Life In the Big Green Jolly

Embrace local. Explore often.

Embrace local.  Explore often.

A guide to viewing the Sandhill Crane Migration

Group of sandhill cranes standing in Platte River

Come for the Sandhill Crane Migration.

Stay for the Midwestern hospitality in Kearney, Nebraska.

About the Sandhill Crane Migration

Throw-out whatever preconceived notions you might have about birders or ‘birding’ as a vacation. The sandhill crane spring migration in central Nebraska is an experience you ought to have at least once in your life.  

Be forewarned though…more than one person told me they visited to check it off their bucket list and now they have returned multiple times.

The lesser Sandhill Crane bird population migrates every spring along a flyway route from their southern wintering grounds (the southern United States and northern Mexico) to their northern breeding grounds (northern Alaska and Siberia). The halfway point on this 5000 to 7000 mile path is the central Platte River basin near Kearney, Nebraska.

Over 600,000 sandhill cranes (nearly 80% of the world’s population) stop for a few weeks in the spring to rest and fatten up before continuing their migration. If you are not a ‘birder’, let me tell you over half a million birds is an impressive amount of bird.

Interestingly, Nebraska is the only spot along the flyway that is a no-hunting zone. Any other province or state along their migration route allows them to be hunted.

Smart birds. I think I’d choose a no-kill spot for my long lunch, too.

So, why is the central Platte River so special to these birds for their long layover?

First, the Platte River in this area is wide, shallow (less than a foot deep most places) and has many sand bars. This is the perfect spot for the birds to spend the night. They can be alerted by the splashing sound of their land-based predators – coyotes and foxes – who attempt to sneak up on them.  

Platte River
The shallow and wide Platte River

Second, the land near the river is at this point primarily farm fields. The birds spend their daylight hours in the farm fields eating leftover grain and corn to restore their energy reserves for their next long flight segment.

Now, let’s clear up some confusion about sandhill cranes. Those five-foot-tall cranes you see in the Target parking lot on the Gulfside of Florida? Those are NOT the same sandhill cranes you’ll see in Nebraska!

There are more than a few subspecies of sandhill cranes. The cranes that migrate through Nebraska are the “lesser sandhill” subspecies of cranes. They breed in the Siberia area and are slightly smaller (4-foot) than the “greater sandhill” cranes who breed in the northern part of the continental US. I guess the ‘lesser’ part of their name refers to their size and not their migratory distances!

Some fun facts about Sandhill Cranes:

  • A group of cranes is called a kettle.
  • The red patch on their head? That’s not feathers. It’s skin that changes color with emotion.

    That uncle you have who turns beet red when he is angry or excited? Same deal with the patch on the crane heads.
  • These birds know how to have fun. Cranes dance. For fun, for mating, and I suppose to get on a spot on Instagram.
  • Cranes are social critters – they talk constantly (hello chatty Aunt Betty!).

    And when you have hundreds of thousands trumpeting in one place, well let’s just say you can still hear them over the Nebraska wind.

    Locals say they know spring has arrived when the crane chatter starts.
  • Adults mate for life but kick their young to the curb after 12 hours.

    Yep, 12 hours of feeding and then the baby bird has to figure out how to use the stove themselves.

    That said, they have strong family bonds so the kiddo birds still follow their parents around most of their life but there are no free handouts in that family. These birds might fly 200-300 miles a day at an average speed of 38 miles per hour but there are no helicopter parents in this group!

If you want to learn more about sandhill cranes before your visit, check out: 

Where to view the Sandhill Crane migration

The “where” depends on the “when”.  

During the day, the cranes can be found in fields near the river.  

From dusk to dawn, they can be found in the Platte River.

Daytime Viewing

For daytime crane viewing, drive down any dirt or gravel road near the river. The birds will be eating in the farmer fields.

I didn’t believe the “any road” instructions until I started driving around. It’s true – you’ll find cranes.  

