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Explore the Great Outdoors in Kearney, NE

From kayaking and hiking to paddleboarding and pickleball, you can get your fill of fun here.

By Rebecca Treon on December 27, 2022

A kayaker ventures down Kearney Whitewater Trail in Kearney, NE.
Kirstina Kouma

Looking for a great place to stay active? You can find bountiful options for outdoor recreation in Kearney and Buffalo County. With stunning natural features just outside your back door, locals enjoy an enhanced quality of life – a resource many places can’t offer.

“Our biggest thing is just that we have a very broad selection of recreational activities and offerings, from disc golf to dog parks, skateboard parks and pickleball courts, and we’re opening a botanical garden,” says Scott Hayden, director of Kearney Parks and Recreation.

“We have 18 city parks making up close to 600 acres, with a wide variety of amenities for different sports and activities.”

Kearney Whitewater Trail

Kearney Whitewater Park Opens

One of the main attractions is the Platte River, which flows right past Kearney and offers a wealth of ways to enjoy the water, including canoeing and kayaking. The City of Kearney opened a 2.3-mile whitewater trail in 2022, and outdoor enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies couldn’t be happier.

Kearney Whitewater Park is now part of a scenic water paddling trail along Turkey Creek, with the whitewater portion taking four months to construct at a cost of about $700,000 raised by private donations.

Overseeing the project was the 100-member Kearney Whitewater Association. Highlights of the park include an elevation drop near Kearney Cinema 8 and another drop a quarter mile downstream.

Also part of the construction was the addition of white boulders along the coastline as well as viewing terraces/bridges along the creek. Two more entrances provide additional access to the waterway. Association officials say it’s a guarantee that kayakers, canoeists and rafters will get wet along the 2.3-mile rapids stretch, which adds to the overall fun.

The trail starts at Yanney Heritage Park and ends before Central Avenue. Besides everyday recreation, officials say there is great potential for Kearney to host a variety of local, regional and state paddling events, and they also hope that more students from the University of Nebraska at Kearney will discover and use the waterway.

Kearney Whitewater Association hosted the unique Kearney Whitewater Cardboard Boat Regatta in August 2022. The Kearney Whitewater Association plans to add more beautification amenities to the entire trail to make it even more of a blueway destination for residents and tourists.

“We have close to 32 miles of hike and bike trails,
which is a pretty large amount for a town our size.
That’s one of our top recreational attractions.”

Scott Hayden | Kearney Parks and Recreation

Head to the Fort

Another way to enjoy the water is at the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, offering 186 acres of land dotted with sandpit lakes, which attract the annual migration of more than 600,000 sandhill cranes and other waterfowl that gather in the central Platte River Valley.

Popular activities (beyond birdwatching) include camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, boating, swimming and picnicking. The park includes a 13.1-mile paved hike/bike trail that connects to the Cottonmill Park and Recreation Area. In fact, many of the parks connect to trails and greenways.

The lighthouse in Harmon Park
Visit Kearney

Parks To Fit Any Activity

At Cottonmill Park and Recreation Area, there is a 43-acre lake with paddleboat rentals at the marina, boating, nature trails, and disc golf. The Kearney Rotary Nature Barn has a variety of interpretive displays and farm animals, and the park hosts a popular summer day camp with more than 400 participants.

Kearney’s other signature parks include Harmon Park, Yanney Heritage Park and Patriot Park. Patriot Park is Kearney’s dedicated baseball and softball grounds, featuring a number of fields and batting cages.

Founded in 1876, Harmon Park is one of Kearney’s oldest and most historic parks. Over the years, the park has featured monkey cages and pony rides, and was the site of a federal WPA project to create the Rock Garden that contains rocks from all 50 states. Work on the project began in 1936 and ended in 1940. It also features sand volleyball courts, tennis courts, formal fountains, an activity center, a swimming pool, basketball courts, a ball diamond, an inclusive playground and an event stage.

Yanney Heritage Park features an 80-foot tower that overlooks the grounds, with sculpture and flower gardens, a senior center, splash pad, a labyrinth, a lake and marina with swan pedal boats and boat rental, a path, and access to the Water Trail.

Pickleball at Harvey Park
Visit Kearney

Pickleball, Inline Hockey and More

Another popular outdoor destination is Apollo Park, great for active recreation since it features tennis courts, pickleball courts, basketball courts, an inline hockey rink and a 10,000-square-foot concrete skateboard park.

“Kearney has an inline hockey rink and is in the process of building an indoor tennis facility. We have two public swimming pools and seven splash pads, two marinas where people can rent paddleboats and kayaks, and a BMX track,” Hayden says.

The region also hosts a number of events throughout the year. The Parks and Recreation Department alone hosts close to 20 special events, and the community holds numerous events as well.

“There are different events and recreational activities for families and people of all ages,” Hayden says. “Being in a college town, there’s a lot of vibrancy here.”

Staff writer Kevin Litwin contributed to this article.

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