Canoeing The Niobrara River With Kids

Float trips have gained popularity in recent years, and while you can find outfitters near Omaha, a trip down the Niobrara River in the Sandhills of Nebraska is worth the drive.

I used to go annually as a kid – it’s a little fuzzy when we started, but I’d say I’d been canoeing it since I was 8, stopping when I was about 25.

Update: This post was first published in 2015. It’s been updated in March 2020 with current information.

Everything you need to know about canoeing the Niobrara River in the Sandhills of Nebraska, especially if you plan on taking kids with you | Outdoors guide to Nebraska canoeing | Family canoe trip Nebraska | Canoe Nebraska | Float trips in Nebraska

This river has a special place in my heart and I’m excited to introduce it to my kids now.

Where is the Niobrara River?

An aerial view of the Niobrara River.
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

The Niobrara River winds through Niobrara National Forest Reserve outside of Valentine, Nebraska. Cliffs and waterfalls that you wouldn’t typically associate with Nebraska line the river trail.

It’s an excellent river for beginners, though if the water is low, you will encounter more rocks and scrape the sandy bottom.

Nebraska scenery at its best. Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Niobrara River Outfitters

You could get overwhelmed with the options of outfitters, in Valentine and along the river.

And then you got the choice of canoe, kayak, tube or tank. Tubing seems to be the popular choice, but we’re old school, and go with canoes every time.

A little paddling never hurt anyone.

Rocky Ford has been my family's preferred outfitter for more than two decades.

As far as outfitter preference goes, for two-plus decades, we’ve gone with Rocky Ford Outfitters and have no complaints.

Our bus dropped us off by the Niobrara River entry point, so we can canoe back to our cars.

They’ll bus you to the entry point in the river and then you just paddle or float ‘til you get back to your car.

Canoeing the Niobrara River with kids

A canoe can fit four people if your little kids are small. Ours were 3 and 5. Three people is probably the comfortable max with older kids.

Your outfitter will supply life vests for everyone, but if you’re particular, you might want to bring your own kids-size vests from home.

Outfitters typically take you to your drop-off point by shuttle. Depending on the day, it could be a full shuttle bus with a lot of adults who’ve pre-partied their trip.

By the way, weekends trips mean crowds on the water and many will be drinking. If either of those things bother you, opt for a weekday float. If you enjoy a beer on the river, you’ll be right at home.

Outfitters usually offer different drop off points. Go short if it’s your first time. Short, for us, was leaving from Berry Bridge – about 17 miles and took us nearly five hours with a couple stops.

Our entry point was Berry Bridge. It’s a pretty point in the river, and right off the bat, you see a waterfall. Cue excitable kids.

Kim and family at the Niobrara River  launch point.

Toward the end, the 3-year-old was d-o-n-e, but hadn’t reached the breaking point.

Rocky Ford is about the furthest you can go in the river unless you’re a skilled kayaker.

You'll want to make a quick exit at Rocky Ford, otherwise, you'll face these rapids.
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Stops on the Niobrara River

Going from Berry Bridge, you won’t be in your canoe for long before you hit Smith Falls, a state park you can get to by car and crossing a bridge – but where’s the fun in that? Canoe and feel like an intrepid explorer.

Everyone stops here. Smith Falls is impressive to see, you can hear the icy water falling from 70 feet above.

A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.
A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.

The daring stand full-body beneath the falls. It hurts, and the pictures never turn out at as cool you think it will because you’re grimacing. But you still gotta do it.

There are a few picnic tables there and outhouses. We make this an early lunch stopping point and play in the river with the kids.

Mooch waded in the river with her cousin.
Mooch waded in the river with her cousin.

There aren’t a whole lot of other obvious stopping points, so most people find a sandbar as a stopping point during the day to wait for the rest of their group to catch up.

How to plan your Niobrara canoe trip

Nearest Town: Most people canoeing the Niobrara have a home base in Valentine, Nebraska. Valentine is a pleasant and friendly small town with a grocery store, several restaurants and bars, ice cream shop, and a movie theater. Lodging varies, from national chain motels, to a few lodges and locally-owned motels. Others camp along the river at various outfitters.

Tradition in my family means we have a dinner at the Pepper Mill and breakfast at The Bunk House.

Length of stay: You can get away with a three-day weekend to do a canoe trip. We like leaving on Friday morning, canoeing on Saturday and heading home Sunday. It’s a long drive from Omaha, so I don’t recommend doing anything shorter than that.

If you make it a longer weekend, you can visit Merritt Reservoir the next day. Feeling ambitious, road warrior? Valentine is not far from South Dakota, and so you could drive onward to Mt. Rushmore and all the cool attractions in the Black Hills/Badlands.

Cost: Rocky Ford Outfitters charges $80 for a one-day canoe or kayak trip (two people), and I imagine that’s close to standard. It includes shuttle fee.

Nebraska and South Dakota Adventure With Kids

My family’s destination: The Black Hills.

But we’re not ones to take a direct route; we have to stop and enjoy the scenery. There were adventures in Nebraska and South Dakota to be had in the form of canoeing, jeep riding, cave exploring, mountain hiking, lunar landscape wandering, and brushes with gigantic tortoises and begging burros.

Disclosure: Some of the featured destinations provided complimentary admission or services in order for me to review them. Individual posts will make note of it.