Sandhill Cranes flying over farmer field in Kearney, Nebraska
Sandhill Cranes – mini fly-out after something spooked them in farmer’s field

A local told me that early on in the season, the cranes are “flighty” and keep their distance from the road and are easily spooked. After the cranes settle into their layover time, they are frequently spotted in ditches near the gravel roads and tend to ignore humans. I was there at the start of the season so I can vouch only for the “keep their distance” and “flighty” behaviors.

This is the map I used for crane-viewing spots (available from the visitor center in the Crane Watch Guide). I recommend the area near #6.

Map showing sandhill crane migration viewing spots near Kearney Nebraska
Suggested locations to view sandhill crane migration

You might also find this map useful.

Dusk/Dawn Viewing

The cranes overnight in the shallow Platte river to avoid predators.  

Around sunset and sunrise time frames, the cranes fly in/out of the Platte River, usually in large groupings.

To find out the current best times for fly-in/outs, check with staff at any of these locations:

  • Kearney Visitor Center
  • Fort Kearny Historic State Park
  • Audubon at Rowe Sanctuary

During the first week of March 2020 (before the spring forward time change), the fly in/out times were sometime during these hours:

  • 6:30 – 7:30 pm 
  • 6 – 7 a.m 

Below are the recommended spots to view fly in/outs. None of these are guaranteed as the birds have free-will but these are great locations to try.

Footbridge in Fort Kearny State Recreation Area 

Pedestrian footbridge over shallow Platte River
Footbridge in Fort Kearny Recreation Area – excellent spot to watch sandhill cranes fly-out/in at sunrise and sunset
  • Note that the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area is not the same location as the Fort Kearny State Historical Park. Their entrances are about 1-mile apart.
  • It’s less than a five-minute paved walk from the main parking lot to the footbridge over the Platte River.
  • Parking:
    • Inside the park. From Highway 50A (aka V Road), turn into the main entrance for Fort Kearny State Recreation Area. During peak season, “park anywhere” is the recommendation inside the park.
    • Alternatively, on the north side of the River, take Kilgore Road. Park at the gravel/rutted turnaround spot near the bike/hike trail and walk south on the trail to get to the footbridge.
  • Sometimes a park naturalist is on the bridge answering questions
  • Peak season may have 100-200 people on the bridge
  • Buy the $6 daily permit fee for the park either at Fort Kearny Historic Site or at the self-serve pay station at the Recreation area (bring correct change). The pass is good until noon the following day.
  • As of the 2020 season, no reservations are required. Show up as you wish.

Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary

sandhill cranes standing in water with a few flying in
Waiting for sunrise – sandhill cranes in Platte River at Rowe Sanctuary
  • Run by the local Audubon Center including volunteers
  • Book your Rowe Sanctuary tours in advance – they fill up quickly!
  • Check the website for pricing. $40/person for a morning blind tour
  • Getting there:
    • Located off of Elm Island Road along the south side of the Platte River
    • Expect to drive gravel roads to get there. You can’t miss the building with its blue flags and signs.
    • Recommend driving there during daylight hours before you try to find it for your 5 a.m. tour
  • 2020 – there are brand new blinds for their tours.   
    • Benches available for seating
    • “Warming room” – no heat but no windows so slightly warmer than the viewing area
    • Large open windows for viewing (not “slats” like some blinds)
  • Expect to walk maybe .25 mile on a gravel path in the dark for the tour. You may not use your own light, follow the guides with their red headlamps.
  • Expect part of the tour to be “auditory” not visual as there will be darkness.

Crane Trust

  • Located closer to Grand Island then Kearney
  • I did not visit so no personal experience but others said it was similar experience/price to Rowe Sanctuary

When to visit the Sandhill Crane migration

For the spring migration, target March through mid-April. 

You have to gamble on your dates.  It’s a guess each year on when the cranes will arrive and when they’ll leave.  

But, other folks want to see the cranes too, so you’ll need to make some reservations in advance.  Go early or later in that window to have fewer people (but probably fewer birds too).    

