A postcard from North Platte, NE

A postcard from North Platte, NE

If you’ve been thinking about visiting North Platte, Nebraska, this is the weekend. Seriously, just get in the car and go! Yes, it’s that time of year to put on your cowboy boots, find your hat, and mosey on down to the Wild West Arena where you can wrangle up all kinds of fun at NEBRASKAland Days!

The folks at the convention and visitors bureau there are oh, so nice and we were delighted they sent us a postcard!

North Platte

Nebraska land Days North Platte

Steve and I stopped a local shop to buy real cowboy hats before Nebraskaland Days.

Two years ago, Steve and I stopped in North Platte for a couple days while on a road trip through the great state of Nebraska. We arrived by early evening and had a great, home cooked steak dinner at the Canteen Grille before settling in across the street at the North Platte Hampton Inn (one of the very best Hamptons we’ve stayed at — and we’ve stayed at a lot of them).

 

The next day we ventured over the Cody Park [read more about that here] and spent several hours learning about the workings of the railroad and it’s history in North Platte at Bailey Yards and the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor’s Center. The rail yard was amazing and we sat watching rail cars go over the “hump” and especially enjoyed hearing the stories of those who were part of the North Platte Canteen during World War II.

Golden Spike Tower

The best part of our trip was seeing everything there is to do at NEBRAKSAland Days. We visited exhibits, saw Rodeo Queens, and Steve even tried his hand at the quick draw (chaps and all). That night, we wandered over to the Wild West Arena for a great country music concert. This year, Dierks Bentley will close out the week with a concert on June 25, 2016.

Before the concert there, we couldn’t resist stopping for a big plate of fresh cut and fried potatoes. Seemed like the perfect dinner fare for a couple cowboy wannabes.

Nebraska land Days North Platte, NE

We didn’t have enough time to try everything that NEBRAKSAland Days has to offer. But will we return again someday. If you’re interested in checking out NEBRASKAland Days this year June 15-25, visit the website at www.nebraskalanddays.com. And get your tastebuds ready — fried potatoes are waiting!

Our first trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte River in Nebraska

Our first trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte River in Nebraska

As we began to quietly leave the wooden blind from which we’d watched Sandhill Cranes descend onto sandbars in the Platte River at dusk, there was only one thing on my mind. I simply could not get over the fact that I’d spent most of my life living in Nebraska and had never taken the time to see one of nature’s most extraordinary migrations. Perhaps only exceeded by the sights of sounds of whale watching in Alaska, witnessing the influx of tens of thousands of ancient birds and their landings on the shallow waters of the Platte, is truly one of the most breathtaking experiences I have ever had in nature.

I recently heard a TV news report where renowned author, photographer, and conservationist Michael Forsberg said, “It would be like missing Christmas if I didn’t come to the Platte to watch the cranes in the springtime.” I had no idea what I was missing, but I do now.

Although beautiful, our pictures do not do the experience justice. The video below (shot on my iPhone) gives you just a glimpse of what we heard and saw.

As a native Nebraskan, I had heard about the annual migration of more than half a million Sandhill Cranes and had even seen hundreds of the birds alongside Interstate 80 when I’d traveled to back and forth from my college in Kearney or my first newspaper job in North Platte. But I’d never taken the time to pull off the Interstate and watch these incredible birds or learn about the annual migration that brings them right through the heart of our country and the middle of my state.

Last weekend, I told Steve that I’d read the cranes were beginning to arrive and at the the last minute, we decided to make the 2-hour trip on a Saturday afternoon to see for ourselves. We invited my mom (an avid bird watcher) and a college-aged friend of ours to join us and were able to get a late reservation for one of the crane tours at Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney.

Beginning just west of Grand Island, we began to see groups of Sandhill Cranes gathered in the harvested corn fields that afternoon. They were feeding on the left over corn in an effort to store up food and energy for their long migration north. Even from the roadside, cranes could be seen (and heard) socializing and  “dancing” to relieve the stress of the migration and strengthen their pair bonds.

We arrived at Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary where we had a chance to visit with crane experts and watch a short video before a tour guide led us down a dirt path to the wooden blinds where we’d wait for the the cranes to return to the river for the night.

