Looking for your next date idea? Or maybe a fun afternoon you can enjoy with family, friends, or just yourself? Look no farther than a Nebraska state park. Whether you want to learn something new, stretch your legs or see something beautiful, here are some ideas for outdoor fun that can be completed in just a day.

Visit a nature center

Spend an afternoon indulging your curiosity and learning about nature. Schramm Education Center near Gretna is a fun stop for children and adults, filled with state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and live displays of Nebraska fish, reptiles and amphibians. Kids can play in educational nature center areas, and anyone can try a round on the virtual reality mountain biking experience.

At Wildcat Hills Nature Center near Gering, you can discover the flora and fauna of the Panhandle through interactive displays and interpretive programming. The facility also offers great birdwatching, with a large viewing area and several feeders.

Try the climbing wall at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Whether you’re new to rock climbing or a pro, you can have fun at Venture Climb, located at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park near Ashland. The state-of-the-art facility features a 42-foot climbing wall with both auto- and top-rope belays, as well as a bouldering structure. Climbers can also enjoy scenic views of the park through the facility’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Learn more at OutdoorNebraska.org/Mahoney.

Visit a state historical park

Take a step back in time at one of Nebraska’s nine state historical parks. In Nebraska City, you can visit the beautiful mansion home of J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day. Authentic furnishings grace the rooms and displays capture the life and times of this noted figure.

Other parks include Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, which preserves the home of famed showman scout William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and Rock Creek Station State Historical Park, where James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok began his gunfighting career.

Visit OutdoorNebraska.org/StateHistoricalParks for a complete list. Note that some visitor centers are open by appointment only in winter.

Take pictures at park landmarks

Nebraska’s state parks are filled with interesting sights – everything from the picturesque waterfall at Platte River State Park to the stately Towers in Time sculpture at Ponca State Park. Pick a state park to visit and do a little research ahead of time to find a fun place for a picture. For example, the stone lighthouse at Lake Minatare State Recreation Area is the only one like it in Nebraska, and the gnarled Old Oak Tree at Ponca State Park was a sapling 24 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. 

Go on a hike

A wide variety of trails are available at Nebraska’s state parks, including rustic dirt paths, paved trails and challenging uphill hikes. All feature beautiful, natural scenery. Some of the state’s most popular trails can be found at Ponca and Indian Cave state parks, which offer multiple trails with varying levels of difficulty. In western Nebraska, Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and Chadron State Park offer gorgeous views of rugged bluffs. Find a trail to explore at OutdoorNebraska.org/HikingTrails.

Visit a lookout point or observation tower

If you’re prepared for a climb, visit the observation towers at Eugene T. Mahoney and Platte River state parks. An easier spot to reach is the Tri-State Overlook at Ponca State Park, which offers a picturesque view of the Missouri River, as well as views of three states: Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa.

The scenic overlook at Indian Cave State Park, located at Trailhead 3, also provides beautiful views of the Missouri River. And at Chadron State Park, the Black Hills Overlook, accessed via a short trail off a parking lot, offers a view deep into South Dakota.

To learn more at OutdoorNebraska.org. A Nebraska state park entry permit is required.

Volunteer Hunter Education instructors recognized for extraordinary service

Four volunteer Hunter Education instructors were recognized for their extraordinary service at the 2023 Hunter Education Conference on Jan. 28 at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park.

Instructors were selected based on merits that significantly advance Hunter Education in Nebraska through instructing safe, ethical and responsible hunting practices.

Instructors recognized were:

  • John Wittwer, Lincoln, 2021 Hunter Education Instructor of the Year
  • Heidi Hillhouse, Lincoln, 2022 Estella Wolfe Female Hunter Education Instructor of the Year
  • John Ross, Bancroft, 2022 Master Hunter Education Instructor of the Year
  • Russ Tooker, David City, 2022 Dick Turpin Hunter Education Instructor of the Year

“For more than 49 years, volunteer instructors have led Nebraska’s Hunter Education Programs, passing their skills, knowledge and expertise on to new youth and adult hunters,” said Hunter Nikolai, Hunter Education Coordinator. “Over that same time, annual hunting incidents in Nebraska have decreased by more than 80%, from more than 30 in 1978 to just five in 2022.

“Be sure to thank the volunteer hunter education instructors in your community for making hunting one of the safest outdoor recreational activities,” he said.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Hunter Education and Bowhunter Education Programs are led by more than 500 trained and certified volunteer instructors across the state. Information on becoming a certified volunteer Hunter Education instructor can be found at HuntSafeNebraska.org.

