I might have overdone it this summer bringing my family to so many events that were packed with people. It’s easy to find something that’s free and family-friendly every weekend in Omaha, but you have to keep in mind that 5,000 of your neighbors are headed there too.
So, recently, my family decided to get out of Dodge, so to speak. Just for a few hours. One Saturday we ventured to a family-favorite, Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa. It’s about a 20-minute drive northeast of Omaha. Another weekend, we visited Schramm Park State Recreation Area, which is about 6 miles south of west Omaha. It had been a very long time since our last visit.
Our visits couldn’t be more different. I could go on a rant about how funding makes all the difference (Hitchcock wins), but I’ll just try to focus on what we liked at each.
The Hidden Gem: Hitchcock Nature Center
We visit here most seasons, it’s so easy to get to. What’s to love about this place? A lot.
The visitor’s center is a great place to start off your visit. There are interactive displays that my children love, from making animal footprints to touching pelts and trying to run off with stuffed animals. You can learn what animals and tracks to look for on your hikes. If you have youngsters, be sure to check out one of the free Adventure Packs. It’s a backpack with fun things to help your hikes, my son’s favorite was the magnifying glass.
Next to the visitor’s center is a lookout tower, popular among raptor watchers (in fact, they have Hawk Watch you can take part in). Take in the view, then get on your way exploring.
The trails are clearly marked with difficulty levels. Some spots along the trail will have a Trailcast sign, these are Hitchcock specific podcasts designed to enhance your visit, they change with the season).
Even with its proximity to Omaha, Hitchcock feels like an undiscovered gem. The trails are not packed. Offerings that will interest your children, besides that cool visitor’s center, include a playground, archery, geocaching and earthcaching, and an abundance of educational offerings. Camping is available, and there are a few cabins.
The Forgotten Park: Schramm Park State Recreation Area
Our trip to Schramm Park State Recreation Area was impromptu. I’d read some friends’ Facebook posts on hiking there and when the time came one weekend to decide what we should do, I remembered Schramm.
I’m not too familiar with the park since it’s been a few years and given the spontaneous trip, I hadn’t looked into what we could do there. I figured we’d have a picnic and let the adventure unfold on its own. That always works out well with kids, the not-planning thing.
We parked near the fish hatcheries and decided that we’d picnic before our hike. The manmade ponds weren’t necessarily the most scenic of views, but we did find beauty there.
Once filled with fuel, we set off on a hike. We passed a trailhead on our quick tour of the park in our car, but decided that from the hatcheries, we’d surely hit a trail. Not so much.
We walked a board walk along the hatcheries for a ways, quickly stumbled onto a playground (that was too hot to play on that day), and then continued trying to locate a trailhead.
We should’ve just packed the kids back in the car and drove to the trailhead we knew existed, but Mooch has been putting up epic fights whenever I have to strap her into her carseat and I just wasn’t up for that.
So we gave up the search and walked down the road to take in the view of the Platte River. On the way, we stopped at the Geological Display.
Farley liked this area of the park the most, I think, even if there wasn’t much to it. We spotted some fossils in the rocks and picked up some trash, then continued on to the river.
The Platte is a very sandy, shallow river and people were wading out into it that day, but one we weren’t about to venture into just yet. The view is nice, though, so I’m glad we took a minute to check it out.
Schramm is known for its Ak-Sar-Ben Aquarium, which we didn’t visit (Right after our visit, it was announced that admission was now free). I think there must be another entrance to Schramm, another section of the park, that we missed. Where we were, all we saw was the closed museum that was once the state’s first fish hatchery in 1882. I have this suspicion that there is a “New Schramm Park” out there that my friends all love.
There were many visitors at Schramm on the day we visited, proving it is a destination. My kids ultimately ended up getting the most joy picking up sticks and driving me insane by running around with the biggest, pointiest ones they could find.
I guess you don’t need modern facilities to capture a child’s imagination. Still, I’d love to see this park get some TLC.
