With a location between two of Nebraska’s largest cities, Lincoln and Omaha, Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is one of the most popular state parks. My family has been visiting since our children were toddlers, and have our favorite things to do at Mahoney in every season. Here’s a complete guide to visiting the park from the perspective of a local!
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An Overview of Eugene T. Mahoney State Park in Nebraska
Mahoney State Park is located in southeastern Nebraska along the Platte River. The nearest town is Ashland, about 4 miles away. It’s one of the most-visited attractions in Nebraska, with summer being the busiest time of year to visit. With a variety of cabins, including some that accommodate large families, Mahoney State Park is popular for family reunions and other gatherings.
Some of the park’s highlights include an outstanding outdoor aquatic center with waterslides and a wave pool; the observation tower with a view of the Platte River; seasonal special events and educational activities; and horseback riding. The park’s Activity Center is an excellent option for rainy days, and it has climbing walls, a kid’s indoor playground, and in the winter, outdoor ice skating.
The park has some nature trails, including some paved trails. It’s not particularly known for hiking trails, though, so don’t make hikes the main reason you visit or you may be disappointed.
In the winter, Mahoney State Park has a sledding hill near the Activity Center, and when the weather cooperates, ice skating. Ice fishing is permitted, and sometimes the winter special events includes demonstrations on how to do it.
Discover the best outdoor activities at Mahoney
The whole reason you visit a state park is for the outdoor activities, right? If you’re looking for kid-specific outdoor adventures, check out this guide to Mahoney State Park with kids first. And now, the most popular things to do at the park:
- Horseback trail rides: Horseback trail rides are offered seasonally, running from May to Labor Day. They’re very popular, especially during the busy summer months. You can only reserve your ride tickets in person so if it appears to be a busy period at the park, you will want to go to the park’s administration office starting at 8 a.m. Call ahead of time to see if there are spots left, (402) 944-2523. Rides are $25, and you have to be at least 6 years old. Pony rides for ages 3-9 are only $7.
- Aquatic Center: The swimming complex at Mahoney State Park is quite possibly the biggest draw in the summer. There’s nothing like it within at least 30 miles. There’s a wave pool, lap pool, spray ground, water slides, and a concession stand. The season is often cut short due to lifeguard shortages, but expect it to be open between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The current admission cost is $10 for adults and $8 for kids (season passes are available).
- Go Ape Ziplines: One of the park’s newer features is the Go Ape zipline and ropes course. There are courses for all ages. The longest zipline is 440 feet! Cost varies, but usually it’s between $14.95 – $59.95. You’ll want to make a reservation ahead of time.
- Hiking trails: I don’t consider Mahoney to be a destination for hikers, but there are some lovely trails, especially around the observation tower. When my son was younger, he loved that one of the trails overlooked railroad tracks and we’d try to watch for a passing train. In all, there are about 6 miles of trails through riparian deciduous forest, and some trails are paved.
- Biking: You can rent bikes at Mahoney State Park now! They have a Heartland B-Cycle stand located on the path leading to the Observation Tower. The bikes are suited for paved trails; I wouldn’t recommend testing out any mountain bike trails with them.
- Camping: The most affordable way to say overnight at Mahoney is to camp. Camping prices start at $25 for an electrical site. They accept reservations up to 180 days in advance for half the campsites, and on holiday weekends, they can fill up quickly.
- Paddle boats: Full disclosure – I hate paddle boats. But my kids love them, so from time to time, we rent one for a half-hour. Head to the park’s marina and you can rent one too for $10 a half-hour.
- Miniature golf: Mahoney’s miniature golf course is definitely weathered, and can’t compete with tourist destinations’ mega putt putt golf centers. However, it’s charming and kids like it, and it’s only $5 per person.
- Driving range: The driving range is also pretty affordable for an activity at the park. You can get a bucket of balls for $5 and free rental of a golf club. (Side note: there’s also an 18-hole disc golf course at Mahoney State Park)
- Fishing: Many people fish at Owen Marina on Baright Lake within the park, though it is only catch and release. CenturyLink Lake is another fishing spot option and fishing permit is required (you can purchase one at the park office). If you don’t have fishing supplies, you can rent fishing rods and reels for free at the marina. There’s also ice fishing in the winter.
- Bird watching: According to Nebraska Game & Parks, Mahoney State Park “is a good site for eastern woodland species such as eastern flycatchers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-crowned kinglets and eastern wood-pewees.” You can catch warblers during migration season in May, and throughout the summer, there will be a lot of eastern bluebirds as well as scarlet and summer tanagers in the park.
