Best of 2017 [part 2]: Our pics for best food, museums, views, and experiences

Best of 2017 [part 2]: Our pics for best food, museums, views, and experiences

In Best of 2017 [part 1] we posted our picks for best attraction, show, new place, and people. Today, we’re back to share some of the best food, museums, views, and experiences from our year in travel.

Best food –

Chicken fried steak at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile (Pawhuska, Oklahoma)

Chicken fried steak is a dish we’ve never made for dinner at home but enjoy ordering when we’re out. It’s a splurge for sure and if you’re going to take in the calories, you want it to be worth every one of them. The first time we went to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, this summer, it was a given that we’d try Ree Drummond’s chicken fried steak and it did not disappoint. In fact, Steve has tried chicken fried steaks all over the country and says the one at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile is, by far, the best he’s ever had.  It was a fork-tender, thinly sliced ribeye, breaded and fried to perfection, served with a side of delicious mashed potatoes, all smothered in creamy country gravy and five months later, he’s still talking about it.

Chicken fried steak at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile

Honorable mentions: Sunday brunch at College of the Ozarks (Branson, Missouri);  mini chocolate chip cookies at Vala’s Pumpkin Patch; the fresh fish and clam chowder up and down the Oregon coast; soup and salad at Salad Bros. (Rochester, Minnesota); and the garlic bread and steaks at The Peppermill (Valentine, Nebraska).

Sunday brunch, College of the Ozarks, Branson, Missouri

The College of the Ozarks in Branson, Missouri, serves an amazing Sunday Brunch that is prepared and served entirely by students who are working to pay their tuition.

Chocolate chip cookies, Vala's Pumpkin Patch, Gretna, Nebraska

These mini chocolate chip cookies at Vala’s Pumpkin Patch near Omaha were the perfect blend of crunchy, chewy and sweet. Ann had to make Steve count to 30 between cookies so they would last longer.

Clam chowder in Oregon

Ann and Carol tried the clam chowder everywhere we went in Oregon.

Salad Brothers wild rice soup, mixed greens, and ranch pasta salad, Rochester, Minnesota

Ann’s favorite lunch in Rochester, Minnesota comes from a restaurant called Salad Brothers. It’s a mixed green/ranch pasta salad, a cup of wild rice soup and one of their delicious parmesan bread sticks.

Peppermill garlic bread, Valentine, Nebraska

The garlic bread at the Peppermill comes au jus for dipping.

Best museum –

Art Institute of Chicago

We love museums and make a point to go to them when we travel. This year, we visited several museums we’d never seen near our home in Nebraska, including the Benne Museum (Crete), Lincoln County Historical Museum (North Platte), and Homestead National Monument (Beatrice). But the museum visit we enjoyed the most was the morning we spent at the Art Institute of Chicago.

One of the most impressive pieces of work at the museum is Marc Chagall’s American Windows. These stained glass windows have recently been restored and are as beautiful as they are impressive.

Marc Chagall’s American Windows was absolutely breathtaking to see in person.

We also loved seeing the Thorne Miniature Rooms. We couldn’t get over the detail packed into these tiny rooms! Parquet flooring, tiny newspapers left folded on the table and even fruit trees outside the windows of these rooms were just some of the amazing details that made these miniatures look just like an actual room.

Steve looks at one of the many Thorne Miniature Rooms. We couldn’t get over the detail packed into these tiny rooms!

Honorable mentions: Space Center Houston (Houston, Texas); Centennial Museum (Valentine, Nebraska); Columbia River Maritime Museum (Astoria, Oregon); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City); Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum (Ashland, Nebraska); Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve (Bartlesville, Oklahoma).

Apollo Mission Control Space Center Houston

The Apollo Mission Control room at Space Center Houston helped make history again and again.

Centennial Hall, electric hair curler, Valentine, Nebraska

We had never seen a hair curling device quite like this one we found at Centennial Hall. A number of readers remember them, though.

We spent several hours at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on our summer vacation with Meghan and some other college students

We spent several hours at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on our summer vacation with Meghan and some other college students.

Columbia River Maritime Museum US Coast Guard lifeboat, Astoria Oregon

This US Coast Guard lifeboat is on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Nearly impossible to sink, boats like this patrol the often dangerous Columbia River Bar and provide emergency assistance to boaters in need.

