Groups traveling to the south-central Nebraska city of Kearney (pronounced “car-knee”) may be surprised at the number of things to see and do in the “heart of the heartland.” Just as the sandhill cranes famously flock to Kearney each spring, group travelers are drawn to the city for its rich history and year-round fun and entertainment.
This year marks Kearney’s 150th birthday, and the sesquicentennial is being celebrated in many ways throughout the city. But even if your group’s Kearney travels fall beyond 2023, the area’s history can be traced at several museums and attractions—including The Archway, a historical exhibit that tells the story of the adventurers who followed the Great Platte River Road and helped build America. Groups can spend as little as an hour or as much as a full afternoon exploring the campus, strolling the trails, touring the replica sod house, and browsing the gift shop. Through the interactive exhibit, visitors can walk with the pioneers over the Oregon Trail, hear Mark Twain’s account of a cross-country stagecoach ride, relive the driving of the Golden Spike that united the nation’s railroads, and more.
Another celebrated migratory route in Kearney is that of the sandhill cranes, so much so that the city is known as the “Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.” Every spring from late-February to mid-April, more than a half million cranes—about 80% of the world’s sandhill crane population—gather in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley to fuel up for the remainder of their northward journey. Each year, groups travel from near and far to watch the cranes at several public viewing areas in Kearney. This includes daytime spots to see the cranes eating in the fields, and sunrise and sunset viewpoints along the river to watch the cranes “lift off” in the mornings and then return in the evenings.
After filling up on history and basking in nature, Kearney visitors can spend some time downtown “on the bricks,” where unique shops, colorful murals, and locally owned restaurants combine for a vibrant night out. Those who wear blue and gold will fit right in with the college crowd, as the University of Nebraska at Kearney is located in the heart of the city. “We may be in rural Nebraska, but Kearney is surprisingly progressive and a college town,” says Sarah Focke, tourism and convention relationship manager at Kearney Visitors Bureau. “You can find public art and murals all throughout town and lots of boutiques, taphouses, and other businesses that have a big-city feel mixed with small-town charm.”
Another group favorite in Kearney is the Museum of Nebraska Art, but the museum is currently undergoing a restoration, renovation, and expansion project that’ll keep its doors closed through 2024. Tour operators can check for updates and progress on the museum’s website (mona.unk.edu) and keep it on their radar for future itineraries. In the meantime, see a show at the Crane River Theater, which is known for productions that showcase professionals from across the country alongside local artists.
Main Image: The Archway; Credit: Kearney Visitors Bureau