Adventure Road Trip 2015

It was a lot of fun for our two young kids, ages 3 and 5 (and a good deal tiring). Here are the details of our eight-day road trip through Nebraska and South Dakota.

Day 1 – Sioux City, Iowa, Valentine, Nebraska

Our first destination was Valentine. We drove a route through Sioux City, Iowa, allowing us to stop for lunch at Milwaukee Weiner House and Palmer’s Candy Shoppe for treats. The candy shop was definitely worth the stop.

The route via Sioux City isn’t the fastest Omaha-to-Valentine route, but it’s more scenic. I love the Sandhills.

The view from my window while we drove just outside Valentine, Neb. That's the Niobrara River.
The view from my window while we drove just outside Valentine, Neb.

Your lodging options there are mostly motels, budget hotels, a few lodges and cabins closer to the Niobrara River, and camping at outfitters along the river.

Day 2 – Valentine and Niobrara River, Nebraska

We canoed the Niobrara River with friends and family the next day. This involved an early morning wake up, breakfast at The Bunk House, and a caravan out to Rocky Ford Outfitters. Note that with Rocky Ford, you’ll likely be on a bus full of strangers when they drive you to the launch site. It’s like riding a bus to camp.

Our bus dropped us off by the river, so we can canoe back to our cars.
Our bus dropped us off by the river, so we can canoe back to our cars.

We opted for the shorter route starting at Brewer Bridge; it includes a pit stop at Smith Falls, the state’s tallest waterfall.

A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.
A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.

In all, it was about five hours.

Canoeing the Niobrara is pretty fun for kids (and adults…), and you’ll get a glimpse of Nebraska wildlife – we saw a bald eagle. It was a long day for our 3-year-old, though. She doesn’t like to be told to sit down so frequently.

Mooch out in the river with her cousin.
Mooch out in the river with her cousin.

That night, we had dinner with our large group at The Pepper Mill, and my little family got some ice cream at Frosty Drive-In afterwards.

Day 3 – Wall and Rapid City, South Dakota

While the rest of our canoe caravan drove home, we drove north toward the Bad Lands.

A glimpse of the countryside on the drive up from Nebraska to Wall, South Dakota.
A glimpse of the countryside on the drive up from Nebraska to Wall, South Dakota.

Our destination was Rapid City, but first we had to stop at Wall Drug.

You can’t miss it. There will be about 2,567 signs pointing it out to you.

Who hasn't taken a picture on this thing? I should dig up my picture from eighth grade.
Who hasn’t taken a picture on this thing? I should dig up my picture from eighth grade.

It’s fun for kids, and a nostalgic visit for me.

Road Trip - Wall Drug3
Kinda wished I’d gotten Mr. Wonderful the Mt. Rushmore with a wolf shirt.

I heard about their famous cake donuts, so we did a taste test of three. Go with the maple donut if you have to pick just one.

And the winner of the tastiest donut in Wall, South Dakota, goes to...the maple donut.
And the winner of the tastiest donut in Wall, South Dakota, goes to…the maple donut.

We arrived in Rapid City at lunchtime and made way to the Firehouse Brewing Company. The relaxed atmosphere was a welcome relief from a car ride with antsy kids.

The entrance to Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City. If it's not scorching hot, sit outside.
The entrance to Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City. If it’s not scorching hot, sit outside.

I’ll post a full review soon of the restaurant, but briefly, you’ll want to try one of their house-brewed beers – I was particularly fond of the Honey Badger. They’re known for their burgers, but I bucked that trend and tried the gumbo that’s got a Food Network star’s approval.

The restaurant is in the pretty downtown of Rapid City, which you’ll want to stroll.

While you stroll downtown Rapid City, be on the lookout for all the presidents in the form of statues. This was one of Farley's favorite scavenger hunts - finding the best statue to pose with while we walked back to our car.
While you stroll downtown Rapid City, be on the lookout for all the presidents in the form of statues. This was one of Farley’s favorite scavenger hunts – finding the best statue to pose with while we walked back to our car.

Not far from Firehouse Brewing Co. is Art Alley, eclectic shops and the plaza with a sprayground. The plan was to explore all this after lunch but naptime was clearly more pressing.

Once rested, we did a whirlwind visit of some very fun kid-friendly and FREE attractions. First stop was Storybook Island, a large playground of sorts featuring every possible storybook character your kid has ever loved.

Mr. Wonderful and the kids head off to uncharted waters on Captain Hook's boat.
Mr. Wonderful and the kids head off to uncharted waters on Captain Hook’s boat. With the number of times I post a picture with someone in my family doing a Zizzou point, readers could really start a drinking game.

In a word, it was a kid’s heaven.

Since admission was free you’ll feel less peeved about paying a few dollars for your kid to ride the little train or carousel.

For $2, a kid can ride the mini train around part of the park, including through a tunnel. Exciting stuff.
For $2, a kid can ride the mini train around part of the park, including through a tunnel. Exciting stuff.

Nearby this park is the well-known Dinosaur Park.

There’s a visitor’s center, but mainly, you’ll want to climb the stairs up to see the giant dinos.

You can spot this guy in Dinosaur Park from afar.
We spotted this DinoPark star from the road below.

