Who would’ve thought Scottsbluff, Nebraska, would be the place that got me excited about blogging again? We visited this little town without many expectations, and found a place that dispelled many common stereotypes about the Cornhusker State.
We discovered so much in Scottsbluff and throughout the Nebraska Panhandle that we would never have expected, and that’s exactly what made it such a great trip – and one we’re eager to share. I hope this list of the top things to do in Scottsbluff, NE, and the surrounding area will convince you that it’s more than worth a visit!
- Visiting Scotts Bluff National Monument
- More Top Things to Do in Scottsbluff, NE
- Learn some history at the Legacy of the Plains Museum.
- See local art at the West Nebraska Arts Center.
- Climb the Lake Minatare Lighthouse.
- Hike in the Wildcat Hills.
- Catch a movie at the historic Midwest Theater.
- Or see a movie at the drive-in.
- Walk the trail along the North Platte River.
- Bike the Monument Valley Pathway.
- Peruse The Bard’s Den Books & Beyond.
- Look up at Chimney Rock.
- What to Do in Scottsbluff During the Summer
- Eating & Drinking in Scottsbluff: Restaurants, Cafes, & More
- Day Trips from Scottsbluff, NE
- Scottsbluff Hotels & Places to Stay
- Map of Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Visiting Scotts Bluff National Monument
The basically-eponymous national monument (Scottsbluff the town is one word; Scotts Bluff the monument is two) tops any list of things to do in Scottsbluff. And admission is free!
What is Scotts Bluff National Monument?
Scotts Bluff National Monument is a series of rocky cliffs just outside of town (technically located in the adjacent town of Gering, NE). The formations tower above the North Platte River, and are mostly known for being a landmark (and obstacle) on the Oregon Trail and the Pony Express (as well as the California Trail and Mormon Trail). The Lakota people called it Me-a-pa-te, or “hill that is hard to go around” – and it’s pretty easy to see why.
Things to Do at Scotts Bluff National Monument
Hike Saddle Rock Trail to the summit: This was easily the highlight of our visit. The 1.6-mile asphalt trail runs from the Visitor Center up to the top of the bluffs, with great views of unusual rock formations all the way up. The trail is steep-ish in parts, but generally not too difficult – the most challenging thing is that there’s very little shade. If you visit in the summer (when temperatures in Scottsbluff often climb above 90), make sure you start early in the morning.
Drive the Scotts Bluff Summit Road: During the summer, you can drive to the top instead, or take the Summit Shuttle. It only takes about 10 minutes each way, and the shuttle ride is narrated by a ranger. You can also hike one way and take the shuttle the other.
Walk on the Oregon Trail: The half-mile Oregon Trail Pathway starts across the street from the Visitor Center and takes you through Mitchell Pass, once known as the Devil’s Gap. You’ll actually be walking on the old Oregon Trail – a must for history lovers!
Hike in the backcountry: If you want something more offbeat, backcountry hiking is permitted in the South Bluff area of the monument. Ask for details at the Visitor Center.
Check out the Visitor Center: The Visitor Center is definitely worth a look. In addition to an art collection, a short film, and ranger-led programs, it’s full of exhibits on the four historic trails that passed through the area. One of the most interesting sections explained how this mass emigration affected local Native Americans and damaged the land they relied on. A side note: we were curious to see that the Visitor Center compassionately referred to the Mormon emigrants as being “persecuted,” while a museum with similar exhibits in Casper, WY, more judgmentally called them “zealots.”
More Top Things to Do in Scottsbluff, NE
There are plenty of other things to do near Scotts Bluff National Monument, so save some time to explore the rest of the area, too.
Learn some history at the Legacy of the Plains Museum.
The highly-rated Legacy of the Plains Museum is one of the top attractions in Scottsbluff, and it’s the place to go for the history of the area. The many exhibits cover the history of farming, transportation, business, and daily life in the High Plains, and the art gallery showcases everything from paintings to beadwork to quilts. Allow at least two hours to see it all!
See local art at the West Nebraska Arts Center.
