Heading to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane Migration? Stay Overnight at the Crane Trust

Each spring, upward of 1 million sandhill cranes migrate to Nebraska’s Platte River Valley. Here, they rest and refuel before heading north to their nesting grounds in Canada and Alaska. This natural event is considered one of earth’s greatest migrations, and it attracts birders from around the world. One of the best places to view the sandhill cranes is at the Crane Trust in Wood River, a small town located midway between Grand Island and Kearney. And the Trust’s VIP Experience at Wild Rose Ranch is the ultimate immersive encounter. It offers onsite accommodations and ensures that you won’t miss a single moment of nighttime or morning birding.

The Crane Trust headquarters building


An Annual Spectacle

The wet meadows and dormant corn fields of Central Nebraska are the perfect habitat for migrating sandhill cranes. Every year, from mid-late February to mid-late April, the cranes gather here. They feed in the fields and meadows by day and roost in the shallow waters of the Platte River at night. The birds’ journey north is taxing on their bodies. During their time in Nebraska, they put on about 20 percent of their body weight. Without the extra weight and energy gained along the Platte, they might not make it to their breeding grounds — or will arrive in a weakened condition — where food may be limited.

The sandhill cranes spend about 29 days along the Platte River. They feast primarily on waste corn leftover from the fall harvest. They also eat worms, snails, and insect larvae.

During the day, large flocks of cranes can be seen milling about fields in towns from Grand Island to North Platte. They are joined by migrating snow geese, Canada geese, and even rare whooping cranes. At night, the birds gather in the river for protection against predators. Tens of thousands of cranes will converge in groups that take on the configuration of sandbars due to their large number. And every day at dawn, they return to the fields to feed.

The Crane Trust is situated on the shores of the Platte River. Its land includes river frontage, wet meadows, and tall-grass prairies, which combine for the perfect crane habitat.

Two cottages, one smaller and one larger, in a field


Staying at the Crane Trust

The Crane Trust offers sandhill cranes viewing without any lodging requirements. But if you’re a serious birder, you shouldn’t miss the VIP Experience. I just returned from an amazing overnight stay at the Trust, and being onsite only enhanced my adventure.

Guests stay in either a Legacy Cottage or Suite.

The three cottages — Hastings College, Lauritzen, and Union Bank & Trust — have four bedrooms. Each bedroom has a private bathroom. There’s also a common kitchenette/dining area. The cozy bedrooms feature either a single queen bed or two twin beds. I was booked in the Hastings College cottage, in a room with two twins.

The bedrooms are sparsely decorated, with country-style bedding. An open closet niche includes a shelf for storing a suitcase and a hanging rod and hangers. Extra blankets also are stored in the closet.  

A small bedroom with two single beds, vintage-style metal bed frames, and country-style quilts

The beds are comfortable. In fact, all of my travel companions said they had the best sleep of their trip in their rooms. And individual toiletries are provided. While my room faced the Trust’s main building, the two bedrooms that face the back of the cottage look out over a large meadow where American bison roam.

There are no TVs in the bedrooms, only a small wall-mounted one that hangs in a corner of the kitchenette. Free wifi is available. And the kitchenette includes a coffee maker, a small fridge, and a selection of snacks.

The two Bay Family Suites offer an upgraded experience. These luxurious cabins include two adjoining suites, each with a king-size bed, TV, and spacious bathroom with dual sinks. The expansive common space features a kitchenette and dining area, as well as a living room with plush leather recliners and a large TV.

Wild Rose Ranch also houses a dormitory, where visiting students and scientists stay.

A small kitchenette with a bar-height wood table and chairs


The VIP Experience at the Crane Trust

After checking in, guests meet back at the main headquarters for a wine reception, a presentation about the sandhill cranes, and dinner. Meals are served buffet-style and offer a selection of delicious mains and sides, including vegetarian options. Wine, beer, and sodas also are available.

Then it’s off to see the cranes as they come in to roost in the river.

Buses take guests about a half-mile down the road. At this point, they have to walk about a quarter-mile over a dirt path to private viewing blinds. One guest did have trouble walking and was driven by golf cart from the bus to the blind.

Two blinds for VIP guests are set up along the riverbanks near where the cranes normally rest. Each is equipped with viewing windows that open for unimpeded views and photography, bench seating, and most importantly, heaters. Additional unheated blinds are available basic tours. After the sun sets, guests return to headquarters for a light desert of cookies and hot coffee.

Morning begins before sunrise with another bird viewing, which lasts until the cranes flock, in large groups, back to the fields. On return, breakfast is served. Ours included a selection of hot breakfast sandwiches, potatoes, and donuts. Finally, it’s time to pack up and depart.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes take off from the river

If You Go

Guests of the VIP Experience meet at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center, which is located about 2.5 miles from the actual property and are escorted to the ranch by one of the Trust’s staff.

The Nature and Visitor Center offers information about the sandhill cranes and surrounding area and features a large gift shop, art gallery, and activity rooms.

Overnight stays at the Crane Trust start at $700 per room (up to two people per room) and are all-inclusive. A two-night safari is available for $1,800. Escorted arrival is at 3:30 p.m., and checkout is at 10 a.m. Children must be age 12 or older to participate, and no pets are allowed.

For more places to stay in the Cornhusker State, check out our reviews of accommodations in Nebraska. 

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