There aren’t too many states left where we can say it’s a new state for all 5 of us. Iowa was one. Nebraska was another. I’ll admit, I didn’t know much about Nebraska before we started planning our fall itinerary. After spending more than two weeks there, we can now say that it is so much more than a “fly-over state” and definitely worth a visit if you get the opportunity! Our first stop was in Omaha.
Elkhorn Crossing Recreation Area
Our first stop was at a free campground in Elkhorn Crossing Recreation Area, just outside of Omaha. This beautiful park was right on the water and offered paved RV pads, bathrooms, a great playground, and water. All for our favorite price of $0 per night. If the weather had been better, we might have stayed longer, but it was chilly, stormy and very humid, which is a bad combination for us to run on battery for too long. With so little sun, our solar panel didn’t help much, and without electricity, we couldn’t run dehumidifiers. So, while we really liked it there, we moved after two nights. But if we find ourselves back in Omaha with better weather, we know where we’re headed!
Cunningham Lake City Park
At the recommendation of a friend, we headed to Cunningham Lake City Park, where we could stay the remainder of our time in Omaha at a water/electric site for just $15 per night. This park was even closer to the city and had easy access to stores and shopping. It was also situated on a beautiful lake and we would wholeheartedly recommend it. We were there just before they closed for the season in mid-October.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
Back in the summer, I mined the collective wisdom of my Facebook community and asked what one should do if visiting Nebraska. Among other fantastic suggestions, the Omaha Zoo kept coming up as a can’t-miss attraction. It’s at least as good as the San Diego Zoo, they were telling me, if not better. I was skeptical. How can it be in the same class as the San Diego Zoo when San Diego is world famous and everyone has heard of it and I never even knew that Omaha had a zoo? A quick check online told us that it was a 50% participant in our AZA membership, so we would get in for half price, but it would still cost about $30 for our family for the day. We really like zoos and we trust the people telling us not to miss it, so we went.
We were not disappointed.
We went on a rainy, chilly, weekday. So we weren’t exactly fighting the crowds. But so much of the zoo is indoors that even when it was pouring, there were lots of good options. And we knew to expect rain, so we dressed accordingly and it really wasn’t a problem.
There was so much to see and do that we weren’t able to fit everything into one day. In the same way, we had such a full day that it’s hard to capture it well in a single post. Most people have been to a zoo at some point, so I’ll focus on the things that really made this zoo stand out from others we have visited.
1. The Aquarium. Omaha’s Zoo is both a zoo and an aquarium. While many zoos will have a building housing fish and a limited selection of sea creatures, this aquarium could stand alone as an attraction and still be impressive. Highlights included petting sea stars, coming face to face with a sea turtle, and a see-through tunnel to walk through the shark tank.
2. Expedition Madagascar. Years ago, the Wild Kratts did a series of episodes from Madagascar, and they have looped on repeat in our house at regular intervals ever since. Both of our older kids are fascinated by the island and all of its endemic species (and yes, my 6 year old has long been able to explain the word endemic.) Peter, in particular, is captivated. He likes to find it on maps and has used Google maps to explore it on satellite view. If you ask him where he dreams of going someday, it’s always Madagascar. A whole building devoted to the animals of Madagascar was super exciting for all of us. Since many of the most interesting and unique species are nocturnal, the majority of the exhibits are kept in darkness so you can see the animals do more than just sleep. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust enough to see really well, and most people walked right through and missed most of it. We stood in the dark and watched as the world behind the glass slowly came to life before our eyes. Finally, our eyes were well adjusted, and I think half of Nebraska could hear our kids’ excitement when they spotted an aye-aye. This was their favorite of favorites, and weeks later, they’re still talking about it.
3. Up Close and Personal. Many of the exhibits were creatively designed to help you get up close and personal with the animals. By nature, lions sleep most of the day. The lion enclosure has a curved glass area that they have made comfortable for the lions to sleep, so they slept right up against the glass and it was easily the closest we’ve ever gotten to a lion. In the gorilla area, among others, there were round “bubbles” built into the glass that allowed you to “go in” to the enclosure. The baby gorillas were lounging on top of the bubble, and we could go in underneath them and basically be face to face. In fact, at times we were maybe a little too close for comfort. Emelie sat watching this Diana monkey as it sat calmly on a log, staring back. Apparently the monkey had enough of this, and in a flash it bared it’s teeth and lunged at the glass from about 4 feet away. It slammed hard into the glass right in front of her face. Instinctively, Staffan and I both lunged toward her to protect her and we all had a pretty good adrenaline rush. We found a bench nearby and sat for a while before we could go on. But overall, the chances to get up close and personal with the animals was a really positive experience.
4. Desert Dome. Housed in the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome, which has become a landmark in Omaha, is the world’s largest indoor desert. Inside, it feels much larger than it looks from the outside as you wander through three different desert environments featuring plants and animals from an African desert, an Australian desert, and a North American desert. It was very well designed and really unique.
5. Butterfly House. Many zoos and museums have butterfly exhibits that allow you to walk through a butterfly garden and be up close to the butterflies. Every one of these that we’ve been to has charged an extra admission fee to this specific feature and we’ve never chosen to pay it. So while it might not sound unique to have a butterfly house, despite having visited dozens zoos and museums across the country, this is the first time we’ve experienced one. They limit the number of people that can go in at one time, which may cause long lines on crowded days, but this wasn’t a factor when we were there. We loved the butterfly house! What a beautiful and peaceful place. And humid! It was impossible to keep the camera lens from fogging up, so unfortunately we don’t have any pictures to share.
The Omaha area both surprised and delighted us. We would love to go back someday and spend more time exploring all the things we didn’t have time to see and do. And if you’re looking for a great zoo, the Omaha Zoo is hard to beat!
Posted in Campground Reviews, Explore, Learn and tagged boondock Nebraska, Cunningham Park, Elkhorn Crossing, Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska, Nebraska campgrounds, Omaha, Omaha tourism, Omaha Zoo by Christine with 4 comments.