This non-profit art center sits right downtown, and the exhibits change about every month. When we visited, they had a retrospective on a local artist (whose style was extremely varied) and a contest celebrating hot air balloons (the town was getting ready to host its annual hot air balloon festival).
It’s free to visit, and most of the pieces displayed are for sale. In fact, in what must be some sort of life milestone, we bought one! It’s a photograph of one of the hot air balloons from a previous festival – called “The Friendly Flying Monster” – taken by a local high school student who won the youth contest. I think the friends we got it for are going to love it.
Climb the Lake Minatare Lighthouse.
You wouldn’t think Nebraska would have a lighthouse, but it does! Lake Minatare is about 20 minutes from town, and the lighthouse sits on a peninsula that juts out into the water. A narrow 56-step staircase winds to the top, where you’ll get nice views over the lake. You can picnic near the base of the lighthouse, or use the carefully-placed selfie station to get a photo of yourself in front of it.
Hike in the Wildcat Hills.
Fifteen minutes south of town is Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, an 1,100-acre expanse packed with unique rugged landscape and expansive scenic views (defying every Nebraska stereotype!). We didn’t have time to get out there, but it has several hiking trails and (from what I’ve read) an impressive nature center.
Catch a movie at the historic Midwest Theater.
Midwest Theater has been in downtown Scottsbluff since 1946, in a historic building that has remained almost untouched. Today, it operates as a non-profit and usually plays movies Friday to Sunday. We appreciated the sign on their marque when we visited: “Vaccines are a gateway drug to concerts!”
Or see a movie at the drive-in.
The Midwest Theater also runs the newly-opened SkyView Drive-In Theater, a few minutes outside of town. Movies there usually play Friday to Sunday, after the sun goes down. Unlike many drive-in movie theaters, it’s open year-round.
Walk the trail along the North Platte River.
The North Platte River runs right through Scottsbluff (which is the whole reason the Oregon Trail and others passed through here). A flat, concrete trail known as the Monument Valley Pathway runs alongside the river for about two miles, offering views over the water with the national monument in the background.
The trail starts at Riverside Park, home to another of Scottsbluff’s top attractions: a zoo called the Riverside Discovery Center. I don’t know anything about this zoo in particular, but we skipped it (and we skip most animal attractions when we travel) for all these reasons.
Bike the Monument Valley Pathway.
While the two-mile stretch along the river is probably the most scenic, the Monument Valley Pathway extends farther through Scottsbluff and Gering, and would make for a nice bike ride. Use this map and this one to plan your route.
Peruse The Bard’s Den Books & Beyond.
Scottsbluff’s only used bookstore (and pretty much the only bookstore altogether) is open limited hours and is nearly impossible to find. But this funky little shop is definitely worth a visit. It’s packed with all kinds of books – including a whole “End Times” shelf and an entire section of “Amish Fiction.” Plus there are plenty of more mainstream titles, and they also sell handmade crafts and gifts.
The Bard’s Den is located inside the Gateway of Scottsbluff Realty building, so turn into their parking lot, and you’ll see the entrance to the bookstore. It’s back there! Before you go, check their Facebook page for current hours.
Look up at Chimney Rock.
Visiting Chimney Rock is usually considered one of the top things to do in western Nebraska, and it’s only half an hour from Scottsbluff. But we actually didn’t make the drive… although we probably would’ve if we’d known we were missing out on its apparently very informative museum (and not just a big rock).
What to Do in Scottsbluff During the Summer
If you happen to visit in the summer like we did, you’ll have even more options for fun things to do in Scottsbluff.
Have a beach day (yes, really!) at Lake Minatare.
When I mentioned Lake Minatare above, I was holding back. Yes, it has nice picnic spots, and the lighthouse is cool – but the amazing thing about this lake is the beach. It’s a huge sandy beach in Nebraska! (Is this surprising to other people?)
When we visited, the water was warm and calm, so it would have been perfect for swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, or lounging on a float. With more time, we would’ve loved to spend a day hanging out there, relaxing on the sand. I have to imagine this is one of the best beaches in Nebraska, but it’s not like I’ve been to any others. Regardless, if you visit Scottsbluff in the summer, make sure you save time for the beach!
