Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari near Omaha
A lot of times when I talk to people from Nebraska and ask them “Why don’t you travel right here, in our own backyard more?” I get responses like
- There is nothing to do here
- There are WAY better things in other states (or countries)
While the entire reason for this blog is to dismiss point number one (Here are just 26 EXPERIENCES in Nebraska alone. Or, here’s our Ultimate Bucketlist Of Things To Do in Nebraska), I do get what they are saying with the second argument.
For example, several years ago, we went on an amazing Safari in South Africa. We rode in a Land Rover on the search for The Big 5 and that is a trip I will NEVER forget.
BUT, the reality is, a trip to South Africa just isn’t in the cards for a lot of people for a multitude of reasons. And I get and understand that.
Which is EXACTLY why I push Nebraskans to look right here, in our own state, for fun adventures that might give a taste of other trips (and who knows, maybe local travel will inspire you enough to travel further?)
Enter: The Lee. G. Simmons Conservation and Wildlife Safari Park in Ashland Nebraska!
Ok Ok….no it is not the same as a full-on African Safari. I’ll give you that. But hey, let’s look at the glass as half full and celebrate that the NEBRASKA safari park was just voted as the number one safari park in the US!!! (Woohoo! #NETourism For the Win!!!)
So, today I am giving you an “EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW” type of post about the Ashland NE Wildlife Safari, including insider tips, what to know before you go, what to expect and more.
Know Before You Go
A lot of people call it the Omaha Zoo Safari, or even the Omaha Wildlife Safari. But it is actually not in Omaha at all, but instead almost smack dab in the middle of Omaha and Lincoln. The Ashland Wildlife Safari is well, you guessed it, in ASHLAND Nebraska!
In fact, it is the same exit (426 off of 1-80) as Mahoney State Park, just a bit down the road in the opposite direction.
As life with little ones goes, we were limited to a morning outing due to nap schedules. We easily were able to see the whole park as well as have a wonderful picnic lunch.
However, we also could have spent more time at some of the stops, driven slower and hung out longer. I would allow for at LEAST a minimum of 3 hours for your outing, but you could easily spend the better part of the day here as well.
Children: $5.50 (ages 3-11). Free under 2
Adult: $6.50 Adult (12 and over)
Child: $4.50 Child (3-11)
Senior: $5.50 Military Senior
You can purchase an annual membership (good from one year of date of purchase) for $55 and includes:
- Up to two adults (technically from same household, but I was let in on my mom’s pass) and
- Up to six dependent children (up to age 20!) OR up to six grandchildren (again, up to age 20)
Omaha Zoo Pass Holders: While this is not an actual Omaha Zoo Safari, if you have a Henry Doorly Zoo Membership, you can do an add on with the Ashland Wildlife Safari membership for $50 in addition to your zoo pass.
Opening Hours and Months
Since it is an outdoor driving safari, the conservation park is only open from spring to fall (April-October). Gates open at 9am-5pm every day.
This is a self-guided driving tour that basically goes in a loop around the conservation park.
The road is a gravel road that gets a bit bumpy in spots. You don’t need a safari jeep though to get around, although I also wouldn’t come in your sports car! I also wouldn’t wash your car just before heading out on your safari, as it will surely get plenty of dust and dirt on it….just like a real safari!
If you have little ones (aka in car seats), read below for further information about this.
Pretend like you are on a real life, safari! That means you’ll be driving around a barrier-free location where animals get to roam freely (in their own designated areas). In fact, they can come RIGHT up to your car, and they often do!! (just remember, no petting or feeding the animals!)
- The Speed Limit is 7 MPH. Yup, THAT slow! But this way, you take your time and really get to see the animals!
- The animals ALWAYS have the right of way. In fact, on our way out, we ended up getting stuck in a Pelican Traffic Jam for a good 10-15 minutes as two preening pelicans stubbornly decided to just plop down in the middle of the road right in front of us! How rude!
- The only time you are allowed out of your vehicle is in designated areas (they are well marked and obvious of where you can get out)
- No motorcycles or bikes
Things To Do and See at the Safari Park
This drive through Safari Park not only lets you get RIGHT up close and personal with some really cool animals, but let’s you play safari guide for a day!
On your drive you’ll go through
An Elk Meadow
The elk are really cool to see, especially the males with their GIGANTIC horns!!! If your kids are like my two- year old son, just go with the flow when they get excited to see “REINDEER!!!”
The Deer Woods
We were afraid we wouldn’t see any deer, as the signs said they like to stay in the shade during the heat of the day, but luckily, there were several hanging out in the ravine just on the side of the road!
I’ve never been SO close to these huge birds! You can get out of your car here and walk up to the pond. Although, my nephews LOVED looking at all the frogs probably more than the pelicans!
Make a Pit Stop
Next you’ll come to a large parking lot, where you’ll absolutely want to get out here and check out everything by foot. There is a food stand (opens at 10am) with the basic menu of things like hot dogs, burgers, ice cream and other treats. You can also hit up the restroom here or use any of the many picnic benches with your own bite to eat.
Stretch your legs and walk around to all the exhibits here
1) Eagle Aviary
2) Petting Zoo Area
Brush and pet the friendly, playful goats and chase the roosters around. This is a great stop for the kids!
