Travelers headed through Nebraska on I-80 may wonder what sites and cities to visit in the Great Plains state. Omaha and Bellvue, the state's largest metro area, allures visitors with its rich history and thriving arts scene, not to mention the Henry Doorly Zoo. The state capital, Lincoln, is a booming university city. It offers museums, sporting events, live music, and more. They are both fantastic vacation destinations, but so is Nebraska's third-largest city, Grand Island. It is about 100 miles to the west of Lincoln and the site of Nebraska's State Fair. Read on to find out what attractions to visit in Grand Island.

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Train City

The history of Grand Island and the Union Pacific railroad closely intertwine. The first European settlers, a group of about 30 Germans from Russia settled on an island in the Platte River. Just around a decade later, the railroad company started a town called Grand Island Station, just a little inland from the island. Most of the original homesteaders chose to relocate to the new site. The railroad brought prosperity to the town and connected it to other parts of the country.

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Visitors who want to know more about the life of these early plains pioneers should visit the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. This attraction includes fascinating displays and artifacts about pioneer life. The operation also boasts a huge selection of historical farm equipment. Currently, the management is renewing this area so that it's more interactive for children--they'll be able to touch tractors and interact with exhibits explaining how these machines work.

The jewel of the Stuhr Museum is a mock pioneer village, called Railroad Town, complete with actors dressed in period clothing who guide visitors around their shops, homes, and gardens. Many visitors end up staying longer than they expected, so travelers should schedule at least half a day for this attraction.

  • Stuhr Museum Of The Prairie Pioneer - corner of US Hwys 281 & 34, 5 minutes north of I-80 Exit 312
  • Hours: 9 AM - 5 PM, every day
  • Entrance fee: $10

Today, the railroad is still fundamental to the economy and identity of Grand Island. The tracks run through the center of town and more than 140 trains pass through each day. That means there's one almost every 20 minutes.

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Train enthusiasts and kids will get a kick watching these massive vehicles haul through town. Many of them transport coal from mines in Wyoming. Trains carrying Boeing fuselages from Witchita to Seattle also use these tracks. There are passenger trains as well. Counting the cars from one of the city's railside restaurants is a great way to kick back and enjoy an afternoon. Most exciting of all, Union Pacific's vintage steam engine, Big Boy, passes through every once in a while, stopping to provide photo ops.

If just watching trains isn't enough, families may want to ride the miniature train in Stolley Park. Those who are in town on the second Tuesday of the month can visit the Tri-City Model Railroad Association's diorama of the city's tracks. The extensive two-level model takes up an entire building.

  • Tri-City Model Railroad Association - 603 N Plum St.
  • Hours: Second Tuesday of the month, 7 PM - 8:30 PM

A Great Destination For Families

Family-friendly is a fitting adjective for Grand Island. In March, kids and their parents will love watching droves of sandhills cranes visit the city. Come summer, families can play at the Island Oasis Water Park, explore Railroad Town, or feed and pet exotic animals at Pete's Safari. When the leaves start changing color, it's time for the Nebraska State Fair with exhibits of farm animals and amusement park rides. Throughout the year, the city has a variety of parks, playgrounds, and indoor play areas for families to enjoy.

Grand Island Parks and Play Areas:

  • Kid's Kingdom - 28,000 ft2 playground
  • Fonner Park - outdoor learning center
  • Spring City - trampoline park
  • Island Oasis - water park
  • Splash Park - splash pad

Witnessing the migration of sandhills cranes is a breathtaking experience--scientists estimate that around 600,000 of these creatures pass through Grand Island every year in March. Visitors will feel awe as Nebraska's orange, the dusk sky fills with graceful winged silhouettes. The birds converge on the nearby silvery, smooth Platte River, searching for roosting spots before continuing their journey northward. At sunrise and sunset, visitors may watch them from a public observation deck in River Park. The Crane Trust offers guided tours to people who want to learn more about these feathered friends.

Sandhill Crane Migration

  • Where: Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center, Hall County
  • When: Dawn or dusk in March
  • More information: Grand Island Visitor's Bureau website

There's more in Grand Island for animal lovers--Pete's Safari. This operation receives rave reviews on Google. Joyce Steinman wrote: "We visited for the first time today and loved it! Our two-year-old son giggled up a storm while feeding the raccoons! He had such a fun time interacting with all the other animals as well!! We highly recommend visiting!"

The site has more than 40 kinds of animals and seven endangered species. Children can even pet a kangaroo and an arctic fox! The owners offer pony rides and a bouncy castle.

  • Pete's Safari - 2070 S Engleman Rd
  • Hours: 12 PM - 6 PM when the weather is warm
  • More information: +1 308-390-8426

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