Nebraska is certainly not the “boring” flyover state the less-informed might make it out to be. From bird-watching and river activities to rolling hills and the famous Sandhills, the Cornhusker State boasts a robust agritourism industry perfect for small groups looking to get outdoors.
You’ll find a plethora of standout lodges and guest ranches in Nebraska, where groups can take advantage of things like hiking trails and a spa, and also learn about the ranching way of life.
These wide-open spaces might offer comfort as well in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. Nebraska’s central location also means many participants can drive to the destination. The state is within a three- to eight-hour drive from major cities such as Denver, Chicago, Des Moines, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Kansas City.
“We’re very accessible, in the middle of the country,” said Connie Van Nostrand, marketing strategist for Lied Lodge in Nebraska City. “We’re right off I-29 and close to I-80, so we’re easy to get to if people are looking more for places they can drive to.”
Following are four Nebraska venues, including guest ranches, with plenty of outdoor space ideal for getting attendees out into the fresh air.
Lied Lodge & Conference Center
Sitting on 260 acres, Lied Lodge is a premier meeting and conference venue in Nebraska City. It boasts 14,000 square feet of indoor meeting space as well as its Historic Morton Barns and plenty of lawn space for an outdoor meeting or event.
“So many groups want to do teambuilding, but that’s something hard to get your head around when social distancing,” Van Nostrand said. “That’s where our 260 acres helps, with walking trails, a sunset terrace, park benches. We really encourage people to think outside the box.”
In September 2019, Lied Lodge and Arbor Day Farm unveiled Treetop Village, a series of 11 treehouses connected by netted bridges.
“When we were developing it, I remember someone in charge saying that it was going to be fun for all ages,” Van Nostrand said. “And I thought, ‘Is it really?’ But it really is. So many people—parents, grandparents—go through it and love it. There’s also a nice platform there where a small group could hold a meeting. That’s something we definitely want to do a lot more of.”
“We’re just so fortunate to have a property where groups can come and feel they’re out in nature, as opposed to a typical conference center where you might not get outside a lot,” she added. “Here, you will definitely get outside. I think that’s relaxing and rejuvenating for people.”
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Located in the Calamus River basin in central Nebraska, Calamus Outfitters offers river activities like tubing and kayaking, bird-watching and stargazing. Housed on Switzer Ranch, Calamus Outfitters can also take groups in open-air Jeeps on ecotours of the Sandhills, a region of grass-stabilized sand dunes that stretches 265 miles across Nebraska.
Photo: Calamus Outfitters ecotours at Switzer Ranch; Credit: Courtesy of Switzer Ranch
“I absolutely love getting people out in the Sandhills,” said Calamus Outfitters operator Sarah Sortum. “It’s 98% intact native prairies, which you don’t find very much anymore. It’s hard for the public to have access and really experience this unique landscape. I love to share it.”
“It’s one thing to hear about it or see it on a TV screen, but when you’re out in it and can experience it, it’s amazing,” she continued. “Right now, mid- to late-June, I’ve got wild roses blooming out there that smell so good. This is one of my personal passions, helping people experience the Sandhills.”
Other ecotours can be tailored based on a group’s particular interest, whether it’s seeing wildflowers, learning about ranch management or bird watching in the springtime.
The ranch, founded in 1904, also boasts two lodges that can sleep 20 people each, as well as four smaller cabins. The Big Barn on the property can also host up to 100 people for a meeting or event.
This family owned and operated working ranch in central Nebraska, northwest of Omaha, allows groups to join in on daily ranching activities. Owner Tammy Rowse and her team can host up to 10 people in six cabins for a more personal experience. A day for a group usually comprises a morning trail ride, their session or meeting, then lending a hand at the ranch, whether it’s checking pastures or driving cattle.
“It depends on what we need to get done, what time of year you’re here,” Rowse said. “It’s very good teambuilding. It’s also a unique place and experience for people who have never done it.”
Photo: Rowses 1+ 1 Ranch horseback riding; Credit: Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism Commission
Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center
Twenty minutes southwest of Lincoln, you’ll find 850 acres of a tallgrass prairie sanctuary known as Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center. Attendees can explore more than three miles of native prairie grasslands, wetlands, ponds, wildflowers and walking trails.
During business hours, planners can rent out the 1,000-square-foot education room inside the visitors center for a meeting or event. After business hours, the entire visitors center—including the Abbott Grand Hall—is available to rent for up to 100 people.
“Right now, we’re really emphasizing Lincoln as a day-trip destination,” said Chris Whitney, communications coordinator for the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re in Kansas City or Des Moines—someplace within a few hours— it’s the perfect road trip. We have a lot of places where you can get outdoors and get away for the day.”
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