January 19, 2017

10 Places You Must See In Nebraska

Celebrate Nebraska’s 150th birthday in 2017 by exploring the state. I’ve been lucky to explore our state with my kids, though there are still some Nebraska attractions on my bucket list left like Chimney Rock and Lake McConaughy.

Want to get out there and explore Nebraska? Here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):

Nebraska attractions

10 Nebraska attractions you must see

1. Fort Robinson State Park (Harrison, Neb.)

Checking out the view from the stagecoach at Fort Robinson.

Western Nebraska’s biggest attraction is one of my favorites, Fort Robinson. A few family favorite adventures were the off-road jeep ride, the carriage ride, and since both kids were so little, the guided horse rides.

2. Holland Performing Arts Center (Omaha)

The concert hall inside the Holland Performing Arts Center. Photo courtesy Nick Allen on Flikr

The best venue, hands down, in all of Nebraska to hear a concert is the main concert hall inside the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. It’s a beautiful building and the sound is incredible. If your favorite performer ever plays there, you must go.

3. Fort Atkinson (Fort Calhoun, Neb.)

Don’t miss the blacksmith during the re-enactment weekends at Fort Atkinson, located in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

Located in Fort Calhoun (so pretty close to Omaha), you should time a visit to coincide with an historical re-enactment. I brought the kids to one and it was a lot of fun.

4. Smith Falls State Park (Wood Lake, Neb.)

A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.

We used to canoe the Niobrara River with friends and family every year, and Smith Falls was always a must-stop destination. It’s the highest waterfall in Nebraska. I dare you to stick your head into the water there.

To get to the Niobrara River, if you’re coming from Omaha at least, will mean passing through the Sandhills, which is another pretty sight to see.

5. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (Omaha)

On hot days, the aquarium at Omaha’s zoo is a great place to escape the heat.

The most popular Nebraska attraction, by far, is Omaha’s zoo. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, and it keeps getting better. Some of the newest additions include African Grasslands and Alaskan Adventure sprayground. Here are some experts’ tips on visiting the zoo.

6. Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure (Nebraska City, Neb.)

Happy and mud-covered children at Arbor Day Tree Adventure.

This Nebraska City attraction is so cool, we try to visit every season each year. The forest trail, the treehouse, the inviting natural play areas…I love it. I might also love the fact that it’s next door to a place that serves fabulous apple pie and has a wine tasting room.

7. Toadstool Geological Park (Oglala National Grasslands)

Let’s play “Spot the trail” in this picture at Toadstool.

This is off the beaten path, but definitely worth a visit to see this place and hike around. They’re pretty much Nebraska’s own Badlands. Careful hiking around there with little ones, though.

8. Brownville, Neb.

In the center of Brownville on Main Street, you’ll find this old cabin.

So much art and culture packed into a little Nebraska town. Browse bookstores, art galleries, or check out a winery.

The town is also near Indian Cave State Park. I recommend combining a visit to both for a complete day.

9. Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, Neb.)

A sea of red at Memorial Stadium. Photo courtesy Asten on Flikr

It’s something to experience at least once: The football stadium becomes the third most populated “city” in Nebraska on Husker game day. Wear red or else.

10. Nebraska Wildlife Safari (Ashland, Neb.)

You have to beware of animals crossing the road at the Nebraska Wildlife Safari.

I’m a sucker for driving among bison, I guess. This is a great attraction that showcases Nebraska’s wildlife. Get out of the car to see the bears, wolves, bald eagles and other critters out there.

Honorable mentions Nebraska attractions

A few more favorite places in Nebraska that didn’t make the Top 10 cut: Omaha’s Old Market, Plattsmouth’s Sisters Thai and German Cafe, and Chadron State Park.

* * * * *

There are a lot of exhibits and events planned to celebrate the 150th. Check out the calendar of events here.

 

Your turn: What is on your must-see list for Nebraska?

July 19, 2016

Trail Rides & Pony Rides At Mahoney State Park

There are surprisingly few places to go trail riding within 30 or so miles of Omaha. One option is at Mahoney State Park out in Ashland, Nebraska, which is about midway between Omaha and Lincoln.

Mahoney Horse Collage

I’ve gone horseback riding at Mahoney as a kid and recently, I decided that it was time to hop back on the saddle, and this time, bring my son along for his first horse ride. My daughter wasn’t old enough for a trail ride, so she’d have to settle for a pony ride.

Mahoney State Park is family-favorite place to explore in any season, but this summer was the first time we went just for the horses. I learned a few things with my spur-of-the-moment trip. It didn’t work out for us, all trail ride slots were filled, but maybe it could work out for you if you plan ahead.