- Ice skating: One of the park’s winter activities is ice skating, which is weather dependent since it’s outdoors. It’s covered, but considered outdoors. You’ll need to pay admission into the Activity Center (which is $3 for kids and $2 for ages 12+), and if you don’t have skates, you can rent them for $3. Warm up inside the Activity Center, where there’s a concession stand that sells hot chocolate among other stuff.
- Sledding: Sledding is totally free at Mahoney State Park, which has a well-maintained sledding hill near the Activity Center. I believe you can rent sleds from the Activity Center, but I’m not 100% sure on that, so it’s best to bring your own.
You can rent a lot of sports equipment for free at Owen Marina inside the park, including soccer balls, footballs, basketballs, volleyballs, bocce balls, horseshoes, softballs, bats, bases, and tennis balls.
I should also point out that the park has a couple playgrounds, including a large playground near Kountze Memorial Theater. There is also a basketball court.
Things to do on a rainy day at Mahoney State Park
Nebraska weather can be finicky and rain, storms, and/or snow can affect your park plans. Luckily, there are plenty of indoor activities, in addition to just bundling up and dealing with the weather.
As mentioned before, the Activity Center is the go-to spot for families when the weather isn’t great (and even when the weather is). Kids can play for hours there. Alternatively, there is an arts & crafts space inside the marina at Baright Lake. It’s not a huge space, but there’s enough things to do there to occupy an hour or so. Activities include painting ceramics and leather work (for a fee).
You can catch a live performance at the Denman and Mary Mallory Kountze Memorial Theater year round. Performances range from melodramas to magicians. You can purchase tickets by calling the park’s office at (402) 944-2523.
One of the often overlooked buildings in the park is the James Family Conservatory, located across the street from the horse stables. It’s worth a quick visit to see the greenhouse, especially in the winter. Dozens of native plants are grown inside and when coupled with the sound of running water, it creates a relaxing sanctuary.
It’s a small greenhouse, to be sure, so you won’t spend a whole lot of time in there. The lobby/nature center, has a few terrariums of native reptiles that you can view, as well.
Plan a fun visit to Mahoney State Park’s Activity Center
When my kids were younger, their favorite place to visit at Mahoney State Park is the Activity Center, no matter the season. The big draw is the Activity Center’s indoor playground. It’s a great place to tire kids out with several slides, tubes, and ball pits.
The intended age is 10 and younger. Cost to enter is $3 for kids ages 3-12 and $2 for anyone over 12 years old (yes, adults will need to pay). Kids under 3 years old are FREE.
Now, a great area within the Activity Center is dedicated to rock climbing – the Venture Center. It has a 42-foot wall, so it’s a challenge for any age. While it looks high, my kids climbed to the top when they were ages 6 and 8. The rock climbing center also has a section for free climbing, though there is a minimum age requirement.
You can get a combo pass for the Activity Center and the Venture Center for $12 for adults and children. There is no time limit for the Venture Center. Besides joining your kids in climbing at the Venture Center, there isn’t a whole lot for adults to do inside. I’ve brought my laptop to work on while the kids exhaust themselves crawling and climbing around the indoor playground.
Note: The Activity Center is a busy spot for birthday parties because it’s pretty reasonably priced. Anticipate possibly large groups on the weekends.
What kind of wildlife can you see at Mahoney State Park?
With the park’s proximity to the Platte River, there’s plenty of wildlife to be spotted. Due to the amount of activity at the park, though, I would recommend setting your expectations realistically on how many wild animals you may see.
A few native species you may encounter at Mahoney State Park:
- White tail deer
- Wild turkeys
- Box turtles
- Birds, including eastern flycatchers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-crowned kinglets and eastern wood-pewees.
As for fish in the park, you’ll find trout stocked in CenturyLink Lake in the fall and winter. We tend to catch crappie at Baright Lake.
Tips for staying inside the park
Mahoney State Park has overnight accommodations ranging from camping/RV, to cabins to a hotel-like lodge. Depending on your budget, your accommodations can be inexpensive or a few hundred dollars a night.
Staying in the park’s modern cabins is a popular way to go, but they can be booked months in advance. Some cabins sleep up to 4, while others sleep up to 16-20. Prices range from $170 to $455 a night.
My family has stayed a few times at Mahoney State Park and we reserve the treetop cabins that offer a little more space for families. There are two rooms in those cabins plus the upstairs “treetop” family room, which is what we like. The newer cabins are even more spacious but cost a whole lot more per night.
