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The Astonishing Sights of Nebraska’s Dark Sky Gathering and Day Explorations

Venturing through the Northwestern area of Nebraska is truly enlightening as it presents an array of magnificent views. Being the 37th state to have a star incorporated into the American flag in the year 1867, it stands out as one of the prime locations in the United States for observing the stars.

Due to the dispersed nature of the towns, on a clear night, the sky becomes exceptionally dark with minimal to no light pollution. One of the exceptional spots that provides a remarkable nighttime ambiance is Merritt Reservoir State Recreation. Positioned above the town of Valentine, this area was recently commemorated as the 200th certified Night Sky destination by the International Dark-Sky Association. This recognition highlights its efforts towards conserving the night sky for both present and future generations. Such a prestigious certification is only bestowed upon lands that exhibit an outstanding quality of starry nights, ensuring protection for scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and public enjoyment purposes.

Merritt Reservoir plays host to the annual Nebraska Star Party in August each year. The Snake Campground at Merritt Reservoir offers unparalleled views of the sky, boasting one of the largest stretches of minimal light pollution in the US, making the Milky Way visible to nearly 80% of North America’s population.

According to Jenna Bartja, an Expert in Adventure Travel at Nebraska Tourism, preserving dark skies holds significant importance. She offered insights into the criteria for achieving the status of a designated dark sky location, stressing the necessity to adhere to the IDA guidelines specific to the desired designation. A key aspect in the evaluation process is showcasing the exceptional dark sky resource offered by the location in comparison to the surrounding lands and communities. Notably, the nocturnal conditions at the site should be consistently meeting or surpassing certain criteria, including the unaided visibility of the Milky Way, absence of glaring artificial light sources nearby, and the presence of dim and localized light domes close to the horizon.

For those not intending to camp overnight, The Niobrara Lodge in Valentine provides a cozy and clean lodging option during the Night Sky Party.

During the daytime, a short drive to Niobrara River unveils spring-fed waters, sugar sand beaches, and Smith Falls State Park. Little Outlaw Outfitters offers kayaks, canoes, and tubes for a scenic river paddle or float to the state’s highest waterfall. Named after Frederic Smith, the individual who first patented the land encompassing the falls, this region transformed into a state park in 1992, retaining not just towering falls but also offering a habitat for several ice age species.

Indulge in Old Mill’s delectable brick oven pizza, salads, and hearty sandwiches. Additionally, they offer various bulk food items, bakery treats, coffee, and gifts. Peppermill Restaurant in Valentine is highly recommended for dinner, especially for their steaks and burgers.

Other star-gazing sites in Nebraska include Toadstool Geological Park, known for its unique toadstool geological formations and fossils shedding light on ancient animal behavior around 30 million years ago.

The vast open spaces in Nebraska captivate with their minimal light pollution, allowing observers to witness stars, constellations, the Milky Way, and even the International Space Station passing overhead every 90 minutes during the evening.

A stay at Our Heritage Ranch in nearby Crawford, managed by Jean Norman, provides guest accommodations at her operational cattle ranch. This family homestead, a National Natural Landmark, was granted to her ancestors under the federal Homestead Act of 1862. Initially, they were allocated around 160 acres to settle and farm, a tradition that continues today with cattle and horse rearing, and guest lodging amid the picturesque landscapes merging pine-covered hills, prairies, and badlands. Ideal for weddings, family reunions, and wellness retreats, this ranch offers a distinctive experience.

Adjacent to this ranch, Heather at High Plains Homestead provides “Out of the way and out of the ordinary” accommodations with an Old West theme, including a saloon, fossil shed, and Badlands Mercantile. A mere three miles away lies the modern archaeology excavation site at Hudson-Meng Research and Education Center, situated in the Oglala National Grassland, where visitors can explore one of the significant paleo-archeological discoveries in North America. The multiple bone bed enclosures exhibit ancient skeletons of approximately 600 bison, species distinct from those existing today, dating back tens of thousands of years to the American plains.

Another renowned Night Sky destination is Scotts Bluff National Park. A visit here offers a glimpse of Chimney Rock National Historic Site, a geological marvel towering 300 feet above the North Platte River Valley, complemented by an interactive Visitors Center that delves into the history of pioneers traversing the land along the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails.

Located around 30 minutes from Chimney Rock is Papa Moon Winery & Cider House, a family-friendly spot for wine and cider tours. Visitors can relish house-crafted cider and wine tastings amidst the scenic surroundings.

The culinary delights in the area include The Steel Grill in Gering, a vibrant tavern serving American BBQ, prime rib, and steak salads. For a unique dining experience, Flyover Brewing Company, the first brewery in the Nebraska Panhandle, offers exceptional beer and food options.

For a comfortable overnight stay, Monument Inn and Suites stands out as an excellent choice. A short distance away from Scotts Bluff National Monument, towering 800 feet above the North Platte River, this location also acted as a directional marker for Native Americans and emigrants. Visitors can explore nearly 4 miles of hiking trails and access a 1.6-mile drive up Summit Road to savour the breathtaking panoramic sights.

Begin the day with a scrumptious breakfast at The Mixing Bowl before embarking on the journey back home or to the nearest airport. The restaurant, owned by Jamie Meisner, infuses traditional Midwest dishes with a German twist.

Witness the 30th Annual Nebraska Star Party taking place from July 16 – 22, 2023. To unravel more about this amazing experience, Visit Nebraska provides a comprehensive guide to scenic byways, intriguing stopovers, accommodation options, must-see attractions, and exceptional dining spots.

Image Source: The Grand Island Independent

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