People call it a ‘fly-over state,’ but if you know anything about stargazing then you know that Nebraska is actually very much worth exploring once the sun sets each day. (And during the day too, but I don’t cover that on this site!). Nebraska, also called the Cornhusker State for the university’s mascots which were in turn named for one of the state’s primary crops, is a fantastic dark sky destination, as it has huge tracts of agricultural land without light pollution.
Whether you live in Nebraska, are passing through, or are planning to attend the Nebraska Star Party – I did in 2019 and it’s delightful! – take the time to explore the state’s natural wonders and pristine dark skies overhead. Here are some of the best places for stargazing in Nebraska.
Box Butte Reservoir State Recreation Area
If you happen to be near Dawes and are looking for a place to stargaze, Box Butte Reservoir State Recreation Area is the perfect place. This 1,600-acre reservoir sits on the Niobrara River and is a local favorite for camping and doing water sports.
The park is open year-round and doesn’t require reservations, meaning stargazers can simply come, set up their telescopes, and watch the night sky. They can also spend the night. Box Butte Reservoir has 14 camping pads with electrical outlets and another 40 campsites without pads or electrical outlets.
Calamus State Recreation Area
Calamus State Recreation Area is one of the largest places to stargaze in Nebraska. The area governs 11,720 acres, including a 5,124-acre lake in Nebraska’s beautiful sand hills.
You certainly won’t have trouble finding a good stargazing spot here. Go during the day and enjoy the two most popular activities, fishing and hiking. Come night, bring out your telescope. A pitch-dark sky appears, and millions of stars come out shining brightly. You can find a cool spot near the lake. It offers excellent photo opportunities of the starry sky reflected on the water.
Double R Guest Ranch
Located north of Mullen, Double R Guest Ranch is one of the top spots for stargazing in Nebraska. The property is under some of the darkest skies of the state, right in the heart of the Sandhills.
There’s no shortage of fun activities at Double R Guest Ranch. You can spend the day hiking rolling hills, fishing in the nearby lake, or birdwatching. The owners also invite visitors to participate in some ranch work. The ranch has fully-equipped cabins where you can stay the night.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
When it comes to views, Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is a privileged spot in Nebraska. The park has stunning views of the Platte River Valley. Sunsets and sunrises are not to be missed. As expected, the stars look marvelous from here, which explains why the Omaha Astronomical Society & Prairie Astronomy Club hosts numerous park star parties.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is an excellent alternative if you want to stay in one place for a few days. It offers many activities; hiking, miniature golf, horseback riding, paddle boating, a rock wall, and so much more.
Indian Cave State Park
Named for the large sandstone cave within the park, Indian Cave State Park is one of the best spots for stargazing in Nebraska. The landscapes at this park are otherworldly.
At 3,052 acres, you can enjoy sprawling views of rolling hills covered with a myriad of trees and the mighty Missouri River. Pitch your tent near the river and enjoy the solitude. Then, set up your telescope and admire the night sky while hearing the creatures in the night and the sound of the river.
Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area
You’ll be hard-pressed to find darker skies than in Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area. This 3,000-acre reservoir sits in the heart of the valley of the Snake River and is 26 miles away from Nebraska Sandhills. Its remoteness has prevented urban lights from reaching the area, and there’s basically no light pollution after sunset. The park also offers boating, fishing, camping, and hunting activities.
Save the date for the annual Nebraska Star Party! It takes place in Merritt Reservoir’s Snake Campground.
Niobrara State Park
Niobrara State Park is arguably one of the finest state parks in Nebraska. Its views of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers are second to none.
Besides the spectacular landscapes, the park offers a multitude of amenities for campers and stargazers. Tent sites are every bit as good as the cabin sites, and the scenery and serenity are one of a kind. The park is popular for astrophotography as the Milky Way appears here in all its glory.
Pelican Point State Recreation Area
At only 35 acres, the Pelican Point State Recreation Area is a small, scenic area adjacent to the Missouri River. It is popular among anglers and boating enthusiasts for its access to the Missouri River.