SAC Museum hangar, Ashland, Nebraska.

One of the hangars at the SAC Museum near Ashland, Nebraska. The museum allows visitors to walk right up the airplanes on display and even take a peek inside some of them providing a look into the history of military aviation.

Woolaroc Museum mosaic, Woolaroc, Oklahoma

Located near Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the Woolaroc museum is loaded with art and artifacts from the collection of Frank Phillips. Mosaics like this one show the high level of artistry you’ll find there.

Best view –

Off the stern of the Carnival Valor in the Gulf of Mexico

There is nothing more calm and relaxing that watching the wake (and the world) go by from the stern of a cruise ship. Let’s just say, this is Steve’s “happy place.” We’ve taken six cruises so far and one of our favorite things to do on each one is simply sit back, relax, and watch the water. The views are spectacular and the weight of the world just seems to drift away with every wave.

Wake of the Carnival Valor

Steve loved watching the wake of the Carnival Valor on our trip across the Gulf of Mexico.

Honorable mentions: The shoreline at DePoe Bay (Oregon); from the top of the lookout tower at Nebraska National Forest (Halsey, Nebraska); from the blind at Rowe Sanctuary during the annual Sandhill Crane Migration (Gibbon, Nebraska); from the air while flying into Key West (Florida); from the deck of the lodge at Drummond Ranch (Pawhuska, Oklahoma).

Oregon Coast, Depoe Bay, Oregon

We stood and watched whales in the Pacific Ocean in Depoe Bay, Oregon.

View from Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska National Forest

The view from the top of the Scott Lookout Tower across the Sandhills at the Nebraska National Forest. You could see for miles.

We watched thousands of Sandhill Cranes gather at sunset on the Platte River near Gibbon, Nebraska.

Florida Keys from the air, near Key West, Florida

Passengers on flights into Key West get to see views like this as they approach the airport; views that tell them they made a good choice in going there.

Pioneer Woman's lodge view

The view from the lodge across the Drummond Ranch near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is absolutely incredible.

Best experience –

Watching the total solar eclipse from our own back yard

Of the hundreds of new new things we did while traveling this year, none compares to experiencing our first total solar eclipse from our own yard. We spent the day with family, college students, old friends, and new people we met that day. We were all in awe as we watched the sun go behind the moon and for two minutes and thirty-six seconds, we experienced one of the rarest occurrences in the universe. It was absolutely spectacular.

Steve and his dad, John Teget, watch the total solar eclipse from our front yard in Crete, Nebraska.

Steve and his dad, John Teget, watch the total solar eclipse from our front yard in Crete, Nebraska.

Total solar eclipse photo by Ronald D. Koch of Crete, Nebraska.

Total solar eclipse photo by Ronald D. Koch of Crete, Nebraska.

Honorable mentions: Whale watching in the Pacific Northwest; judging the National Indian Taco Championships (Pawhuska, Oklahoma); tasting Pinot Noir while feeding llamas at the Rain Dance Winery (Newberg, Oregon); traveling with our parents (Nebraska, Key West, Oregon, Oklahoma, Kansas); swimming in a cenote in Mexico; and throwing our boys off a tube on Table Rock Lake (Branson, Missouri).

Whale watching, Depoe Bay, Oregon

Visitors to Depoe Bay, Oregon, can stand along this wall and watch whales breaching in the water below.

Indian Taco fry bread being cooked in oil at the National Indian Taco Championships in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Indian Taco fry bread being cooked in oil at the National Indian Taco Championships in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Rain Dance Vineyards, feeding a llama, Newberg, Oregon

Meghan sips Pinot Noir while feeding a llama at Rain Dance vineyards near Newberg, Oregon.

Smith Falls, Valentine, Nebraska

We had a wonderful trip around Nebraska with Steve’s mom and dad this summer. Here we are at Smith Falls near Valentine, Nebraska.

We had such a good time with Ann's mom, Carol, on a trip to Oregon to see the coast and watch the Nebraska Cornhusker football team play the Oregon Ducks.