Check out the Scottsbluff Farmers’ Market.
We visited Scottsbluff during the week, so we missed the Farmers’ Market, which takes place at 18th Street Plaza on the first Saturday of summer months. From what I can tell, the market’s vendors sell everything from produce and baked goods to jewelry and crafts.
Enjoy outdoor live music.
But since we WERE there on a Thursday, we got to go to Bands on Broadway – the town’s free outdoor concert series, which also has a bunch of food trucks. It’s held on Thursday nights during the summer, also at 18th Street Plaza. They don’t just have local bands, either – we saw a great group from Fort Collins called The Nightshades. It was a pretty lively event, and the people-watching was top-notch.
Most notably, there was a guy wearing a brightly-lit LED suit, who danced in front of the stage and weaved through the crowd blowing bubbles, all while surrounded by a throng of children. We had to wonder, “Is this guy the Horseback Jesus of Scottsbluff?”
Check for events at Five Rocks Amphitheater.
The town’s main spot for live music is Five Rocks Amphitheater, a massive outdoor venue that holds over 3,000 people (from the size of the parking lots, I would’ve thought it was even more). It’s oddly hard to find information about events at Five Rocks, but check the Facebook page for the venue to see what’s going on.
Eating & Drinking in Scottsbluff: Restaurants, Cafes, & More
Scottsbluff may just be a 15,000-person town (although that makes it the largest in the Nebraska Panhandle), but it’ll spoil you with food and drink options. Here are a few foodie items for your list of things to do in Scottsbluff.
Start the day at Cappuccino and Company.
Cap N Co., as it’s known, is the perfect place to have your morning java in downtown Scottsbluff. It’s got good coffee, a Free Little Library, and even a “baby nook” in the back (something way more establishments should have).
Warning: don’t get confused by the sign across the street that says “Black Rifle Coffee Company,” because it’s not a coffee shop – it’s a place where you can sign up for shooting lessons and also purchase coffee beans. Strange, I know.
Indulge in amazing Mexican food.
I counted no fewer than 10 local Mexican restaurants in Scottsbluff, all of them highly-rated. We ate at Rosalinda’s Fry Bread & Mexican Food, which doesn’t look like much from the outside – but once you open the door, it’s a nice sit-down restaurant. More importantly, it was completely delicious and surprisingly affordable, with great vegetarian options and super friendly service.
Have brunch at The Mixing Bowl Café.
At breakfast or brunch, The Mixing Bowl Café in Gering is the place to go. It’s got cute décor, friendly service, and a full espresso bar, plus tasty specialties like avocado toast and breakfast burritos. Nom nom.
Imbibe at Flyover Brewing Company.
The area’s only brewery sits right in the center of downtown Scottsbluff. Flyover brews all the standards, plus some rotating options like the Cerise (if you took French in high school, you’ll know what that one is!). It’s also known for an extensive menu of wings and pizzas, and we loved the soft pretzels.
Sidebar: While we were sitting on the patio, a guy with a face tattoo walked by, carrying a half-gallon Mountain Dew jug and walking a puppy. He got all tangled in the leash, and we laughed along as he tried to get the puppy untangled. Then he came over toward the brewery, and the puppy – Waldo – slipped through the gate, and came over to play with us. The guy started talking to us about all sorts of things, including how Waldo likes to drink whiskey (!). Eventually, we handed him back over the gate, and they left.
But then they stopped in front of the business next door, where we could see a cardboard box of free stuff on the ground. He brought it back over to the patio and insisted we each take an item from the box. It left us wondering if HE is actually the Horseback Jesus of Scottsbluff – and it’s how we ended up with these figurines.
Or at Papa Moon Vineyards.
The town’s only winery is only open on the weekends, so we didn’t get to visit – and we were so disappointed, because the photos look absolutely gorgeous. In addition to wine, they also make mead and cider, as well as non-alcoholic cider. If we pass through Scottsbluff again, Papa Moon will be our first stop!
