See Worthy

Your Family Needs To Visit The “Serengeti Of The United States”

Sprawling grasslands rife with bison. Vast, crane-filled rivers. Abundant trails. Nebraska is ideal for a wildlife-centric family vacation.

by Jared Ranahan
bison on Nebraska plains at sunrise
Seth Bricel/Getty

Though some people might associate it with endless rows of cornfields and little else, Nebraska is well worth a trip. The state is more or less the Serengeti of the United States, home to a truly fascinating array of native flora and fauna. If you have some vacation time on the horizon, a wildlife-filled family road trip might be a perfect choice. From sprawling grasslands rife with bison to vast crane-filled rivers, there’s no shortage of spectacular attractions waiting for the amateur naturalist in your life.

Once you’ve touched down at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, grab your rental and set off for your first animal-filled stop: Wildlife Safari Park. Located about half an hour southwest of downtown Omaha, this drive-through park provides guests with four miles of wildlife-rich trails to explore. For any youngsters wishing to see iconic American megafauna in the flesh, the 40-acre Bison Plains is rife with American bison — and even comes with a massive viewing deck to aid in the search — while the 50-acre Elk Meadows is perfect for spotting one of the largest deer species found on earth.

After a thorough tour of the park, head half an hour southwest to the vibrant capital of Lincoln. Upon arrival, be sure to take some time to marvel at the city’s stately 400-foot-tall capitol building, then make your way over to the Lincoln Children's Museum for some afternoon fun. With mock prairie dog tunnels, spaceship simulators, and a wealth of other fascinating exhibits scattered across three levels, this institution provides hours of entertainment for kids of all ages. And speaking of entertainment — the Graduate Lincoln is a top-notch hotel for keeping the family occupied during downtime, with complimentary bicycles, a massive pool, and foosball and ping pong tables all up for grabs.

The next day, make the quick trip over to Pioneers Park Nature Center for a little insight into more of the fascinating flora and fauna that call Nebraska home. Measuring 668 acres of pristine tallgrass prairie framed by wetlands and forest, this sprawling preserve acts as a time machine, allowing families to experience the untouched beauty of the Midwest long before humans set foot in the Americas. While there are free-roaming bison and lengthy hiking trails to see, be sure to set some time aside for the Natural Play Area, an outdoor space that’s perfect for some old-fashioned mud pie-making.

The journey continues with a 90-minute drive west to find Pete's Safari, a small zoo located on the outskirts of Grand Island. While there’s not much native wildlife to be found here, young animal lovers will certainly delight in the wide array of global species housed within the park, ranging from kangaroos to African-crested porcupines to Willie, the massive dromedary camel. Post-zoo, the Candlewood Suites Grand Island offers some prime territory for family relaxation, with an indoor pool and outdoor barbecue area (with included cookware) all available for guests.

For the ambitious wildlife lover, it’s certainly worth it to add one more stop to the itinerary. Two hours west of Grand Island, the town of North Platte provides spring visitors with an opportunity to get a close-up look at the prairie chicken, one of America’s most entertaining birds. If you’re hoping to see these eccentric creatures in person, local tour company Dusty Trails offers a trip to the largest prairie chicken lek — or breeding ground — in Nebraska. The excursion kicks off with a pre-sunset bus ride into the remote reaches of the Nebraska countryside, and as the sun peeks over the horizon, the birds spring to life, with no shortage of squawking, booming, and scuffling over females.

While Nebraska is a top-tier vacation destination year-round, March visitors have an opportunity to witness one of the most spectacular natural events on earth — the sandhill crane migration. This yearly phenomenon sees roughly one million sandhill crane birds descending upon the North Platte River valley to refuel before heading north, creating a massive congregation of wildlife that’s truly unforgettable.

Hoping to see this once-in-a-lifetime event in person? There are two world-class institutions to keep in mind for your visit. Just south of Grand Island, the iconic Crane Trust offers group tours to guests 12 and above, bringing visitors to the property’s riverside viewing blinds to observe massive crowds of cranes as they rest along the river before sunrise. Meanwhile, the Kearney-adjacent Rowe Sanctuary offers a similar experience for visitors 10 and above — and also operates three-day summer camp sessions for any local Nebraskan families.

It’s a couple of hours back to Omaha, and once you’ve returned to the Gateway to the West, it’s time to relax — or maybe head to the world-famous Henry Doorly Zoo if your family still hasn’t had their fill of animals.

Though Nebraska tends to fly under the radar when it comes to incredible road trip destinations, just one bison, crane, and elk-filled journey is certain to leave families with lasting memories and a deep affinity for the vast plains of the Cornhusker State.