According to the folks at the Kearney visitor center, crane season brings 44,000 tourists into Kearney.  That almost doubles the population of the city. Thanks to those tourists, there are 109 jobs created based on birds.  (See… the economic value of the outdoors and tourism IS a real thing!)

Give yourself at least two full-days in Kearney.  This allows for both evening and morning viewings as well as some daytime bird and non-bird fun.

What’s it really like to view the Sandhill Crane Migration?

Swarms of sandhill cranes flying out from Platte River during pink sunrise
One of the fly-outs at sunrise, Rowe Sanctuary

What’s it really like to view the Sandhill Crane migration in Kearny, Nebraska?

Flying into the regional airport, you can see the farmland is carved into grids of fields.  Mostly its off-season brown patches with the occasional green square decorated with irrigated crop-circles.  

The contours of the Platte River wind through the landscape.  But the river isn’t always visible. The river narrows and trees encroach or choke off sections of the water.  Dams upriver have stopped the annual floods that used to clear out the saplings. And irrigation has reduced water flow.  So Platte River once called “1-mile wide and 1-inch deep” isn’t so wide and flowing anymore.  

The river splits and rejoins itself.  Long before the city of Grand Island existed, the settlers called the land between the split channels of the Platte River “the grand island”.

Once you deplane, the locals’ Midwestern hospitality and practicality compete for your attention.  

Based on online advice, I stopped at the Kearny Visitor Center for advice.  

“Best non-chain places to eat?”, I asked.  

“We are in rural America.  That means trucks, red meat, and potatoes.  But the best Thai you’ll ever eat is here”. Ah, farmer practicality and local hospitality rolled into one answer.

Asking for advice on crane viewing, netted me a map with circles drawn on it to show both where the cranes had been an hour ago and the best morning and evening viewing spots.  

The map, an overview map, seemed sketchy for my driving needs (Sprint wasn’t doing my cell phone a bit of good in Nebraska). 

After asking where I could buy a more detailed map. I was told “Now pay attention. Go here. Turn here. No, don’t mark there, you’ll get confused and think you can get there from the north side of the river”.  

A few hours later, after realizing their road structure was basically a grid system and there were few trees to block the line of sight, their directions were perfectly clear.

Throughout my visit, all the locals reiterated that friendly, no-nonsense tone.  You are quickly tagged as an outsider. “Here for the birds, are you?”, I heard more than once followed by advice on best spots to view the birds and where to spend my non-birding hours.

With a few hours of daylight left, off I went to find cranes.  Following the ‘practical’ overview map, I found the gravel roads.  It took a few minutes to realize those distant grayish-brown lumps were birds.  Rolling down the car window, the chorus of bird calls confirmed it – these were cranes.

Scanning the horizon for other cars parked haphazardly or clouds of dust along a gravel road, led me to my next viewing spot.  At the CPNRD Plautz Viewing Site, the cranes flew in and out of the field oblivious to those of us hiding behind the blind.

Travel weary from the day, I retreated to my lodging before dark.

Online advice said the morning takeoff – the time when the birds en-mass leave the shallow river after sunrise to gorge on leftover grain in the farmer fields – happened at sunrise.   Given the 7 a.m. sunrise time, I walked the paved trail onto the footbridge in Fort Kearny State Recreation area at 6:30 a.m.

Several photographers, lugging large camera lenses, gave me a half-smile with a head shake as they left the bridge.  Not a good sign.  

Kathleen, dressed in a construction worker fluorescent yellow jacket with her white hair tucked under the hood,  stood on the bridge talking to a middle-aged couple. 

“Did I miss it?”, I inquired.

“Yes.  The mass flyaway happened at 6 a.m today”, Kathleen replied.

Darn birds, can’t they tell time?

The upside to my lateness?  Kathleen had time to talk. A resident naturalist during crane season, she makes intermittent appearances during crane season to educate the 100-200 people that flock to the bridge.  With no set schedule (this isn’t her full-time job), it’s hit or miss on whether you’ll catch her. Knowledgeable with the voice of a lifelong educator, she will fill your head with crane tidbits.  