We had such a good time with Ann’s tiny mom, Carol, on a trip to Oregon to see the coast and watch the Nebraska Cornhusker football team play the Oregon Ducks.

Meghan and Steve swam in this cenote (can you find them) on our family vacation in Mexico this summer.

Meghan and Steve swam in this cenote (can you find them) on our family vacation in Mexico this summer.

Tubing on Table Rock Lake, Branson, Missouri

Michael, Josiah, and Davron loved tubing on Table Rock Lake near Branson. Steve loved driving the boat and making them fly off the tube.


What were some of your “bests” of 2017? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

Yes, Nebraska has a safari and I’m so glad we finally took the time to stop there

Yes, Nebraska has a safari and I’m so glad we finally took the time to stop there

No matter where you live, there are likely tourist attractions nearby that you’ve driven past for years. You have good intentions of visiting, but never actually take the time to stop.

At least once a month for more than 16 years, I’ve driven past a large, green sign on the interstate that says, “Wildlife Safari.” That sign has intrigued me just about every time I’ve gone by it. I mean, how does the idea of a safari in the middle of Nebraska cornfields not make somebody curious? But the curiosity I felt never pushed me to actually angle the car off the interstate and stop.

A few weeks ago, Ann and I took our friend Michael to Quarry Oaks golf course where we enjoyed a wonderful fall morning driving some Alzheimer’s residents around the golf course while basking in the beautiful views.

View of the Platte River from Quarry Oaks Golf Course.

View of the Platte River from Quarry Oaks Golf Course.

When we left the course, we found ourselves driving past the wildlife safari we’ve skipped so many times. But this time, we called an audible and pulled into the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari. We’re so glad we finally did.

After paying admission at a drive up window, we continued down a well-maintained gravel road, across a cattle guard and into the park. Soon, we saw some elk in the distance. The road continued to wind trough the park and we got closer and closer to the animals. This was obviously nothing new to them as they weren’t bothered in the least by the presence of cars.

Elk at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari.

Elk at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari.

Suddenly, we watched as one of the elk raised its head, opened its mouth and let out a sound unlike anything we were expecting. Now we know what bugling elk sound like.

The road continued across another cattle guard, a sign announcing that we were now in an area with white-tailed deer. They were tougher to find as their natural camouflage is pretty good. There are at least two in this photo, see if you can find them.

Deer at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari.

Can you find at least two deer in this picture from the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari.

The road meandered on, and we found ourselves at a place where we could get out of the car and look in a pond. A frog jumped into the water just before we snapped this photo.

We loved seeing all of the beautiful colors of nature at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari.

We loved seeing all of the beautiful colors of nature at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari.

On the pond were also some American white pelicans.

American white pelicans at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

American white pelicans at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

Next up, came the eagle aviary, home to some bald eagles that have been rescued. Michael tried to hold a tiny one on his finger.

Look how Mikey got this eagle to rest on his index finger!

Look how Mikey got this tiny eagle to rest on his index finger!

Near the aviary, there is a parking area with restrooms as well as a trail to enclosures that house bears and wolves. There are also some owls and other birds who live in trees along the path.

An owl nestled in a tree at American white pelicans at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

An owl nestled in a tree at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

We returned to our car and drove past some Sandhill Cranes and other waterfowl.

Sandhill crane at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

Sandhill cranes and other waterfowl at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

Then, we crossed another cattle guard and drove into the bison area. Sadly, while we could easily see the bison, they were too far away for good photos with the limited camera equipment we had with us. Still, it was fun to see them.

We drove across another cattle guard and found more elk, this time, females.

Elk at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

Elk at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

By this time, the winding road had taken us back to the visitors’ center. Time was running short and we had to get back to Crete so we left that for another day (I know, we’re awful!), but we were so glad that we’d finally found time to explore this treasure that had been right there for years. Sometimes, there really ARE incredible things to do near your home if you just take the time to do them.


Is there a place near your home you’ve been meaning to stop that might make for a fun weekend day of exploration? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

A look back at 2016

A look back at 2016

After traveling in the Caribbean for 10 days over Christmas, Steve and I returned to our home in Crete, Nebraska, about 15 seconds before the clock struck midnight Saturday night and just in time for a New Year’s kiss to ring in 2017. Before we delve into our travel plans for the upcoming year, we wanted to take a look back at 2016 and thank all of you for coming on this journey with us.