The view from inside the wooden blind at Rowe Sanctuary.

The view from inside the wooden blind at Rowe Sanctuary.

Rowe Sanctuary’s viewing blinds are strategically placed along the Platte River to provide excellent views of the Sandhill Cranes, as well as other wildlife. We enjoyed watching the sunset from one of the wooden blinds that is equipped with viewing equipment, benches for sitting, and a great view of the river. We even spotted four otters playing just outside our blind near the river’s edge.

I was thrilled to see river otters in their natural habitat for the first time.

I was thrilled to see river otters in their natural habitat for the first time.

Viewings are scheduled daily during March and early April and last about two hours.  We had excellent guides (one who traveled all the way from New Jersey to lead tours) who told us all about the Sandhill Cranes and their migration here. We learned that the cranes can grow to about 4-feet tall (just a foot shorter than my mom) and have been found as far north as Alaska and Eastern Siberia.

My mom next to a life-sized cut out of a Sandhill Crane.

My mom next to a life-sized cut out of a Sandhill Crane.

In order to reach these destinations, cranes must build up enough energy to complete their long journey and to begin breeding. For the cranes, the Platte River Valley is the most important stopover on this migration. The river provides the perfect spot to rest, and the nearby farmlands and wet meadows offer an abundance of food. Without the energy gained along the Platte, cranes might arrive at their breeding grounds in a weakened condition — where food may be limited until the spring growing season begins.

One of our guides explained how the cranes rely on thermals and tail winds to carry them along. Thermals are rising columns of warm air and when southerly winds start to blow in late March and early April along the Platte. According to Rowe Sancuary’s website, cranes ride thermals so efficiently that they have been seen flying over Mt. Everest (~28,000 feet).

The view from our blind as we watched the sun to set and waited for the large swarms of birds to arrive.

The view from our blind as we waited for the sun to set and the birds to arrive.

As the sun began to set, we could see dark swarms of cranes in the horizon and slowly, they began to come in view with the naked eye and swirl above the water before descending on the river in the distance. We listened to their load voices and marveled in their flight overhead. Then, just before the sun was almost set, as the sky turned into incredible shades of purple and orange, one lone crane landed on a sandbar in plain site from our blind. Our group of 20 or so bird watchers was silent. Then another crane landed, and another, and within seconds, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were settling in right in front of our eyes. As the sun’s light faded into the horizon, the guide asked everyone to stop taking pictures and remain silent.

We all stood by the windows, watching with widened eyes of amazement as thousands of cranes (our guide estimated 10,000 to 20,000) swooped in and landed on the river. I will never forget that moment. All the way home, I couldn’t help but feel the regret of never visiting this place before, the admiration of the long migration of these exquisite birds, and the pride of calling Nebraska home.

No doubt in my mind — we’ll back again next year.

Nebraska’s Nicest Nine Recap

Nebraska’s Nicest Nine Recap

Earlier this summer, Steve and I took off on a 6-day journey to find out for ourselves if our home state lives up to its new slogan, “Nebraska Nice.”

We wrote about some of the nicest things we saw — calling them  our 2014 “Nebraska’s Nicest Nine.”  The list was compiled from the places we traveled this summer on our 1,260-mile journey that took us west to North Platte, then off I-80 around Lake McConaughy to Alliance, then to Scottsbluff/Gering, up to Chadron, across Highway 20 to Valentine, and Norfolk, then down through Columbus to home.

These nine are the nicest sites, attractions, and people we found on this particular trip off the beaten path–a place definitely worth going.

Our 2014 Nebraska’s Nicest Nine:

#9 – Cody Park –  This unique park in North Platte was filled with a wide variety of animals (including white peacocks), a carousel, ice cream shop, and lots of smiling faces.

#8- Wildflowers and prairie grasses We were stunned (and so were our sinuses) by the incredible displays of purple and gold wildflowers and the prairie grasses throughout the state.

#7 – Chimney Rock and Scottsbluff Monument No list of Nebraska’s best would be complete without these two historic landmarks. They never disappoint.

postcardjar.com#6 – A kiss on the butte – Long and empty roads, rolling Sandhills, and an absence of cell phone coverage brought on the romance, and yes, a kiss on the butte.