Light Goose Conservation Order begins Feb. 10

Efforts to control the light goose population continue with the Light Goose Conservation Order, which begins Feb. 10, according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The dates for the conservation order are: East Zone, Feb. 10-April 15; Rainwater Basin Zone, Feb. 10-April 5 and West Zone, Feb. 10-April 5.

White and blue-phase snow geese and Ross' geese may be taken statewide during the conservation order, but different regulations apply in each zone. Read the 2022-2023 Nebraska Small Game and Waterfowl Guide, which includes regulations for the conservation order and a map of the zones, at outdoornebraska.gov/guides.

There is a considerable effort to reduce the mid-continent snow goose population because of the damage it has caused to sub-Arctic and Arctic habitats. States annually are allowed a given number of days for waterfowl hunting. The need for additional hunting, for population control, requires a special action, such as the conservation order. The use of methods to increase harvest has resulted in more than a million snow geese being harvested annually since 1998.

There are no bag or possession limits during the conservation order and hunters may shoot 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. Hunters may use unplugged shotguns and electronic calls during the conservation action.

Permits may be purchased at OutdoorNebraska.org.

Celebrate World Wetlands Day with new Nebraska wetland resources

Nebraska Game and Parks, in collaboration with the Platte Basin Timelapse project, released expanded wetlands educational content on World Wetlands Day, Feb. 2.

These new resources offer the opportunity to learn about Nebraska's five diverse wetland types, as well as grow one's understanding of their importance to the state, its people and its wildlife.

Expanded content includes:

  • Five documentary films about Nebraska’s wetlands and the wildlife and people who depend on them. These films, created by Platte Basin Timelapse at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, highlight Nebraska’s sandhills, playas, saline, riverine and urban wetlands. Viewers take a journey across the state, meet people working to conserve these spaces, and see landscapes and wildlife few get to experience;
  • An updated “Guide to Nebraska’s Wetlands and their Conservation Needs,” available in print and PDF form. The full-color publication covers in-depth 14 Nebraska wetland systems;
  • A new booklet, “Wetlandology,” a child-friendly, activity-filled publication on Nebraska’s wetlands and the plants and animals that love them;
  • Five digital stories from PBT producers Mariah Lundgren, Ethan Freese, Grant Reiner, Dakota Altman and Brooke Talbott. These ESRI StoryMaps integrate maps, text, photos and video to generate an interactive learning experience; and
  • An educator guide to the products and two educational videos with paired lesson plans, which are nearing completion and will be shared soon.

Find all of these resources and more at NebraskaWetlands.com.

This project was led by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Other project partners included the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Nebraska and Ducks Unlimited.

World Wetlands Day is celebrated each year on Feb. 2 to raise awareness about wetlands. In Nebraska, our wetlands provide important habitat for 50% of our birds and plants, 100% of our amphibians and fish, a third of our mammals and reptiles, and 70% of threatened or endangered species.

In addition to these benefits, they also improve water quality, recharge groundwater, protect us from flooding and provide places to recreate.

“In many places, Nebraska’s wetlands have suffered losses and face ongoing threats putting their benefits at risk,” said Ted LaGrange, Game and Parks’ wetlands program manager, who led the project. “We hope sharing these stories about Nebraska’s wetlands will help to improve the conservation of these important areas.”

Tax season provides opportunity to support Nebraska wildlife conservation

Nebraskans receiving an income tax refund this year have an opportunity to support wildlife and habitat conservation.

On Line 46 of the Nebraska state income tax form, 1040N, individuals may donate $1 or more of their tax refund to the Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund, which is used to help several hundred species in Nebraska that are rare, endangered or threatened.

Tax refund donations have benefited native wildlife, fish, and plants over the years, including the Blanding’s turtle, swift fox, peregrine falcon, bald eagle, songbirds, blowout penstemon and at-risk pollinators like monarch butterflies and bumble bees. Donations are used to monitor, maintain and improve habitat for these and many other fish and wildlife species, as well as to provide wildlife viewing and other educational opportunities for Nebraskans. Additional information is available at NebraskaWildlifeFund.com.

For taxpayers not entitled to a state tax refund, contributions can be made at NebraskaWildlifeFund.com or by mail to: Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, P.O. Box 30370, 2200 N. 33rd St., Lincoln, NE 68503.