where the entire town comes to support local and out-of-state talent. A must-see for my next visit.
Upon talking to the locals at the table next to me, I was happy to find that this beverage innovation doesn’t just apply to beers. Papa Moon Vineyards in Scottsbluff is pioneering different flavor profiles and offering unique experiences in crafting ciders, wines, and even mead. What started as a passion project for papa moon (owner Jim Massey), as affectionately called by his grandson Liam, quickly became a lucrative business proposition when grape vines started yielding too much fruit to give away for free. Partnering with the University of Minnesota to use hybrid vines that are specifically tailored for the terrain, soil, climate and growing season of Western Nebraska, this family-owned winery is consistently producing award-winning beverages. Just like with Flyover Brewing Company, I just couldn’t decide what I wanted to taste so I opted for a flight of wine, mead, and ciders. The Edelweiss (wine), Honey Lavender and Moonmosa (ciders), and an original mead made up the flight. Other popular ciders are Jalapeno and Mango Habanera, Spruce Tips and Peach Margarita, all of which have won awards at the Great American Cider Competition.
Papa Moon features a family-friendly environment with walking trails through natural wetlands, yard games and a beautiful hand carved long table on the patio. I could almost picture the whole family sitting down for some spirits, good food and great laughs. With goats, dogs and chickens running around all over the property I found myself kicking back, relaxing and just soaking in that quintessential Midwest charm.
Perhaps one of the most popular things to do in Scottsbluff is to explore its outdoor recreation areas. This region has served as a landmark for all – Indigenous peoples, pioneers, as well modern travelers. Rich with geological, paleontological, and anthropogenic history, Scotts Bluff National Monument is a great example of tall, towering bluffs unlike anything else in the area. Scotts Bluff spans across 3,000 acres which is suitable for all levels of hikers. Saddle Rock Trail is a strenuous way to get up top if you want an active workout whereas the Oregon Trail Pathway follows a less strenuous path like the pioneers and their wagons passed more than a century ago. You can also drive up to the top via Summit Road, and when I did, I couldn’t help but stop at every bend in the road to take in the landscape dropping out around me. On a clear day, you can see Wyoming’s Laramie Mountain Range to the west.
The Visitor Center at the base of the bluffs included a replica of a typical pioneer wagon, and I found it truly humbling to see. It has been estimated that more than 350,000 pioneers passed through this area between 1836 and 1869 on wagon trains. Those ruts can still be seen permanently carved into the clay and stone. This history is celebrated today, most notably with the Old West Balloon Fest taking place in late August. Scotts Bluff County skies are filled with hundreds of hot air balloons, a unique way to take in the rock formations and celebrate the people who walked this landscape centuries ago.
Later in the evening, Dan Morford, the superintendent at the Monument, escorted me for a stargazing experience at the summit. “Much of Western Nebraska is designated dark sky country so on a clear night, you can see millions of stars,” he said, “And if you time your visit right, you can even catch a glimpse of the Milky Way.” Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in that evening, but I still enjoyed my experience.
The next day I headed to Morrill County to see the famous Chimney Rock. Another prominent geological rock formation in the area, it rises nearly 300 feet above the North Platte area, certainly a sight to behold. Many pioneers noted Chimney Rock in their journals, the massive formation serving as a beacon of hope, a monument to point the way west. It is said that many climbed the rock and etched their names on its limestone façade. A sacrilege in today’s time but back then it was a testament to their tenacity and determination to undertake such an arduous journey into the unknown. And for fellow photography enthusiasts, make sure to catch Chimney Rock during sunset, when the fading light casts the most beautiful shadows on the surrounding rolling hills.
Tuckered out after all that hiking and exploring, I wandered into the Steel Grill, an energetic tavern full of locals and visitors. A warehouse style bar and restaurant, it is decorated to the brim with sports and motorcycle memorabilia. Several large screen TVs hang suspended from the ceiling, so you can catch all the live-streamed games. If I had to choose a favorite item from the menu, I’d pick the bigger than your head steak nachos. And trust me, they were bigger than my head, and included all the fixings: cheese, queso, jalapenos, diced tomatoes, green onions, salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. I opted for a non-meat option, but with steak added, it could easily feed the whole table. Other customer favorites are smoked brisket, pulled pork, and smothered chicken sandwiches. As my waitress Claire told me “No one goes home hungry after a meal at the Steel Grill.”
There are a range of accommodations available at Scottsbluff and its sister city, Gearing. From bed and breakfasts like Barn Anew B&B to hotels and motels like Fairfield Inn and Hotel 21&Co, there is something for every price range. I stayed at the Monument Inn and Suites in the heart of Gering, just a stone’s throw away from downtown Scottsbluff. It was cozy, comfortable, and ideally located for an evening stroll through downtown, or visiting the historic Midwest Theater.
Built in 1946 when the previous theater burnt down by a fire, the Midwest Theater was designed in a modernist style of architecture with use of elements like aluminum and reinforced steel, uncommon for its time in this area. The theater’s most striking feature is the marquee with a stainless steel and aluminum tower rising 60 feet above the entrance. Extending from the top of the tower are two stylized wings outlined with neon lights and two starburst spheres with flashing mercury bulbs. The lighted tower was designed to be seen at night 20 miles in all directions. I was so pleased that the original interior is still very much intact with floral patterned scrolls and colorfully painted murals. The Historic Midwest Theater was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1997 and is a place where events such as specialty films, performing and visual arts, and community culture and educational programs are held. It was very clear that the Midwest Theater was enhancing and nurturing a lively arts community within the Nebraska Panhandle.
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to grab breakfast at a local hangout. The Mixing Bowl Café in Gering is a fantastic breakfast gem. Owner and chef Jamie Meisner grew up with an affinity for the kitchen and along with her Grandma Ruth she perfected her craft with traditional Midwest German foods like Grebel, egg noodles, and butterballs. Opened in 2013, the Mixing Bowl has quickly become a big hit. The red homemade salsa was divine and if you want a little heat and flavor, ask for the green one. I tried the Cherry Kuga that was buttery and delicious, a breakfast burrito, and dirty chai. The cups of coffee/chai are huge and delicious – hitting that mid-morning caffeine craving.
And if you still crave more caffeine, head down to the newly opened Emporium Express Coffee. Its unique location (formerly a bank building), bohemian vibes, and delicious treats add to its eclectic appeal. I loved the fact that this café is 100 percent female owned and operated. It features pastries, coffees, and teas at the in-dining area and via drive thru. Evening offerings include charcuterie boards and European wines that are a novelty in these parts.
Outdoorsy, arty, foodie, history buff, or just plain curious, no matter what type of traveler you are, there is something for everyone in Scottsbluff. Breaking Nebraska’s flat stereotype, this town is worthy of a visit.