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Travels in the Heartland: Free and affordable Omaha area attractions that are light on the wallet

Sarpy County Fair is known for its fun Midway rides.JPG
Fontenelle Forest's raptor village.jpg
Iowa State Fair offers an economical experience.jpg
Salt Creek Mercantile is an outstanding boutique in Ashland.jpg
Bemis Art Center features seasonal exhibits.JPG
Posted at 3:42 PM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-07 16:42:05-04
Elk during a rut at Simmons Wildlife Park.jpg
Elk during a rut at Simmons Wildlife Park

With gas prices rising and inflation impacting visits to the grocery store, people are looking for ways to save money, but still travel and have fun outings. Believe it or not, you don't need to travel far or spend much money to have fun experiences in the Omaha area. From local outdoor concerts to community festivals, there are plenty of activities that are free or affordable. Here is our look at things to check out during your Travels in the Heartland.

State parks

With two of Nebraska's most-popular state parks within a 30-minute drive from Omaha, families can plan a weekend getaway or a day trip. Louisville State Park features several miles of hiking trails, as well as one of the most-fun water attractions in Nebraska. The floating playground offers fun for everyone, with a climbing wall, monkey bars and other activities at Lake No. 2. Meanwhile, at Mahoney State Park, enjoy horseback riding, hiking trails and climbing the tallest observation tower in eastern Nebraska, offering an immaculate view of the Platte River valley. The Go Ape obstacle course challenges people's skills by overcoming rope courses with zip lines.

Gene Leahy Mall at The Riverfront

The Gene Leahy Mall reopened July 1 and the downtown park has a different look from its previous days with a sunken walking trail and lagoon. A sculpture garden, walking trails, dog park and an amphitheater await visitors.

Exploring Downtown Omaha's Gene Leahy Mall

Area celebrations

Food, drinks, parades and fun highlight community celebrations, such as Benson Days July 30-31. While food and games are the main attractions, Benson Days features a parade and mural tour, as well as historic tours. An old-fashioned tractor pull is among the activities during Gretna Days July 28-31. A dodgeball tournament, carnival and craft show are also part of the four-day event. A classic car show, antique bazaar, living history encampments and a parade highlight the annual John C. Fremont Days July 8-10 in Fremont. Millard Days celebrate the history of the southwest Omaha community Aug. 24-28. Carnival rides, live music and one of the metro's largest parades are among the popular attractions.

County fairs offer an excellent economical outing for everyone. Carnival rides, livestock exhibits and food highlight area county fairs. The Sarpy County Fair in Springfield runs Aug. 3-7, and features a tractor pull, carnival rides, parade and is capped with a professional rodeo. The Washington County Fair in Arlington, July 29-Aug. 3, features livestock competition, carnival rides and concerts. Missouri Valley is home to the Harrison County Fair July 21-25, highlighted by a rodeo and country music concert. Westfair hosts the Pottawattamie County Fair July 27-Aug. 1, featuring a tractor pull, figure 8 races and a demolition derby. The Cass County Fair in Weeping Water includes an outlaw truck and tractor pull, figure 8 races and a concert Aug. 10-13.

The Butter Cow is a popular attraction at the Iowa State Fair.JPG
The Butter Cow is a popular attraction at the Iowa State Fair

Iowa State Fair

With Des Moines only a two-hour drive from Omaha, the Iowa State Fair makes for a fun and affordable getaway. The fair, which runs for 10 days Aug. 11-21, has plenty of free attractions - the butter cow is a must - as well as affordable shows. Ice carving is another popular attraction. Ride the sky lift and get a bird's eye view of the massive fairgrounds. With plenty of rides, the midway provides a ton of fun for the young at heart. The Iowa State Fair is known for its food on a stick, so it's a must for anyone attending the event. Bacon on a stick? Oreos on a stick? How about a stick of butter on a stick? If you can imagine it, it's likely they have it.

Free concerts

Bring a lawn chair, cooler and food as you sit back and enjoy the sounds of some of the best musical acts in the metro. Rocker Sheryl Crow headlines Omaha's Celebrate America concert July 22 at Memorial Park. Dave Mason is the other national act. Da Crabby Blues Band, a local act, kicks off the evening's music. Some of the Metro's best bands — Hotel Desperado, High Heel and Come Together, among them — perform during free concerts at area shopping centers and parks over the weekends through mid-August, including Aksarben Village, Shadow Lake Town Centre, Rockbrook Village and Village Pointe, as well as Zorinsky Lake. Malvern, Iowa, is also known for its Saturday night concerts.

The SAC and Space Museum near Ashland offers a variety of Cold War aircraft on display.jpg
The SAC and Space Museum near Ashland offers a variety of Cold War aircraft on display.

Explore Ashland

Ashland, about 30 minutes west of Omaha, is the quintessential downtown. A few blocks long, Ashland's main street features unique stores and boutiques, such as Salt Creek Mercantile. With a wide selection of home decor and accessories, the store itself is attractive and a must-visit. Willow Point Gallery and Museum showcases stuffed animals in natural settings. Glacial Till Cider House Tasting Room offers wine flights. Outside of town, Cellar 426 Winery includes outstanding views of the area, as well as excellent wines. The SAC and Aerospace Museum is only a few miles south of town. Take in views of elk, bison and bears at the Lee Simmons Wildlife Park. Mahoney State Park is also located near town. If you're in the mood for something sweet, drive a few miles west to Baker Candies in Greenwood.

Fontenelle Forest's Tree Rush Adevnetures challenges climbers' skills.jpg
Fontenelle Forest's Tree Rush Adventures challenges climbers' skills

Take a hike

The Omaha area features great areas to explore the city and nature. Consider an urban hike to take in public art and fantastic art murals in South Omaha, Benson and the 24th and Lake district.

Traverse 17 miles of trails at Bellevue's Fontenelle Forest. Whether it's the mile-long boardwalk or natural trails, Fontenelle Forest includes views of wildlife and birds. Check out the Tree Rush obstacle course, as well as the raptor village.

Join the crowd and count the steps on the stairs at Hummel Park. An urban legend claims the park is haunted, so the stairs change, leading to inaccurate counts. Along the trails at the 200-acre public park is a scenic overlook on a cliff. Park visitors can also play disc golf for free.

Travels in the Heartland: Enjoy an urban hike in Omaha

Neale Woods, north of Omaha, features several trails over 600 acres. Look for several types of flowers and plants during your walk.

Heron Haven is Omaha's urban wetlands. A short trail leads you through the woods to the water, where you can find all kinds of waterfowl, including ducks and geese.

Exploring flowers and pollinators at Heron Haven.JPG
Exploring flowers and pollinators at Heron Haven

Walk among pollinators and wildlife at Omaha's Pacific Preserve. The 20-acre park, which opened in 2018, uses a crushed rock path to navigate through trees and brush, as the trail runs between Pacific and Dodge Streets. Visitors can park in a lot near 162nd and Pacific. Pets and bikes are not allowed on the trail.

Art galleries

Kaneko exhibits often have social messages, such as the seasonal kinetic exhibit.jpg
Kaneko exhibits often have social messages, such as the seasonal kinetic exhibit

Did you know Omaha is home to multiple art galleries and museums that don't charge admission? Explore eclectic art that often has a social message at Kaneko. Bemis Art Center showcases works from new artists. Gallery 1516 hosts seasonal exhibits that highlight Nebraska and regional artists.

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