As we talked about the 100,000 cranes already in the area, deer and wild turkey crossed the greenway on the south side of the river.  A few moments later, a bobcat strolled across on the north side of the river. A river otter bobbed in the water from one bank of the river to the other. 

And then the remaining sandhill cranes (the ones that slept in… MY kind of cranes), took flight chortling and calling to each other.  Not a sky-darkening mass, but cool all the same. It was enough to make me realize I wanted to see the mass fly-in that evening.

Leaving the state recreation area, I drove along the gravel roads crane-spotting.  

Debating whether to turn left or right at an intersection, a truck abruptly pulling off the road caught my eye.  Looking beyond it, a patch of the sky above a field had disappeared.  

Rolling down my window, the howling wind and sound of the cranes competed. Waste corn husks tumbled across the gravel road. Cranes are known to use thermals to their advantage but the wind gusts didn’t seem navigable to me.  Must be why I don’t have wings.

I don’t know what spooked that group of birds, but they swarmed through the sky for 2 – 3 minutes and then almost in unison settled back into the field.

So now I knew I REALLY wanted to see a mass fly-in or fly-out.

I then did a test drive to the Rowe Sanctuary.  A 5 a.m. tour meant driving country gravel roads in the dark without the right amount of caffeine.  Best to scope out the location in advance. 

The volunteers at the Rowe Sanctuary greeted me warmly and suggested walking down the open trail to view the blinds (the birds had already left the river for the day).  This was followed by advice to dress in warm layers for the next morning.

Bird blind at Rowe Sanctuary with Platte River in foreground
Platte River and Bird Blind at Rowe Sanctuary

Leaving the sanctuary, I drove to the Fort Kearny State Historical Park.  

Caroline and Colleen, technically staff at the Fort Kearny State Historical Park visitor center but are actually secret ninja tourism advocates, shared the history of the Fort, its importance for the Oregon Trail, and circled all the spots on the map that I should check out during my stay.  They also had the scoop on where to view the cranes.

It’s early in the crane season so I might have been a warm-up routine. Yet somehow I don’t see their enthusiasm or friendliness diminishing on the days that 200 visitors come through asking the same crane questions.

The Fort visitor center shows two videos – one about Sandhill Cranes, the other about the history of the Fort.    

The 15-minute video about the Sandhill Cranes made me realize how many other birds migrate through the area. Sandhill Cranes might be the star of the show but they have a lot of supporting actors like the Peregrine falcons and the snow geese. 

The 20-minute video of the history of the fort overran my brain with facts and dates.  Watch that video before you wander the grounds – it increases your appreciation for what you are viewing.

Not wanting to miss the fly-in for the evening, I returned to Fort Kearny State Recreation area and staked my spot on the footbridge before 5:30 p.m.  Twenty of us waited on the bridge, asking each other repeatedly what time they thought the birds would arrive. 

 A v-shaped form flies over.  Someone points and says “there, it’s starting”.  Nope, the V was just some joker geese doing a fly-by.

The giant orange ball sets west of the bridge as the sky to the east of the bridge turns shades of pink. Then all color fades from the sky and the distant river bank fades into grayness.  

By 6:30 p.m. the serious photographers had left.  The early birds from the morning fly-out had become party animals for the evening.  The mass fly-in that usually happens before sunset, happened after sunset.  

Some stubborn folks, including myself, stayed to listen to birds swoop and swarm above the river and watched vague shapes land for the night just before 7 p.m.  A great auditory experience, but not the visual “wow” I had expected.

At 3:30 the next morning, all my alarms went off.  After putting on every layer of clothing I had with me, I stopped at the McDonald’s for a large coffee before leaving Kearney. 

Driving down the gravel road off of V road (also known as highway 50a), the ¾ orange-tinted moon hung low in the sky. Four deer lift their head from the roadside to watch the car crawl past.  A raccoon loped across the road without looking, unused to traffic during his time of the day.

By 4:30 a.m., I followed a line of cars into the Rowe Sanctuary parking lot and was checked off the “allowed to be here” list.  

