Ponca State Park, surrounding areas, and River Life Airboat Tours

Traveling someplace new

Although my father’s family lives in northeastern Nebraska, other than going to the specific towns they live in for family events, I had not really explored this part of the state. Tim had only been to this part of the state for my family events. Also, I had never been to the far north-east. Thus, we decided this was where our next adventure should lead – to explore this area!

Traveling with restrictions

Our travels occurred as restrictions were starting to ease after COVID-19. Having been cooped up for a couple months, I was anxious to get out and explore. Of course, I didn’t want to engage in any high-risk behaviors and be respectful of others health, so we chose an activity that was listed as “low risk” as things started opening up and that was largely secluded – CAMPING!

We traveled with a family we have vacationed with before – who had kind of become our quarantine buddy family. We traveled northeast and ate a picnic lunch in a nice public park in Central City, NE and to avoid using public restrooms *may* have let our boys pee out of the van door off rarely traveled country road turn-offs.

Setting up the camping experience and some cool camper thoughts

Previously, we had borrowed Tim’s cousin’s pop-up camper for trips such as this, but alas, it had been sold. So we tried a new website called Outdoorsy to rent a camper. We needed something big, so that our two families could share it. We found what we were looking for in Sioux City, Iowa – which was only a 30 minute drive from Ponca State Park and only a little out of our way. Overall, I was pretty pleased with our experience with Outdoorsy. It was easy to set up the renting experience and communicate and look for campers.

The family we rented from showed us all the features and had a checklist of things to go over, as well as noting any pre-existing damage (although there was a few nervous moments because they forgot to mention a broken screen on the front door). Probably not specific to Outdoorsy – but the family we rented the camper from was AMAZING. They were incredibly friendly people, very accommodating and had the camper stocked with games, cards, and supplies like trash bags, paper towels, etc. that we were welcome to use. The only thing I didn’t like about Outdoorsy is that I didn’t realize there was a $40 daily fee for the Outdoorsy service in addition to the base daily price of the camper, until I went to pay for it. The $500 temporary deposit and the 2 day minimum for renting was clearly advertised.

One thing I really enjoyed about this camper and didn’t know were a “thing” until this experience was an “outdoor kitchen”. In addition to the kitchen complete with stove, microwave, sink and fridge inside the camper, the outside had a fridge built in with a sink and a small amount of counter space and cupboard area. This was so cool! We could keep all the food we were using for a campfire meal in the outside kitchen and commonly used products such as condiments right there. It also had a pull out propane range, so we were able to cook things like beans in a kettle, while we were using our campfire for burgers. We also really liked the “outdoor shower” – just basically a hose on the side, so we could spray off dirty kids feet before they went into the camper.

Driving down to the riverside campsite

Ponca

With COVID-19, many of the awesome things about Ponca State Park were closed off. However, the reason I picked this location was because I wanted a place that offered enough outdoor beauty and things to do that we didn’t miss the other things. This was the perfect choice! Our friends agreed – this was a nice little trip to explore the camp, do some hiking and general play, so that we could come again, be familiar and dive right into other fun stuff like horseback riding, archery and kayaking. Our renter-family gave us recommendations as well and shared that the campsite has a free kids fishing program with poles and tackle provided. The education center was closed, but looked like a great place to explore, and our camper-owner family also said they had gone on several fun tours through the education center.

Ponca State Park Education Center

After getting set up in our nicer-than-many-peoples-houses camper, we enjoyed some good old fashioned campfire cooking and a little exploring of the beach area. We chose to stay at the river-front campsites – right next to the Missouri River. It was a beautiful view with a huge bluff behind us. Our kids enjoyed exploring the beach area. Then it was off to bed. The next day we discovered there were multiple housing options. With COVID-19, only self-contained camping was allowed and unfortunately, all the cabin camp-sites were claimed when I initially tried to book. There were units that held 5 for $100 per night, as well as larger cabins for 8. These were $310. We wondered about the price difference but when were there we discovered they were fairly fancy houses with a lake front view. There were multiple lake areas to enjoy. In a non-COVID time there were plenty of tent camping options, but we enjoyed our choice to rent the camper.

Climbing and Exploring

The next day we explored. There are multiple trails to hike – for all different levels. They were beautiful and fun to explore. We also enjoyed the 3-state Overlook. You can see from Nebraska into Iowa and South Dakota along the Lewis and Clark trail. At the front of the facility there were towers and a beautiful rock garden overlooking a man-made water fall pool. Unfortunately, the water hadn’t been filled yet. Our kids had fun climbing on and exploring these pillars. There was also a beautiful flower garden around the Ponca State Park maker.

We drove around to see what we might want to do the next time. Our camper-family told us the pool was expensive but really cool – it looked it. We found the horses and the place where trail rides could happen. There was also a day use picnic area with a bird watching area/blind. There was a shooting range and archery area as well. Nearby, there was a golf course for the sophisticated traveler to enjoy. 😊 We wandered down to Old Oak – a tree that was hundreds of years old and found “Big Foot” to welcome us. It adjoined with another hiking trail.

Next to our campsite was a very fun kids-explore area with sand and lots of things to climb on an explore. We were just a few days before these types of facilities were to be open to the public, but- full disclosure – we did allow our children to play on these as there were only a few other children around and the children-groups sort of took turns. It became a safety haven when our husbands needed to park and then re-park the camper after dumping the septic system. It gave them something to do to keep them from running around when they were trying to back up vehicles – which us mom’s decided was the lesser of the two evils. It was super fun and the kids loved it!

