The Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska: A Traveler’s Guide

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There are somethings that I’m really good at. Like traveling

And then there are somethings that I know nothing about. And that’s Birds. Yes. Birds

But, the amazing Sandhill crane migration in central Nebraska has been on my bucket list of experiences since the day we moved back to Omaha after 6 years of traveling abroad.

The Breathtaking Nebraska Sandhill Crane Migration: A Traveler's Complete Guide

^Don’t forget to pin this post as it’s chock-full of amazing info! ^

 

And let’s be honest, there is nothing I enjoy more than crossing items off of my Nebraska travel bucket-list!

So, while there are dozens of sites out there for all you official bird watchers, information for wildlife in Nebraska and of course you lovers of the specific birds of Nebraska, I’m here to help anyone figuring out the TRAVEL logistics to an amazing trip to the Nebraska Sandhills in hopes of catching a glimpse of a majestic whooping crane or just to get a few Instagram worthy shots of the hundreds of thousands of sandhill crane migration birds that come to the area every year.

If your pressed on time, go read our 7 Top Tips for Sandhill Crane Viewing.

Why Should You Visit Kearney To See The Annual Sandhill Crane Migration

If you are like my husband, when I told him I wanted to see the cranes in Nebraska, he rolled his eyes. That wasn’t exactly his idea of a vacation and we are, in no stretch of the imagination, “bird people.”

I showed him this video, which helps to capture a bit of the “magic” that people talk about.  He wasn’t exactly packing his bags out of eagerness to hit the road, but he was at least intrigued enough with the idea.

 

I had heard about the magic of the migration and saw the STUNNING photos (I’m a sucker for great photography influencing my travel goals!) and wanted to experience it for myself.

I’m not even a bird person!  Yet, here I was, sitting in the pitch dark with the wind whipping around my face while I wondered if waking up at 5 am was actually worth it for this.

Apparently, the annual Sandhill Crane migration through Nebraska was one of the most magical moments one could experience.  Even the people that came all the way from Japan (yes, JAPAN!) to small town Nebraska next to me thought so. Yet, I severely doubted this was going to be the awe- inspiring moment people claimed it to be.  Afterall, it was below freezing and I couldn’t make out if those huge black spots out in the Platte river were just boring sandbars or the cranes themselves.

As dawn barely started to break, I began to get a bit more hopeful.  While the black smudges in the lake were still indecipherable, you could start to hear the calls of the birds, letting us know that we weren’t the only ones out there in the desolate Nebraska prairie.  BUT, I still questioned, “was this hassle all worth it”

Read on to find out…. (spoiler alert: Yes, it was!) 

When Is the Sandhill Crane Migration In Nebraska:

This is a hotly contended question and I am NO expert on the topic, so I will just relay the research I spent hours digging around in.

When is the best time to see the sandhill cranes?

Most experts will say that sandhill crane migration dates for Nebraska are pretty much anytime from late February through-Mid April will give you viewing opportunities. The problem is, every year the two ends of the spectrum vary due to temperatures.

Then, the question is more of what EXACTLY what do you want to see and what are you willing to put up with?

Sure, the height of crane season is mid March, but with that comes height of the tourists as well.
We personally chose to go at the VERY beginning of April. This was partially due to scheduling conflicts in March, but also because I was hoping that there would still be ample bird viewing, without AS many crowds (oh and the possibility of seeing the magnificent whooping cranes).

While I know that travel to places of high interest typically means lots of other people, I always do my best in planning to try to find a sweet spot of great timing with minimal crowds. It’s quite the balancing act, that even as an experienced traveler, I still don’t always get right!

 

Dawn and Dusk:

The BEST Time To See the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska

Nebraska Sandhill cranes at the crane trust
Photo Courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Regardless of the month that you decide is best to see the cranes, nobody will contend that the best viewing times are at dawn and dusk.

Even if you aren’t a morning person, suck it up for one early rise, you won’t be disappointed!

As more and more light creeped into the horizon, it was soon obvious that what we were looking out into was tens of thousands of sandhill cranes.  For almost an hour, a small flock here or there would take off.

While a beautifully quiet morning with the perfect hues of pinks, oranges and blues made it’s way into the sky, I wasn’t convinced that the trade off of the cold was worth it.

 

I have always found the moment of sunrise to be stunning.  Within literally a few minutes, the whole world in front of you changes as the big ball of orange sun rises over the horizon like a blazing ball lighting up the Earth.