There’s not much to it beyond the iconic large statues, but kids like it. Expect to spend at least two hours at Storybook Island and 30 minutes tops at Dinosaur Park.

After seeing the sprayground downtown, there was no way my kids would rest until we went back. So, we made a super quick stop there.

Good luck with that "super quick" idea, Mom. This kid's not leaving so easily.
Good luck with that “super quick” idea, Mom. This kid’s not leaving so easily.

It was timed during a free fun night event (Sunday night), so there were bounce houses, hot dogs, balloon animals and that evening, a movie. Wish we could’ve stuck around.

We had a nice dinner at Dakotah Steakhouse, which happened to be next door to our hotel, the Comfort Suites & Convention Center.

Comfort Suites in Rapid City and Dakotah Steakhouse are neighbors. It's a great thing for those staying at the hotel.
Comfort Suites in Rapid City and Dakotah Steakhouse are neighbors. It’s a great thing for those staying at the hotel.

In case you were curious on what you shouldn’t miss at Dakotah, our family loved the bison satay appetizer – loved it – and one side you should get with your dinner, no matter what, is the deliciously fried mac n cheese.

Dakotah Steakhouse
A late dinner at a steakhouse is a risky affair with young kids.

Day 4 – Rapid City, Custer, and Hot Springs, South Dakota

We woke up early and enjoyed the free hot breakfast at Comfort Suites– followed by a quick swim in their pool.

Car loaded for our next destination – Hot Springs – we, first, headed to Reptile Gardens for some morning fun.

After watching the Alligator Show, my son kept asking me if I knew how to wrestle an alligator. Fat chance, sonny boy.
After watching the Alligator Show, my son kept asking me if I knew how to wrestle an alligator. Fat chance, sonny boy.

Three hours there, we were able to see all three animal shows, walk through the pretty cool Sky Dome, and have a quick play at the playground.

Both kids’ favorite part, hands down, was meeting the three gigantic tortoises.

The tortoises roamed free in a fenced-in yard at Reptile Gardens. You could pet them and ask handlers questions.
The tortoises roamed free in a fenced-in yard at Reptile Gardens. You could pet them and ask handlers questions.

We grabbed lunch in Custer in a popular burger joint called Buffalo Burger and Bun Co. It’s well worth the wait. Just don’t arrive between lunch and dinner – they’re closed from 2 to 5 p.m., which some stragglers learned the hard way.

Best burger of the whole trip was had at Buffalo Burger and Bun Co. in Custer.
Best burger of the whole trip was had at Buffalo Burger and Bun Co. in Custer.

After lunch, we bellied up to Purple Pie Place, also in Custer, to try the recommended pie.

Mr. Wonderful ordered the tart strawberry rhubarb pie a la mode, and the kids behind him got ice cream at Purple Pie Place.
Mr. Wonderful ordered the tart strawberry rhubarb pie a la mode, and the kids behind him got ice cream at Purple Pie Place.

Sufficiently stuffed and seeing the approaching storm, we drove on to our destination for the night, Hot Springs.

To get there, we passed through the beautiful Wind Cave National Park. No animals were spotted on that evening drive – we had a lot more luck the next morning. I can’t imagine why.

Perhaps this storm had something to do with no animals being spotted that night. I dunno.
Perhaps this storm had something to do with no animals being spotted in Wind Cave National Park. I dunno.

Once the storm passed and the kids woke from their late naps, we had time to make it to the final tour of Wind Cave that day. We rushed out there to catch the 6 p.m. Natural Entrance Tour, which was recommended to me by the park ranger because it suited small kids best (least amount of standing and listening).

Our group listening to the park ranger during the tour.
Our group listening to the park ranger during the tour.

The whole family enjoyed it, even the 3-year-old who doesn’t “do” staying in line. There was a younger kid on our tour and he did not last long in the cave.

This was more of an awe-struck experience than I had expected.

If you plan to visit Wind Cave, you’ll want to bring a jacket – otherwise, you’ll be like me, forking over $25 for a long-sleeved shirt. It’s a cool shirt, at least.

We got tasty takeout from T/D Smokin BBQ in Hot Springs, and retired to our room for the night. We stayed at The Hills Inn in Hot Springs.

I’ll write a review of the motel soon, but so you know, it’s a very short distance from the city’s two main attractions: Evans Plunge and Mammoth Site, and 10 minutes from Wind Cave, making it an ideal base if you want to visit those three sites.

Day 5 – Hot Springs, Custer State Park, Keystone, Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota

The Hills Inn had a free continental breakfast, so we opted to eat that poolside. Not a bad start to the day!

Dining poolside at a motel? Why not? The kids liked the food options at The Hills Inn in Hot Springs.
Dining poolside at a motel? Why not? The kids liked the food options at The Hills Inn in Hot Springs.

Our morning was spent spotting tons of animals while we drove through Wind Cave National Park on our way to Custer State Park, where we saw even more. In Wind Cave National Park, we spotted buffalo, prairie dogs, and on our drive back to Hot Springs, a coyote.

How's that for an entrance to Custer State Park? Buffalo in the distance.
How’s that for an entrance to Custer State Park? Buffalo in the distance.

Custer State Park was our major destination that day. We drove two of the three scenic routes, both had their good points.

The Wildlife Loop is what it sounds like it would be, and it didn’t disappoint.

