This winter is either a meteorologist's fantasy dream or worst nightmare. With little to no snow in the area, winter outdoor enthusiasts have taken to hiking the trails at Fontenelle Forest, exploring state parks or just taking a leisurely stroll around area lakes.
But, as anyone who's lived in the area can attest, it's always just a matter of time before plenty of the white stuff will blanket the area and temperatures will sink enough to freeze lakes. Winter sports enthusiasts turn their attention from hikes to skiing and snowshoeing or sledding, while anglers look for the perfect spot for ice fishing.
Fortunately, people don't have to travel far to enjoy outdoor activities in the Heartland. Here's a look at some of our best outdoor activities.
Mt. Crescent Ski Area
For more than 60 years, snow skiing enthusiasts have hit the slopes at Mt. Crescent Ski Area. Located about 15 miles northeast of Omaha, Mt. Crescent Ski Area is considered one of Iowa’s top winter skiing resorts.
With ski runs designed for both experienced and new skiers, the longest ski run is about 2,400 feet long (about the size of seven football fields). Ski lifts transport people from the base to the top of the run.
Regardless of natural snowfall, Mt. Crescent's snow-making machines are among the best in the cou8try. With more than 100,000 people having learned to ski there, Mt. Crescent is an excellent spot for a ski outing.
Night skiing is available on lighted runs. Visitors can also rent boots and skis. Afterward, relax with a drink at the Swiss-style lodge.
While skiing may be its primary attraction, Mt. Crescent is an outstanding tubing and sledding outlet, with the longest route running about 1,000 feet.
Can you tell one oak tree from another? How about a hawk from a falcon? Nebraska’s largest urban forest, Fontenelle Forest offers unique experiences during winter. With tree branches barren until spring, views are actually enhanced, with downtown Omaha an easy view from the boardwalk near the Missouri River. You may even be able to catch a glimpse of wildlife, such as white-tailed deer or a coyote. Fontenelle Forest also offers nature experiences such as winter tree identification hikes – learn how to identify trees – and winter bird walks, where you may become an expert in spotting any of the forest’s seven types of woodpeckers, cardinals and nuthatches (say what?). Reservations for the hikes can be completed online.
Locals can also enjoy snowshoeing Fontenelle Forest’s 19 miles of trails. You can even rent snowshoes from the visitors center. Cross-country skiing is prohibited at the forest. The 1.5-mile-long boardwalk is open and usually cleared for visitors who just want to enjoy a leisurely stroll through nature without trudging through snow banks.
Outdoor ice skating rinks
Bring some hot chocolate, maybe a few cookies, but you’ll want to bundle up and head to the Metro’s outdoor skating rinks. Indoor skating is available, but there’s something more fun about lacing up skates and hitting the ice with temperatures hovering near freezing. The outdoor ice skating rink at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is open daily until Feb. 5. Through mid-March, Mahoney State Park’s outdoor ice rink is open Thursday-Monday. Of course, a Nebraska state park permit or daily fee is required for admission to Mahoney State Park.
Eagles will make their annual late winter appearance at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge beginning in late February and early March. They typically follow the northerly migration of other birds and waterfowl. DeSoto typically sees thousands of migratory birds making their way to their spring nesting destinations. Stop at the visitors center to view waterfowl from the comfort of its viewing area. Then, get tips on where eagles may be seen. The Bob Starr Wildlife Overlook, which acts as a natural blind, offers great views of ducks and geese spending time on the lake. As with anything concerning nature, migration numbers may vary with the temperatures of the season.
Once the snow falls in Omaha, sledding enthusiasts of all ages descend on Memorial Park to take advantage of its long hill. Perfect for sledding, Memorial Park, near 60th and Dodge, has long been an Omaha tradition. Parents and grandparents happily relive their youths on the hill as they watch their young ones navigate sleds, tubes and snowboards down the hill, creating snow trails. Racing downhill for a few seconds of fun, sledders carry their ride back uphill to do it all over again.
After area lakes are frozen, anglers head to places such as Lake Manawa, Walnut Creek, Zorinsky and Cunningham lakes to drill holes, plant a tent(or brave the wind, cold and other elements) and do a little winter fishing. Ice fishing is a serious activity and several people know the perfect spot for catching fish, including bluegill, crappie, bass and walleye. Look for spots with at least four inches of ice, which is enough to support a person. Always fish with a partner for safety purposes. You'll also need a Nebraska Game and Parks fishing permit.
You don't need to be a professional to snowshoe around Omaha. While it's a fun and healthy activity today, historically snowshoes were used by fur traders and others for travel. If you don't own your own pair, you can rent snowshoes at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and traverse area parks, such as Elmwood, Memorial and Hanscom. Fontenelle Forest also rents snowshoes for its trails.
With plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy around the Heartland, you needn't worry about cabin fever during winter. But, if you're interested, spring is only about nine weeks away.