And just like that, no sooner than the whole sun had just popped over the horizon, it was as if the official Sandhill Crane alarm clock sounded.  All at once, the THOUSANDS of cranes roosting in the river all called out, flapped their wings and did a magnificent dance in the sky. They circled us for several minutes as the caws, honks and crows was a caucohpny of sound surrounding us from every angle.

 

THIS!  THIS is what I was waiting for!!!!!

 

And then, just as quickly, they fluttered away into the other horizon in search of that good ‘ol Nebraska corn.  We lingered a few more minutes while the slacker birds who decided to sleep in were deciding if they should get out of bed or not.  

Annual Nebraska Crane Festival

Another time to consider going is for the annual Nebraska Sandhill Crane festival. Typically in mid-Late March, the fest often coincides with the height of the crane numbers. But this is either a hit or a miss, depending on your love for birds or your disdain for crowds. If you are a huge birder (is that even a word??) then the cost of the festival typically covers meals for the weekend as well as access to the presentations and speakers but does not include hotel or excursions.

Therefore, if you are just a casual traveler looking to see the cranes, I would typically try to avoid this time.

Where to View the Sandhill Cranes

1. Crane Trust and Visitor Center

I HIGHLY recommend a stop at the Visitor Center (exit 305 toward Alda from I-80 W).  It was a wonderfully done center that has done a phenomenal job in environment preservation as well as reconstruction so that the area is as close to what the birds had hundreds of years ago before Westerners.

There are educational videos, great history, a gift shop, a nice little snack bar, free bathrooms and a phenomenal staff willing to share their expertise.

Tip: head out to the trails and walk just a few minutes, you might even see some Bison!

2. Rowe Sanctuary

Another popular viewing spot is the Rowe Sanctuary, particularly the Audubon Center, where most of the tours are.

3. In Between the Crane Trust and the Rowe Sanctuary

This short drive between the two (maybe 25ish minutes) is the most perfect way to skip a stretch of I-80 and drive through the cornfields.  This may not sound like anything alluring for most Nebraskans, but the cornfields are where all the Cranes go during the day to feast.  There were times where we

4. Plautz Viewing Platform

Just outside the Audubon Center is a great viewing platform.  This is where we stayed for dusk, although I’m sure it was beautiful for sunrise as well.

5. Kearney State Recreate Bridge

6. Cornfields

 

Where To Stay

 

Kearney

One of the most popular viewing spots is at the official Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center, which is less than a half hour from Kearney. Another popular viewing spot is the Iain Nocolson Audubon Center at the Rowe Sanctuary, also just outside of the town of Kearney.

Hotels

If you are looking for luxury, you probably won’t find that along the I-80 interstate in or around Kearney. Instead, it’s your typical buffet choice of budget and chain motels.
I was pleasantly surprised at the ratings for value that I found on Booking.com when I searched. Here are a few of the top ones that I was looking into. (If you have never used booking.com, here is a free $20 credit for your first booking)
As always, I take into consideration price, value, ratings and reviews.

1) Microtel Inn and Suites

    • Absolutely SUPERB reviews
    • Great pricing (click here to see current rates)
    • Very clean facilities, rooms and beds
    • Modern and Up-To-Date Decor

Click here to see recent reviews of the Mictrotel

2) Super 8

      • Great reviews
      • Very Clean
      • Friendly and helpful staff
      • Comfortable beds

Compare this hotel to others here

3) Quality Inn

  • Fantastic complimentary breakfast
  • Very spacious and modern
  • Great reviews for price
  • Clean
  • Slightly more expensive than others mentioned but a more modern hotel, great breakfast, and cleanliness make up for the costs

Click here to see pictures, reviews and current pricing of the Kearney Quality Inn

We ultimately ended up going with Rodeway Inn and Suites

      • This was not only one of the cheapest options I could find, but the rating at the time was 8.1, which for the price, is actually a pretty dang good rating! I always look at the individual ratings and if the cleanliness is equally as high, then I tend to go for it.
      • The other thing I was looking for was if breakfast was included in the price, which it was so all in all, I readily booked.

Since we were not looking for a luxurious getaway, instead, we simply just needed a clean and comfortable place to sleep for the night, I opted for price over opulence for this particular trip.  You can read our detailed review of the Rodeway Inn here.

Click here to see if Rodeway Inn is still currently the best pricing for your dates

B&Bs

If you are looking for more of a “couples” type of romantic retreat and B&B setting, you will be hard pressed to find official run ones in and near Kearney.