We gathered in the visitor center to watch a 20-minute video on cranes.  The video was less about crane behavior and more about human behavior.  Don’t talk. Turn your cell phone off. Expect to stay in the blind for a few hours.  No use of cameras of any kind until the volunteer guides tell you its permitted (light from your phone/camera can spook the birds).   Don’t stick anything – camera, hands, face, past the pane of the viewing blind.

We bundled up and headed outside.  Pausing for a moment, we listened to the cranes talk.  Even at night, they chatter. Gazing upwards, the wide-open Nebraska sky revealed stars not seen on the light-polluted East Coast I call home.  A shooting star streaks towards the horizon.

Our three volunteer guides used their red headlamps to guide 22 guests down the ¼ mile gravel path.  One elderly gentleman, using a cane, couldn’t navigate the uneven patch in the dark. A guide fetched a golf cart and drove him to the blind.

The blind smells of fresh-cut wood.  Built for this year’s crane season, it includes a warming room (unheated room without windows), a port-a-let 200 feet away, benches, and wide-open viewing windows.  I had pictured a fence with 2-inch slats to peer out. Fortunately, there are ample openings – easily 3 feet high by 10 feet wide. Plenty of room for everyone to see.  

It’s still dark.  Pointing at a vague noisy mass 100 yards from the blind, our guide states “Those are birds”.

Fifteen minutes into our dark blind time, the bone-chilling cold takes effect.   People get restless; quiet and stillness are difficult for some. A cell phone rings, a man blows his nose at full volume, and one lady paces back and forth across the 30 foot long blind with a swish-swish-swish of her ski pants.    

A train whistle blows and the sounds of highway traffic on Interstate 80 drift over to the blind.

Finally, the grayness lightens. Sunlight begins to highlight the squawking clump.  Now it is the birds’ turn to become restless. Their chatter increases and a few take off bobbing and weaving above the crowd, trying to entice a mass fly-away.  The light meter in the blind turns green and we are now permitted to use our cameras and our phones. Shutter sounds fill the air.  

The sun rises enough that the entire river is visible.  In the distance, the volume of sandhill crane calls increases.  The five-hundred or so birds in front of our blind become agitated and begin dancing.  A few cranes take flight.  

“There they go!” exclaims the guide pointing at the horizon.  

A dark mass separated from the river and blocked out the sky.  The rush of 50,000 birds taking flight sounds like the low roar of an oncoming train.  Full volume trumpets, they fight for a vague V shape. There are too many of them for uniformity as they compete for the same uplifting thermals.  They are coming right at us. To whoever put a roof on the blind, I am eternally grateful.  

Our small grouping of birds talks back but remains with their feet firmly planted in the river.  They refuse to join the mass fly-away. Within 30-seconds, the large fleet of birds has split up to find separate fields for the day.  

Ten minutes later, a second large fly-out occurs.  Again, “our” birds chatter and dance in response but maintain their position on the sandbar in front of the blind.

After another thirty minutes, our tour guides call it a wrap.  

“Those birds might stay there till 10 a.m today.  Obviously, they ate enough yesterday.”

Quietly, to not spook the remaining birds, our group headed out of the blind and back to the visitor center.  The guides hand us coffee and hot cocoa to help warm us up. Everyone marvels at the spectacle we witnessed and then we all head off in our cars to find a hot breakfast in town.

Weather and clothing 

Temperatures range from 20 to 70-degree Fahrenheit.  

If you are on a guided morning or evening tour, you won’t be permitted to leave the blind until the birds have flown off so you’ll be standing in the elements for a potentially a couple of hours.  

Bring layers and some single-use hand-warmers (available at any outdoor gear shop).

The wind is CONSTANT.   Locals joke that if the wind stops blowing, Nebraskans fall over.  So bring a windbreaker jacket and wind pants if you have them.

The Audubon Society recommends dark colors as to not spook the birds (power lines have bright colors tied on them to warn them off).  

And out of courtesy to your fellow humans, try to bring quiet clothes.  If you are in a blind together for a few hours, it can be agitating listening to a constant “swish, swish” of someone’s ski pants.

