Carhenge with beautiful flowers near Alliance, Nebraska. Editorial credit: marekuliasz /

These Towns in Nebraska Come Alive in Spring

Nebraska, a stunning state in the Midwestern United States, is a bundle of life for tourists in spring. It is a corn-fed specimen that flexes its features for vacationers who know not to skip the state in the milder months. What awaits them are a population-doubling cultural festival, a Nebraska-style Stonehenge, a 63-foot waterfall, a flower-filled national park, and a mass migration of iconic animals. However, the most incredible part of spring break in Nebraska is that it does not involve big cities. Such attractions literally and figuratively live in small towns. Learn more about seven of them to visit as the season changes.


Irish Shamrock painted on street in O'Neill, Nebraska
A large shamrock painted on a street in O'Neill, Nebraska. By Ammodramus - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Owing to its high percentage of Irish settlers, O'Neill is called the "Irish Capital of Nebraska" and doubles in population each mid-March. Visitors in spring can stumble into spring at one of the most successful European celebrations in Middle America: Saint Patrick's Day in O'Neill, Nebraska. It is more like Saint Patrick's Week in O'Neill, with events happening for several days and comprising everything from a Mr. Irish pageant to a potato bar to an Irish chug run. Even outside of March, you can visit Irish-themed attractions like the Shamrock Nursery and a 65-foot by 55-foot painting at its main intersection dubbed the "World’s Largest Permanent Shamrock."

Nebraska City

Arbor Lodge in Nebraska City, Nebraska.
Arbor Lodge in Nebraska City, Nebraska.

Nebraska City is a treet for arborists. Like O'Neill, this small community expands a single-day observance into a multi-day extravaganza, but this time, it is Arbor Day. But Nebraska City's history with its holiday goes back further than O'Neill's. In fact, Arbor Day was introduced by a politician from Nebraska City in 1872. On April 10th of that year, an estimated million trees were planted in Nebraska.

Now in its 152nd year, Arbor Day in Nebraska City is set to span multiple days, starting with a foraging walk through Riverview Nature Park and ending with an all-you-can-eat breakfast, a Bloody Mary making competition, a tour of Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Mansion, and music at Arbor Day Farm. Even if you miss out on the festivities, the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park is full of opportunities, from stunning rooms in the local lodge to tree houses for adrenaline enthusiasts.


The Carhenge car sculpture near Alliance, Nebraska.
Carhenge, "Nebraska's Answer to Stonehenge," near Alliance, Nebraska. Editorial credit: marekuliasz /

Make a springtime alliance with this western Nebraska community. Home to roughly 8,000 people, Alliance has a large number of spring-enlivened attractions for a city that small, including Laing Lake Park, Skyview Golf Course, Dobby's Frontier Town, and the Big Blue Bay Swimming Pool. But arguably, the best attraction sits a stone's throw north of Alliance. It is called Carhenge, "Nebraska's Answer to Stonehenge," and consists of cars arranged and painted gray to resemble the iconic English sculpture. Although Carhenge is open year-round, it is a sight to behold when the snow melts in spring.

For a wider spring fling, keep on north for about an hour and stop when you hit the Pine Ridge Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forest. This preserve blooms with flowers and croons with birds during April, May, and June. Moreover, with plenty of hiking trails, outdoor lovers rejoice at the opportunities.


Toadstool Geological Park near Crawford, Nebraska.
Toadstool Geological Park near Crawford, Nebraska.

Situated near Alliance in northwestern Nebraska, Crawford is even more of a natural wonderland than its neighbor. In addition to the aforementioned Pine Ridge Ranger District, this small community is flanked by Fort Robinson State Park and the Oglala National Grassland. The former contains more than 22,000 acres of plains, buttes, and historic lodgings perfect for hiking, biking, camping, and wildflower viewing. The latter is about 95,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie, which encompasses Toadstool Geological Park and Campground, a preserve of unique geological formations.

Among the flora that sprouts from Toadstool are Missouri milk vetch, gumbo lily, death camas, and shell-leaf penstemon. After smelling the spring flowers, you can stop in Crawford proper for golfing at Legend Buttes Golf Course, gem gazing at Prairie Agate Rock Shop, and dining/drinking at Frontier Restaurant and Bar.


Niobrara River near Valentine, Nebraska.
Niobrara River near Valentine, Nebraska.

Ironically, Valentine's Day is not the time to visit Valentine, Nebraska. It is best to wait a couple of months until the ice melts so you can go tubing on the Niobrara River and fishing on Merritt Reservoir. People here can also go hunting at numerous nearby wilderness preserves. On the flip side, those not interested in hunting adore the gorgeous spring wildflowers that blossom at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, and Smith Falls State Park, the last of which contains the tallest waterfall in Nebraska. Stay until summer for the Nebraska Star Party, an annual stargazing event in an area just outside of town rated Bortle 1 for the clearest skies on Earth.


Historic buildings along Silver Street in Ashland, Nebraska.
Buildings along Silver Street in downtown Ashland, Nebraska. By Ammodramus - Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons.

Ashland is an unlikely spring festival hotspot in rural Nebraska. The 3,000ish-person small town is a reprieve from urban hustle and bustle, perfect for a spring break retreat. Ode to its tight-knit community, everyone seems to know everyone, and there is a homely vibe abound. That said, the town bustles with life and is set to begin its festive run with Spring Fling, a fly-fishing-themed event scheduled for Saturday, March 23, at Peter Kiewit Lodge in Eugene T. Mahoney State Park. Mahoney is to welcome the next round of festivities on May 10 and 11 for Sip, a celebration of Nebraska's beverage industry with tons of beer, wine, spirits, food, and live music.

For those who miss out on the events, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy Ashland. For example, one can spend the day camping at Ashland RV Campground or enjoy delicious baked goods at the Fariner Bakery.


Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site near Gibbon, Nebraska.
Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site near Gibbon, Nebraska.

Gibbon, a small community of 1,900, has a hidden secret that comes alive during spring. This spring attraction in Nebraska is not a festival, sculpture, waterfall, or flower-topped geological wonder. It is a bird. Rather, it is a million birds. Each March and April, a sky-covering mass of sandhill cranes stops over in Nebraska's Platte River during its migration from the southern US and Mexico to the northern US, Canada, and Siberia. Each crane stays for about a month and gorges itself on leftover corn from the fall harvest, plus invertebrates like snails and worms.

The crane convoy peaks at about 500,000 during the third week of March, so humans have their own migration to watch the spectacle from the riverbanks. While some view it at Kearney, Gibbon is much closer, with a quaint environment that is perfect for birdwatching. The Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site and Windmill State Park are two Gibbon-adjacent locations for crane spotting. If watching the cranes eat makes you hungry, grab a bite at Dona Mary Restaurant And Bar or Railside Highway Diner. End the day with a drink at the Lucky Duck Bar & Lounge for an ideal spring trip in Nebraska.

Follow the cranes' lead and stop over in Nebraska for spring. You can avoid the crowds of conventional spring break destinations while harvesting Nebraska's unconventional crop of attractions, namely cultural festivals, natural/unnatural sculptures, truly wildflowers, and a sky-blotting avian migration. You do not have to enter a single big city for these festivities. They are to be found in and around the small towns of O'Neill, Nebraska City, Alliance, Valentine, Ashland, Crawford, and Gibbon. As winter turns to spring, they become ripe for the husking.

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