Here are some tips:
- You can reserve a cabin up to a full year in advance. If you want to reserve a cabin for a summer weekend, it’s highly recommended you reserve it exactly 365 days out from when it becomes available. So, for Memorial Day Weekend 2024, you would want to reserve your cabin at the start of Memorial Day Weekend 2023.
- Cabins and all lodging at Mahoney State Park are discounted in the winter. While many of the lovely summer activities are closed at that time, it is a nice and quieter time to visit.
The lodge’s rooms are priced pretty reasonably, between $90-$105. Most sleep 2-4 people, though a few rooms sleep up to 6 people. You can request a river view, though it will be slightly more expensive than a regular room. Rooms have balconies.
FAQs about Mahoney State Park
I get a lot of questions about Mahoney State Park. I’ll try to answer some of the frequent ones below:
As of publishing this blog post, horseback riding at Mahoney State Park is $25 per person. No double riders allowed.
Yes, alcohol is permitted inside the park. Because of designated quiet hours, consumption of alcohol is prohibited on state property from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The water park, or aquatic center or whatever you want to call it, is pretty reasonably priced. The current admission cost is $10 for adults and $8 for kids (season passes are available).
Miniature golf is $5 per person at Mahoney State Park.
Yes, Mahoney State Park has wifi. I find that the password is usually included with cabin rental details, and I presume, it is provided when you check in at the lodge. Don’t expect an incredibly high speed internet experience.
You can find the park’s main restaurant, Caddy’s Parkside Grill, is located inside the Peter Kiewit Lodge. They sell a full menu of items as well as a buffet. There’s a cocktail menu, too. I like the restaurant largely because of its fantastic view.
The park also has a few concession stands selling snack items, as well as pizza slices and ice cream. They’re located at the Activity Center and Owen Marina.
The ice skating rink at Mahoney State Park is seasonal, and is only open in the winter when weather permits because it’s outdoors. The ice skating season typically ends mid-March.
The only true discount I know of is reserving a cabin in the off-season. I’ve seen discounts of about 30% off rates in the winter.
Mahoney State Park offers 57 cabins, 49 of which have two bedrooms, three of which have four bedrooms and five of which have six bedrooms. Each cabin has air conditioning/heat, fireplace, TV, refrigerator, range, cable TV, outdoor deck and grill and are open year round.
The closest attractions to Mahoney State Park is Strategic Air and Space Museum and Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park. Two nearby golf courses are Quarry Oaks Golf Club and Iron Horse Golf Club. Ashland is about 4 miles from the park and has a great little shopping district on its main street, as well as one of my all-time favorite cideries, Glacial Till. There’s also a winery close by called Cellar 426 that offers wine flights and live music on the weekends.
Platte River State Park is not too far from Mahoney, and it has an abundance of great hiking trails, a pretty impressive playground, and the area’s only (little) waterfall. Louisville State Recreation Area is fairly nearby, as well, and has the state’s only inflatable obstacle course on one of its lakes. Schramm Park is another great park about 14 miles away, and it has an impressive indoor educational center and a fossil dig site.
There is one sit-down restaurant inside Mahoney State Park, Caddy’s Parkside Grill, as well as concession stands in the park with snack-like options. If you’re looking for something different to eat, options are limited.
For pizza, drive to Ashland where you can either get Casey’s pizza (yes, it’s a gas station but the pizza is good) or Breadeaux Pizza. If you’re into charcuterie, you can get a good one at Glacial Till, also located in Ashland.
For steaks, make the drive to Round The Bend Steakhouse. It’s in Ashland, but much more remote than the places mentioned above. In the summer, the restaurant at nearby Platte River State Park has Saturday Steak Nights, featuring buffalo from the herd at Fort Robinson State Park in western Nebraska.
For a great burger, drive a little further to Springfield where the dive Heron Bay sits upon the Platte River. Springfield is also home to an old-fashioned soda fountain located inside Springfield Pharmacy. It’s a fun little spot to get a hot fudge sundae or phosphate.
There aren’t a whole lot of breakfast options near Mahoney State Park, and in my opinion, you’re better off preparing your own food. However, if you need a spot, check the hours at the restaurant at Platte River State Park. Breakfast is served Thursday through Sunday in the summer, with a buffet on the weekends.
Why a visit to Mahoney State Park rejuvenates the mind & body
A day trip or weekend trip — or if you’re lucky, a weeklong trip — into nature is always rejuvenating in my experience. Visiting Mahoney State Park makes nature accessible and comfortable. From soaking up the views of the Platte River from the observation tower to admire the quietness of the trail while on horseback, Mahoney will not disappoint.