We saw several herds of buffalo, some pronghorn and prairie dogs.

And our kids’ favorite, the begging burros.

While still wild animals, the famous begging burros of Custer State Park sure managed to befriend every kid in the park.
While still wild animals, the famous begging burros of Custer State Park sure managed to befriend every kid in the park.

I know you’re not supposed to approach wildlife or feed them, but this seemed like a rule everyone on the road gleefully broke. These burros were bold and insisted you break those rules.

We had a quick picnic lunch by a dammed up lake in the middle of the park.

We grabbed a nearby picnic table for lunch here at Custer State Park.
We grabbed a nearby picnic table for lunch here at Custer State Park.

We continued our drive along the Iron Mountain road.

That was an intense, but beautiful drive. Narrow roads and even narrower tunnels!

The kids loved these tunnels. I was just glad I wasn't driving. This is a two-way road, by the way.
The kids loved these tunnels. I was just glad I wasn’t driving. This is a two-way road, by the way.

We found lots of scenic stops along the way to our next destination, Sylvan Lake.

You can't capture the beauty of Sylvan Lake in a photo - we tried.
You can’t capture the beauty of Sylvan Lake in a photo – we tried.

This was a place I’d been looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint.

Hiking around Sylvan Lake with the family was one of the trip's highlights for me.
Hiking around Sylvan Lake with the family was one of the trip’s highlights for me.

There’s a trail around the lake that’s fairly kid-friendly – not easy by any means, as there is some climbing, but little legs can handle it.

Up some steps around Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park.
Up some steps around Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park.

There were so many gorgeous views.

If you can fit it into your schedule, pack swimsuits to enjoy the little beach and possibly some of the water sports like kayaking or aquabike.

Next time we'll wear our swimsuits to Sylvan Lake.
Next time we’ll wear our swimsuits to Sylvan Lake.

The only frustrating thing about the stop was the lack of water fountains – you either had to pay for a water bottle or fill up in the bathroom sink.

Naptime meant we had some time to kill before we went to Mt. Rushmore. Mr. Wonderful and I took turns staying with the kids in the car while the other wandered around shops in Keystone.

Impatience won out after a while and we woke the kids up to see us drive up to Mt. Rushmore. The sight impressed them.

The Avenue of Flags that lead up to a great spot to view Mount Rushmore.
The Avenue of Flags that lead up to a great spot to view Mount Rushmore.

In a tone of deference: “Moun-TAIN Rushmore, Mooch. Mountain Rushmore.”

This stop was way more exciting for the kids than I anticipated (truth told, when I saw it as a teenager, I was more of a “Yup, that’s it. Let’s go.” Kind of kid). They sat through one of the documentaries, browsed the exhibit, and marveled at all the flags.

This kid was super excited about Mount Rushmore, or as he likes to call it more formally, Mountain Rushmore.
This kid was super excited about Mount Rushmore, or as he likes to call it more formally, Mountain Rushmore.

The highlight was ice cream, naturally. They’re kids, still. (By the way, it will be the most expensive ice cream you’ll buy on your trip)

On the drive back to Hot Springs, we caught a glimpse of Crazy Horse.

Dinner was back in Hot Springs at Woolly’s Western Grill (which is really close to Mammoth Site, by the way). It’s the typical American fare – I tried the walleye dinner, which hit the spot. They have their own microbrew and offer some South Dakota beers.

Nothing fancy, Wooly's Western Grill hit the spot after a long day outdoors. Try a South Dakota brew, like Crow Peak, or the house-brewed beer.
Nothing fancy, Woolly’s Western Grill hit the spot after a long day outdoors. Try a South Dakota brew, like Crow Peak, or the house-brewed beer.

Day 6 – Hot Springs, South Dakota, and Toadstool Park, Chadron State Park, Nebraska

We started the day with a small breakfast at The Hills Inn before a morning swim at Evans Plunge. It’s a hot springs pool in four sections (baby, kids, all ages and outdoor), plus a couple water slides, Tarzan rings, and some pool sports.

OK, I did not capture this photo. I didn't dare bring my camera in with me to a pool. I know myself! Photo provided by South Dakota Tourism
OK, I did not capture this photo inside Evans Springs. I didn’t dare bring my camera in with me to a pool. I know myself! Photo provided by South Dakota Tourism

The kids loved it.

A helpful lady pointed out that we could leave for lunch and naps and return later – so keep that in mind. Morning was a good time to visit – not crowded, but you did have to contend with swim lessons and the outdoor pool wasn’t open until 11 a.m.

After Evans Plunge, we walked across the street for a bigger breakfast (my birthday breakfast) at Dale’s Family Restaurant. It seemed like the place locals dined – I saw a lot of ladies from one of the swim workout classes there. The pancakes are huge.

Well fed, we went to Mammoth Site for a tour of the huge dig. We arrived at 11 a.m. just in time for a tour, which started with a short documentary. We lucked out and were able to watch some volunteers at work.

Members of the Mammoth Site Excavation Committee at work.
Members of the Mammoth Site Excavation Committee at work.

As impressive as it all was, it did not impress my 3-year-old – it’s a tough one for the younger ones to stay focused on. The rest of us liked the experience.

We drove south to Nebraska, with a stop for a short hike at Toadstool Geological Park and Campground within the Oglala Grasslands.