Getting around

Kearney airport

Kearney regional airport is small – it has exactly one gate.

The airline clerk who checks you in before you go through TSA security closes the front desk to walk around and assist at boarding behind security.   Yep, it’s a one-person show but it all moves quickly.

TSA precheck uses the same line as non-TSA precheck so if you are TSA-cleared, you’ll be in the same line as others but will follow normal TSA-cleared rules.

The only food/drink available at the airports is via vending machines.  

Ground Transportation

Rent a car to see the birds.  I didn’t see any professional tours offered from Kearney so you’ll need a car to drive around looking for the birds.

Cabs

There is a cab service in town.  Find their number in the airport terminal by the luggage claim rack.

Rideshare

Uber and Lyft do exist in Kearney.  

This is useful to get back to your lodging after visiting the local brewery,  but not a practical solution for viewing the Sandhill cranes.

Rental Cars

Reserve your car in advance.  There are only two rental car companies in town (Thrifty and Enterprise) and not a ton of cars available.

The Toyota corolla I rented was sufficient.  But if you are not comfortable driving on gravel roads, you might want a larger car. 

Thrifty is the on-premise airport car rental vendor.  It’s a friendly but low-key operation. You will be handed keys and told to find your own car with an encouragement to do your own walk-around.  Thrifty only staffs the counter when they are expecting incoming arrivals that have reservations. Otherwise, check their desk for a number to call during unstaffed hours.

Enterprise has an off-airport presence about 10 minutes from the airport.  You’ll need to either call Enterprise to come to get you or take a cab there.

Orientation around town

Get your bearing by understanding the main road structure.  

The roads in Kearney are mostly a grid structure although the roads are not necessarily contiguous. For example, 20th street “breaks” for a few blocks and you have to zig-zag to continue on it.

“Avenues” run north to south in the grid system.

“Streets” run east to west.

So, 8th Ave and 8th street…two entirely different roads!

2nd Avenue (aka Highway 44) and Central Avenue run parallel to each other. 2nd Avenue is the commercial road while Central Avenue is brick-laden with stop signs every block. If you are looking for the “downtown” section, use Central Avenue and note all the lampost signs (“Dine on the brick”, “Sip on the bricks”) telling you you’ve arrived.

Interstate 80 runs east to west on the south edge of town.

25th street (aka Lincoln Highway or Highway 30) runs east to west across the mid-point of Kearney.  

Eating in Kearney

For local eats, I recommend these places:

  • Good Eats (breakfast/lunch cafe)
  • Tru Cafe (limited breakfast menu). I recommend the sprouted grain french toast stuffed with cream cheese. It’s a local hangout so you can get their current gossip here as a bonus.
  • Kitt’s Kitchen and Coffee – get any of their coffee and pastry items. You can’t go wrong here.

These following were highly recommended by locals but sadly were closed when I tried to go at 3 p.m. Check for open hours during their fall/winter season.

  • Everest Fusion (Indian/Nepal) (near the Target plaza)
  • Suwannee Thai (across from the university)
  • Food Truck Cafe (across from Chi hospital)

The usual fast food places exist along 2nd avenue as well. Plan on hitting the McDonald’s drive-thru before your morning bird viewing as the local coffee shops don’t open till 6 a.m or later.

Lodging in Kearney

If lodging in Kearney is booked, check for vacancies in the city of Grand Island about an hour east of Kearney.

Hotels/Motels

Just off Interstate 80 on 2nd avenue, there are about 10 chain hotels. Not all of them appear on Google maps if you are searching. 

Airbnb

Airbnb has several options as well.

Camping

Camping is available at the Fort Kearny State Recreation area. Over 100 sites area available around a series of sandpit lakes.

Other tips

Hospitality

Count on the locals being warm, friendly and willing to share their knowledge. 

It is a rural/farm community so don’t expect them to put up with any big city attitudes. 

You’ll be pegged as an outsider in under 30 seconds, but then they’ll go out of their way to tell you all you need to experience during your visit.