Last year, we rang in the new year with friends and family at home spent most of the spring in our home state of Nebraska. In February, we drove to nearby Wahoo to pick up a half a beef and ended up spending a delightful day in the town previously known as the home office of the Late Night with David Letterman Show.

 

 

In March we drove to the central region of the state to witness, first hand, the incredible Sandhill Crane migration. It was an absolutely amazing sight.

 

 

Although I’ve spent most of my life in Nebraska and had heard lots about the Sandhill Cranes, for some reason, I’d never taken the time to visit the sanctuaries and see these majestic birds up close. Let me just say, if you live in or near Nebraska — GO SEE THE CRANES! I would rank this experience among my Top 10 best travel experiences ever.  You can read more about our visit HERE.

Another Nebraska highlight for us was our visit to the Museum of American Speed in nearby Lincoln.

The car driven by Louis Chevrolet in the 1915 Indy 500. It achieved a maximum speed of 81 mph.

The car driven by Louis Chevrolet in the 1915 Indy 500. It achieved a maximum speed of 81 mph.

 

We hadn’t really heard of this museum and were absolutely amazed by the quality and massive quantity of car and speed-related items in this hidden gem of a museum. Not only did the three-story building include car collections, it also had a metal lunch box collection, a taxi cab collection, and lots of guitars, record albums, and movie posters. It was absolutely amazing and great pit stop for those traveling Interstate 80.

In May, we returned for another visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and then went on to Minneapolis for the North American TBEX, a conference for travel bloggers. We loved the conference, met some great new contacts, and became even more exited about growing our blog. We also had a chance to spend a day in Stillwater, Minnesota, while we were there. You can read all about HERE.

In the summer of 2016, we took one of the best vacations of our lifetimes to northern Europe. We’d been planning (and saving) for this trip for a long time and it exceeded all of our expectations. I picked Steve up from work the day his summer vacation began and he was able leave the middle school where he is principal. We flew to London, England, and took the Chirton Grange car service to South Hampton with a stop at the iconic Stonehenge.

 

Stonehenge

After a night in South Hampton and a visit to the local museum that chronicled  the sinking of the Titanic, we gathered the courage to board a ship and set sail on a 14-night cruise on the Baltic Sea.

The magnificent gold fountains at Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

We had an incredible experience on the Celebrity Eclipse and enjoyed stops in Belgium, Germany, Russia, Estonia, Sweden, and Denmark.

Bath, England

Bath, England

We disembarked in South Hampton and took a train to Bath, England, for a couple days and spent another three days visiting friends in Taunton before flying back to the States. It was an absolutely unforgettable vacation, filled with new experiences and adventures that we’ll always treasure.

Upon our return, we spent one day doing 12 loads of laundry, then packed up the car, picked up our daughter, Meghan, and headed out on a road trip across Nebraska. Less than a month after visiting Stonehenge in England, we found ourselves taking selfies at a cheesy replica called Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska.

Carhenge

We had a great week exploring our home state as a family, including stops in Hastings (where Kool-Aid was invented), Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff/Gering, Crawford, Chadron, Valentine, and Norfolk. We loved taking the highways instead of the interstate, stopping to explore small (sometimes abandoned) towns, visiting quirky tourist attractions (like the Fort Cody Trading Post) and eating peanut butter sandwiches in city parks along the way.

With the exception of a short trip for appointments at the Mayo Clinic, we spent much of the fall near home and enjoyed taking friends and family to Nebraska Cornhusker football games. We even got to go to one away game when we flew to Columbus Ohio to see the Huskers play the Ohio State University in the Horseshoe. Great flight. Awesome venue. Devastating loss.

While we typically are home for Christmas, this year we decided to escape the cold and did another Celebrity cruise — this time to the Caribbean. We flew to Puerto Rico on Dec. 23 and boarded the Summit on Christmas Eve. We spent Christmas Day at sea and then enjoyed stops in Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Martin, St. Kitts (our favorite island) and St. Thomas before returning to San Juan and flying home on New Year’s Eve. Can’t wait to share some of those experiences with you, soon.

