Social Distance, Nebraska Style: My COVID-19 Road Trip

Not just flyover country, the midwestern US state of Nebraska is one of the best places to plan a social distancing-friendly road trip. Cassandra Brooklyn shares her experience.

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A white Mustang car parked by the highway, in front of the Nebraska welcome sign at the state line. Photo © Cassandra Brooklyn

Planning my pandemic road trip through Nebraska

If you’re looking for a United States road trip destination with loads of outdoor activities and few crowds, Nebraska should be at the top of your list.

Since Nebraska’s population is relatively small and spread out, and because the state wasn’t experiencing any major COVID-19 outbreaks during my trip, it felt like a pretty safe destination. Masks were rare in small cities and rural areas, but in the state’s largest city, Omaha, the vast majority of people wore masks, both indoors and outdoors. Though museums and art galleries were open (and accompanied by mask mandates and social distancing policies), I still opted for outdoor activities. I split my time between two main regions: big-city Omaha and rural Cherry County.

While in Omaha, I chose a downtown hotel because it was centrally located, had a bike share station outside, and had very firm safety and hygiene measures in place. In fact, nobody was allowed to enter the building without a hotel keycard, and there were mask mandate and social distancing signs everywhere. In rural Cherry County, which hasn’t been significantly affected by COVID-19, things were more relaxed. Most people weren’t wearing masks, and indoor dining was the norm, so I got meals to go or bought groceries from supermarkets. I stayed at a motel in Valentine, where my private room entrance meant that I didn’t have to worry about mingling with other customers in the lobby.

Cherry County: Stargazing, tubing, and a rural bike share

After wrapping up a road trip across North Dakota (another incredible state for outdoorsy travel), I drive seven hours southwest to Valentine, Nebraska, just 10 minutes south of the South Dakota border. State parks in this part of Nebraska center heavily around boating, hunting, and fishing, so unless you plan on bringing a boat, you’ll want to look into kayaking or tubing activities. Several outfitters offer watercraft activities in Smith Falls Park, which also has a short hike and a pretty waterfall. On my way to Smith Falls Park, I take a scenic drive through the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, not to be confused with the 72,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge 30 mi (48km) away (which I explore later).

I seek out bike shares in every city I visit, and find they’re becoming fairly commonplace in mid-large sized cities, but until I visited Nebraska, I’d never heard of a rural bike share. Valentine (population 2,737) is a small community that’s extraordinarily proud of its brand-new Heart City bike share system. Like most bike share bikes, this one is rather heavy, and best suited for short rides around town, but I ride that bad boy across the stunning Niobrara River and 10mi (16km) down the Cowboy Trail rail trail, a former railroad converted to a pedestrian path. It’s by far the best way to enjoy the trail.

A rural bike share bike parked on a bridge over the Niobrara River in Cherry County, Nebraska.
My Heart City bike on the bridge over the Niobrara River. Photo credit: Cassandra Brooklyn

As much fun as I have in and around Valentine, the highlight of my visit to the region is camping at the Merritt Reservoir, which hosts the annual Nebraska Star Party. The recreational area has exceptionally dark skies but not much else to do (unless you BYOB – bring your own boat) so I lie on the grass reading until it’s dark enough to witness the Perseids Meteor Shower. There are only two other people at the primitive Snake River Area Campground, making the stargazing experience that much more special.

The next morning, I drive through the stunning McKelvie National Forest (another great place to camp) up to Cody to visit George Paul Vinegar, one of only two vinegar distilleries in the entire country that produce vinegar in the traditional way. The owner, George Paul, wears a mask as he gives me a tour of the distillery, then leads me outside to continue the conversation in fresh air. Though masks aren’t mandated in the area and few residents wear them, I’m pleased to see the distillery distributing masks and enforcing the policy. After eating my fair share of bread with vinegar samples, I hop in my rental car and head to Omaha.

Car camping at the Snake River Area Campground in Cherry County, Nebraska.
Camping at the Snake River Area Campground. Photo credit: Cassandra Brooklyn

Omaha, the Gateway to the West

I’ll admit that I’m surprised by how much I enjoy Omaha. I thought two days would be enough, but I spend nearly five days here, and could easily spend longer. Though Omaha is a modern city, with a vibrant dining scene and downtown culture (especially the Old Market Entertainment District), what surprises me the most is its variety of outdoor activities. Omaha has a convenient bike share system, Heartland B-Cycle, and easy-to-identify bike route signs across the city, making it a great city to ride. I recommend riding over Bob the Bridge (yes, the bridge is named “Bob”) to Iowa.

Just 10 minutes from downtown is Fontenelle Forest, 2,100 acres of forest, prairie, and wetlands along the Missouri River. The most beautiful (and easiest) trail is the boardwalk right near the welcome center – where you can easily spot deer and other wildlife without putting in much effort – but I spend the majority of the day hiking 8mi (13km) of trails around the park. Another nature-fix option within Omaha is the Lauritzen Gardens, a stunning botanic garden and conservatory where you could spend 30 minutes to several hours. Note that advance, timed tickets are required.

The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge streching across the Missouri River in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in Omaha. Photo credit: Getty Images / DenisTagneyJr

The Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City

Until I crossed the border into Nebraska, I had no idea that Arbor Day started in Nebraska. I also had no idea you could visit its farm, which has 260 acres of historic buildings, forested hiking trails, and tree orchards where you can pick apples in the fall. Thanks to the state welcome sign, I add the Arbor Day Farm to my road trip and head to Nebraska City.

Once I arrive, I head straight for Tree Adventure, where I have no shame in being the only adult climbing around the netted walkways and bridges of its new treetop village. After hiking a few trails in the forest, I head to Arbor Lodge, a 52-room mansion built by Arbor Day founder, J. Sterling Morton, whose son went on to found the Morton Salt company. I also make time to stroll through downtown Nebraska City, where they’ve installed a series of adorable, old-timey murals.

Tips for a COVID-19-safe road trip

  • Only visit destinations that have low infection rates and enforce mask mandates.
  • Carry sanitizing gel and use frequently, especially after touching high-touch surfaces like gas pumps, doorknobs, and restaurant tables.
  • Use sanitizing wipes to disinfect gas pumps and to clean frequently touched surfaces in your car (steering wheel, gear shift, radio buttons, door handle, etc.) and in hotel rooms and public bathrooms (light switches, doorknobs, etc.)
  • Pay for gas at the pump instead of inside.
  • Store extra masks in your car and always wear them in public, including when interacting with people outdoors.
  • Use the bathroom in your hotel/homestay before heading out for the day to help limit how much time is spent in public bathrooms.
  • Always wear a mask inside public bathrooms, as research shows flushing the toilet may spread COVID-19 aerosols in the air. When possible, shut the lid before flushing.
  • Use a towel or tissue to open doors.
  • Choose hotels that have firm COVID-19 safety and hygiene policies.
  • Review customer feedback about hygiene protocols at accommodations, restaurants, and activities you plan to visit.
  • Avoid indoor activities, including dining. Eat outside or order takeout.

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