It’s a beautiful drive, but a long one on a dirt road.

I’ve been wanting to see this out-of-this-world terrain for quite a while, so the whole drive was worth it.

Nebraska's own Badlands, AKA Toadstool Geological Park.
Nebraska’s own Badlands, AKA Toadstool Geological Park.

You’ll have two options for a hike – with the young kids, we opted for a quarter-mile mostly flat route. It’s to the right of the entrance.

The easy path at Toadstool Geological Park in Western Nebraska.
The easy path at Toadstool Geological Park in Western Nebraska.

The more tempting one is directly in front of you as you enter, with the trail heading up the rock formations. I only hiked about 10 minutes on it and determined it way too hard for the Mooch and Farley to navigate.

Let's play "Spot the trail" in this picture at Toadstool.
Let’s play “Spot the trail” in this picture at Toadstool.

It’s way more beautiful and has the famed “toadstools,” but the crevices and uneven terrain is hard for unsteady climbers. We’ll be back someday, maybe on a cooler fall day, to hike with my kids.

Our destination for the night was Chadron State Park. Easily, the most beautiful state park I’ve been to in Nebraska, it’s also the oldest.

Mr. Wonderful took this picture on a hike at Chadron State Park.
Mr. Wonderful took this picture on a hike at Chadron State Park.

We had booked a cabin for two nights – it was small, for sure, but it had everything we wanted for the night: Air conditioning, two beds, and a place for a campfire.

It was the end of the day when we finally arrived, and we attempted to make it to the swimming pool before it closed at 8 p.m. Unfortunately, we were out of luck as the teens working wanted to close 40 minutes early. So back to our cabin for dinner and eventually bed time.

I drove the scenic road at the park, and while it’s a beauty of a drive, I’m glad I did it without the kids, they were not longer impressed by pretty landscape at this point in the trip.

Day 7 – Chadron, Fort Robinson, Nebraska

We had breakfast on our cabin picnic table before starting our day.

Picnic breakfast at Chadron State Park.
Picnic breakfast at Chadron State Park.

We forgot to buy coffee with our camping supplies, so we made a quick pit stop in Chadron at Bean Broker Coffee for some good coffee.

Onward to Fort Robinson, which is close to 40 miles from Chadron State Park. There is so much to do there, that it deserved more than a day, but that’s life.

We had small kids with us so trail rides were out, so the kids did a pony ride instead.

This guide at Fort Robinson was a hoot. He also drove the stagecoach.
This guide at Fort Robinson was a hoot. He also drove the stagecoach.

Mooch was dead set on doing a stagecoach ride, as well. It only cost $2 per kid and $3 for each adult, so we obliged.

The highlight of the day for all four of us was the jeep ride. It was a steal that the kids were FREE – they loved it so much!

Once we hit the bumpy dirt road, the kids were all smiles on the jeep ride at Fort Robinson.
Once we hit the bumpy dirt road, the kids were all smiles on the jeep ride at Fort Robinson.

We had a small picnic there and bought some ice cream at the end. Visit the blog soon for a more in-depth post about all there is to do at Fort Robinson.

Day 8 – Chadron State Park, Chadron

Our final day of the road trip. Before leaving Chadron State Park, we had a spin on the paddleboats at the small pond. I’m a paddleboat hater to begin with, so it wasn’t my idea.

The Chadron State Park lake where you can paddleboat.. if you're into that sort of thing.
The Chadron State Park lake where you can paddleboat.. if you’re into that sort of thing.

The kids loved it though.

Before leaving Chadron for good, we grabbed some coffee to-go from the Bean Broker again, and let the kids play on the playground at the city’s main park. The park is very pretty, and the playground beat the ones at Chadron State Park.

Road trip through Nebraska & South Dakota and see national monuments, tons of animals, and gorgeous parks! Here's a kid-friendly itinerary covering 8 days. #roadtrip #Nebraska #SouthDakota #Midwest #FamilyTravel

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Want to plan your own Nebraska and South Dakota road trip? Click the links below to get additional details about some of our stops.

Canoeing the Niobrara River with Kids

Comfort Suites and Convention Center (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Firehouse Brewing Company (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Reptile Gardens (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Dakotah Steakhouse (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Evans Plunge (Hot Springs, South Dakota)

The Hills Inn (Hot Spring, South Dakota)

Mammoth Site (Hot Springs, South Dakota)

Chadron State Park (Chadron, Nebraska)

Fort Robinson State Park (Harrison, Nebraska)

Exploring Nebraska City With Kids

Ever since childhood, Nebraska City has meant apples and trees to me.

You may think you know all there is to know about the small Nebraska city – you know, “Seen one orchard, seen them all” – but I’ve found some spots there during a recent visit that were new to me.

Nebraska City title

If you’ve got a free day coming up, plan a little Nebraska City adventure for your family. It’s only 45 minutes away, after all.

 

Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure

The entrance to Arbor Day Tree Adventure in Nebraska City.
The entrance to Arbor Day Tree Adventure in Nebraska City.

The first time we took Farley to Nebraska City, we skipped the Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure, scoffing at the price and the fact we could see apple trees for free elsewhere in town.

We ponied up the admission fee during our last visit and it was totally worth it. Read an extensive post about everything to do there here.

