Space tourism, stargazing, and the search for dark skies are all reasons for people to travel. Now, they’re reasons for people to travel to Nebraska.
In 2021, Nebraska will get its first Dark Skies designation. The International Dark Sky Places Program was founded in 2001 to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education.
Read on for information about the three sites that are nominated for Dark Sky Places, as well as some other fantastic stargazing spots in Nebraska.
Stargazing at Nebraska Dark Skies & Observatories
1. Behlen Observatory
Where: Mead, Neb.
The Behlen Observatory has a massive 30-inch Cassegrain reflector telescope. Several public night are held each year, allowing the public a chance to use the 30-inch telescope as well as several smaller ones.
2. Bootleg Brewers
Where: Taylor, Neb.
You weren’t expecting a brewery to be on the list, were you? The unique thing about this Sandhills brewery is that they also have 6-person and 8-person cabins for overnight stays.
If you’re lucky enough to visit on a clear night, be ready to be amazed.
3. Boswell Observatory
Where: Crete, Neb.
Built in 1883, this is a still-functioning observatory on the campus of Doane University. Sky-viewing is held regularly through the original, 8-inch equatorial telescope. It may not be open to the public, though. Follow the Boswell Observatory Facebook page for updates.
4. Branched Oak Observatory
Where: Raymond, Neb.
Located about 20 miles northwest of Lincoln, this is a convenient astronomy park for stargazing. Once or twice a month, the Branched Oak Observatory is open to the general public and students of astronomy. With the help of local astronomers, a variety of telescopes are set up. These events are free.
5. Double R Guest Ranch
Where: Mullen, Neb.
Being located in the Sandhills has its perks. For Double R Guest Ranch, the perks are wide-open spaces that are prime for star viewing. The ranch has cabins for overnight stays.
If you’re considering going to the Nebraska Star Party, this ranch is about 20 miles from Merritt Reservoir.
6. Honey Creek Observatory
Where: O’Neill, Neb.
This observatory has a 17.5-inch fork-mounted equatorial Newtonian reflector. There are free scheduled events planned at the observatory. Get the details here (and just check out the website in general because, holy GIFs, Batman).
7. Hyde Memorial Observatory
Where: Lincoln, Neb.
There are three telescopes available for viewing, as well as free astronomy presentations every Saturday night. Stay up to date by following Hyde’s Facebook page.
Note: The observatory is temporarily closed without a reopen date set.
8. Mahoney State Park
Where: Asland, Neb.
It’s hard to find a great stargazing zone near Omaha or Lincoln, but Mahoney State Park will get you close enough. On a clear night, major constellations should be visible to the naked eye, but a telescope is recommended.
This is definitely a place you could spend a few days visiting, so check out everything you can do at Mahoney State Park.
9. Mallory Kountze Planetarium
Where: Omaha, Neb.
While this is primarily a planetarium located on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, there are occasional roof-top stargazing events. They’re not ideal, being in the middle of a city, but they’re educational. An astronomer is usually on hand after the planetarium shows to answer any questions. See what public shows are planned here.
Note: The planetarium public shows are temporarily halted without a restart date set.
10. Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area*
Where: Valentine, Neb. (well, about 26 miles southwest of Valentine to be exact)
Without a doubt, Merritt Reservoir ranks tops for stargazing in the state.
Flat prairie (well, mostly flat…it is the Sandhills) is a big draw for stargazers. Located far from major cities and light pollution, Merritt is host to one of the country’s best star parties each year the Nebraska Star Party.
Looking for overnight accommodations? Check out the lodging options for Valentine, Neb., on Booking.com.
11. Niobrara National Scenic River*
Where: Valentine, Neb.
Like Merritt Reservoir, the Niobrara River offers a light pollution-free zone for looking at the Milky Way.
I’ve only canoed the river in the daytime. It has never dawned on me that it would be the ideal stargazing spot at night!
12. Sachtleben Observatory
Where: Hastings, Neb.
This observatory, located on the campus of Hastings College, houses 14-, 10- and two 8-inch reflecting telescopes. Sachtleben Observatory is open to the public for free astronomy presentations and night sky viewings two Saturdays per month, weather permitting.
See the next available dates at hastings.edu.
13. Willa Cather Prairie*
Where: Red Cloud, Neb.
Featuring 612 acres of Nebraska prairie, this area is prime dark-sky stargazing.
Tip: Who’s Willa Cather? Glad you asked! Read about her in this post about Nebraska authors.
* Has applied for International Dark Sky Place designation.
New to stargazing? Me too. I’m glad there are events out there to introduce beginners to astronomy with a good deal of fun activities thrown into the weekend. The biggie for us in Nebraska is the annual Nebraska Star Party held each August. It’s ranked as one of the top stop parties in the U.S.
I’ll update this list as I find them! You can email me at ohmyomaha (at) gmail (dot) com with your recommendations, too.
Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn
When: December 2020, with peak viewing date on Dec. 21, 2020
Why? This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment when the two planets will appear closest to each other (conjunction is the term for the meeting of planets), looking like one bright star. The timing — being near Christmas — has some people excited and calling it the Christmas Star.
The Omaha Astronomical Society explains it better than I ever could: “Start watching the two bright planets in the southwest sky, Saturn and Jupiter. Through December they appear to move closer & closer. By the 21st, they look to be just one point of light to our eyes. Binos or a scope can split them, though. And one of the things about watching bright planets is that you can see this from almost anywhere, no ‘dark sky’ required.“
Nebraska Star Party
When: Aug. 1-6, 2021 (this is an annual event in August)
Cost: $50 per adult and $15 per child (0-12) if the form is returned postmarked by July 1; after July 1, the cost is $60 per adult and $20 per child. Reservations open Feb. 1, 2021
Why? The Nebraska Star Party website itself explains it best “For newcomers, NSP is the perfect place to become acquainted with the wonders of the heavens which can’t be seen from cities. Our unique Beginner’s Field School will show you how fun it is to explore the sky here, as well as in your own backyard when you return home, with or without a telescope.
“Apart from the starry central attraction, the remote sandhills of north-central Nebraska offer a vacation full of western and natural history as well. Short day trips will take you to historical sites important to the settlement of the west. The spring-fed water and sugar sand beaches of Merritt Reservoir offer swimming, boating, and fishing. Valentine national Wildlife Refuge provides a window into the ecology of the prairie, while the nearby Niobrara River affords a cooling tube float or canoe trip through the surrounding cattle and buffalo ranching country.”