Annual Sandhill crane viewing trip adds more central Nebraska sightseeing

Sandhill cranes
Sandhill cranes spend their days searching for food in area farm fields.

What goes with crane viewing? A nice vanilla bean latte from Grand Island’s The Chocolate Bar, for one. We combined a side trip to Grand Island with our annual crane watching trip. While we can spend hours and hours watching the beautiful birds enjoy their time in central Nebraska, we thought we’d combine it with lunch, dinner and even a museum visit.

When we started out from home mid-morning Saturday, it was rainy and chilly. By the time we passed York (about a 95-minute drive) we encountered snow. While cranes on fields of snow are pretty to watch, viewing them through snow is not such a fun time. We decided that if the weather didn’t improve by the time we were at Grand Island, we’d probably call it a day as far as the cranes were concerned. Fortunately, a few miles down the road from York, it cleared up, the roads were dry, but the sky was still cloudy and gray. We decided to continue the planned itinerary.

Since it was lunchtime by the time we arrived in Grand Island, we stopped at a restaurant we planned to dine at. It was closed for the weekend. Option No. 2 was trying a burger at Sin City in downtown GI. We weren’t disappointed. We each had the “Lounge Lizard” burger, which is a Hawaiian burger. It is a thick well-cooked burger with ham, pineapple and Swiss cheese on an egg wash bun. Lisa had homemade chips as a side. I had a side of coleslaw. We were both quite satisfied with our choices.

Sandhill cranes
Hawaiian burger at Grand Island’s Sin City Burger.

Sin City lives up to its name with its décor. The restaurant has a Las Vegas theme, with slot machines located throughout and a lounge appearance. It’s a fun environment.

Sandhill cranes
Sin City decor reminiscent of Las Vegas.

We decided that a couple of hot lattes sounded good for the drive to Kearney. The Chocolate Bar has become our favorite spot in Grand Island. As we strolled along the street we spotted a fan display in the window of an antique store.

We went inside The Rusty Lamp Antiques store. We’re glad we did! The store was amazing. We enjoy antique browsing, occasionally buying some. Russell Crooks creates lamps – table and ceiling – using a variety of household items. He was working on a new lamp using a colander.

Sandhill cranes
The Rusty Lamp Antiques store in Grand Island’s downtown Railside area.

Grand Island has several antique stores in the “Railside” area – the new name for the downtown district south of the railroad tracks. The tracks separate downtown into two areas. “Railside” is the name being used to promote the area, including stores, restaurants and bars. It was pretty neat. Lisa used it on a few tweets and Instagram posts – #ArriveRailside.

Sandhill cranes
The Rusty Lamp Antiques offers more than just lamps.

We visited a couple of antique stores last year during our weekend in Grand Island, courtesy of the visitors bureau. But, we never really noticed how many there were. We ran into a fellow Omaha-based blogger, Shelly, of Minettes Maze at The Chocolate Bar, who was antique shopping with her husband.

Following our visit with the “Mazes,” we grabbed our lattes and hit the road. Cranes. Cranes. Must see cranes.

But first, a stop at Kearney’s Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA). The free public art museum offers visitors a chance to see art from their fellow Cornhuskers. The permanent art exhibits are designed by Nebraska artists.

Sandhill cranes
Oil painting of an Omaha Zesto ice cream shop.

The MONA has displays of oil paintings, photographs and sculptures. The museum’s galleries are well-spaced, giving visitors plenty of room to take in the beautiful art.

The Cliff Hillegass Sculpture Garden is home to some interesting sculptures, including one of the namesake. Hillegass is featured sitting on a bench holding one of his creative works.

Sandhill cranes
Sculpture of Cliff Hillegass, founder of “Cliff’s Notes.”

What is it? Hillegass was founder of a little company many of used in high school and college – “Cliff’s Notes.”

Sandhill cranes
When in a jam during high school or college, “Cliff’s Notes” was a winner for class.

Once we finished visiting the museum, it was finally crane watching time. We drove to our “secret” viewing area southeast of Kearney. It was only us – and about a half dozen other vehicles – parked on the side of a country road watching a large dance (group)of Sandhill cranes dining on corn and worms in a farm field. The birds were spooked and flew away. We wondered what caused the massive escape. We looked for possible causes…and then we saw it…walking out of the field…Oh my God! It was a…a…a…cat. Its quickness in crossing the road assured us we saw what we saw. Some may tell the tale they saw Sasquatch.

Sandhill cranes
The creature moved so quickly it was difficult to get a photo of it. Cat? Or Sasquatch?

We spent about 2-3 hours enjoying the views in the rural area of Buffalo County. Cranes flying. Cranes walking. Cranes eating. They are fun birds to watch. As I’ve said, we can spend hours watching cranes.

Sandhill cranes
Sandhill cranes in a field near Kearney.

We tell people they need to experience the crane season. More than 500,000 Sandhill cranes spend 6-8 weeks in a 100-mile wide area annually from early March until early April, resting, eating building up their strength for their continued trips north. The birds visit the Platte River Valley as they migrate north from their winter homes in the southern United States and Latin America. Their trip north will take some to the northern United States in places such as northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, Canada, Alaska, and even Russia. The birds will travel thousands of miles during their migration.

Sandhill cranes
Sandhill cranes are majestic creatures and fun to watch.

As we forced ourselves to head back toward Omaha, we bade adieu to the Sandhill cranes for another year.

We decided to grab dinner in Grand Island at the Wave Pizza Company and Bonzai Beach Club. We came upon it a couple of years ago returning from a crane watching trip. We had to have the Bonzai Pipeline pizza (Hawaiian). It’s large enough that we can get a couple of meals out of it.

Sandhill cranes
Bonzai pizza in its natural setting at the Wave Pizza Company in Grand Island.

The funny thing was our server at the Wave was our server from Sin City Burgers. The same company owns both places, and she was working the duo that day. It made our day, as she was an outstanding server…and a very nice person.

We saved room for dessert, back at The Chocolate Bar. We split an almond rainbow cake slice. I had another vanilla bean latte (though, I couldn’t finish this one).

Sandhill cranes
Rainbow cake and latte. Delicious end to a fun day trip.

[Tweet “Sandhill cranes and visiting central Nebraska made for a great day! @SeeGrandIsland “]

The Chocolate Bar has some great ambience and décor. A crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling just inside the entrance. It was beautiful and mesmerizing (a least to me).

Sandhill cranes
Oooooo, sparkly toys. Must. Find. Camera.

We enjoyed a great day trip to central Nebraska. Combining some side attractions with the main attraction of the Sandhill cranes really made for a busy and fun day together.