Before you trot out to Mahoney to take the kiddos on a trail ride, there are a few things you should know about horse trail rides there.

Mahoney State Park Trail Rides Information

Horse trail rides at Mahoney State Park are $18 for ages 6 and older. Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Horse trail rides at Mahoney State Park are $18 for ages 6 and older. Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

1. You can only buy tickets at the administration office. Call ahead of time to see if there are spots left, (402) 944-2523.

2. Trail rides are for ages 6 and older.

3. Trail rides last about 45 minutes to an hour.

4. Trail rides are $18.

5. Horse trail rides run from May to October.

6. Holiday weekends are the busiest times at Mahoney State Park. Which drives home point No. 1. Call ahead.

 

My grand plan of taking my son out on his first trail ride didn’t pan out, but pony rides turned out to be a decent backup option.

 

Mahoney State Park Pony Rides Information

Farley on a not-so-little pony ride. Pony rides at Mahoney State Park are $6 seasonally.

Farley on a not-so-little pony ride. Pony rides at Mahoney State Park are $6 and are offered seasonally.

1. Kids ages 3-9 can ride the ponies.

2. Pony rides run from May to October.

3. Pony rides are $6 and you pay at the stables.

I think $6 is a little steep for a five-minute pony ride in a circle. I made the rookie parent mistake of promising them a pony ride before knowing the price…and you know there’s no backing out of that kind of promise.

 

Your turn: Have you done a trail ride at Mahoney State Park yet? Have you taken your kids on one?

July 14, 2016

Trains & History Fun This Weekend

Get the hats and sunscreen ready, this weekend, I handpicked three fun things to do with the kids and they’re going to have kids activities and areas of interest outdoors.

 

Railroad Days 2016

The mini UP train will have free rides for children at Lauritzen Garden. Photo courtesy Lauritzen Gardens

The mini UP train will have free rides for children at Lauritzen Garden. Photo courtesy Lauritzen Gardens

When: Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Lauritzen Gardens, The Durham Museum, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, the RailsWest Railroad Museum, the Historic General Dodge House and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

Why: Someone in your family loves trains and/or history.

Who’d like this: Train lovers; history buffs; deal-seeking parents (admission to all locations included with $15 family pass)

Tip: Get more details on this fun family-friendly event, including all the extra activities at each location here.

 

Mahoney 25th Anniversary Party

NEBRASKA-DNR

When: Saturday, 2 to 7 p.m.

Where: Mahoney State Park, 28500 West Park Highway, Ashland, Neb.

Why: This is your favorite state park and you want to celebrate it with other fans.

Who’d like it: Outdoorsy types

Loom Weaves Joslyn

Photo courtesy loom/Brent Crampton

A dancer interacting with an audience member during a previous loom event at Joslyn Art Museum. Photo courtesy loom/Brent Crampton

When: Saturday, 2 p.m. until midnight

Where: Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St.

Why: It’s a FREE kid-friendly event with House of Loom, which rarely does anything geared toward all ages. Think music and dancing, art activities plus you can get discounted admission to the new Sheila Hicks exhibit. See all activities here.

Who’d like this: Artsy types; House of Loom loyalists; families on a budget

Tip: They’re allowing you to bring food into the event, so you can make a day of it and pack a picnic.

 

Need more ideas? Find out about teen lock-ins, character visits at the library and more in the post Big List of Kid-Friendly Events in July!

 

Stay in the know!

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June 24, 2016

Living History At Fort Atkinson In Nebraska

Fort Atkinson is a Nebraska State Historical Park in Fort Calhoun, which is a short drive north of Omaha. Considering how close it is to Omaha, it’s been a major oversight that I’ve never visited, especially since there are monthly events that are incredibly interesting for families.

Mooch learns a little sewing technique from a seamstress during a living history weekend event at Fort Atkinson in Nebraska.

Mooch learns a little sewing technique from a seamstress during a living history weekend event at Fort Atkinson in Nebraska.

You can visit any time of year to explore the fort, but for I cannot recommend enough that you try to time a visit for a historical re-enactment.

Historic re-enactments

Actresses walking along the north side of Fort Atkinson, located in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

Actresses walking along the north side of Fort Atkinson, located in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

I never thought of myself as being into re-enactments, but my opinion has evolved, especially after attending the June historic re-enactment of fort life in the 1820s at Fort Atkinson. I was impressed and could not believe more people don’t know about it.

