Each spring, thousands of birdwatchers and curious folks trek out to central Nebraska to see the phenomenon of the migrating Sandhill Cranes. It’s cool to see, and the rivers and lakes near Kearney, Nebraska, are a prime spot to watch. If you’re a casual birdwatcher, though, you’ll probably be ready to do something else after a few minutes. So, this is my guide to exploring the Kearney area when you’re not checking out those birds.
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Where is Kearney, Nebraska and Why Should You Visit?
Kearney is the fifth largest city in Nebraska, and is the county seat of Buffalo County in south central Nebraska. It’s one of the closest cities – and certainly the largest – to stay in if you’re planning a weekend to see the Sandhill Cranes.
But why Kearney, right?
If you’re traveling west on Interstate 80, one of the first spots you’ll come across for Sandhill Crane watching is Gibbon, Nebraska, which is outside of Kearney. You’ll see a sign for Iain Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, and that’s about a 3-mile drive south of the interstate (2 of those miles are on dirt roads). You’ll drive past other bird watching spots along the river, too. The bird sanctuary is free to visit, as are the stops along the road as you drive there.
I recommend staying in Kearney because there are plenty of things to do after you’ve had your fill of avian spectacles. There are plenty of restaurants and attractions in the city. If you’re looking for hotel recommendations, I have a whole post on where to stay when you go crane watching.
Experience Kearney Through Local Attractions
Kearney is home to the University of Nebraska-Kearey campus, and as such, there are some surprisingly great attractions in the city that cater to different ages.
The most visible attraction is one thousands drive under every day along Interstate 80: The Platte River Road Archway Monument. If the weather is crummy for bird watching, this is one of the first indoor attractions you’ll encounter on your drive into Kearney. Which means, if you need a place to warm up, this is a good one.
The museum inside the monument explores the history of America through the lens of how things changed in this region of Nebraska. There’s an audio tour for it, which is you listened to each area, I imagine it’d take about 2 hours to do. I skipped quite a few, and toured the place in under an hour. The place is bigger than it looks.
Tip: The gift shop at the Archway Monument has quite a lot of souvenirs, including shirts, postcards and prints to commemorate your Sandhill Cranes trip.
Fort Kearny State Historical Park is near another popular crane-watching spot, the bridges over the Platte River at the nearby Fort Kearny State Recreation Area (particularly at dawn and dusk). It’s worth stopping at the historical park, if only to go to the interpretive center, which is open daily during peak migration and serves as an information center for crane viewers.
While you’re there, though, go explore the grounds. Fort Kearny was the first fort built to protect travelers on the Oregon-California Trail. It was also a home station for Pony Express riders, a stage station for Pawnee scouts, and it sheltered crews building the Union Pacific Railroad.
Unfortunately, the buildings from the original military post were torn down, so what you’ll see on your visit are reconstructed, including the stockade, parade grounds, powder magazine and carpenter-blacksmith shop.
- Platte River Road Archway Monument, 3060 E. First St, Kearney, Neb. Admission for adults is $15 each.
- Fort Kearny State Historical Park, 1020 V Road, Kearney, Neb. A park entry permit is required.
Free things to do in Kearney
Through my years of Midwest travel, I’ve learned one important thing: If you don’t know where to go, go downtown. Downtown Kearney is a charming district with brick roads (“on the Bricks”). Stroll up the sidewalks to window show in boutiques, and make mental notes of which restaurant or brewery you’ll visit later that evening.
If it’s open, peek inside the World Theatre, an exquisitely restored theater in the downtown area. It was originally a vaudeville theater in the late 1920s. Its restoration in 2012 was possible thanks to a fundraising campaign launched by Kearney native and Hollywood screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp. Movies are screened there regularly, as are live performances. Movies are only $5. There’s a super charming candy shop connected to this nonprofit theater.
For outdoor activities and fresh air, take a pit stop at Harmon Park in town. The lively park in the summertime is much less busy if you’re visiting in the spring, but it’s still a nice place for a stroll. There’s a rock garden with a little lighthouse to check out. And if you have kids, the large playground is a must.
Check out this post for more things to do outdoors in Kearney.
- Downtown Kearney, several blocks between North Railroad Street and East 24th Street and between First Avenue and Avenue B
- World Theatre, 2318 Central Ave., Kearney, Neb.
- Harmon Park, 3100 Fifth Ave. Kearney, Neb.
Kid-friendly things to do in Kearney
If you’re traveling with elementary age children or younger, good on you. I’ve taken my kids to marvel at the migrating bird spectacle and…they didn’t really marvel. But, I can say they’ll go along with you if you
bribe reward them with a trip to the Kearney Children’s Museum afterward.
Big Apple Fun Center can be the reward for older kids who were dragged along to birdwatch. This indoor entertainment center has go karts, bowling, laser tag, arcade, and mini golf. There’s also a fun climbing area for younger kids. They have a bar & grill there, as well.
Waka Waka Ice Cream Parlor & Arcade is another fun place for families. It’s a new spot in Kearney with vintage arcade games and board games.
Also, don’t forget the Sweets Shop at the World Theatre. The candy store is open when the theatre is open.
- Kearney Children’s Museum, 5827 Fourth Ave., Kearney, Neb.
- Big Apple Fun Center, 500 W. Fourth St., Kearney, Neb.
- Waka Waka Ice Cream Parlor & Arcade, 5012 Third Ave., suite 160, Kearney, Neb.
Restaurants & bars in Kearney
I try to visit new restaurants and coffee shops whenever I travel, but I will never not stop at Barista’s Daily Grind when I’m in Kearney. The coffee is way too good there, and the chai latte I had on my last visit to Kearney was to die for.
I’ve tried a few different restaurants when I was in Kearney for a conference, and surprise, they’re restaurants located around the conference center. But, they aren’t like, you’re run-of-the-mill chain restaurants near conference center type places. Cunningham’s Journal on the Lake is a local spot (original Cunningham’s Journal is in Downtown Kearney). It’s a modern pub and grill. The burgers are good, but the fries are delicious.
Nearby, Fyre Modern Grill is a restaurant inside the Crowne Plaza Kearney. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. A friend recommended I try the crispy brussel sprouts appetizer and I am so glad I took her advice. They’re lightly tempura fried sprouts served on beet hummus, and topped with sriracha lime, pickled onions and roasted almond slices. Just trust me on this.
For more dining options, check out this local’s guide to restaurants in Kearney.
Thunderhead Brewing Co. is first and foremost, a brewery, but they are also a restaurant that serves up a mean pizza. It’s located in downtown Kearney.
If you want to try more Nebraska beers beyond Thunderhead, you should head to McCue’s Nebraska Taproom (conveniently about a block away from Thunderhead). They only serve Nebraska brews and spirits.
- Barista’s Daily Grind, 2301 13th Ave. and 1502 Second Ave., Kearney Neb.
- Cunningham’s Journal On The Lake, 610 Talmadge St., suite A, Kearney, Neb.
- Cunningham’s Journal on the Bricks, 5 W. 23rd St., Kearney, Neb.
- Fyre Modern Grill, 707 Talmadge St.707 Talmadge St, Kearney, N, Kearney, Neb.
- Thunderhead Brewing Co., 18 E. 21st St., Kearney, Neb.
- McCue’s Nebraska Taproom, 2008 Ave. A, suite A, Kearney, Neb.