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 property includes three big lakes and is a working cattle ranch. Owner, Pat Bridges is a knowledgable local guide. A number of buildings on the property include an old sod house, a restored one-room school house, a little store, stables, and a wooden cabin near a fishing lake. “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. Activities include 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. 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 include tar-gazing, Astronomy tips, swimming, boating, fishing, canoeing

Our Heritage Guest Ranch

(308) 665-2810
Toadstool Rd
Crawford, NE 69339

Our Heritage Guest Ranch is nestled in the foothills of the picturesque Pine Ridge. Owner Jean Norman is a fourth generation rancher with fifty years of experience and knowledge working in the Nebraska Panhandle. She organizes special experiences for her guests, including guided fossil digs, natural horsemanship training and multi-day horseback journeys. Her six-day Lakota journey is led by a tribal member who introduces groups to the plants and animals of the area as well as Lakota culture, astrology, traditional cooking and storytelling. Jean has shorter horseback expeditions as well, and also the option to participate in everyday ranch activities: fixing fence, haying, lambing and calving. Jean also makes beautiful art incorporating natural materials — ask her to tell you the story of the fence post, now bedpost, that saved her life in a blizzard! Activities include horseback riding, hiking, biking, fishing, stargazing, photography, and holistic health instruction.

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. 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 include tubing, canoeing, guided nature walks, orienteering, overnight stabling and horseback riding.

Big Blue Ranch

(402)-865-4335
70901 609th Avenue
Burchard, NE 68323

Big Blue Ranch is a place to enjoy the Great Plain’s wildlife and scenery on an operating cattle ranch. Along with tradiational hunting and fishing, ranch activities feature horseback riding, nature photography, and bird watching. It’s an especially great place to see the greater prairie chicken and blue herons. It’s a relaxing get away close to Lincoln, Omaha, and Kansas City. The ranch has been honored with a number of conservation awards including the Rangeland Conservation Award from the Lower Big Blue NRD. The open prairie, woodlands, and lakes are home to many species including coyote, bobcat, red squirrel, fox, and leopard frogs. The ranch’s owners, Billie Kay and Scott Bodie, have continuously worked to improve the sustainability and diversity of their pastures through rotational grazing, inter-seeding with beneficial species, and controlled burning.

Calamus Outfitters

(308) 346-4697
83720 Valley View Ave
Burwell, NE 68823

Calamus Outfitters is a family-owned business providing outdoor recreational activities for diverse kinds of tourists: from hunters, to serious birdwatchers to families who want to float down the river or lounge at the nearby Calamus Reservoir. The operation is located in the north central Nebraska Sandhills, near Burwell, right along the Calamus Reservoir, a prominent regional tourist attraction. They see a massive influx of monarchs when they migrate in the fall, which you can read about on our blog.

American Prairie Reserve

(877) 273-1123
7 East Beall Street, Suite 100
Bozeman, MT 59715

American Prairie Reserve is a unique effort to build a nature reserve to conserve and restore the grasslands of Montana. The reserve is home to bison, prairie dogs, swift fox, many grassland bird species, and more species. When complete, American Prairie Reserve will span more than three million acres of private and public land, showcasing the iconic landscape that once dominated central North America. It’s aim is to restore a complete and fully functioning prairie ecosystem through many techniques including restoration of plowed land and stream areas, fence removal, and prescribed fire. The largest of its kind in North America, the reserve is a critical piece in securing long-term conservation of grasslands.

High Plains Homestead

(308) 665-2592
263 Sandcreek Rd
Crawford, NE 69339

Driving along a dirt road in the high plains of northwestern Nebraska, High Plains Homestead appears like an oasis. The Old West outpost is located in the middle of the Oglala National Grasslands, an expanse of 90,000+ acres of African-like savannah. Owners Mike and Linda Kesselring are veterans of Nebraska tourism and after 16 years of business have seen a lot of repeat visitors—and for good reason. The couple works hard at it, embodying western hospitality and greeting all guests that come through the screen door like long-lost relatives. High Plains Homestead includes a school house, saloon, mercantile, post office, jail, and blacksmith shop. Individual lodging is available. At the center of “town” life is the Drifter’s Cookshack, a restaurant featuring high-quality home-cooked meals.

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