Don't miss the blacksmith during the re-enactment weekends at Fort Atkinson, located in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

Don’t miss the blacksmith during the re-enactment weekends at Fort Atkinson, located in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

On the first Saturday and Sunday of the month, May through October, Friends of Fort Atkinson recreate life 200 years ago. Their attention to detail and characters they create is great, and made the whole experience fascinating.

A peek inside one of the rooms at Fort Atkinson.

A peek inside one of the rooms at Fort Atkinson.

Rooms throughout the fort are recreated with the typical items of the time and characters describing what their life would’ve been like.

One of the first rooms you'll likely enter when you first get there is the Colonel's office.

One of the first rooms you’ll likely enter when you first get there is the Colonel’s office.

The blacksmith shop looked as real as it gets. You could also watch ladies weave, men make barrels or talk to soldiers getting ready for battle.

And for the serious history buffs, it was acknowledged that there wouldn’t be any women found inside the fort back in its hay day. The actresses explained why that some recreations were done just to give a better idea of life at the time – whether it was cooking, sewing or selling goods.

Ladies in the kitchen at Fort Atkinson. They'll be the first to tell visitors women weren't allowed in the fort back in the day, though. They're part of the re-enactments to give insight to what life was like outside of the fort.

Ladies in the kitchen at Fort Atkinson. They’ll be the first to tell visitors women weren’t allowed in the fort back in the day, though. They’re part of the re-enactments to give insight to what life was like outside of the fort.

What kids will like about Fort Atkinson

When you arrive at the fort, stop at the info table to grab a scavenger hunt.

The outside of Fort Atkinson doesn't really indicate much of what's waiting for your family inside, does it?

The outside of Fort Atkinson doesn’t really indicate much of what’s waiting for your family inside, does it?

Kids need to ask the re-enactors questions in order to successfully finish the hunt. This provides shy kids with talking points to interact with the actors. It was a handy way to learn about things you wouldn’t think to ask about.

Kids can take their finished scavenger hunt to the general store and receive a free piece of rock candy.

The general store at Fort Atkinson is a working store where you can buy gifts, treats and, apparently, barrels.

The general store at Fort Atkinson is a working store where you can buy gifts, treats and, apparently, barrels.

Speaking of that store, this is another kid-favorite if only because they have candy, lemonade and toys. Good luck leaving it without a treat.

Mooch and my dad enjoying an afternoon snack and lemonade on the porch of the general store.

Mooch and my dad enjoying an afternoon snack and lemonade on the porch of the general store.

You don’t have to do the scavenger hunt, of course. We didn’t. The kids still found ways to interact, helping sew a quilt and trying on the colonel’s hat, for instance.

One thing to note: They fire a cannon during the re-enactments. Some kids are going to love the loud boom and others won’t (cover their ears regardless). My kids were not fans.

The cannon is prepped to be fired at Fort Atkinson.

The cannon is prepped to be fired at Fort Atkinson.

If you go

Historical Re-enactments at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park

Where: 201 S. Seventh St., Fort Calhoun, Neb.

When: First Saturday and Sunday of the month through October. The first weekend in July has a focus on the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence will be read aloud. Park is open year-round 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Valid state park permit is required. Visitor Center is $2 for adults, $1 for children under 13, and FREE for children under 3.

Friends of Fort Atkinson Website

March 29, 2016

10 Outdoor Adventures Near Omaha

Great outdoor adventures are less than an two hours away from Omaha.

Here are my 10 favorite spots to go and why they’re so fun:

Outdoor adventures near Omaha

Glenn Cunningham Lake

Standup paddleboards on the shore of Lake Cunningham in Omaha.

Standup paddleboards on the shore of Lake Cunningham in Omaha.

Where: Omaha

Distance from Omaha: In the city limits

Cost: Free to go to the park; $12/hour to rent a paddleboard or $40 for the day

What’s not to miss: Rent standup paddleboards from The Neighborhood Offshore Outfitters and have fun exploring the lake with your older children. Younger kids can stay with an adult and play at the small beach.

More about standup paddleboarding at Cunningham

 

Fontenelle Forest

Playing at Fontenelle Forest.

Playing at Fontenelle Forest.

Where: Bellevue, Neb.

Distance from Omaha: 9 miles

Cost: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for children (ages 2-17), and FREE for children younger than 2 and members

What’s not to miss: If you’re hiking with small kids, make sure you include plenty of time to play at Acorn Acres.

More about the forest

 

Lake Manawa State Park

Where: Council Bluffs, Iowa

Distance from Omaha: 14 miles

Cost: $3 per person enter the beach area, plus extra cash for renting a canoe or kayak.