Happy and mud-covered children at Arbor Day Tree Adventure.
Happy and mud-covered children at Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure, amid a race between the tortoise and the hare. Incidentally, doesn’t the forest look like a fake background?

Our favorite spots included:

The Outdoor Classroom

There's plenty of building opportunities in the outdoor classroom.
There are plenty of building opportunities in the outdoor classroom.

And more building
Building…

And some more building
And some more building

Art station
Art station

There are a couple xylophones you can play, as well.
There are a couple xylophones you can play, as well.

Playing will it sink or float
Playing will it sink or float

 

The tree house and the cabin of activities next to it

The cabin next to the 50-foot tree house featured educational activities for kids.
The cabin next to the 50-foot tree house featured educational activities for kids.

Checking out the beehive in the cabin.
Checking out the beehive in the cabin.

 

All the things to play on 

Pretending to be a spider at Arbor Day Tree Adventure.
Pretending to be a spider at Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure.

There are a variety of structures at Arbor Day Tree Adventure that blend in well with the setting.
There are a variety of structures at Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure that blend in well with the setting.

Over-sized chairs are found along the backwoods trail.
Over-sized chairs are found along the backwoods trail.

 

And the backwoods trail

Interactive and educational activities dot the trail.
Interactive and educational activities dot the trail.

If you’re kids are sufficiently walking on their own, try out the trail. It’s not stroller-friendly.

There’s a neat outdoor art exhibit that has you looking for all sorts of wooden cutouts of birds. The kids loved hunting for them.

Be on the lookout for dozens of these bird silhouette cutouts (plus one squirrel).
Be on the lookout for dozens of these bird silhouette cutouts (plus one squirrel).

There are also bridges and other play structures to explore.

There are a couple bridges to cross on the trail.
There are a couple bridges to cross on the trail.

This structure's about half-way through the trail.
This structure’s located about half-way through the trail.

Leave plenty of time for that hike, and bring along water, treats and bug spray.

You'll cross over a creek a couple times along the way, but look for a side path that will take you right down to it.
You’ll cross over a creek a couple times along the way, but look for a side path that will take you right down to it.

There was a sign suggesting how long the hike should take – I think it said 30 minutes – but with kids who like to stop and look at things, plan on doubling that.

The hike probably wouldn't take so long if there weren't tempting side trails like this. We had to check out where it led to.
The hike probably wouldn’t take so long if there weren’t tempting side trails like this. We had to check out where it led to.

You will be stopping for the mysterious door in the Fairy Garden area.
You will be stopping for the mysterious door in the Fairy Garden area.

We spent more time at the Tree Adventure than I had anticipated – I couldn’t get the kids to leave the Outdoor Classroom.

Yeah, we could hang here all day.
Yeah, we could hang here all day.

Tip: Each paid admission gets you a seedling to plant. Our tickets each had a coupon for a free slice of apple pie at the Lied Lodge. Plan accordingly. 🙂

 

If you go

Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure

Where: 2611 Arbor Ave.. Nebraska City, Neb.

When: Summer hours are Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Adults are $7, kids 3-12 are $5 and kids 2 and younger are FREE. Hayrack ride is extra.

Website

 

Arbor Lodge Historical Park (The Free Stuff)

The mansion isn't part of the "free stuff," but isn't this what you think of when you read "Arbor Lodge"? I thought so.
The mansion isn’t part of the “free stuff,” but isn’t this what you think of when you read “Arbor Lodge”? I thought so.

Nebraska City is home to Arbor Day, and thusly, Arbor Lodge, which is located inside Arbor Lodge Historical Park. The mansion of J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day, is open for tours. There is admission into the 52-room mansion, but you’re free to explore the 72-acre park and enjoy the playground.

Having just been at the Tree Adventure nearby, my kids were in no shape to traipse through a historic home. Even if they were squeaky clean, we still wouldn’t go in at this point in time. History stuff is lost on them so I’m not paying until I know they’re listening to me. 🙂

We checked out the carriage house behind the mansion – that’s free. There’s also a log cabin and hiking trail.

Inside the carriage house at Arbor Lodge.
Inside the carriage house at Arbor Lodge.

The playground was the highlight for the kids, naturally.

The playground at Arbor Lodge park.
The playground at Arbor Lodge park.

Notice the tree theme even at the playground?

 

If you go

Arbor Lodge State Historical Park

Where: 2600 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City, Neb.

When: Mansion hours are Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; park is open year round

Cost (to tour the mansion): Adults are $7, kids 3-12 are $4 and kids 2 and younger are FREE

Website

 

About those apples

You pretty much always have to visit an apple orchard when you’re there, amiright?

Here are the 4 apple orchard/vineyards to see:

Arbor Day Farm has a lovely little shop, with a wine tasting room and cafe. You can explore some of the grounds without having to pay admission for the tree adventure.

Union Orchard is the one you see first when you drive from Omaha to Nebraska City. You’ll find all sorts of apple products there, and it’s a convenient location to stop in on your way out of town.

Kimmel Orchard & Vineyard is the big one, with a large property to explore. We stop there to get cider for the kid and a sweet white wine for us. Don’t be surprised to find loads of tour busses parked out front.

Central Apple Market and Country Store – Never been here, but figured I’d list it for you.