A Treat After Your Park Visit
We stopped for ice cream after visiting each of these parks. After a visit to Hitchcock, we like to drive south on Old Lincoln Highway, where you’ll come across a Council Bluffs’ favorite, Christy Cream, on the north end of Council Bluffs. They’re known for the special sherbet flavor of the day, but I’m a chocolate kind of girl.
After Schramm, we went into nearby Louisville, Neb. Head down the main street and you’ll find two ice cream options. Every stinking time we go to Louisville, I’m determined to check out the old fashion soda fountain at Blake’s Pharmacy, and every time it’s closed (Sundays, man). This trip, we all enjoyed cheap twist cones at Dari Crème.
Some of you know that I used to work in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for years. I grew to feel protective of the city and the quirky people who call it home. It’s a neat place once you drive past the casinos and steer clear of the west end of West Broadway (the 100 block, I dig). I invited a friend to provide an insider’s look at the family-friendly scene Council Bluffs offers. Go out and explore it sometime.
* * * * *
Living and loving the CB life
Council Bluffs has been known to get a bad rap. You may have heard the old familiar “Counciltucky.” But no matter what you hear you will never know the true gem Council Bluffs is until you get out and explore all it has to offer.
I am a mother of a 10-month-old son. Taking him places isn’t always an easy feat (will it ever be?) and finding places that spark his interest and keep him occupied is always on my to do list. One place we love to go visit is Bass Pro Shops. Yes, you read that right; I know, I know … it’s a hunting and fishing store. However, they have a lot more to offer than just kayaks and duck calls for sale. Bass Pro has an 18,000-gallon fish tank that is sure to mesmerize your little ones. There are all kinds of wildlife animals on display throughout the store and even a carnival like shooting range upstairs for the bigger kids. One of the best things about Bass Pro is all the free family events they hold throughout the year. They have a Santa’s workshop, visits with the Easter Bunny, Family Summer Camp and many more. Not only are these events free, but they often include free take home projects for the kiddos and free holiday pictures. A quick trip to the BP can be a fun learning experience for the whole family!
Ditmars Orchard is another great, quick day visit for the family. Take the kids out for some fruit picking, corn-digging and tractor pull rides. Ditmars also hosts numerous events throughout the year. From their fall time pumpkin patch to live music performances and a hot air balloon festival – it’s always worth it to see what they have to offer!
Council Bluffs has many other amazing locations to check out. If you want to explore history, I suggest the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Historic General Dodge House, Squirrel Cage Jail or the Lewis and Clark Monument. These locations would make for great learning scavenger hunts if you have older children.
If you want to take in some fresh air and nature, visit one of our amazing parks. Big Lake is an excellent park to visit – you can fish, have a picnic and play on the kid friendly playground!
Council Bluffs has a lot to offer if you give it a chance and it’s a wonderful place for a family adventure!
– Tiffany is a crafter, diaper changer and recipe maker out to change the world one Pinterest project at a time. Read more by this 30-something first-time mom at http://nestingnations.blogspot.com/.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is a fun day-trip from Omaha or Lincoln. There are a lot of free things to do, and a lot of seasonal fun that costs extra, from horseback riding and swimming in the summer, to ice skating in the winter. There’s so much to do, I recommend planning at least staying overnight if not longer.
COVID-19 Update: Mahoney State Park is open for day use, fishing, and recreation. Game and Parks will continue to keep open state park and recreation areas grounds and trails. Playgrounds, activity centers, are not open. Overnight camping and staying in the lodge and cabins are prohibited through Friday, May 8, with a possible extension. All events are canceled through May 31.
UPDATE: This post was first published in 2013 and updated in 2020 with information of new activities at the park and closures due to COVID-19. If I’ve missed any new additions, please let me know!
In this post, I share all the things families can do any season while visiting Mahoney State Park. I include tips on things I’ve learned first-hand while visiting with my kids. I also include suggestions for staying overnight at Mahoney, including prices to help you decide whether you should camp or stay in a cabin or lodge.