What’s not to miss: This is one of the closest lakes to Omaha that has a swimming area roped off from the rest of the lake, which is busy place in the summer with boats. You can rent a canoe or kayak there, as well. I steer my kids to Dreamland Park, though. It was pretty much designed by engineers who asked kids what they’d love to have in a park and then they built it. It looks like a giant splinter waiting to happen, but the kids survive and love it.

 

Hitchcock Nature Center

The tower at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa.

The tower at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa.

Where: Honey Creek, Iowa

Distance from Omaha: 21 miles

Cost: $2 for a daily pass or you can buy a year pass for Pottawattamie County Parks

What’s not to miss: Check out a free backpack from the nature center. It provides kid-friendly supplies like a magnifying glass and animal ID chart to enhance your kids’ adventure in nature.

More about Hitchcock

Side note: If you have older children, plan a stop at nearby Mt. Crescent Ski Area, which has a zipline for the truly adventurous.

 

Schramm State Recreation Area

Distance from Omaha: 25 miles

Cost: A Nebraska State Park Permit is required to enter this park area (an annual permit is $25).

What’s not to miss: Find the trail that takes you to the suspension bridge. Kids love crossing it.

 

Mahoney State Park

One of the lakes at Mahoney State Park.

One of the lakes at Mahoney State Park. It’s pretty even in the dead of winter.

Where: Ashland, Neb.

Distance from Omaha: 27 miles

Cost: A Nebraska State Park Permit is required to enter this park area (an annual permit is $25).

What’s not to miss: Horseback trail rides for 6 and older (pony rides for the youngins); train-loving kiddos will like the short hike near the lookout tower that gives them a decent view of passing trains.

More about going to Mahoney State Park with kids

 

Platte River State Park

A short hike at Platte River State Park is all it takes to find one of the few natural waterfalls close to Omaha.

A short hike at Platte River State Park is all it takes to find one of the few natural waterfalls close to Omaha.

Distance from Omaha: 28 miles

Cost: A Nebraska State Park Permit is required to enter this park area (an annual permit is $25).

What’s not to miss: The little waterfall that you can usually walk across and the teepee.

More about exploring Platte River State Park with kids

 

Great Tree Adventure

The Great Tree Adventure has a trail lined with bird cutouts. You can make a game looking them for with kids during your hike.

The Great Tree Adventure has a trail with two bridges, some climbing structures and lots of areas to explore.

Where: Nebraska City, Neb.

Distance from Omaha: 45 miles

Cost: Adults are $7, kids 3-12 are $5 and kids 2 and younger are FREE. Hayrack ride is extra.

What’s not to miss: Take the hike into the woods and try to find all 50 wooden bird (and one squirrel) cutouts, and enjoy the foot bridges over the creek.

More about the Great Tree Adventure and other fun things to do in Nebraska City

 

Branched Oak State Recreation Area

Playing on the beach at Branched Oak Lake.

Playing on the beach at Branched Oak Lake.

Where: Raymond, Neb.

Distance from Omaha: 68 miles

Cost: A Nebraska State Park Permit is required to enter this park area (an annual permit is $25).

What’s not to miss: The sand beach and boating

Details on planning a camping trip to Branched Oak

 

Indian Cave State Park

Indian Cave, one of the attractions of this Nebraska state park.

As close as you’ll get to the cave at Indian Cave State Park.

Where: Shubert, Neb.

Distance from Omaha: 92 miles

Cost: A Nebraska State Park Permit is required to enter this park area (an annual permit is $25).

What’s not to miss: You thought I was going to say Indian Cave, but that “cave” isn’t what you’re expecting. Hit the trails and the living history cabins for a more memorable experience.

More about exploring Indian Cave State Park with kids

 

Your turn: What are your favorite outdoor activities near Omaha? What will you drive two hours away to do?

September 21, 2015

Camping At Branched Oak In Nebraska

I recently found a beach getaway that’s about an hour drive from Omaha (and by beach, I mean sand lake). It took until me the end of summer to discover it – and even longer to tell you about it. Sorry. Just tuck this little post in the back your mind for Summer 2016.

My family recently camped at Branched Oak State Recreation Area, a large park about 20 miles north of Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

Branched Oak title

 

It’s far enough to feel like a getaway but if you’re not a huge fan of being in remote areas, it’s really close to civilization. And it’s near wineries (James Arthur Vineyards, Windcrest Winery, Junto Wine). So win for all of us.

 

What to expect

The big draw is Branched Oak Lake, which is the largest in Eastern Nebraska.

 

It's also a draw for pirates, apparently.

Now this is how you decorate a campsite on the waterfront.

