Growing up in New Mexico, the first real sign of fall for me was the sandhill (and some whooping) cranes honking as they flew over our farm or landed in our pastures on their way south, many wintering in the nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
Occurring in October and November, this went hand in hand with crisp mornings and the smell of smoke as people lit their wood stoves for heat. Fall is my favorite season and always has been, as it signals cooler temperatures and the start of my favorite holidays. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to see the cranes return to the north, making their longest stop in Nebraska. For those that live there, cranes mean the opposite season; their passage signals the start of spring on their way back to Canada, Alaska and Siberia. For approximately six weeks in the spring, more than 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes converge on the Platte River, where they rest and fatten up for before heading north to their breeding grounds. Another rare event birdwatchers are eager to see in the area at the same time is the mating dance of the Greater Prairie Chicken males; their movements might be familiar to those who have attended Native American Pow Wows as dancers imitate their steps and bobbing heads.
Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center
About a 30-minute drive from Grand Island is The Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center. The Crane Trust was established in 1978 to conserve critical habitat for the cranes, other migratory birds and local wildlife. To that end, they use science and research, habitat management, community outreach and education.
On the way, I excitedly observed thousands and thousands of cranes feeding in the spent corn fields. I had never seen so many at once. Little did I know the amount I would be seeing shortly. We attended an orientation in which we learned about the birds and how to minimize disturbing them while viewing them as they came in to roost for the evening. The largest roost had been 100,000 per night with an average of 400,000 cranes migrating through the short season.
We left for the blinds along the Platte River before dusk so that we could quietly settle in and situate ourselves for the best viewing. Then the cranes started to fly in as the sun set, hundreds at a time, then thousands. The cacophony of calls was deafening as we watched these delicate creatures land huddled on sandbars in the shallow water, where they spend the night perched on one leg. The water serves as a refuge against their many predators, including other birds such as eagles and hawks.
An early-morning start had us back in the blinds, warmed by coffee, well before dawn. Once again we quietly settled in and waited for the sun to rise. As the cranes awoke, the males began “displaying” (posturing) and trumpeting, drawing the attention of potential mates. Cranes mate for life, and generally have one to two chicks a year. Groups of cranes slowly started to take flight, then an enemy arrived. A red-tailed hawk flew low over the water, startling the cranes and causing tens of thousands to flee. It was indescribable; I was wholly caught up in the moment.
Largely stunned into silence by what we had seen, we returned to the headquarters for a continental breakfast and a tour of rentable cabins. Private tours, overnight stays, bison tours, biking, kayaking, nature trails and a VIP experience help fund the trust. Cranetrust.org.
Prairie Chicken Dance Tours
In McCook, we attended an evening, hour-long orientation and reception led by a naturalist with Prairie Chicken Dance Tours and met Angus Garey, the owner of the ranch where we would be viewing the male chicken’s mating dances. Once again, it was an early morning as we made our way to the “lek” (staging area) out in the windswept prairie to get there before sunrise. Gathering in blinds made of repurposed stock trailers and bundled in blankets with hand- and foot-warmers, we waited quietly as the sun rose and roosters and a few hens descended on the dance floor.
Even before we saw them, we could hear their “boom,” the sound created by the air sacs along their necks. As the sun rose, we observed the seven or so males inflate their bright orange air sacs and erect long feathers on their necks. The meek females lined the edges of the lek and quickly seemed to lose interest in the real show of the competing males dancing and vying for the center, where they are most visible to the females. There was not much physical interaction between them, although they circled each other and stared each other down like boxers in a ring. It really was quite an experience to observe the birds stamping, hopping and strutting while booming and cackling, and the competition lasted well over an hour.
Like the crane migration experience, the Greater Prairie Chicken dances have a short season; the roosters only perform their mating dances for approximately two months of the year. Unlike the migrating cranes, the chickens make their home on the prairie year round, but are usually elusive to those hoping to view them. Prairiechickendancetours.com.
Rowe Sanctuary and Iain Nicolson Audubon Center
Located in Kearney County, dubbed the “Sandhill Capital of the World,” the Rowe Sanctuary offers morning and evening crane tours through the month of March and first week of April. Rowe Sanctuary was established in 1974 by the National Audubon Society to protect a 750-acre habitat of sandhill cranes and other wildlife. At the time, the Platte River in the area was in peril, with 70 percent of the water gone, and 90 percent of the habitat and meadows missing due to farming.
The sanctuary now covers nearly 1,450 acres of land and includes a center with interpretive displays, a gift shop and a sweeping view of nearly four miles of the Platte River. There are also open trails and wildlife tours led by experienced staff.
The sanctuary provides harbor to more than 70,000 cranes nightly during the spring migration, with a high count of 400,000 per year, so we were once again wowed by a spectacular sunset and sunrise show. Although we had a similar experience there as at the Crane Trust, it was unique in its own way and breathtaking. The most adventurous birdwatchers can choose to spend a whole night in small, unheated blinds for the optimal photography opportunity. rowesanctuary.org.