#5 – Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park  Sadly, one of the least known attractions in Nebraska. This place is amazing and unlike any other fossil bed site in the world.

#4 – Circle C in Cody Students in this small town (that refuses to die) built a a straw-bale building and now run a supermarket – the first here in more than a decade.

#3 – Neon Bar and Grill – Perfectly seasoned and grilled steaks and excellent service earned this restaraunt a place in our Top 9. The fact that it was (by far) the cleanest restaurant in which we ate on our trip, moved it all the way up to #3.

#2 – Toadstool Geologic Park – There’s nothing like Toadstool anywhere else in Nebraska (or likely the world). It is located 19 miles from Crawford in the far northwest part of the state — but feels like you’re on the moon.

#1 – Innkeeper Jeanne Goetzinger –  We saw a lot of great attractions on our trip. But honestly, nothing compared to the people we met along the way. We found that it is people like Jeanne, that make Nebraska especially “nice.”

 

2014 Nebraska’s Nicest Honorable Mention:

Concert at Wild West Rodeo Arena in North Platte; Photo by Ann Teget for postcardjar.comFront Street in Ogallala; Golden Spike Tower and visitor center in North Platte; Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron; Higgins Memorial in Columbus; Lake McConaughy; Motel Raine in Valentine; North Platte Hampton Inn; Ole’s Big Game Bar and Grill in Paxton; The Sand Bar and Grill in Norfolk; Smith Falls; Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine.

Not so nice? You be the judge. Carhenge. We spent about 15 minutes at this Stonehenge replica made of old cars near Alliance. On our way back to the car, I asked Steve what he thought. He said, “It was everything I imagined and less. Much less.” Personally, I thought it was pretty cool.

What do you think? What are the nicest things you’ve seen in Nebraska or your home state? Let us know in the comment section below. We’d love to hear from you.

Nebraska’s Nicest #9 – Cody Park

Nebraska’s Nicest #9 – Cody Park

I have to admit, I was pleasantly shocked when I saw Cody Park–I did not expect to find such an amazing park in the middle of North Platte, Nebraska.  In my defense, our visit to Cody Park came early in our Nebraska trip, so I had not yet become accustomed to being impressed with all that Nebraska had to offer.

As we pulled into the park I saw a few amusement park style rides sized for kids.  The rides are permanent residents of the park, and they were running full tilt to the delight of the children there.  Nearby, was a concession stand that offers treats, too!  We then drove around the corner and I saw a large fenced in area with a group of deer relaxing in the shade under a tree.  We drove a bit further, and a couple elk surrounded by Canada geese popped into view.  As I was still taking all this in, I saw yet another area with llamas and peacocks (even one albino peacock!).

If you come to Cody Park, be sure to bring quarters so you can buy corn to feed the various animals.  All are quite tame and seemed unimpressed by the small crowd of people gathered around to feed them.  We had a great time tossing corn through the fence and snapping photos.

We left the animals, headed around the corner and saw a group of people having a picnic by the river.  Some members of the party had taken off their shoes and had waded far out into the impressively shallow Platte River to cool off a bit.  Sadly, we hadn’t packed a picnic lunch that day, but we will someday.

If you find yourself driving across the country and through Nebraska, or if you live in Nebraska and are looking for something to do, plan an overnight in North Platte, and a stop in Cody Park.  This is a great spot and is #9 on our list of Nebraska’s Nicest Nine.

Getting over the hump

Getting over the hump

We visited the Golden Spike Tower and Bailey Rail Yard in North Platte, NE, this morning. The Tower features some interesting videos about the rail yard, including a great documentary on the North Platte Canteen. We took the elevator to the 7th floor observation deck and learned all about how trains go over the “hump” and enter the east or west-bound bowl.

This massive yard covers 2,850 acres and has 17 receiving and 16 departure tracks handling 14,000 rail cars every 24 hours. Of those, 3,000 cars are sorted daily in the hump yards.

It was an unique stop on our trip across the state and a hour well spent.