3) Crane Meadow
Climb a (small) tower that overlooks a marshy swamp, home to tons of ducks and ducklings, geese, swans and the famous Sandhill Cranes! If you can’t make the annual Sandhill Crane Migration in Kearney (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!! You can read all about that on our Ultimate Guide To Seeing The Nebraska Sandhill Cranes here) this is a great opportunity to see the beautiful birds so close!
Walk along an easy trail that turns into a boardwalk (stroller and handicap accessible) lined with some owls that lead you straight to the bears!
5) Wolf Canyon
After seeing the beautiful bears, keep on the trail and head up a hill to see the wolves. Unfortunately, we could only spot one, laying low in the tall brush, but that is also the beauty of conservation areas such as these, where the animals have so much more freedom and space than a typical, caged up zoo.
Tip: The hill up to the wolves is not very stroller or wheelchair friendly. It is pretty steep for wheels and very rocky.
6) Safari Park Hike
Depending on your time constraints (and how whiny the kids are!) there is a really easy hike that is in the same location as the bears and wolves. Just continue along the path to make a loop that shouldn’t take longer than about 30 minutes. While there are a few “steep” areas, there were plenty of people in flip-flops and young children, which should give a clue that it is a pretty easy “hike” that just about everyone can do.
Hop back in your car for a grand finale of the
The drive thru zoo has a huge area houses these ginormous creatures (2,000+ pounds!!!) where it’s not uncommon to have them right up at the window of your car. Obviously, for safety reasons, just remember these are still wild animals and to not feed or pet them…as fun as that might seem to be.
Prairie Dog Town
Finish off your safari trip at the Visitor Center, where you can park your car, see the Prairie Dog Town, play on a small playground, walk around an aviary and of course, have another bathroom break!
Good Things To Know
There are three places to stop for a quick restroom stop.
- At the entrance in the Visitor Center
- Just at the beginning of the drive
- About halfway through the drive at the big parking lot
Where and What to Eat:
- We love bringing picnics to places like this to save a few bucks (can you say
cheapfrugal???). There are picnic tables at all the locations mentioned above near the restrooms, as well as scattered throughout the park near other exhibits, like in the shade next to the Eagle Aviary.
- At the visitor center as well as the halfway point in the drive, there are stands to buy some basic foods like chips, hot dogs, popcorn, waters, etc.
Just remember to clean up after yourself and of course, to NEVER feed the animals!
Driving Safety With Children: Should You Let Them Out Of Their Carseats?
Can I get a roll call of all my fellow car seat safety freaks out there???
I was pretty torn about what to do about the kids in the car. I mean, the whole point of this outing was to go see the wildlife! I had three under three with me (granted, there were two other adults in the van with us) and on every other day, I am a CAR SEAT SAFETY FREAK!
Now, as we drove around, we saw ALL sorts of situations with kids in the vehicles
- Older kids hanging halfway out the windows excitedly pointing to bison
- Toddlers and babies on the laps of adults
- Kids in the back trunks of SUVS w/ the hitch up!
But, in my family, we have a black and white rule:
If the car is moving, you are buckled in the car seat!!!
Some will argue that you are going 7 miles per hour during this drive! What the heck could go wrong!? And I totally agree, but for me, it was more about setting the precedent with my very stubborn, VERY impressionable toddler.
Not only am I just super anal and paranoid about car seat safety, but my 2 year old is in the phase where if you do something ONCE, he expects it again (and throws the ever so fun 2 year old tantrums when it doesn’t happen). I knew that if I let him out of the car seat for this ONE morning at the safari, that I would be fighting the car seat battle for Lord knows how long. And I’m sorry, but I’m an exhausted mama, I just don’t want to put up with that.
This meant that yea, he missed a lot of the driving portion of the safari and my 22 month old nephew saw very little at all while in the car. However, I did what I felt comfortable and safe with. As the old adage goes, “MY CAR, MY RULES!”
Considering there was plenty to see at the stops where we could get out at, I was perfectly fine with my decision. (Also, there were multiple times that the car was lower than the animals, so my son could still peer out and see SOMETHING….just not maybe a whole herd) However, if you choose to let your babe out, or sit on your lap, that is also your choice and there were clearly PLENTY of kids doing so.
What To Do Nearby the Wildlife Safari
Kids Eat Free!
On Thursdays at Round the Bend Steakhouse just about 3 minutes outside the park, kids eat free on Thursdays. I wouldn’t plan a trip around this in and of itself (food is decent-average). It’s just always nice to know of a place to save a few bucks with a family!
UPDATE: Kids no longer eat FREE on Thursdays but now get $2 off their kids menu. Still not a horrible deal, but it’s probably worth it just to bring your picnic lunch instead to the park 🙂
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
You can literally see Mahoney State Park from the Safari! If you are spending a long weekend at Mahoney, this is a fantastic add-on to your itinerary! We LOVE staying at the Mahoney cabins, going to the pool there and just spending the weekends! Here is our Mahoney Ultimate Guide if you haven’t checked that out yet!
SAC Museum (Strategic Air Command and AeroSpace)
If you are wanting a full day outing and day trip, spend the morning at the Safari Park and once it’s hot (in the summers) head inside to the Air and Space Museum, just 5 minutes away from the Safari.
Platte State Park
Platte is home to some REALLY great hikes! If you are wanting some more outdoors, head over here for a fun afternoon before heading home.
Have you been to the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park in Ashland Nebraska yet? What were your favorite parts of your safari drive? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
For further information, conservation efforts, exhibits and more, check out the official park’s website here.