Starry Skies

“There was a time not too long ago when people could step out of their homes, gaze up at the night sky, and see thousands of jewel-like stars and the bright, glowing band of our Milky Way galaxy stretching across the sky.”

—John W. Johnson, board member, Nebraska Star Party

Wide-open spaces and dark skies make Nebraska a top destination for seeing stars. At Merritt Reservoir in Cherry County, astronomy fans from around the world converge in late summer for the Nebraska Star Party , but you can see the Great Star Show any time—in the Sandhills and in rural locations throughout the state.

Astronomers see the dark skies as a valuable natural resource. The Nebraska Star Party organizers are advocating to conserve the skies by designating the Merritt Reservoir an International Dark Sky Park, defined as “a location of exceptional nighttime beauty, dark skies education, and preservation of the nighttime environment”.

The following guest ranches in the Sandhills are located near Valentine and the Merritt Reservoir, providing access to some of the darkest skies in the state:


Double R Guest Ranch

(866) 217-2042
86091 Double R Drive
Mullen, NE 69152

The drive to Double R Guest Ranch is along one of the most scenic and least populated stretches of highways in the state, Highway 97, connecting Mullen and Valentine. The Bridges’ property includes three big lakes and is a working cattle ranch. Owner, Pat Bridges is a knowledgable local guide. Her grandfather was the first doctor in the area when they arrived as homesteaders in 1908. She keeps up a number of buildings on the property, including an old sod house, a restored one-room school house, a little store, stables, and a wooden cabin near a fishing lake. On her website, Pat says, “At dusk the hills are alive with their deepest shades of green making early evening the best time to get the beautiful shadows on the hills, and to capture the clouds in all their glory. The myriad wildflowers will have their best colorings at dusk with some closing up and some just beckoning. At the close of the day, the howl of the coyotes, and the yipping of their little ones, may remind you that Mother Nature is on continual watch over every creature under the sky!”

Activities: Hunting, fishing, ice-fishing, hiking, bird-watching, star-gazing, horseback riding. Ask Pat to take you on an ATV ride in the hills!

Nebraska Star Party

(402) 333-5460
Merritt Resevoir

Each year the Nebraska Star Party hosts a week-long celebration of the skies at the Snake Campground near Merritt Resevoir, 27 miles south of Valentine, Nebraska. 2016 will be their 22nd year of operation.

NSP is the perfect place for both new and seasoned star gazers. There are plenty of activities during the day and excellent star watching at night. Apart from the starry central attraction, the remote sandhills of north-central Nebraska offer a vacation full of western and natural history as well. Short day trips will take you to historical sites important to the settlement of the west. The spring-fed water and sugar sand beaches of Merritt Reservoir offer swimming, boating, and fishing. Valentine national Wildlife Refuge provides a window into the ecology of the prairie, while the nearby Niobrara River affords a cooling tube float or canoe trip through the surrounding cattle and buffalo ranching country.

Activities: Star-gazing, Astronomy tips, swimming, boating, fishing, canoeing

Niobrara Riverview Retreats

(402) 376-2679
P.O. Box 414
Valentine, NE 69201

Steve Hanson and his family run Niobrara Riverview Retreats, a business that transforms their love for the outdoors into an experience to share with visitors. A former fisheries biologist in Alaska, Steve is an expert naturalist who can explain in detail the botany, geology, biology and ecology of his surroundings. Niobrara Riverview Retreats borders two miles of the Niobrara River. It includes hiking trails and a 25-acre marsh, appropriate for canoeing and catch and release fishing. It is a working cattle ranch with accommodations for large numbers of visitors—perfect for conferences, workshops or retreats. Home-cooked meals can also be arranged. The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is only 15 miles away, a stunning landscape of over 30 sandhills lakes spread out across 70,000+ acres with 260 identified bird species spotted. The ranch is also just miles from Ft. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in which a visitor can see buffalo, prairie dogs, burrowing owls and many other species.

Activities: Tubing, canoeing, guided nature walks, orienteering, overnight stabling and horseback riding

Know of an ecotourist-friendly place in the Great Plains to see dark skies? Email us at cgps@unl.edu