Have you heard about the latest recreational activity/adventure that started in the Nebraska Sandhills? What are the Nebraska Sandhills you ask? The Sandhills are the gently rolling hills of green prairie grass-covered sand dunes spread as far as the eye can see, and this exciting new activity is called tanking.
Tanking is similar to canoeing, but uses a bigger vessel that has more stability. This vessel is a watertight livestock watering tank about 6 to 8 feet in diameter. It easily floats on the pristine spring fed waters of the Middle Loup River with your whole family inside. No, it’s not a joke or an urban legend. Tanking does exist and is growing in popularity. The activity is fun for the whole family and the kids will want to do it again and again. Mine wanted to. Well, I am here to tell you how you can get in on the fun.
First of all, you need to get yourself to North Central Nebraska any way you can. If flying in, then most fly into Omaha or Denver (also Allegiant Airlines flies to Grand Island, Nebraska or Rapid City, South Dakota from a couple larger cities). Then rent a car for a 5 hour scenic drive from Omaha or Denver to Mullen, Nebraska, for the best adventure in the Sandhills.
Mullen is in the heart of the Sandhills and is the urban metropolis of Hooker County at 500 souls, where cattle outnumber people. The rolling hills of green with accents of blue ponds in some of the valleys are stunning. Sitting on top of the largest underground aquifer in the country, spring-fed rivers pop out of the ground with sparkling clean, refreshing water.
We made the trek to Mullen via Highway 2 (Sandhills Scenic Byway) and stayed at the Sandhills Motel, the only motel in town. The owners (Patty and Mitch) also run the tanking adventures (Glidden Canoe Rental-same website). Call in advance to book a tank and a room as you will want to be there the night before so you are ready to hop on the morning bus in the motel parking lot. These trips are very affordable as they offer 2- and 5-hour trips on the Middle Loup River for $25 per adult and $10 per kid. This includes your shuttle upriver, life jackets, oars, and benches in the tank to sit on.
There a few things to know before you go in order to maximize your fun. Don’t forget that Mullen is the first county on Mountain Time, if you come from Central Time to the east. Before hopping on the bus, put on your swim gear, good water shoes, sunscreen, and grab a towel. Then load up a cooler full of drinks and snacks to enjoy on the river as there are many opportunities to beach on sandbars, play, dig in the sand, and sit in the cool water and have a snack.
The river has a slow, gentle current and averages 1 to 4 feet deep. I ordered a waterproof phone case with connecting lanyard from Amazon so I could take quality pictures and videos without risk to my phone. It worked great. If taking along the kids, some sand toys are a plus as the kids can dig in the sand, chase tadpoles or frogs, and try to capture little minnows (tiny fish). There is the occasional rock or bump in the river, so it is best for the kids to be sitting while floating so they don’t risk falling against or out of the tank. We did the 2 hour trip with a 3-, 6-, and 8-year-old and stretched it into 3+ hours with extra stops on sandbars for playtime.
Before going upriver, you follow the bus driver to the parking area with your car. This is the ending point where you can load up your car when done and go. We also hid our keys at this grassy parking area with towering cottonwoods. We didn’t want to risk somehow losing them on the river as it would be an expensive locksmith call to the middle of nowhere. A couple of beach chairs in the trunk could be handy to relax in after beaching the tank at the last stop while the kids play in the sand. If heading back to the motel, the kids will be happy that they can walk across the street to the city park just south of the motel. It includes play equipment, picnic tables and a community swimming pool.
A trip to the Nebraska Sandhills is worth its weight in gold. The towns are quaint and the surroundings are picturesque. The kids will remember it for many years to come. There are also many other outdoor things to do in the area, like bird watching and taking in the vast night sky with more stars you have seen in your life. Drive down any county road a little ways from town at night and you will be rewarded in spectacular fashion. Turn off the car, get out and take all it in. You can’t do these things in the city. As a matter of fact, a lot of the things you do here can’t be done elsewhere, but that’s half the fun, right?
Important places in Mullen:
Sandhills Motel and Glidden Canoe Rental 308-546-2206
Places to eat in Mullen:
Red’s Café 308-546-2270- Good portions and great breakfast
The Chuckwagon N Jug 308-546-2284- Best burgers and onion rings
Rustic Tavern 308-546-2993- Great pizza
Macke’s Grocery 308-546-2261- small town grocery only open 7a-6p and closed Sundays
Arizona-based and Midwest-raised freelance travel writer and amateur photographer Dustin Dudley is always interested in travel, especially to unusual destinations. He has explored the very remote and unique and also found hidden gems in the normal tourist spots. He is always planning his next family adventure, day trip, excursion, or vacation. Follow his adventures as he adds them to his travel blog at www.dustinsdestinations.wordpress.com.