It’s no secret on this site that I am always on the hunt for hiking trails near Omaha. There is just something so rejuvenating about my shoes padding softly on top of dirt instead of pavement that immediately calms me.
^Pin It To Your “Things To Do in Omaha” Pinterest Board!^
I’ve lived in Omaha my whole life (minus a short stint abroad) and it has only been in the last several years that I’ve even heard of “Heron Haven” but what I did keep hearing were things like:
- Wetlands Sanctuary
- A hidden respite right in the city
So, on a perfect, early, spring day, we decided it was time for us to explore Heron Haven in Omaha ourselves to see if it was just as peaceful, calm, and a hidden gem in plain sight as we were told.
What Is Heron Haven
I love Omaha! It’s always full of these wonderful little secrets that you keep learning about the city, no matter how long you’ve lived here. Like, for example, smack dab in the middle of the city is a wetlands sanctuary!
To be completely honest, I’m not 100% sure the difference of a wetland (apparently a marshy/ swampy area) vs just a shallow lake or pond, but no matter the definition, I still can’t get over how this little piece of nature sits hidden in plain sight near 120th & Maple. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven past this area and never even knew this even existed! And from talking to others, it’s evident that I’m not the only one.
Still today, the wetlands are used for educational purposes as well as research for ecological studies, it has a camera/ photography club, and even has a small nature museum inside the education center (not always open- call for current hours).
Hiking Heron Haven
So, I’m just going to be blunt here and say that “hiking” is quite a stretch of a description for Heron Haven. We walked (with a 4 year old walking by himself and babywearing a 1 year old) the entire grounds in about an hour and that was with plenty of stopping to look at trees budding, turtles sunbathing, and trying to spot trolls under the boardwalk (spoiler alert: there are none).
You may hear descriptions of the sanctuary as “not even knowing you are in the city” and I would raise quite an eyebrow at this. There was rarely a time that we couldn’t still hear traffic and “outside” noise, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a worthwhile and fun little outing!
We also went in the very early spring. Therefore, the trees were not lush and green. This doesn’t bother me so much, as I just love being in any nature at any season. However, the whole “peaceful sanctuary” feel might have been amplified more in the green summer months or even colorful autumn. (Full trees also might block out more traffic noise as well?)
A Virtual Walk and Tour of Heron Haven
When we showed up, Omaha was just beginning to shut down for the pandemic, and that included the education center. However, from the outside, it looked like there were plenty of great programs and education going on in “normal” times! I’m sure we’ll be making a trip back to Heron Haven after the pandemic and will definitely be going on a day that the center is open!
Native Grass Plot
So small, you might even miss it, is a native grass-plot before starting on the trails. For gardeners and true plantsmen, they will appreciate this area. Sadly, I was not born with a green thumb and the grasses hadn’t fully come into their full beauty in late March on our day there, so we breezed by it rather quickly.
Before even entering the wetlands, you’ll have the opportunity to go into a little, enchanting butterfly garden. It’s not like at the zoo where they keep it stocked, so depending on the weather, the season, migration patterns, etc you may get lucky and see some beautiful butterflies….or you may just see flowers. Again, sadly for us in March, flowers were not in full bloom yet, but the potential of such a garden (in the summer) wasn’t lost on me. I can’t wait to come back (maybe even during the Monarch Migration!) to see the fluttering butterflies.
The walking trail was a really easy dirt path that winds through the sanctuary and splits to either the boardwalk or some nature blinds. We chose to go to the blinds first and along the way, went up to the “Upland Trail.” Again, “trail” might be a stretch of imagination, but I had decided that Heron Haven isn’t about getting out for some great hikes, but just getting a few moments of nature inside the city.
So, off we went looking for acorns, birds, and other creepy crawlies (life with a 4 year old!) Along the path are a few tiny bridges that cross over some streams and has some nice bird blinds.
At the end of this section is a nice, enclosed blind where you can sit in to spot those revered Herons.
Alas, there were none.
But a 4 year old doesn’t really care about “some bird” when no less than 34 turtles all hung out on one giant log.
Plus, the 1 year old didn’t really care about a heron, because he just loved the “Duck Ducks!!!”
However, if you are an actual birder wanting a quick dose of birding (are those actual phrases??) then apparently, this is a great place to sneak away to get your fix.
Heron Haven Boardwalk
Making our way back the way we came (it’s the only option), we veered off and went to the boardwalk on our return.
While the cars zooming past, just above the pond is a bit of a distraction from “serenity” I’m always a sucker for sitting out over a body of water and just being present. So, while the kiddo and hubby searched for sharks and alligators (nope, there are none of these either), the baby and I just paused for a few moments on the bench at the end.
Tips for Visiting Heron Haven
No Bikes or Dogs
You’ve got to keep your fur babies and 2 wheeled bicycles at home for this outing.
Can You Bring a Stroller?
Technically, yes. Buuut, the family that did have one didn’t look to be enjoying their walk too much. However, it is such a short walk, that it is doable, but if you can babywear or have the kiddos walk themselves, that is going to be preferable.
Call For the Education Center Hours
Since the Education Center isn’t open all the time, definitely call to see what their current hours are so that you can take advantage of that while you are there.
Don’t Expect A Huge Nature Reserve
For some reason, I was expecting something more like a State Park, where we could legit hike for at least an hour and see all sorts of stuff. While we were able to enjoy a beautiful walk, we easily could have walked the whole sanctuary in 30 minutes.
However, once I realized that this is just a nice little respite in the city and not some nature getaway, it helped me to really appreciate such a wonderful little area in right in the middle of town.
Dawn to Dusk
While there are no “hours” for the park, it is “open” from dawn until dusk, so plan accordingly.
When To Go To Heron Haven
I think we “missed” a lot by going in late March. The trees were not big and green, there were no deer roaming quietly, the butterfly garden was not blooming, etc. However, there also were not a lot of people there. Part of “getting into nature” for me is breaking away from society, even if just for a few minutes, so that was quite nice. However, I am really looking forward to coming back in the summer or fall to see if it’s any different.
How Much Time Do You Need?
If you’ve got kids, you can explore for about an hour, maybe a little more depending on if you get to spot anything cool. If you are just going for a quick walk, you can probably finish the paths in about 30 minutes.
However, you can also spend much more time if you are at Heron Haven for birding or just wanting to soak in some nature.
Do you have any other hidden gems in Omaha or Nebraska? Let me know so I can go explore (and share!) [email protected]