Where to stay at Mahoney State Park
The park offers camping/RV parking, a hotel, and cabins. Depending on your budget, your accommodations can be inexpensive or cost as much as a hotel would (or more!).
We have yet to camp with the kids, but there are nice campgrounds near the main lake (the paddleboat lake, as I’ll call it for simplicity’s sake). Some sites are reservable in advance, while others are first-come, first-served. Campsites are $25 to $35 a night.
If you stay at the Peter Kiewit Lodge, expect your rooms to be about $90 to $95 a night. All rooms come with a mini-fridge, microwave, coffee pot, AC and heat, wireless Internet, telephone, TV, and a private bath. More than half the rooms have a balcony.
For cabins, your options include two-, four- and six-bedroom cabins. We opted to stay at a two-bedroom cabin and a treetop cabin. I’d recommend. the treetop cabin.
There are also ultra-modern cabins that can fit up to people.
How much are cabins at Mahoney State Park?
Prices vary greatly for cabins at Mahoney State Park. For the most basic accommodations, you’ll pay between $170 and $190. If you stay in the off-season, there is a discount.
The larger, six-bedroom cabins can fit up to 20 people can run more than $450 a night.
Mahoney State Park cabins have AC, appliances and dishware, bathtubs, grills, and for those who like going to a state park but not going outside, they have satellite TV. They also all have housekeeping.
If you’re ready to go camping or to reserve a cabin, click here to check availability.
Tip: Cabins become available to reserve one full year in advance. If you plan on booking a cabin during the summer, try to reserve it as early as possible.
Mahoney State Park’s Activity Center
My kids’ favorite place to visit at Mahoney State Park is the Activity Center. It doesn’t matter what season it is, the Activity Center should be a stop during your visit. It’s especially great to visit in the winter.
The Activity Center has an indoor play space that’s good for kids ages 10 and younger. There are several slides, tubes, and ball pits. Cost to enter is $3 for kids ages 3-12 and $2 for anyone over 12 years old. Kids under 3 years old are FREE.
Connected to the Activity Center is a rock climbing center called Venture Center. It has a 42-foot wall. While it looks high, my kids climbed to the top when they were ages 6 and 8.
The rock climbing center allows for free climbing, as well, though there is a minimum age requirement.
The costs for climbing is $11 for adults and $10 for children age 12 and younger. There is no time limit.
There is an outdoor ice skating rink open seasonally. Admission to the Activity Center includes admission to the ice skating rink; however, skate rentals are not included. Skates are $3.
About that pool at Mahoney
The Mahoney State Park aquatic center has two water slides, wave pool and an area for small children.
It’s a very popular summer spot, open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The hours are noon to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. daily from late May to mid-August. Hours are reduced from mid-August to Labor Day (including being closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays).
Tip: They will kick you out of the pool for that evening break.
The cost to enter the pool is $10 per adult, $8 per child (ages 3-12), and FREE for children 2 and younger. They offer season passes if you think you’ll be going frequently.
Mahoney State Park Ropes Course
The Go Ape! Treetop Adventure opened April 28, 2018. This course includes Treetop Adventure and Treetop Junior, so it’s an outing suitable for kids and adults. There is a height requirement of a minimum of 4 feet 7 inches, and there is a maximum weight limit of 285 pounds. The course includes zip lines, obstacles, and a ropes course, and expect it to last two to three hours.
The cost is $49 for ages 16 and older and $39 for children 15 and younger. There must be a supervising adult age 19 or older to accompany children. Reservations are suggested.
More great family activities At Mahoney State Park
Basically, everything at the Mahoney State Park is family-friendly; what will be the most fun depends on the age of your children. Mine are happy running across a bridge or collecting rocks. Your older kids might require a little more to thrill them.
There are several, including a huge indoor play area (it has an admission fee but it’s awesome). The biggest one is near the swimming pool – it has a separate jungle gym for smaller kids.
My kids love walking around the gardens, especially the conservatory at the state park. It’s not very large, but stop by and see the water feature there.