However, you know how much I love AirBnB and, as always, you’ll find a lot of options if you want to go this route instead of a typical hotel.
There are actually a decent amount of AirBnBs as well available, which are typically my go-tos, especially when traveling with the kiddo.

Use this coupon to get up to $20 off your first booking with AirBnB!

Grand Island

Another popular stop for sandhill crane viewers is Grand Island, only about 20 minutes Northeast from the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.
See current prices for Grand Island hotels for the Sandhill Crane Migration

 

What Should I Wear For Sandhill Crane Viewing

No, we aren’t talking fashion here (and even if we were…seriously, you were going to take fashion advice from ME!??) but instead let’s chat about what types of clothing to bring.

We all know and love Nebraska weather right? That means that today it could snowing, tomorrow I can be in flip flops and two days later there is a tornado.
Seriously, Go Home Nebraska Weather, Your Drunk!

So, pack for your trip accordingly.

Sure, there are some April’s where it has been in the 90s! But for example, this year it snowed on April 1st sooooo as Forrest would say, “It’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what your gonna get” And if you are going in February, then just bet on cold.

Also, remember, some of the best viewing (and photography) is at dawn and at dusk (aka: the coldest parts of the day).

Regardless of the fact that I was born and raised in Nebraska, I’m a pansy when it comes to cold weather, so you better believe I had layer after layer on. I’d rather slowly peel off another shirt than be freezing and miserable.

My Biggest Tip for what to wear is to wear tons of layering.  Think you have enough?  ADD SOME MORE! You can always peal off layers if feeling toasty, but if you are cold and miserable, then the whole experience has a damper on it.

What I Packed For a 2 Day Trip:

      • 1 Pair of Long Underwear (bottoms and tops)
      • 1 Pair Outer Pants (I wore my hiking pants because they are thick and warm, yet breathable)
      • 1 Long Sleeve, Quick Dry Shirt
      • 1 Normal Long Sleeve Shirt for during the day (that I ended up wearing at night as yet another layer!)
      • 1 Sweatshirt
      • Winter Coat
      • Hat and Gloves
      • Scarf
      • Glove Warmers
      • Pair of Smart Wool Socks
      • Thick, warm winter boots
      • Usual Personal Undergarments
      • Toiletries

Other Things to Consider Packing

      • Binoculars
      • Good Camera (I love my DSLR Nikon)
      • Drinks and Snacks
      • Thermos

 

Other Nebraska Sandhill Crane Migration Information For Travelers and Tourists

Take a Tour

You can take an official, guided tour (several options; read on for details) with either the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center or through the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center 

Both centers provide exceptional tours.  The mission of both is the education and preservation of the cranes, therefore the costs and experiences are similar.

Rowe Audubon General Tours

      • Depending on the month you are going (the majority of tours run in March, with a few running into April) you can choose from a 5am/5pm or 6am/6pm tour
      • Approximately 2.5 hours
      • Cost: $35 (as per the current writing time- check the website above for any updates)

Crane Trust Tours
Go with an experienced guide to a private viewing blind after special presentation at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center.

      • Depending on the month you are going (the majority of tours run in March, with a few running into April) the times of the tours will vary but generally they start slightly before dusk and dawn
      • Approximately 2 hours
      • Cost: $35

Other popular tours through the Crane Trust include a private footbridge viewing tour, private overnight tours, VIP all inclusive tours and more.  Click here to see current tours running through the official Nebraska Crane Trust

Photography Tour

The Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska is a photographers dream come true, even for those of us who like to just dink around with a camera!  By joining a photography workshop, you can not only learn more about the birds themselves but about photography logistics.  Learn about wildlife photography techniques, camera settings optimal for bird photography as well as for timing of the day to capture those perfect sunrise/set shots and more.

How Long to Stay/ Plan Your Trip for Kearney

For the average non-bird enthusiast, truly a day is probably enough time to spend out with the cranes. If you live close enough, you can make it a memorable day trip, or if it’s just far enough away, spend a short night and return the following day.

Again, staying for dawn or dusk is pretty much essential, so having a warm hotel room to head back to is a great idea.

However, you can always add more to your itinerary.  If you want to do a photography tour (see more on this below) maybe you want to consider two full days in Kearney, Grand Island and the surrounding areas for optimal photography opportunities.