Museums and Area Attractions
There is a plethora of other attractions in Central Nebraska, many of them preserving the history of the area and America in general. Several are nonprofit charities and are free of charge, although they encourage donations to fund ongoing support and improvements. Those with outside attractions only have them open generally from Memorial Day through Labor Day and by appointment year round. Information on all of them can be found online.
Henderson Mennonite Heritage Museum tells the story of Mennonite immigrants who came to Nebraska from Russia, but whose original background was Dutch-German. The museum site has a barn, farmhouse, schoolhouse, machine shed, church, train depot, summer kitchen, outhouse, immigrant house, granary, chicken house, garden, windmill and visitor’s center/general store. Staff in period costumes tempted our taste buds with authentic pastries and gave us some background, including their religion as Anabaptists, causing them to flee persecution in Europe. They are largely involved in national and international charity work. The museum is open to the general public during the summer and always open by appointment.
Wessel’s Living History Farm is a popular tourist attraction outside of York. Experience authentic farm life from the 1920s with a fully interactive experience with animals, gardens, a barn, church (where weddings and services still take place), tank house, garage filled with Model-Ts, schoolhouse, granary, farmhouse, windmill, playground, and an equipment building filled with antique tractors and other farm equipment. Educational programs are offered throughout the year to all ages, hands on and online. There are also ongoing events held year-round and the venue is available to rent for special occasions.
Housed in the lower level of the Mackey Center at York College, the Clayton Museum of Ancient History is a surprising find in a rural area of the Midwest. A private collector donated the exhibits and artifacts pertaining to ancient Mesopotamia and the Roman Empire that offer a fascinating glimpse into past cultures, and features include an interactive children’s exhibit and a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Visitors can write prayers to tuck into cracks in the wall, and these prayers are sent twice a year to Jerusalem to be preserved.
Aurora is home to The Plainsman Museum, which is absolutely huge and a bit overwhelming for the short period of time we spent there. There is so much to take in! It is dedicated to telling the lives of the farmers who lived in Nebraska from the late 1800s through the 1940s. The cavernous space was actually built to fit an original 1910 farmhouse inside of. There is also an original log cabin and a replica of a furnished sod house in which many original settlers lived when they first arrived in the area. Vignettes of town buildings such as stores and government contain original objects. It’s a real experience in time travel. A second building houses agricultural equipment, and there are a number of other outbuildings, as well.
The Nebraska State Fair is held yearly at Fonner Park, also the place to watch live horse racing from February through May. The park also a firehouse, public swimming pool, and the Heartland Civic Center which hosts an indoor football league, concerts and other events. The “Raising Nebraska” exhibit there is 25,000 square feet and is dedicated to agriculture. Here we were treated to a farm-to-fork breakfast and spent time exploring all that the interactive experiences had to teach us about the state’s food and the families that grow it. A whole one-third of careers in the state are tied to agriculture, and the No. 1 crop is corn. I learned a lot in a short amount of time, and the exhibit is easily a big draw for students and tourists alike. There is also an outdoor aspect with a huge Nebraska-shaped garden with walkways representing the major rivers throughout the state.
The Stuhr Museum, one of the top living history museums in the country, has a little bit of everything: historical, contemporary, outdoor and artistic displays. It’s a destination worth a day-long visit, especially when the outside 1890's Railroad Town is open during summer hours. Costumed interpreters authentically recreate the pioneer experience throughout the 200 acres and more than 100 structures, including the home actor Henry Fonda grew up in. We observed a hatmaker creating a custom-made order in the millinery and in the planing mill, a woodworker fashioned a wooden gavel.
Among the many exhibits inside the beautiful Stuhr Building are rotating exhibits; since this was crane season they were represented in a variety of media. Special events for the family are held throughout the year on an almost weekly basis. This is a place to create life-long memories.
Pioneer Village is definitely a destination to add to any Nebraska vacation. Visitors can spend days wandering throughout the 24 buildings located on 20 acres; there are more than 50,000 items arranged in their order of development. Among the exhibits is one of the largest collections in the world of farm tractors and other machines. This amazing museum was created and funded by Harold Warp, who invented plastic wrap. Besides a number of authentic and replica buildings furnished with period objects, the campus includes the Pioneer Restaurant, Pioneer Motel and Pioneer RV Park and Campground so that families can take their time enjoying all that the village has to offer.
Buffalo Bill Ranch, a state historical park and recreation area, was once home to the legendary American scout, buffalo hunter and showman, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He built the home to relax at in between tours of “Buffalo’s Bill Wild West Show,” which he took as far as Europe. Visitors can tour his “Mansion on the Prairie” and huge barn as well as enjoy rousing horseback reenactments and other special events. The 233-acre recreation area includes camping, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and summer activities. During NEBRASKAland Days in June, the nearby Buffalo Bill Arena hosts a PRCA rodeo.
Golden Spike Tower/Bailey Yard provides a panoramic view of the world’s largest rail yard, at 2,850 acres, from two observation decks. The yard handles 14,000 railroad cars every 24 hours. The Union Pacific Railroad is so important to the area as it led to the development of local towns and cities and later to populating the western U.S. The origins of Bailey Yard began in 1867 and it is an important part of the history of the country. Railroad retirees make up some of the volunteers that staff the nonprofit visitor’s center. Watch a welcome video, browse interpretive displays, take a walk through the courtyard, or pick up a memento in the gift shop.