Try the local specialty at Runza.
If you’re from Nebraska, you’re probably going to Runza anyway. And if you aren’t, this is a fun opportunity to try the dish that’s beloved across the state. A Midwestern version of a pasty, a “runza” is a bread pocket stuffed with beef and other fillings, served at the Nebraska-only fast-food chain of the same name. There’s actually one location of Runza in downtown Scottsbluff and another next door in Gering.
Cool off with a dirty soda at Sweet V’s.
Sweet V’s has a startlingly varied menu – espresso drinks, shaved ice, cotton candy, salads, tacos, and more. But what interested us was the “dirty soda,” or soda mixed with flavored syrups (does everyone else know about this concept?). We tried a Sprite mixed with peach, vanilla, and cream, which was a massive hit of sugar, but it was super tasty and perfect on a hot afternoon.
Have dessert at a local institution.
Platte Valley Creamery is awesome. Fine, maybe it’s not the absolute best ice cream I’ve ever tasted, but it’s got to be the most beloved. This little shop has been open in Scottsbluff since 1932 (!), and it seems like everyone in town knows the current owner, who’s manned it himself for over 40 years.
He’s super friendly, the ice cream is delicious and shockingly cheap, and there’s clearly a ton of pride and nostalgia around this place. Just so you’re prepared, the window is evidently a drive-thru, not a walk-up (ask us how we know…).
Day Trips from Scottsbluff, NE
If you’ve run out of things to do in Scottsbluff, never fear. There are several great day trips in the Nebraska Panhandle (and beyond) that will offer even more interesting – and often unexpected – sights.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
When we mentioned visiting Agate Fossil Beds National Monument to people in Scottsbluff, they universally responded, “Oh, that’s in the middle of nowhere!” Now, we all have different definitions of “middle of nowhere,” but Agate Fossil Beds is only about 50 minutes from town! So it makes an easy day trip, and apparently you’ll impress locals with your tenacity – and it’s free to visit.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is known for (surprise) the huge number of fossils found there, mostly long-extinct mammals like the 20-million-year-old bear dog. Today, the park has two fairly easy hiking trails: Daemonelix Trail, a one-mile gravel loop featuring very unusual spiralized fossils, and Fossil Hills Trail, which is a 2.8-mile (round-trip) paved trail that goes through an unexpected swamp and offers great views from the top.
The Visitor Center shows a film about fossil discoveries in the area, many of which are also on display. Even more interesting to us was the exhibit on the history and culture of the Oglala Lakota tribe and their decades-long relationship with the owners of a ranch near the fossil beds.
If you want to make this an overnight trip, there’s a small private campground just past the monument that’s known as an incredible stargazing spot (this is the middle of nowhere, after all!).
Toadstool Geological Park
After we had to bail on our visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota due to heavy smoke and dangerously poor air quality, Toadstool Geological Park was a great consolation prize. There was almost nobody there when we visited, making it a nice reprieve from busy national parks.
Like other badlands areas, Toadstool is known for bizarre landscapes and unusual rock formations, and the three hiking trails will take you straight through them. We did the five-mile loop, which had a few steep sections but was still fairly easy. The middle third of the hike was just a long flat walk through grasslands, but the beginning and end were amazing.
There’s also the three-mile (one-way) Bison Trail that connects Toadstool with Hudson-Meng Education & Research Center, the site of a massive archeological discovery (you can also drive from Toadstool to Hudson-Meng in about half an hour). And a kiosk at the campground has brochures to guide you through the one-mile interpretive trail.
Toadstool’s a little over 1.5 hours from Scottsbluff, with the last 13 miles on a bumpy dirt road. Arriving early is a must in the summer; it gets extremely hot by late morning, and there’s essentially no shade. There’s also no water available at the park, so make sure you bring plenty with you. There are a few campsites at the trailhead, but we camped at nearby Fort Robinson State Park instead (where there’s more shade!).
