Snuggled right up next to Interstate 80, smack-dab in the middle of Nebraska, you’ll find Kearney, a city of about 34,000 people. If you’ve driven through the state a number of times, you might know it better by the giant, sunset-colored Archway that sprawls over the interstate lanes, connecting the city to the Platte River.
While I’d highly recommend a trip to the Archway (it’s actually a fantastic historical museum in addition to something fun to drive under), this article is focused on stiff breezes, open air, and fun activities spent outdoors! Kearney is home to many well-maintained, diverse parks, an epic hike-and-bike trail, and a few surprising local gems — enough to keep the whole family busy for a quick day trip or a weekend away!
Although there are many great parks in Kearney, Cottonmill Park is by far my family’s favorite. With a beautiful, 43-acre lake at the center, you can enjoy plenty of water-centric activities like fishing and no-wake boating, or you can simply have a lakeside lunch at one of the picnic tables by the water.
There are paddle boats available for rental during the summer season, and if you’ve got a paddleboard (and a good sense of balance!) the small lake is perfect for floating leisurely.
Our family’s favorite feature is the 18-hole disc golf course that sprawls across a good chunk of the park — it’s a challenging course and a good hike, and is a great 2- to 3-hour family activity.
In addition to the disc golf course, the park sports hiking trails, a swimming hole, nature barn, outdoor amphitheater, playground equipment, and sand volleyball courts.
Cottonmill is also the trailhead of Kearney’s 13.1-mile hike-and-bike trail, so it’s an awesome place to start the weekend!
Nielsen Kids U-Pick Pumpkin Patch
When the air cools down and fall starts whispering in everyone’s ears, a pumpkin patch is the perfect way to celebrate! Located just southwest of Minden — about a 45-minute drive from Kearney and very near Pioneer Village — the Nielsen Kids U-Pick Pumpkin Patch is a great option for a fall family frolic.
With popcorn, themed activities, and an extensive corn maze, this pumpkin patch is a great mix of affordable, no-frills pumpkin hunting and a whimsical, seasonal getaway for everyone.
One of the things Kearney is most famous for is the annual Sandhill Crane migration. Thousands of people, er, flock here every spring to see the incredible numbers of Sandhill Cranes as they rest and feed on the Platte River.
The epicenter of this travel phenomenon is Rowe Sanctuary, a center “dedicated to the conservation of Sandhill Cranes, Whooping Cranes and other migratory birds, and their habitat along the Platte River in south-central Nebraska.”
Rowe Sanctuary isn’t just a spring hot spot, it’s open year-round and is a wonderful place to hike the trails, learn about ecosystems, and experience the beauty of the Platte River in conjunction with the local wildlife.
The World Theatre Drive In
The World Theatre is a beloved Kearney gem that continues to showcase community spirit and a devotion to the arts, even during a global pandemic. Once a Vaudeville theater in the ‘20s, the World was renovated and reopened in 2012 through a community-driven fundraising campaign spearheaded by Kearney native and NBC’s “The Blacklist” creator Jon Bokenkamp.
When theaters across the nation were forced to close their doors in the spring of 2020, The World went to work, trying to figure out how to navigate the new normal. In early summer, The World Theatre Drive In was debuted at the Buffalo County Fairgrounds, and has been showing beloved classics like “Back to the Future,” “The Goonies,” and “Footloose” (and providing concessions) every weekend since.
The World plans to show movies into mid-October of 2020, and is hoping to bring it back in the summer of 2021.
Yanney Heritage Park
Kearney really does have some unforgettable parks, and Yanney Heritage Park is one that will keep your whole family busy for hours. With attractions ranging from multiple splash grounds to a well-stocked fishing lake, rentable swan-shaped paddle boats, a gorgeous labyrinth, and a lookout tower that gives you a sprawling view of the entire city, there’s something for everyone.
At certain times throughout the year, the outdoor stage hosts a variety of different performances, including theatre and concerts. It’s also a stop on the hike-and-bike trail, providing a beautiful halfway point for a quick lunch or a place to stretch your legs.
Apple Acres Orchard
Looking for the perfect fall photo op for your family? This small, family-owned orchard 8 miles west of Kearney is just the ticket for fresh, local produce and a fantastic place to snap a few Instagram-worthy pictures of the kids with pink noses and fluffy fall scarves.
With a small orchard store on the property, you can also bring home local honey, caramel-drizzled apples, and fresh cider, pressed onsite with hand-picked apples.
Apple Acres Orchard is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
Fort Kearny State Historical Park
Fort Kearny is another local gem with many different features! Originally built as a protection/resting place for travelers on the Oregon and California trails, this historical site has been reconstructed for recreational and education purposes.
With rebuilt historical structures and an interpretive center, Fort Kearny is a great place to have fun and learn some local history!
One of the biggest draws to Fort Kearny, though, is the State Recreation Area attached to it. Located at the east end of the Kearney hike-and-bike trail, it’s a popular haven for camping, RV-ing, fishing, and swimming in both the Platte River and the recreation area’s swimming hole.
About the guest blogger
Lauren Bonk, owner of the Curtain and Pen, hails from Kearney, Neb., where she works as a freelance copywriter for small businesses, startups, and even larger corporate entities in need of professionally-written marketing content for their businesses and organizations.
With a background in both Theatre and English, Lauren loves to help companies find a voice, fine-tune it, and authentically utilize it in written collateral like blog posts, website copy, and social media content.
You can typically find Lauren drinking coffee, listening to music that’s probably a little too loud, and daydreaming about drinking more coffee the next morning.