We’ve all seen them before: bucket lists full of the same old, admittedly breathtaking experiences. These include seeing the northern lights, visiting Antarctica, and climbing the Great Wall of China – just to name a few. But did you know that the Great Plains states have their own list of awesome experiences totally worth of your bucket list?
It shouldn’t really be a surprise, but maybe it is. The Great Plains is full of bucket-list-worthy experiences from North Dakota to Texas, from New Mexico to Oklahoma – and everywhere in between. If you’re looking for a new item for your “someday list” or want to explore the region more, read on. This Great Plains bucket list is sure to inspire you… Maybe you have even done a few items on the list already!
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Cheyenne, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), 𐓏𐒰𐓓𐒰𐓓𐒷 𐒼𐓂𐓊𐒻 𐓆𐒻𐒿𐒷 𐓀𐒰^𐓓𐒰^(Osage), Mnicoujou, Apsaalooké (Crow), Ponca, Oohenumpa, Michif Piyii (Métis), Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ, Assiniboine, Yanktonai, Washtáge Moⁿzháⁿ (Kaw / Kansa), Muscogee (Oklahoma), Caddo, O-ga-xpa Ma-zhoⁿ (O-ga-xpa), Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), Jicarilla Apache, [Gáuigú (Kiowa), Nʉmʉnʉʉ(Comanche), Mescalero Apache,Washtáge Moⁿzháⁿ (Kaw / Kansa) and Pâri (Pawnee). With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore
1. Visit Mount Rushmore
Located in South Dakota, Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the carving of Mount Rushmore from 1927-1941. On it, you can see the faces of four United States presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Each of the carvings is 60 feet tall (yeah, that’s right!), it truly is a sight to behold.
After taking pictures as a way to record the event, there are gift shops from which to get cool memorabilia.
Here’s my complete guide for how to visit Mount Rushmore.
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2. Wander through a Tallgrass Prairie
One of the great plains’ bucket list items is traveling to the national reserve in the flint hills of Kansas and wading through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
The tallgrass conjures an image of the Great Plains of a couple of centuries ago, what the Native Americans called home long before the settlers arrived. There are nature trails for hiking but you have to keep an eye out for wandering bison.
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3. Attend the Nebraska Star Party
If you’re looking to explore the sky, the Nebraska Star Party is the perfect site to do so. Once you escape the light pollution of big cities – few as they are in the Great Plains states – you’ll see the wonders of the universe. Also, there are classes on the site that teach you to better familiarize yourself with these heavenly bodies.
Apart from this main attraction, there are sand beaches where you can go on boat rides, fishing, swimming, and the Valentine National Wildlife.
4. See Chimney Rock
This Nebraskan cone-shaped rock giant is distinct even from a very long distance as it stands at about 500 feet above the surrounding fields. Thus, it is no surprise that it has found its way onto the list of the great plains bucket list.
Chimney Rock is located in the plains of western Nebraska. The rock was an important landmark for pioneers traveling west on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails.
5. Explore Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park got its name as a result of its rugged landscape. Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park is a landscape of spires and pinnacles.
This attraction is famous for its fossils, just mammalian fossils since humans never really settled on the land. It is however teeming with wildlife. You can also go hiking or fossil hunting – although you can’t move the discovered fossils or leave with them.
Here’s my complete guide for how to visit Badlands National Park.
6. Souvenir Shop at the Corn Palace
The world’s only Corn Palace gift shop established in Mitchell, South Dakota offers several unique gift ideas and South Dakota made products such as the buffalo jerky and the corn cob jelly. Aptly named, murals made entirely of corn decorate the walls of the Corn Palace.
7. Gaze at Devil’s Tower
Teddy Roosevelt named Devil’s Tower in Wyoming the “first National Monument in the United States” in 1906. The monument looks strange and out of place as it rises above everything else for miles.
Devil’s Tower formed through the cooling of molten magma and a thousand years of erosion. Several Native American creation stories are tied to Devil’s Tower, too. The tower is a famous rock climbing and hiking attraction.
8. Learn U.S. History on Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail, spanning 2,170 miles, was America’s largest migration route. It is an overland trail between Independence, Missouri, and Oregon City, near present-day Portland, Oregon. Obviously, it cut through the Great Plains.
After the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, the need for the trail was drastically reduced until it no longer existed as a continuous route. However, its remnants are still visible and preserved as a National Historic Trail.
9. Cool Off at Smith Falls
The tallest waterfall in Nebraska at 70 feet, Smith Falls has earned its place in the great plains bucket list. One of the best experiences you can have is to camp at the Smith Falls State Park.