Fort Robinson State Park
Camping there was initially the only reason we visited Fort Robinson State Park, but it turns out the park – part of a National Historic Landmark – has lots to do. Fort Robinson offers a whopping 60 miles of hiking trails, plus horseback and mountain biking trails (you can rent bikes there), and there’s a nice scenic drive through Smiley Canyon.
Located near the park office are two museums: The Trailside Natural History Museum and the Fort Robinson History Center & Museum. The park also runs jeep tours, stagecoach tours, and pony rides, plus daily performances at the Post Playhouse and free rodeos on Thursdays (most of the other activities have a separate fee).
Fort Robinson is about an hour and 15 minutes from Scottsbluff – and right on the way to Toadstool. There’s a huge campground if you want to stay overnight, but Fort Robinson is really known for its historic lodging options. Previously the site of an Army fort, many of the buildings once served as housing for the soldiers stationed there. Several of them can sleep 10+ people, making Fort Robinson a popular spot for family reunions.
We visited Chadron for one reason and one reason only: the only coffee shop in Crawford, the tiny town next to Fort Robinson State Park, was unexpectedly closed. So, it was either go without (!!) or drive 25 minutes down the road to Chadron.
We definitely recommend the Bean Broker Coffee House & Pub, housed inside an amazing 110-year-old bank building. We just got coffee, but it also has a full food menu and turns into a bar in the evenings.
With just 5,600 people, Chadron packs a pretty good punch when it comes to things to do, and we wished we’d had more time there. The top attraction is the incredibly highly-rated Museum of the Fur Trade, with over 6,000 artifacts illustrating life in early America. The town’s other must-see is the free Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, which celebrates one of Nebraska’s most prominent writers.
Ten minutes from town is Chadron State Park (Nebraska’s first), which seems to have every activity imaginable – hiking, fishing, paddle boating, horseback riding, archery, and quite a few others (many of which have an additional cost).
Chadron is a little over an hour and a half from Scottsbluff, just past Fort Robinson. If you’re so inclined, you can add 20 minutes onto the drive and go through Alliance – so you can stop at Carhenge, Nebraska’s most infamous roadside attraction. If you do, save time for Dobby’s Frontier Town or the Knight Museum as well.
You’ll cross state lines to get there, but Cheyenne, Wyoming, is only about an hour and a half from Scottsbluff – and with 65,000 people, Wyoming’s capital will feel like a big city in comparison. You can get the lay of the land by doing a self-guided walking tour of downtown or taking a Cheyenne Trolley Tour.
There are far too many museums in Cheyenne to visit in one day – or even one trip. I’d start with the Wyoming State Museum for an overview of the state’s history, and the Cowgirls of the West Museum for stories of historic women in Wyoming (both are free!).
The Cheyenne Botanic Gardens (also free) is surprisingly huge and has a wide range of stunning plants and flowers. Step inside its conservatory, and you’ll feel like you’re in a tropical paradise – with the heat and humidity to boot!
Just outside town is the Terry Bison Ranch, a historic 27,500-acre ranch that’s famed for its train tours (yes, the ranch has a train!). With all the other activities there – horseback riding, ATV tours, fishing, plus three restaurants and a trading post – you could easily make a day trip from Scottsbluff (or an overnight one) just to the ranch.
Scottsbluff Hotels & Places to Stay
We used Airbnb in Scottsbluff and stayed with a couple who rents out two spare bedrooms now that they’re empty nesters. It was honestly one of the best Airbnb experiences we’ve had – it really felt more like visiting friends, and we got to play with their adorable pup. Book your stay with them here (and tell them we said hi!).
Other options for Scottsbluff accommodations include a handful of hotel chains, some small motels, and a few nice-looking spots that are locally owned. If we were choosing hotels in Scottsbluff, we’d go with one of these:
Arcadia Hotel: A renovated vintage hotel that looks like the best budget spot in town.
Monument Inn: A mid-range hotel, with staff who receive rave reviews.
Hotel 21 & Co: A brand new elegant hotel that’s noted for its classic glam style.
Map of Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Click here for an interactive version of the map!
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