Kearney is known as the best place in Nebraska to view the annual spring sandhill crane migration. However, the central Nebraska community of about 31,000 is home to a variety of attractions that make it a great place to visit at any time of the year.
If you’re visiting for the crane migration, plan on an extra day to take in the sights. If you’re looking for an enjoyable long weekend getaway, Kearney is an excellent option. It offers everything from pioneer history to local art to outstanding dining options.
Here are seven things to do when you’re in the area.
1. Learn About The Pioneers At The Archway
Crossing Interstate 80, The Archway celebrates the pioneers’ westward migration across the plains. Three major pioneer trails passed through Nebraska -- the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails -- and each followed a similar route to the Rocky Mountains.
The interactive exhibits at The Archway give visitors a sense of the challenges the pioneers faced as they left their homes in the East for a new life in the West. As you explore the museum, you’ll encounter exhibits simulating lightning striking the prairie along with claps of thunder. Out in the open, there was no protection against these storms. Then you’ll see the landfills where pioneers dumped their family heirlooms and furniture they hoped to bring with them, but instead bogged down the wagon trains. The exhibits also offer a look at the relationship between the pioneers and Native Americans.
Another exhibit focuses on travel across United States Route 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway. Built in the early 1900s, it was the first transcontinental highway that connected the East Coast to San Francisco. Nebraska was one of the states the highway ran through. Kearney celebrates its place on the highway with exhibits showcasing auto travel, including an old-fashioned diner and drive-in.
2. Cruise Through The Classic Car Collection
Whether or not you’re a classic car enthusiast, you’ll appreciate the stories behind the vehicles at the Classic Car Collection. Appropriately located on the historic U.S. Route 30, the museum features an assortment of vehicles donated by a couple who sought to keep their 200-car collection together rather than sell them individually. With more than 125 vehicles on display at a time, the Classic Car Collection showcases them against fun backdrops, including a vintage downtown scene, a gas station display, and a drive-in showing classic movies.
3. Appreciate Local Creativity At The Museum Of Nebraska Art
Housed inside an old post office, the Museum of Nebraska Art features the works of native Nebraska artists and others who have called the state home. From oil paintings to sculptures, there’s a lot of talent showcased over the three floors. Some paintings depict scenes you’ll find around the state, such as people gathering at a local ice cream joint or sandhill cranes spending time in area cornfields.
Behind the museum is the Hillegass Sculpture Garden, named in honor of the founder of CliffsNotes. Cliff Hillegass graduated from Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska -- find the sculpture of him sitting on a bench holding a copy of his notes. You’ll find about a dozen other sculptures in the garden, including one recognizing Nebraska’s infatuation with basketball.
4. Tour The G.W. Frank Museum Of History And Culture
The G.W. Frank family lived in this Richardsonian Romanesque mansion from 1886 until 1900. One of the first homes west of the Missouri River to be wired for electricity, the mansion had 10 fireplaces.
Today, the home is the G.W. Frank Museum of History and Culture and is located on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney. When you tour the historic house, take in the fine wood-carved staircase and furnishings, as well as the rooms decorated as they were when the Frank family lived there.
5. Travel Back In Time At Fort Kearny
Built in 1848 to protect settlers traveling along the Oregon and California Trails, Fort Kearny also served as an outlet for the Pony Express, a stagecoach stop, and housing for workers along the railroad. Today, the Fort Kearny State Historical Park offers a look back in time with a replica of the fort’s walls, a blacksmith shop, and a stockade. Visitors can also stroll the parade grounds.
This area is an excellent spot for bird-watching during crane migration time, and it’s a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch. Note that you must have a permit to visit -- you can purchase one at the visitor center.
6. Go Birding At Rowe Sanctuary
Located a few minutes east of Kearney, the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary offers visitors an opportunity to spot birds in their natural habitat year-round. Hugging the Platte River, the Rowe Sanctuary is home to natural trails where you can enjoy a leisurely hike, taking in views of beautiful birds like the belted kingfisher and piping plover.
During the spring migration, the sanctuary hosts daily tours showcasing the sandhill cranes. You might also spot the elusive whooping crane or bald eagle patrolling the river. A few miles away, you can watch the cranes nesting for the evening from a public viewing station.
7. Go Shopping
Whether you’re shopping for souvenirs at the Stagecoach gift shop or exploring downtown’s shops and boutiques, you’ll find plenty of local treasures in Kearney.
Where To Eat In Kearney
Angus Burgers & Shakes
Angus Burgers & Shakes serves up unique burgers from beef raised by the restaurant’s owners. For something that challenges your palate, try the relleno burger, starring poblano peppers, Monterey Jack cheese, avocado spread, salsa verde, cilantro, and mayo. For something milder, consider The Knockoff, a basic cheeseburger with regular toppings.
You’ll want to forget about any diet when you dine here, because you’ll want to cap your meal with one of the handmade shakes. These aren’t your average shakes -- each is specially designed. Try the banana pudding shake, which features vanilla ice cream, a whole banana, Vanilla Wafers, and chocolate garnish, or the Captain Crunch, with vanilla ice cream and lots of Captain Crunch cereal. You can always order a basic vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry shake if you’re not feeling adventurous.
With a menu that features delicious steaks, sandwiches, and entrees such as turkey and brie frites, Alley Rose offers a casual dining environment. With its fireplace and brick walls, the restaurant is a throwback to the old-fashioned steakhouse with salad buffet. The aged steaks, seafood, and pasta are reasonably priced and delicious. Alley Rose also offers an excellent wine menu with both reds and whites.
The Breakfast Cart & Catering
If you’re looking for a hearty breakfast, head to The Breakfast Cart & Catering, which has been serving up breakfast in Kearney for nearly a decade. The Breakfast Cart offers classic breakfasts -- such as two eggs, breakfast potatoes, and your choice of meat (bacon, ham, or sausage) -- as well as omelets and egg sandwiches. You can also enjoy the eatery’s unique cinnamon monkey bread.
Where To Stay In Kearney
You’ll have your choice of national chain hotels in Kearney, including Hampton Inn, Country Inn & Suites, and Holiday Inn Express.
However, if you’re looking for a unique experience, you might want to reserve a room at Burchell’s White Hill Farmhouse Inn near Minden, Nebraska. About a 25-minute drive south of Kearney, the converted farmhouse features four guest rooms, each with a private bathroom and entrance. Located on a century-old working farm, Burchell’s White Hill Farmhouse Inn offers plenty of quaint country charm.
For more on the sandhill crane migration, see this page.