Kearney or Kearny?  

The town is Kearney (“ey” at the end) versus some of the attractions are Kearny (“y” at the end).  

This is not a typo on this blog or other websites.  

The story goes that in the 1800s when registration paperwork for the fort was sent into the military, the literate soldiers were the ones sending in the paperwork so they chose to send in the name as Fort Kearny (no “e”).

Cell Service

I can confirm Sprint doesn’t have coverage in Kearney.

Locals say that unless you have Verizon, forget having any cell service. But even Verizon is spotty.  

Public WiFi will be your best friend.

Other fun in Kearney

There is more to do in Kearney than watch the sandhill cranes.

These are the places I visited in person and would recommend.

Fort Kearny State Historical Park 

Recreated Blacksmith House - adobe style structure with grass roof - at Fort Kearny Historic Site
Blacksmith House – adobe (sod) frame thus the grass growing on the roof
  • Staff at the interpretive center are a wealth of information on the fort, local history, and crane viewing.
  • The site has reconstructed buildings to show what the fort looked like in the mid-1800s
  • Fort’s original purpose was to protect traveler’s along the Oregon Trail
  • Ask to see the two free videos. One gives an overview of the crane migration, while the other video is stuffed full of the fort’s history
  • Cost: $6 daily permit for a car with Nevada plates. The permit is good for the Fort and the adjoining Recreation area until noon the following day
  • Timing: 1 – 3 hours
Covered wagon
Fort Kearny was built in the 1800s to protect the travelers on the Oregon Trail

Fort Kearny State Recreation Area

  • 186-acre recreation area including seven sandpit lakes
  • Footbridge over the Platte River offers excellent crane viewing at dawn/dusk
  • 1.8-mile hike/bike trail connects to longer trails outside the park
  • Wildlife viewing such as river otter, coyote, deer, bobcat, wild turkey
  • Cost: $6 daily permit for a car with Nevada plates. The permit is good for the Fort and the adjoining Recreation area until noon the following day
  • Timing: 1 – 4 hours

G.W. Frank Museum

Old brick mansion, now Frank Museum
Frank Museum on University of Nebraska Kearney campus. Was a mansion then a TB hospital
  • The former mansion of George and Phoebe Frank
  • Later served as a sanitarium and TB hospital
  • Located on the University of Nebraska campus
  • Consider walking the 20-minute self-guided tour “The Hospital and the University”
  • Cost: free (donation-based)
  • Timing: 1 – 2 hours

MONA (Museum of Nebraska Art)

  • Two-story art museum housed in an old post office
  • Includes exhibits highlighting Nebraska artists as well as the Sandhill Cranes
  • Small sculpture garden outback
  • Cost: free (donation-based)
  • Timing: 1 – 2 hours

Kearney Visitor Center

  • Located off of 2nd Avenue near Interstate 80
  • Staff can make crane viewing recommendation as well as lodging/dining suggestions
  • Crane Watch guide will show areas for crane viewing
  • Ask about the ‘crane capital passport’ book. You can win prizes for location-specific stamps

The following were consistently recommended by locals. Due to lack of time (I spent a lot of time on the crane), I did not visit these locations so I can’t vouch for them.

  • The Archway Museum (an actual arch over interstate 80)
  • Trails & Rails Museum
  • Classic Car Collection
  • Pioneer Village (located 25 minutes southeast of Kearney) – a “how America grew” museum
  • Harlan County Lake (located 1 hour southwest of Kearney) for pelican viewing. This got mixed signals. It was recommended to view the pelican migration but then I was told pelicans haven’t appeared in a couple of years and no one knows where they are migrating too

Location of Kearney, Nebraska

The Nebraska tourism slogan is “Nebraska. Honestly. It’s not for everyone”.

Maybe we can convince the city of Kearney to use the motto “Come for the cranes. Stay for the Midwestern hospitality”. 

And if you are looking for more birding experiences, consider a trip to Lake Murray this summer for the Purple Martin migration.