All in all, we traveled to two U.S. territories, six states, and 11 countries in 2016. We are still working on our travel schedule for 2017, but will likely spend most of our time in the United States, as there is so much here we have yet to see and experience.

Where did your travels take you in 2016? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you. 

Our Journey of a Lifetime

Our Journey of a Lifetime

It has been said that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Five years ago today, Ann and I took our first step together as we walked down the aisle at Westminster Presbyterian Church as a husband and wife. Since that day, we’ve been on an amazing life journey. As we celebrate our fifth anniversary today, we thought we’d share some of our most memorable experiences. As we look back, we are thankful for the opportunities we’ve had, and are even more grateful that we could experience these things together.

Honeymooning in Costa Rica

Great weddings require a lot of planning. I was happy to be involved in planning our wedding. I told Ann from the start that I trusted her judgment—I just wanted to work on the honeymoon. I cooked up a wonderful week in Costa Rica with what Ann called the perfect mix of relaxation and activity.

Tabacon Hot Springs Resort and Spa is, by far, one of the most romantic, relaxing places on earth.

Tabacon Hot Springs Resort and Spa is, by far, one of the most romantic, relaxing places on earth.

We basked in a volcanically heated river on the side of Arenal Volcano, took a zip-line adventure 400 feet above the treetops, and enjoyed what is probably the most romantic dinner of our lives—in a private gazebo in the rainforest served by our own chef and waiter.

What an exciting way to start a marriage -- zip lining 400 feet above the tree tops in Costa Rica.

What an exciting way to start a marriage — zip lining 400 feet above the tree tops in Costa Rica.

We loved exploring the rain forest and seeing the incredible plant life in Costa Rica.

We loved exploring the rain forest and seeing the incredible plant life in Costa Rica.

We loved the Costa Rican coffee and gallo pinto in the morning. We enjoyed the smells of the flowers and the views from the mountains. We cherished our time on the beach and the opportunity to dip our feet in the ocean. And most importantly, we fell even more in love with each other there. Pura vida at it’s best.

Treatments at the Mayo Clinic

Anyone who has been married will tell you that everything doesn’t always go just as you planned, and there really will be a time to remember your vow to be there for each other through sickness and health. Over the past few years we have made more trips to Rochester, Minnesota, than anywhere else.

One of the world's best medical treatment facilities - Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

One of the world’s best medical treatment facilities – Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Two and a half years ago, Ann was diagnosed with a rare immune disease called cardiac sarcoidosis and has had surgeries and treatments at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic there. 

Recovering from thoracic surgery at Mayo Clinic's St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.

Recovering from thoracic surgery at Mayo Clinic’s St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.

While these trips are no vacations for either of us, they have brought us closer together and have helped us treasure every day we have together. The Mayo Clinic is a place full of answers, help and hope and we are always grateful for the opportunity to go there.  In the end, our time spent in Rochester has been a big part of our first five years and even though it doesn’t always bring back the happiest of memories, it is a part of our journey.

Taking pictures in Alaska

In 2013, we took our first cruise and went on a family vacation to Alaska. 

A beautiful reflection shot, taken from a moving train en route to Anchorage, Alaska.

A beautiful reflection shot, taken from a moving train en route to Anchorage, Alaska.

Here’s the thing about Alaska: it is stunningly beautiful. Everywhere we turned we were confronted with another jaw-dropping vista of mountains, ocean, glaciers, and wildlife.

We took a helicopter ride to the top of glacier where we were able to sip glacier water and explore the terrain.

We took a helicopter ride to the top of glacier where we were able to sip glacier water and explore the terrain.

Our whale watching tour was amazing. When we got back to shore, Steve asked Ann, "So who did it feel to be in photographer's heaven?"

Our whale watching tour was amazing. When we got back to shore, Steve asked Ann, “So how did it feel to be in photographer’s heaven?”

Where else on Earth can you find yourself on a small boat watching humpback whales dive literally 10 feet away while salmon jump over their tails, and gaze out across the water to admire a rainbow rising up over a mountain? It is truly a photographer’s heaven.