 

This place is a huge draw for boaters. Bring your own or rent one to join the fun. You can also rent canoes and kayaks. Costs for pontoon boat rentals are $70/hour on the weekends and holidays. Fishing boats are cheaper ($30/hour), as are kayaks ($15/hour) and paddleboats ($15/hour). Visit Branched Oak Marina for more details.

Mooch wishing we had a boat.

Mooch wishing we had a boat.

There are two sandy beaches. We stuck to the beach at Liebers Pointe because the waves were big by Nebraska standards. We drove by the other beach and it looked pretty calm.

 

LIebers Pointe Beach at Branched Oak southeastern Nebraska.

Liebers Pointe Beach at Branched Oak southeastern Nebraska.

 

The marked off swimming area at Liebers Pointe is rather shallow, allowing even my 5-year-old to walk out with me to the buoys.

By the way, “sandy” means the kind you find on the playground and mud.

Not exactly powdery sand in these parts of Nebraska.

Not exactly powdery sand in these parts of Nebraska.

That sounds negative, but I don’t mean it to be – we liked it, actually. The kids could build sand castles and dig tunnels for the water. I just wanted to give you a clear expectation of things.

 

Playing on the beach at Branched Oak Lake.

Playing on the beach at Branched Oak Lake.

 

Camping

There are nine areas designated for camping at Branched Oak, some you can reserve online ahead of time and some you can get the day of starting at 10 a.m., for a total of 280 sites. We went on a holiday weekend, which requires reserving for three nights.

 

A quiet moment at our campsite.

A quiet moment at our campsite.

 

I can only vouch for the Middle Oak Creek Loop (AKA Area 4), which is the original campsite of Branched Oak before it the other camp areas were added (it even includes an equestrian area). Our little patch of the park had a new playground and access to boat docks.

Sailboat at Branched Oak in Nebraska

Sailboat at Branched Oak in Nebraska

There were tons of RVs there, though we stuck to our tent. Love our easy-to-assemble Coleman Instant Cabin.

There are clean bathrooms and showers (well, “camping clean” – you’ll still find bugs and spiders there). There are two in the area, though we only found the one. It was located far from our campsite; so if you’re camping with kids, plan ahead and reserve a spot near there if you don’t have an RV. We had to establish a policy with the kids that last-minute dashes to the bathroom were not going to work.

South Shore Campground (AKA Area 1) sounds like it has the same setup as Middle Oak Creek Loop, with caved campsites, RV hookups and tent sites.  I heard Area 2 at the lake has no bathrooms.

 

Other activities

This isn’t like a state park with an abundance of things to do, so bring the fun with you. That said, there are a few options.

Horse riding – There are equestrian trails, so bring your horse. We all have one, right?

Fishing – There are plenty of fishing spots, and people there are hard core about their fishing.

We took the kids to the dock at the marina to give fishing a try.

The view at the marina

The view at the marina.

The marina is located on the northeast portion of the lake.

 

Looks like we're having fun fishing, doesn't it?

Looks like we’re having fun fishing, doesn’t it?

 

Mr. Wonderful doesn’t fish much and I don’t at all, so this was a pretty short excursion.

Still, the kids enjoyed it. Even if we didn’t catch a thing besides weeds.

You can purchase worms at the marina (as well as coffee and ice, I discovered).

Enjoy the views – The Boat House Bar & Grill is a dining spot with a view of the marina. There’s a large, unshaded deck.

The Boat House deck

The Boat House deck

Going with kids? There is a kids menu with pretty good prices and fresh fruit to boot.

 

IMG_9127_blog

Kids Menu at the Boat House Bar & Grill.

 

With only 12 tables, it can be a packed place, especially during Husker games.

Inside the Boat House Bar and Grill at Branched Oak

Inside the Boat House Bar and Grill at Branched Oak.

And if you’re dying to stay connected to the outside world, ask them for their wifi password.

Run or bike – This isn’t really a place for hiking, though there is a nature trail and arboretum. We skipped those since it was, by all appearances, a lawnmowed trail in the grasslands. It is pretty flat and we saw our share of runners out there, as well as bicyclists. We spent some time working on the kids learning how to ride their bikes near our campsite.

 

If you go

Branched Oak State Recreation Area

Where: 12000 West Branched Oak Road, Raymond  Neb.

Costs: A Nebraska State Park Permit is required to enter this park area (an annual permit is $25). Camping? We reserved our campsite for $12/night.

Word of caution: We had trouble navigating the area and finding our campsite, as did those visiting us over the weekend. Pretty much disregard the directions provided on the Nebraska State Park’s Reserve America site. The signs weren’t much help either. So bring patience.

 

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