 

Oh My! Omaha Facebook Followers’ Tips

I asked around for your ideas on not-to-miss Nebraska City spots and here’s what some of you shared:

Mary Eileen – John Brown’s cave and the Underground Railroad, Arbor Day Lodge, Ride the Trolley, The Whispering Bench, Orchards, Outlet Mall, Apple Jack Festival

Jessica – Outlet Mall!

Editor’s note: That outlet mall, in case you’re wondering, is called Factory Stores of America, and it’s located at 1001 Nebraska State Hwy. 2.

 

Your turn: What are your favorite places in Nebraska City?

Fun Things To Do Near Lincoln Children’s Zoo

This is the last installment of a series about visiting Lincoln, Neb., with children. We took a whirlwind trip to the city recently – read the recap here.

The Lincoln Children’s Zoo is a fun addition to a trip to Lincoln, but if you’re looking for a few extra ideas on what to do after you check out the zoo, I have a few suggestions.

Visiting the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Nebraska? Here are a few nearby kid-friendly destinations that are free. Add these to your trip to the zoo to have a full day of fun! #Lincoln #Nebrsaka #familytravel #USA

Sunken Gardens

I was pleasantly surprised by our visit to the Sunken Gardens, which is so close to the zoo, you could throw a rock at it, kinda. OK, not really, but it’s really close.

Taking a break to look over the Sunken Gardens in Lincoln.

The free public gardens are simply gorgeous. If you’re camera-happy, you’ll be in your element here.

A short, shaded trail in the Sunken Gardens in Lincoln, Neb.

My kids enjoyed the water features, like the waterfall and the two man-made ponds.

Places to visit near Lincoln's zoo - Sunken Gardens

I was fascinated by all the plants that I had no idea could easily grow in Nebraska.

For parents of young kids, you’ll be happy to know there are public bathrooms there. Always plan for emergencies, amiright?

Across busy 27th Street, and even closer to the zoo, you’ll find smaller gardens and a large water feature. The signs say “don’t play in the water” but the whole things screams “PLAY IN ME!” I had a hard time keeping my kids out, especially with the handful of kids splashing away in there.

Small garden area near the Sunken Gardens in Lincoln, Nebraska

The smaller gardens were reminiscent of French-style gardens (on a much smaller scale).

Another great find for our family was Antelope Park. We were leaving the zoo and the kids were still wired. All hopes for them napping on the way home were pinned to finding another outlet for them to run around and let out energy.

Then we saw it. A massive playground.

Antelope Park

Antelope Park is located near the Lincoln Children's Zoo.

Antelope Park is the biggest playground I’ve ever seen. The kid inside me was jealous of my kids.

I counted 12 slides! The park was also wheelchair accessible, and it had a separate area for children under 5. And there was a sandbox off to the side that is easy to block from your kid’s view.

Find the two places mentioned in this post:

Your turn: What’s near the Lincoln Children’s Zoo that your family loves – restaurants, outdoor areas, shops, etc?

More stories about Lincoln, Nebraska

Want to plan a Lincoln getaway for your family? Here are some posts that will help you figure out where to go and what to do!

24 Hours Of Fun In Lincoln With Kids

Lincoln Children’s Museum

Things To Do Near Lincoln Children’s Museum

Lincoln Children’s Zoo

Lincoln Graduate – A Family-Friendly Hotel In Lincoln’s Haymarket

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Fun things to do at Lincoln Children’s Zoo

No trip to Lincoln with young kids is complete without a stop to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. The lines between petting zoo and full-blown zoo are blurred here, making a child’s experience all the better.

Update: This post was first written in 2014 and was updated in August 2019 to reflect new year-round hours and prices. Read about all the zoo updates that opened in 2019!

No trip to Lincoln, Nebraska with young kids is complete without a visit to Lincoln Children's Museum! I shared some of my family's favorite things to do at the zoo in this post. #zoo #guide #Nebraska #USA

During our whirlwind 24-hour trip to the city, we decided to visit one early Sunday morning. It’s a small enough zoo to plan a morning visit and finish in time for a kid’s nap time… if that’s a factor in planning trips.

Favorite parts of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo

My favorite aspect of this zoo is the pretty meandering path from exhibit to exhibit. Trees and landscaping made it difficult to see what was around the bend, making each turn an adventure for my kids.

Flamingos at the Lincoln Children's Zoo

It’s really a nice place to stroll – and you can really get up close to the animals.

Child and monkey at Lincoln Children's Zoo

The zoo’s strengths are its hands-on activities, particularly the animal encounters. Mooch loved touching all the animals.

The Critter Outpost is a booth with young volunteers showing some fuzzy, feathery creatures.

The only drawback to these hands-on activities, were that the encounters were a little too close. Farley – being our bouncy, vibrating-with-energy, Farley – accidentally stepped backward onto one of the lizards on the floor. I was about ready to resign from zoo visits.

Kids petting a guinea pig at Lincoln Children's Zoo

Kids can have the opportunity to feed goats and other critters (like a camel), for a small fee, and they can also pay to ride ponies.

Feeding a goat a Lincoln Children's Zoo

Near the petting zoo was the pony rides (for an additional fee). We didn’t do them the first time we visited but when we returned a few years later, we couldn’t resist.