Horseback rides & pony rides
Read more about trail rides at Mahoney here. You must be 6 or older to ride a horse. The cost is $18 per person.
The pony rides are for kids ages 3-9. The cost is $7 per kid. Rides are weather permitting and run daily through Aug. 13, and then they’re only on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tip: Trail rides are very popular at Mahoney State Park. If they are full the day you want to ride, consider checking another nearby park, Platte River State Park, because there will often be open spaces.
Paddleboat rentals are down by the Owen Marina. They are $10 per boat for a half-hour rental.
It’s not the most scenic place to paddleboat.
Several fishing clinics are planned during the summer. Most people fish at Owen Marina.
We visited the park during a special event in the winter and park rangers taught the kids how to ice fish.
Explore the marina
For me, includes exploring the ice cream shop there. This is also where all the arts & craft stuff is. The cost of the projects varies by size and medium.
Please note, the arts & craft center is only open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in the off-season (which is mid-October through April).
Mahoney State Park is not great for hiking. My favorite trail runs from the lookout tower to the southwest end of Margre’s Village. Overall, though, the trails at this particular park are few, short, and not overly scenic.
The highlight for my kids is that the trail near the lookout tower gives you the best chance to spot a passing train.
Mini golf is $3.50 per person. There’s also a driving range, and it’s $3 for a bucket of balls. The putt putt golf course is open daily (weather permitting).
It’s a tall one with a great view, and climbing it is a useful tool for tiring out little ones.
Kountze Memorial Theater
Melodramas are often performed here. Usually there are two or three show options.
Tickets are $7 per adult and $5 per child (ages 12 and younger. The family package, which is two adult tickets and two child tickets, is $20.
Climb the lookout tower for a spectacular view. There are a few clinics this summer sponsored by the Omaha Astronomical Society & Prairie Astronomy Club, who will bring telescopes. Check here for dates.
I’ve tried the paved trails with my kids. If they aren’t confident riders, don’t ride here. It seems fairly flat but don’t be fooled. There are a few slopes and turns that were difficult for my novice riders.
I can’t say if the mountain bike trails are kid-friendly or not. I haven’t tried them…yet.
The park offers about several free programs, including ones focusing on horses, native reptiles, insects, prairie and hummingbird workshops, archery, nature hikes and fishing clinics.
The archery program was a hit with my kids.
For hours and fees on activities, visit this link. Park’s phone number is 402-944-2523.
Restaurants at Mahoney State Park (and nearby)
To be honest, it’s pretty slim pickings as far as high-quality restaurants go around Mahoney State Park.
The lodge is home to Caddy’s Parkside Grill, which is open year-round and is known for brunch and their wings. I dare you to try the ghost pepper chicken wings. The restaurant does have a kid’s menu.
The Activity Center has a variety of snacks like nachos, hot dogs and popcorn, plus they serve Valentino’s Pizza. The good news is, if you like that pizza, you can have it delivered to your cabin, campsite or the lodge.
Tip: You cannot bring outside food into the Activity Center.
Outside the park, you have a few options within about a 15-minute drive. Ashland has a couple of restaurants and wineries.
Heading east on Interstate 80, you’ll come across the Nebraska Crossing Outlets in Gretna. You’ll find a few more dining options there. I recommend Voodoo Taco.
Things to do near Mahoney State Park
Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum: Planes and space exploration stuff. The Children’s Learning Center opened in August 2016, and I wrote all about it here.
The museum has a concession stand on the lower level.
Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari: Drive-through safari featuring native species. This is my favorite side trip from Mahoney. It’s very close to the park!
Ashland: This is the nearest town to Mahony State Park. You’ll find ice cream options and a pizza option. For grown-ups, there is also the Glacial Till Winery Tasting Room (try the cider) and Cellar 426 Wines & Vines.
Louisville State Recreation Area: There are plans to upgrade the park, including adding a water obstacle course! Read this post for details.
Schramm Park State Recreation Area: Trails for hiking and an aquarium with cheap admission. There are plans to upgrade the park! Read this post for details.