You can access Smith Falls by a footbridge and a short trail. Its peaceful rivers and harmony of singing birds make it a very relaxing place.
10. Visit the International Peace Garden
The International Peace Garden in Dunseith, North Dakota was created on the 14th of July, 1932. It represents the peaceful relationship between the U.S.A. and Canada. Every year, about 150,000 flowers are planted in the garden. The main attractions of the garden are the fountains and an 18-foot floral clock.
Other attractions include the North American Game Warden Museum, International Hamfest and summer camps like the International Music Camp and the Legion Athletic Camp.
11. See the World’s Largest Buffalo
Every Great Plains state has its own quirk for which it is known. In North Dakota, it’s all about very large animal statues.
Among these statues is the “Dakota Thunder,” a massive buffalo in Jamestown. Jamestown is also known as “Buffalo City” – because of the exceptionally large statue of the buffalo, of course! Dakota Thunder is the oldest and largest of the bunch of animal statues in the city.
12. Begin Learning Native American History at Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial is named for Crazy Horse, a Native American honored for his courage and tenacity. It is located 17 miles from Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Sculptor Korczak Ziółkowski started the sculpture in 1948. The grand sculpture is an ongoing project today. It will be the largest sculpture in the world when it reaches completion. There’s also a museum and cultural center honoring Native Americans you can visit while the sculpting continues.
13. Visit the National World War I Museum and Memorial
The Liberty Memorial in Missouri is one of the pioneer monuments that honor soldiers who died in World War I. Dedicated in 1926, it was one of the earliest monuments of its kind. The monument is a pillar of limestone, concrete, and steel that rises to 217 feet.
Today, the Liberty Memorial is now surrounded by the National World War I Museum, the official museum dedicated to the “Great War.”
14. Stand Among Carhenge
Often dubbed as Nebraska’s answer to Stonehenge, Carhenge consists of thirty-eight American-made automobiles, all painted grey, with dimensions and layout to mimic Stonehenge.
Jim Reinders built Carhenge in 1987, along Highway 87. This unique icon is open to visitors at all hours, throughout the year. There’s also a seasonal gift shop with various car art sculptures.
15. Visit Cadillac Ranch
Cadillac Ranch, located in Amarillo, Texas is a public art and sculpture. It got its name when a farmer buried eight Cadillacs nose down in the middle of his field. Locals and tourists bring spray paint of many different colors, and in the constant great plains wind, spray graffiti over the vehicles.
At the entrance, a sign says “spray painting is illegal;” ironically, graffiti covers the sign.
16. Look Up at the Golden Driller
The Golden Driller is a 75-foot tall statue of an oil worker. It was built in front of the Tulsa Expo Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1966. Going to see the Golden Driller is a popular great plains bucket list item and rightly so.
The monumental statue of the Tulsa man is a renowned attraction worth visiting. The statue is the 6th tallest statue in the United States.
17. See Billy the Kid’s Gravesite
After he died in 1881, legendary outlaw William H. Bonney – born as Henry McCarty and also known as Billy the Kid –, is buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. He lays between his fallen companions: Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.
A single tombstone sits over the graves with a one-word tribute, “Pals,” carved into it. The biographies written about Billy the Kid paint him as either a ruthless outlaw or a 19th-century Robin Hood.
18. Stand at the Geographic Center of the U.S
The Geographic Center of the United States (specifically, the contiguous 48 states) can be found about two miles northwest of Lebanon, Kansas to the maker that has been erected at the end of the paved road. The actual center is about half a mile away in the center of a former hog farm.
There really isn’t very much to see or do here but its history, importance, and serene environment make it an important great plains bucket list item.
Bonus: If you’re curious and want an extra item for your Great Plains bucket list, the Geographic Center of the United States including Alaska is about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota. It’s right near the Montana-Wyoming-South Dakota border.
19. Believe at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
The International UFO Museum and Research Center was founded in 1991. It contains an extensive record of the 1947 Roswell incident, thought to have been an extraterrestrial landing.
The museum’s library contains nearly 55,000 documents including information on the Roswell Incident, crop circles, UFO sightings, Area 51, ancient astronauts, and abductions. People visit the museum and spend days, sometimes even weeks conducting research.
The Great Plains is a massive area loaded with history, beauty, and the promise of adventure. Which of these bucket list-worthy in the Great Plains is on your list – or all of them? Let us know any questions in the comments below!
Don’t forget: join our Great Plains Travel Tips group for even more travel inspiration!