The famous American author, Willa Cather, grew up in Red Cloud and her town and prominent people definitely played characters in her beloved novels. The Willla Cather Foundation was founded in 1955 and is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and sharing her legacy. We toured Cather’s childhood home in which her bedroom was recreated in detail, and also the historic Burlington Train Depot that she enjoyed visiting. Finally, we made a visit to the foundation’s bookstore, museum and gallery on the first floor of the restored Red Cloud Opera House, which was filled with many personal items and a complete history of her life. Cathers is a fascinating story and fans will not want to miss this experience that brings her personality to life. A nearby prairie was bought by the Nature Conservancy in 1974 for preservation and dedicated in her name.
The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument over I-80 is a unique attraction that covers more than 170 years of history, from immigrants settling the central plains to automobiles carrying tourists to the West Coast. As we made our way over the eight-story arch, we experienced in chronological order the Native Americans, trappers, pioneers, gold prospectors, Pony Express riders, etc. who populated these plains. The exhibit uses animation, murals, lighting and narration to entertain and educate. Disney employees incorporated special effects into the murals of the vignettes, making it feel like a theme park rather than an educational experience; a venue children will be sure to enjoy.
Fort Kearney was established in 1848 to offer protection to travelers on The Oregon Trail, Pony Express riders, and gold prospectors on their way west. It was discontinued as a military post in 1871 and later restored as a state historical park. Visitors can explore reconstructed buildings such as the powder magazine, blacksmith shop, stockade, and parade grounds, and also ongoing exhibits. People also converge on the fort to observe the annual crane migration. The fort hosts live reenactments, an outdoor expo, and an outdoor workshop. The recreation area offers camping, fishing, swimming, biking, hiking and picnic and day use areas.
The Classic Car Collection is 50,000 square feet of a car-lover’s paradise under one roof, comprised of more than 200 donated and loaned automobiles organized in collections such as the Grand Concourse, Gasoline Alley and Cadillac Corner. In addition to period advertising and automobile memorabilia, there is a multi-media display about Founders Bernie and Janice Toulborg, a 1940s gas station, a drive-in movie theater, and a gift shop. There is something here for everyone in the family to enjoy!
Chances “R” Restaurant is a staple of those that live in York and Nebraska in general, being voted No. 1 restaurant in the state. It takes up a whole quarter of a city block and has been owned by the same family for 50 years. The huge venue has distinctive dining areas: the casual east side, the elegant Shir-Ra private banquet room, the Hob-Nob Lounge, and the Tommy-Suz Beer Garden (named after the owners), located in a former garage. They offer huge, home-style dishes and an all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet on Saturday nights.
The contemporary Chocolate Bar is in the revitalized downtown of Grand Island. It had recently opened when we dined there, and the owner served us a tasting menu of dishes not yet added to the menu. They all passed muster with flying colors. The restaurant serves a variety of adult drinks, coffee and tea, pastries, sandwiches, salads, wraps, soups, desserts, and true to its name, truffles!
In McCook, we enjoyed steak dinners at the Coppermill Steakhouse and Lounge Restaurant. Cattle ranching is the largest industry in Nebraska, and the Coppermill is known as one of the best steakhouses in the state. It delivered!
Sozo American Cuisine in Kearney is a great place for lunch. It’s decorated in modern art and delightful. I had the tortellini with braised beef tips. The menu changes seasonally and strives to use local products as much as possible.
The last night of our trip, we dined at downtown Kearney’s Alley Rose, known as one of the best restaurants in mid-Nebraska. The rustic wooden dining room has unique features such as a sunburst-styled wall, and we drooled over the prime rib, grilled salmon and chicken schnitzel.
My final meal was in Grand Island at lunch, once again downtown. Unlike many towns’ original buildings, all seemed to be occupied and updated. McKinney’s Irish Pub has the best Reuben’s sliders, bangers and mash, and shepherd’s pie.
There was some distance between all of the places we visited, so we split our five-day trip between three hotels. The first couple of nights we stayed at the new Fairfield Inn and Suites in Grand Island, where the accommodations were welcoming and the service was warm. In McCook, we stayed at The Chief Motel, which was on the main drag and was unique in that the one- and two-story rooms surround an inside courtyard containing a pool and family-friendly amenities such as a pool table. On our final leg, we spent two nights in Kearney at the comfortable Best Western Plus Mid-Nebraska Inn and Suites, filled with families enjoying the indoor pool and spacious dining area.
Flying from Houston, I was able to save some time by flying through Dallas directly to the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, rather than flying into Omaha and then taking an hours-long road trip. The airport has two direct flights to and from Dallas each day (American) and also offers flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix (Allegiant). It was originally a WWII armed air base but has been fully modernized, including interactive kiosks, and is a breeze to get through. There are two gates and a cafe. Flygrandisland.com.
For more information on all there is to do in Central Nebraska, go to seethecranes.com, visitgrandisland.com, yorkvisitors.org, visitkearney.org, Outdoornebraska.org, visitnebraska.com, and visitnorthplatte.com.