Dark Sky Party and Nebraska Day Adventures

Jeff Calhoun’s Night Sky Party Photo

Driving through the Northwest region of Nebraska will open your eyes to many beautiful attractions. The 37th state has a star added to the US flag in 1867, making it one of the best places in the US for stargazing.

Since the towns are more spread out, on a clear night the sky is unbelievably dark with little or no light pollution. One of the most distinctive features that offers an incredible nocturnal environment is the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation. The area above the town of Valentine, recently received its 200th Night Sky site certification by the International Dark Sky Association. Working to preserve the night sky for present and future generations, this prestigious certification is only awarded to the land possessing the exceptional quality of starry night that is specially protected for scientific purposes, natural, educational, cultural heritage and public interest.

Merritt Reservoir is home to the annual Nebraska Star Party every August. Merritt Reservoir’s Snake Camp offers astronomical visibility and has one of the largest areas of minimal light pollution in the US, where about 80% of North America can no longer see the Milky Way.

According to Jenna Bartja, Adventure Travel Specialist at Nebraska Tourism, dark skies are important. She shared some insight into what it takes to be a designated dark sky location. She said the site must comply with IDA guidelines for any designation it is pursuing. A key consideration is that the area must show that it is a special resource in the dark sky compared to the lands and communities around it. More specifically, typical site-specific night conditions should match or exceed the following criteria:

1. Milk Sugar can be seen easily with the naked eye.

2. There are no artificial light sources nearby that produce significant glare.

3. Any dome of light present is dim, limited in extent, and close to the horizon.

Jill Weinlein

For those who don’t camp overnight, The Niobrara Lodge in Valentine is a clean and comfortable hotel to stay overnight while participating in the Night Sky Party.

During the day, it’s a short drive to the Niobrara River, home to spring water, sandy beaches and Smith Falls State Park. Little Outlaw Outfitters offers kayaks, canoes, and tubes to paddle or float down the scenic river to the tallest waterfall in the state. Smith Falls is named after Frederic Smith, who filed a patent for the first home farm on land that included the falls, and then the area became a state park in 1992.

Not only is it a land of towering waterfalls, but it’s also an area of ​​biological significance where some ice age species can still be found.

Be sure to dine at the Old Mill for brick oven pizza, salads and hearty sandwiches. They also offer a wide range of bulk food items, sandwiches, coffee and gifts. For steaks and burgers Peppermill Restaurant in Valentine is ideal for dinner.

Nebraska night sky. Jill Weinlein’s photo

Other places in Nebraska with dark skies for spectacular stargazing include Toadstool Geopark. Named after the unusual geological formations, the area provides fossils that provide scientists with insight into the behavior of animals that have traversed the area for some 30 million years. before.

The wide open space helps limit light pollution in the evening so you can see stars, constellations, the Milky Way, and the International Space Station flying overhead every 90 minutes.

Jean Norman at Heather’s High Plains House. Jill Weinlein’s photo

Stay at Our Heritage Ranch in nearby Crawford, and host Jean Norman will take you to the guest quarters at her working cattle ranch. Her family’s home is a National Natural Landmark, and her ancestors were granted this land by the federal Housing Act of 1862. They were initially granted approximately 160 acres for settlement and site. camp on this land. Now she raises cattle and horses, plus provides accommodation for guests amid unique landscapes. This land has some pine-covered hills between grasslands and badlands. It is a unique wedding, family reunion and wellness retreat.

Her neighbor Heather across the street at High Plains Homestead offers ‘Tender and unusual.’ It’s a fun Old West themed adventure with a pub, fossil storehouse and Badlands Mercantile. Just three miles away is the site of state-of-the-art archaeological excavations at the Hudson-Meng Center for Research and Education. Located in Oglala National Grassland, visitors can tour one of the most important archaeological discoveries in North America. There are many bone bed frames displaying the ancient skeletons of about 600 bison. They were not like the bison that exist today; These animals lived tens of thousands of years ago on the plains of the Americas and died mysteriously here.

Chimney stone. Jill Weinlein’s photo

Another popular destination in the Night Sky is Scotts Bluff National Park. Arrive early and visit a geological wonder, Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Rising 300 feet above the surrounding North Platte River Valley, there is an interactive Visitor Center to learn about the brave pioneers who passed through this land on their way along the Oregon, California Trail and Mormons.

About 30 minutes from Chimney Rock is Papa Moon Winery & Cider House offering guests an eco-friendly environment, wine and cider. Guests can order home-made cider and wine to enjoy outside in the beautiful grounds.

For dinner, The Steel Grill, in nearby Gering, is a lively bistro serving American BBQ, rib salad and fine steaks. Another dining spot is Flyover Brewing Company. This was the first brewery in the Nebraska Panhandle and offers great beer and food.

Monument Inn and Suites is a good home base for an overnight stay. It’s a short drive to Scotts Bluff National Monument. Towering 800 feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff also served as a navigational landmark for Native Americans and immigrants. There are nearly 4 miles of hiking trails and a 1.6-kilometer drive up to Summit Road for panoramic views at the top.

In the morning, have breakfast at The Mixing Bowl before driving home or to the nearest airport. Owned by Jamie Meisner, she elevates traditional Midwest dishes with a German flair.

The 30th annual Nebraska Star Party is next on August 16-22, 2023. To learn more Visit Nebraska offers a guide to scenic driveways, fun places to stop, and more. stay, visit and some great food places to dine and drink.

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