Meeting new people

We love to meet new people. Whether it is introducing ourselves to those sitting next to us at a bar or restaurant or shaking hands with people we’ve just met at a conference or event, we just love meeting new people. Over the past five years we’ve met some incredible people like innkeeper Jeanne in Chadron, Nebraska, and the staff at Luminae restaurant on the Celebrity Eclipse. We’ve developed new relationships with fellow bloggers, our readers, and travel enthusiasts. And, we’ve made some great new friends along the way.

But few meetings will be as memorable as the night we were invited backstage after a Garth Brooks show in Las Vegas to meet the country music legend and his wife and singer Trisha Yearwood. People often say, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” Well, here you go. For what it’s worth, Garth and Trisha are as gracious and kind as you’d expect.

Down to earth, personable, and boy can they sing! Our once in a lifetime experience meeting county music artists, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.

Down to earth, personable, and boy can they sing! Our once in a lifetime experience meeting county music artists, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.

Picking up our daughter from school

From Spain. Via Rome. As you know, all good parents make sure their children get home safely after school, and Ann and I are no exception. That’s why we we made the trek to Salamanca, Spain, last summer to pick Meghan up after she’d spent several weeks there studying Spanish. We were so proud of our daughter and all she had accomplished there and it was a real blessing to be able to see where she had studied, visit her favorite museums, and meet some of her teachers. 

Meghan studied Spanish Salamanca, Spain.

Meghan studied Spanish Salamanca, Spain.

And we loved Salamanca. It is a historical city dating back to Roman times and we savored every moment spent sitting in the open air cafes on the square, eating paella, drinking amazing wine and listening to bands playing traditional music.  As long as we were headed across the ocean, we stopped first in Rome, admired the incredible history there and enjoyed pasta at a sidewalk cafe before boarding a cruise to Spain. It was an amazing trip.

Our view of the Forum in Rome, Italy, seemed like it was right of a history book.

Our view of the Forum in Rome, Italy, seemed like it was right of a history book.

 

Exploring our home state, Nebraska

When Ann and I were married, I hadn’t done much travel in the state of Nebraska except on Interstate 80. Ann insisted that we take a trip around our state. She and Meghan had taken annual Nebraska trips for close to a decade and she said there were some pretty special things to be enjoyed if we just got off of I-80. Well, she was right.

Nebraska

A road in the Sandhills of northwest Nebraska near Crawford. Definitely not I-80.

One place she took me that blew me away was Toadstool Geologic Park. I’ve been twice, now, and both times I’ve been awed by the beauty and unique geography located in Nebraska. Last Spring we shared another experience that was a first for both of us: The Sandhill Crane migration.

We watched thousands of Sandhill Cranes gather at sunset on the Platte River near Grand Island, Nebraska.

We watched thousands of Sandhill Cranes gather at sunset on the Platte River near Grand Island, Nebraska.

Seeing the cranes land on the Platte River at sunset is an almost mystical experience, and it should be on your bucket list. Turns out Nebraska is a pretty special place if you just stop and look around a bit.

Watching the sun rise and set

Every day, God gives us two beautiful light shows that fill the whole sky: sunrise, and sunset. We have always tried to slow down and enjoy these moments when we can.

View of the sunset from our cruise ship in Nassau, Bahamas.

View of the sunset from our cruise ship in Nassau, Bahamas.

Whether it’s a fiery sky turning orange and red as the sun dips into the ocean, or a glistening sunrise in Estes Park or the Florida Keys — these are times to be savored.

Watching the sunrise over the mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes, Colorado.

Watching the sunrise over the mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes, Colorado.

A day of rejoicing with the sunrise on Easter morning from the Florida Keys.

A day of rejoicing with the sunrise on Easter morning from the Florida Keys.

When you stop and think about it, there is nothing made by human hands that can even compare.

We’ve been really fortunate to have been able to travel as much as we have the during these first five years of our marriage and we don’t take one trip for granted. Whether it is across the ocean or just down the road, we have always managed to learn something new on our adventures. We’ve experienced something different. And we’ve created memories together that will last a lifetime. None of us knows what our futures will hold. Only God knows whether we’ll have more days filled with or joy or sorrow, sickness or health, plenty or want. The important thing is to enjoy the journey and to remember that most of the time, the only trip you’ll ever regret taking is the one you don’t.

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.