We stopped at Fort Kearney as well as went on some of the really beautiful trails near Kearney.  You could easily make this into a 2 night quick trip just that is just about perfect in conjunction to our bird viewing tasks.
(Note: Omaha to Kearney is just under 3 hours, so while a quick trip, waking up early one day and returning late the following was enough to see the birds, Ft. Kearney and do some walking trails)- take your location into consideration when planning out how much is enough time for you.

 

Photographing Sandhill Cranes Tips

where to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska
Photo Courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Remember that while this is an amazing experience for you, you are there to see the sandhill cranes. And by disturbing and frightening them, you are only ruining it for future Nebraska travelers.

Therefore, at the heart of all the rules is the safety and care for the birds first and foremost. If it could be damaging or disturbing to the cranes, then it’s a no-go.  Here are a few of the basic and most important photography rules while visiting the cranes.

      • No Flash
      • No Ipads/Tablets
      • When it is dark, all cameras are prohibited
      • Put your phone on silent AND airplane mode
      • Bring an extra battery pack, as the cold tends to zap your battery life, as does the long shutter speeds

Camera Settings for Sandhill Crane Photography for Beginners

I highly recommend looking up a few basics on photography of sunrises and sunsets if you have a DSLR camera.  I am guilty of having a nice Nikon and not ACTUALLY knowing how to use it beyond “Auto.” I found this overview REALLY helpful with extremely beginner phrasing and wording.  A few of the main “easy” tips that I particularly used were

      • Do not use the auto white balance.  Instead find the “cloudy” or “overcast” (your wording may be different, but look for something that is similar)
      • Play with your ISO.  100 is a good starting point
      • Use a tripod! Your shutter speed will be slow meaning a tripod is essential.  Don’t have one?  Here’s a really reasonably priced, yet fantastically reviewed one that fits most brands that you can get in no time.

Ecotourisn and How to Treat The Birds

The Sandhill crane migration through Nebraska is such a blessing for Nebraska tourism. However, I am a FIRM believer in the importance of proper education of animal tourism, whether it be Elephant riding in Thailand or photographing the sandhill cranes, there really are some important things to consider, the main one being that we are in THEIR environment and to be respectful of that.
Other things to remember while viewing the sandhill cranes

      • Do not approach the birds or get close to them
      • Do not do anything that would cause a bird to flush (aka fly away in rush or not on their own accord) such as startling them with noise, driving towards them, etc
      • Only use designated viewing spots and blinds. While the Platte River is a popular spot for the birds, NEVER attempt to wade into the river to get a closer look and never try to create your own viewing blind.
      • The Whooping Cranes are an endangered species. Stay in your car and respect these birds

Other Considerations

      • Do not stop on bridges in your vehicle. This not only is unsafe but is an inconvenience to other drivers
      • Do not trespass onto private land. Just because it looks like a good viewing spot, that is trespassing and is someone’s home and or private farm. (Assume all land is private that is not on a county road)

 

Other Things To Do In Kearney

We’ll be 100% honest and say that there just aren’t a ton of things to do in Kearney.  Sure, there are some museums and small road side museums, but let’s just say that the Cranes are the big draw.
However, if you are looking for a few things to do in between the dusk and dawn viewings, here are a few of the things I recommend doing.

Hike/Bike Trail

Hike and Bike Trail Kearney is just one of the things to do in town

There are over 26 miles of really well done Hike and Bike Trails surrounding Kearney.  Many of the sections offer fantastic wildlife and really pretty views.

Fort Kearney

This is actually a hit or a miss, depending on your love for history.  If you are a total history buff or are really into the Oregon Trail and emigration within America, then this could be worth your time.  However, considering you need to pay for a Nebraska State Park Pass, if you are just looking for something to pass your time, this may not be it.

This facility is very informational, but not in an interactive manner.  There are a few things and reconstructions on the grounds, but not a ton of information to go with them.

Tip: If you are looking to pass the time, stop in anyway and see if they are allowing guests free access (sometimes they do during the spring cranehill migration season!)

Great Platte River Road Archway

Take a self-guided audio tour as you learn more about all the many different trails that took Americans West.

Costs (do not include tax):

Adult (13+): $12
Senior (62+): $11
Youth (6-12): $6
5 & under: Free

 

To see a Sandhill Cranes live webcam  (I recommend watching at dusk to get a great idea of the beauty of the Sandhill Crane experience) here is a great one from the sanctuary.

 

Have you seen the Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska?  What other tips do you have for future travelers?

 

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