The rides were a hit. The smiles were well worth the few extra dollars spent.

Favorite things to do at Lincoln Children's Zoo - pony rides

There are also small play areas for children scattered throughout the zoo. Sometimes kids just need to climb around like one of the animals, right?

Climbing structures at Lincoln Children's Zoo

As for the rest of the zoo, a lot of the exhibits were designed to get youngsters as close as possible to animals. There are also regularly scheduled activities with animals, so during our morning visit, we got to watch the penguins dine on fish.

Keeper feeding the penguins at Lincoln's zoo.

The penguin feeding was fun. Each penguin has a name and she kept track of all of them! The crowd had fun trying to keep track of the names, too.

There is a train to ride at the zoo, but I was disappointed in its route. It circled the outside of the zoo, barely giving you a chance to see animals from a different view.

Family selfie on the train at Lincoln Children's Zoo

Regardless, the kids loved it, and the tunnel the train goes through seemed to be exciting for them.

This is largely an outdoor zoo – so it’s only open from early spring to late fall. And if you visit during less-than-wonderful weather, you have just a handful options for indoor hideouts (Animal Kingdom being your best bet). We were there during a rainstorm and you just have to make do.

There is a place to buy food and enjoy it outside near a playground and a large dinosaur dig pit (yay for sand! – not). Like most zoos, you’re not going to find a ton of health foods, but there were fruit and vegetable options.

If you go

Where: 1222 S. 27th, Lincoln, Neb.

When: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. including holidays, and open until 8 p.m. every Wednesday in June, July and August.

Admission: Adults, 13-61, $13.95; children 2-12 and seniors, 62+, $9.95; children 1 and younger, FREE.

Tip for Omaha zoo members: Your zoo membership gets you 50% off admission at the Lincoln zoo! Take advantage of it. Learn more about reciprocal memberships here.

Lincoln Zoo 3

More stories about Lincoln, Nebraska

Looking for more things to do in Lincoln? Here are some posts I’ve written about the city!

24 Hours Of Fun In Lincoln With Kids

Lincoln Children’s Museum

Things To Do Near Lincoln Children’s Museum

Things to Do Near Lincoln’s Zoo (Sunken Gardens, Antelope Park)

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Things To Do Near Lincoln Children’s Museum

Let’s say you’re planning a trip to the Lincoln Children’s Museum, but you figure you might as well do a little bit of exploring while you’re down there. Make that hour drive worthwhile, right? This post includes a few add-ons to round out a day trip to Lincoln Children’s Museum, including restaurant suggestions and other attractions.

Planning a day trip to Lincoln Children's Museum? Here's a list of things to do near the museum, including kid-friendly restaurants to visit. This post helps families plan a full day of activities, especially if this is just a day trip from a nearby town! #Lincoln #Nebraska #familytravel #staycation

Attractions near Lincoln Children’s Museum

Here are a couple of ideas within walking distance of the museum (though, I’ll be honest, with little kids, you may want to drive to some of the places on the university campus).

The museum is located in downtown Lincoln, not far from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. This campus is nice enough to walk around, and it has a few buildings you may want to check out with the kids.

The hall of mammoths at Morrill Hall on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Our favorite is Morrill Hall, the state’s natural history museum. If you visit that museum with young children, don’t forget to head to the Science Discovery area in the basement – it’s full of hands-on activities for little ones.

Three other options recommended to in the Insider’s Family Guide To Lincoln are The Sheldon Museum of ArtKiechel Fine Art Gallery and International Quilt Study Center & Museum.

The Nebraska History Museum is another (free) option near Lincoln Children’s Museum. I wrote about visiting that museum with my son here. While we were in the area, we also visited the Nebraska State Capitol Building and Centennial Mall.

Exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum

Where to eat near Lincoln Children’s Museum

You’ll find a lot of dining options in downtown Lincoln, particularly on O Street. Right near the museum, you’ll find the chain restaurant Jersey Mike’s, which offers a free kids meal with the purchase of an adults meal when you show them your children’s museum admission sticker.

You could go local, and try the pizza place Lazzari’s at 1434 O St. Another favorite of mine is in walking distance – Honest Abe’s. It’s a burger joint that’s worth the line that’s usually there.

We also took the kids to Sultan’s Kite on O Street. It’s a Mediterranean restaurant that’s really quite good, but might have some flavors that scare off kids.

Sprinkle donut at Hurts Donut in Lincoln, Nebraska

It’s a bit of a walk, but there’s also a Hurts Donut in downtown Lincoln. Knowing my kids, we would probably drive to this location rather than walk from the museum to it. Just an FYI.

Your turn: For those of you from Lincoln or familiar with the city, what are some of your favorite places in downtown Lincoln? Give me your best restaurant recommendations!

Things to do near Lincoln Children's Museum (including restaurant suggestions!)

More Stories About Lincoln, Nebraska

Want to plan your own Lincoln getaway? Here’s are some stories to inspire the things to do and places to see while you’re there:

Insider’s Family Guide: Lincoln

24 Hours Of Fun In Lincoln With Kids

Fun Things To Do At Lincoln Children’s Zoo

Things to Do Near Lincoln’s Zoo (Sunken Gardens, Antelope Park)

What’s Kid-Friendly In Lincoln’s Haymarket

Adventures At Morrill Hall

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