Stargazers will find the best stargazing spots on the southern shore of Lake Pelican. The parking areas and local gravel roads are prime locations for unobstructed views of the night sky. If you want to spend the night, the grounds offer only six non-electrical campsites.
Rock Creek Lake State Recreation Area
Located 10 miles northwest of Benkelman, Rock Creek is a state historical park adjacent to Rock Creek Station SRA with outstanding dark skies. Take a look at a map, and you’ll notice the recreation area is completely isolated.
This quiet place spans over 350 acres of prairie hilltops and timber-studded creek bottoms. It features a 40-acre campground and a 50-acre lake. You can spend the day enjoying the water or hiking. The property also offers primitive camping sites.
Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area
Sherman Reservoir is popular for its great fishing opportunities – the varied arms and bays of the reservoir also offer entertaining boating. The park is enormous, covering nearly 5,000 acres and 3,000 acres of water.
Its grounds are beautiful and diverse, from developed cottage areas to undeveloped prairies. Stargazers will find plenty of quiet and isolated spots near the river. They can also stay at primitive camping sites.
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Scotts Bluff National Monument is a national reserve with pretty much everything. It is rich in history and has stunning landscapes and skies. The property has numerous top viewing areas, 800+ feet above the plain below. You can see at least 40 miles in some directions!
Some people choose to drive the 1.6-mile Summit Road to catch a view from the top of Scotts Bluff. Make sure you reach the top at dusk when the beautiful red sunset invades the horizon.
Toadstool Geological Park and Campground
If you want to escape the crowds, don’t think twice and head to Toadstool Geological Park and Campground. The site is literally in the middle of nowhere – we stargazers know the value of solitude and isolation.
The campground has only six campsites, each with a fire pit and a grill. There’s no electricity or water, though. During the day, you can hike the Bison Trail to enjoy the views from the grasslands above the formations.
Willa Cather Prairie
Last but not least, Willa Cather Prairie is one of the top Nebraska stargazing spots. This botanical treasure features 612 acres of never-been-plowed Nebraska prairie. The Willa Cather Center has been putting all its efforts into returning this land to its 19th-century conditions.
Every nook of this place is unspoiled, and the area has gained recognition as a prime dark-sky location. It’s also a popular spot for bird watching as the location features many grassland species.
Bonus: Mallory Kountze Planetarium
Mallory Kountze Planetarium may not be the best place for stargazing in Nebraska, but it is cool to visit if you want an educational experience. The planetarium is inside the Durham Science Center on UNO’s Dodge Campus.
They host occasional roof-top stargazing events, but their location in the middle of the city doesn’t really provide good stargazing conditions. Still, the talks are highly engaging and helpful if you’re taking your first steps in the stargazing world.
Observatories in Nebraska
Nebraska is also home to many observatories that offer stargazing parties or viewing sessions. They make an excellent alternative for those who want a guided experience.
- Behlen Observatory – Founded in 1972, Behlen Observatory houses a 30″ Cassegrain telescope constructed by Boller and Chiven. It opens to the public on selected nights of the year, where Nebraska scientists host talks and viewing sessions.
- Branched Oak Observatory – Set northwest of Lincoln, this observatory opens once or twice a month to the general public and Astronomy students. They set up a variety of telescopes and explore the night sky.
- Honey Creek Observatory – Located in O’Neill, this observatory is perfect for families. They schedule public viewing sessions every month of the year so guests can take a look at the sky through the observatory’s 17.5″ fork-mounted equatorial Newtonian reflector.
- Hyde Memorial Observatory – The Hyde Memorial Observatory offers cool experiences to the public on Saturday nights. It sits in a lovely wilderness area, and if you’re lucky, you might see some cool wildlife, too!
- Sachtleben Observatory – located in Hastings College, this observatory invites visitors to use their mid-sized telescopes to see the moon, star clusters, and galaxies. The Observatory is open to the public for free astronomy presentations and night sky viewings two Saturdays per month, weather permitting.
As you can see, there are plenty of great places for stargazing in Nebraska – from the wide open Great Plains to natural wonders across the Cornhusker State. Have any questions about where to go stargazing in Nebraska, or do you know another great spot I should add to this list? Let me know in the comments!