Ponca the town

We also went to explore Ponca that afternoon. It is a cute little town. Barn quilts are quite popular in the area and part of a movement to celebrate Nebraska being 150 years old. We enjoyed seeing the neat barn quilts up all over town and into the countryside. There was a historic blacksmith shop (unfortunately, closed due to COVID), a historic Carnegie library and a pizza/ice cream/mini golf place. We had planned to get pizza on our way out of town but found that Outlaw Pizza was closed on Sundays. ☹ There was also a small museum that was closed as well – the Adam’s Museum. We decided to enjoy a round of mini-golf in the cute but small mini-golf course attached to the pizza place. Our kids had a ton of fun and it was an unexpected delight to find.

Sunday troubles

Besides packing up, we spent a little time Sunday morning enjoying the beach in front of the river. There was a nice rocked in area in a shallow spot, so we didn’t have to worry about our children getting swept away in the fast-flowing Missouri River. Our kids thoroughly enjoyed exploring, playing in the sand and finding frogs.

Lunch was not so easy. The pizza place was closed to our dismay. There were no other open restaurants that we could find, and our wi-fi didn’t work, so we drove south, finding no restaurants in any of the small towns. We finally ended up in South Sioux City after a 20 minute drive. About 5 minutes before that we finally got wi-fi and listed was a place called “Bob’s Bar” in Ponca (It wasn’t in Ponca). Since we were close to South Sioux City by this point, we went to the first drive in we could – a Taco John’s. But, Bob’s Bar looked like a nice hometown giant greasy burger type of place, that we thought it might be fun to try it too. I called and it was open for take-out. Our boys don’t love Taco John’s, so our thought was on our way back to the campsite, we would hit Bob’s Bar and all split a burger and fries. Back to Ponca we couldn’t spot the bar, so asked a local. She informed us it was in Martinsburg – 7 minutes to the west. So we set off. It was very frustrating to us that online, Ponca was listed, but after we had already placed an order – we had to drive another 15 miles round trip.

We finally got there. It was a town of 103 people and apparently the whole town plus a group of bikers were outside this bar eating. The place did not look very impressive – piles of old cans out back and missing siding on the front – but I’ve learned that some of those not great-looking small town bars can have some yummy food, so I kept an open mind. Now – if you like portion sizes to be large – this is the place for you. The burger was huge – 2 of them would have more than fed our family of 5 for a meal. We also ordered a side of fries. It looked like a bag of Ore Ida had been dumped in the carry-out container! It was more than enough for all 5 of us for a meal. In fact – we took them home and had to throw 1/3 of them away after eating them for a meal the next day! The price was right – $5 for the cheeseburger and $4 for what looked like an entire grocery store bag of fries…. however the fries needed salt. The burger looked like a small town café juicy burger – but unfortunately, the beef was pretty tough. However, I guess for a town of 103, I shouldn’t be too picky.

We finished wrapping up our camping and saw a few more things. We saw the giant barn quilt and also a neat display of different types of windmills on our journey to return the camper. Overall, we felt Ponca to be a cute, well kept town, and Ponca State Park to be quite the jewel of a find.

River Life Airboat Tour

When researching other things to do in North East Nebraska, I was of course disappointed that so many things were not available to us because of COVID 19. But then, I found something that looked perfect – our own Airboat Tour!

River Life Airboat Tours has a well designed website, and I must say, the advertising did its job – the pictures and quotes about this being a favorite Nebraska experience and repeat business, enticed us to try this.

River Life Airboat Tours was a bit off the beaten path – which makes sense for going on a tour in a quiet part of the Platte River. Watch your directions carefully as you drive out to it! As we arrived, we saw a little sign outside a residential house noting that we had found the place. We talked to Kyle, the owner, afterward. He had lived in the house in Cedar Bluffs, NE and bought the 2 year old business from someone in North Bend, NE, nearby. He moved the boats and business name behind his house. He had been running the business for 5 years.

Kyle was a bit difficult to contact by e-mail. We had wanted an earlier spot that day but the spot was taken by the time I heard back from him. It took several tries to ultimately get a time. What he lacked in prompt communication, he made up for in flexibility. I think because we were the last tour of the day – so he gave us some extra time. We found out that although his website advertises different package deals, he is really quite flexible in what he will do – he said he would take people out to play on the sandbars all day and then pick them up later. He was willing to work with our friends who were considering a Boy Scout camping excursion. We did the one hour tour but he advertises 3 hour tours and events. The events include BBQ and party area. They are geared toward corporate events, bachelor parties, etc. Kyle seems like a guy who enjoys life and made a business out of enjoying boating.

The boat ride is super fun. It skims the water so it can glide over the tops of sandbars that aren’t very far below the surface unlike a regular boat. It goes fast. I noticed Kyle would (safely) skirt these or turn the boat so we got a bit of splashing and we got some extra “thrills.” Noted wildlife he reports sometimes seeing are deer or beavers, but he took us to a bald eagle nest and we also got to see an eagle fairly closely. He skimmed the boat over a sandbar so it would flip around as we parked on a sandbar area. We got to get out and play on the sandbar. Our kids adored this! We sank ankle deep (or deeper) in some of the sandy areas and the boys loved getting themselves “buried” a little bit. We found clam shells and driftwood. We got to wade in the shallows of the Platte, splash, and just have a great time! Of note, we were wearing our camping shoes (tennis-shoes) on the boat and I definitely wish we had been wearing flip flops and perhaps had had a change of clothes ready when we got back to our vehicles, as everyone was soaked.

We were treated to River Life Boat coozies when we returned. He took a check from us as he did not have a card reader. It was a really fun and unique experience! I think it was about rightly priced. The $45 per adult felt a little steep, but $20 per kid was very reasonable.

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